MINNEAPOLIS -- Two teams in the American League Central have pushed their chips into the middle of the table this offseason.
The White Sox kicked off an aggressive arms race early in the offseason with the acquisitions of Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnación and Dallas Keuchel, and the Twins punched back late by signing Josh Donaldson and Rich Hill before reportedly trading for Kenta Maeda -- among many other moves on both sides. And despite their relative inactivity, it's not wise to sleep on the Indians, who still boast the most formidable rotation in the division and strong upside in the bullpen.
This division was largely viewed as weak and uncompetitive as recently as 2018. Things have heated up in a big hurry, and the sudden influx of talent and upside could provide one of the most intriguing races in baseball.
Or perhaps not. It's hard not to view the Twins as the clear favorites entering 2020, as they took a 101-win team, comfortable division winner and historically powerful offense from last season and made it markedly better with the addition of one of the best free-agent bats on the market. They likely have the highest floor in the division with their mix of homegrown talent and veteran additions to complete a remarkably well-rounded roster.
With that said, the White Sox have the highest ceiling in the group behind top prospects who are just beginning to show their true impact at the Major League level on both sides of the ball. They've made it quite clear that they intend to compete sooner rather than later -- but can the youngsters make an immediate enough splash to give the Twins a serious scare ahead of schedule?
As Spring Training nears at the conclusion of a whirlwind offseason, let's take a look around the division at some factors that could shape an AL Central race that looks to have the Twins at the helm.
The favorites: Twins
Notable departures: C Jason Castro (1.6 WAR), 1B C.J. Cron (0.3 WAR), SP Kyle Gibson (2.6 WAR), SP Martín Pérez (1.9 WAR), 2B Jonathan Schoop (1.3 WAR)
Notable additions: SP Homer Bailey (2.9 WAR), RP Tyler Clippard (0.7 WAR), 3B Josh Donaldson (4.9 WAR), SP Rich Hill (0.9 WAR), SP Kenta Maeda (2.5 WAR), RP Matt Wisler (0.4 WAR)
The Twins entered the offseason with the hope of acquiring a front-end starting pitcher to supplement their otherworldly offense from 2019. They were unable to do that. But their backup plan still makes the Twins a markedly better team than they were at this time a year ago, with Donaldson added to an offense that remained mostly intact, and several proven rotation options with playoff experience now in the fold as part of a deep starting group. It's a well-rounded roster with strengths in the lineup and bullpen, and enough depth on both sides of the ball to weather the rigors of a full season.
Where could it go wrong? Much of the Twins' offensive success in 2019 was predicated on huge breakouts from the likes of Mitch Garver, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez. The bullpen's strength came via similar breakouts from Tyler Duffey and Trevor May. The Twins have seen with Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó that development is, by no means, linear. There's enough depth that Minnesota can deal with some injury or regression, but any more than that could still open the window for the White Sox or Indians to make things uncomfortable. Elsewhere, Sergio Romo, Nelson Cruz or Hill could finally start to show their age -- but the Twins hope to have built up enough depth around them to weather those possibilities, as well.
Regardless, the Twins also have the advantage of a deep Minor League system with tradeable assets to make whatever fortifications they might require at the Trade Deadline, whether it be a front-end starter, bullpen help or whatever else might be needed. They signaled with the trade of Brusdar Graterol, their top pitching prospect, that they care a lot about winning now. It's hard not to see that mindset carrying through into July.
The challengers: White Sox
Notable departures: C Welington Castillo (-1.0 WAR), RHP Dylan Covey (-0.1 WAR), RF Jon Jay (-0.9 WAR), RHP Ivan Nova (2.0 WAR), 2B Yolmer Sánchez (1.0 WAR)
Notable additions: RP Steve Cishek (0.2 WAR), DH Edwin Encarnación (2.5 WAR), SP Gio González (1.4 WAR), C Yasmani Grandal (5.2 WAR), SP Dallas Keuchel (0.8 WAR), RF Nomar Mazara (0.5 WAR)
The White Sox remain focused on sustained success, as in contending for multiple World Series titles, and to be honest, their prime contention window probably opens in 2021. But they have positioned themselves to potentially accelerate the rebuild into a playoff possibility in '20.
General manager Rick Hahn and the front office had a busy and extremely productive offseason, starting with the addition of veteran free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal. They also brought in left-handed starters Dallas Keuchel and Gio González, designated hitter Edwin Encarnación and reliever Steve Cishek via free agency, brought back organization staple José Abreu and added Nomar Mazara via a trade with the Rangers. Each one of those players figures to play a significant role in 2020 and, in some cases, well beyond. The White Sox also agreed to a six-year, $50 million extension with Luis Robert, meaning MLB Pipeline's No. 3 overall prospect will almost certainly be putting his wide array of high-end skills on display as part of the Opening Day lineup.
Ultimately, the continued growth of young core standouts such as Yoán Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Tim Anderson and Eloy Jiménez will dictate how far this team can jump from last year’s 72 wins. But they also have room to maneuver at the Trade Deadline and prospect capital to use if the situation arises, as they continue to figure out what they have in the prospects just behind their main ones. They won’t mortgage the future to simply catch Minnesota or Cleveland in 2020, but as manager Rick Renteria has said, anything short of the playoffs would be a disappointment this season.
The contenders: Indians
Notable departures: 2B Jason Kipnis (1.1 WAR), SP Corey Kluber (0.6 WAR), C Kevin Plawecki (0.2 WAR)
Notable additions: RP Emmanuel Clase (0.4 WAR), OF Delino DeShields (0.8 WAR), 2B César Hernández (1.7 WAR), C Sandy León (-0.2 WAR)
Heading into last year, the Indians experienced budget cuts for the first time since their seven consecutive winning seasons began in 2013. And with that, they watched the Twins dethrone them as the AL Central champions for the first time since '15. The Tribe still won 93 games, but instead of bulking up over the winter, the club has shaved another $20 million off its payroll.
By declining second baseman Jason Kipnis’ $16.5 million option and trading Corey Kluber’s $17.5 million contract to Texas, the Indians are projected to open the year with a payroll of approximately $90 million. It was assumed that the team was clearing space to make another free-agent signing after picking up second baseman César Hernández or maybe offer Francisco Lindor, Mike Clevinger or Shane Bieber an extension. But nothing -- so far -- has happened.
The White Sox have had an aggressive winter in an attempt to make a move in the division. The Twins have made enough moves to remain the favorites to take the Central once again. The Indians are certainly still in the running, especially boasting one of the best starting rotations in the league with Clevinger, Bieber and Carlos Carrasco in the top three spots. However, they still seem to be missing an outfielder with a solid bat. If they choose not to make any more additions, which Indians manager Terry Francona hinted would be the case, they will have to rely on a lot of young players such as outfielder Daniel Johnson; starters Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Logan Allen and Scott Moss; and relievers James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase to help keep them in contention.
"I can’t sit here and tell you that it would shock me if we invited somebody to camp or even if we signed somebody," Francona said. "But I’m guessing we’re pretty close to who we’re gonna be. … We kind of have our team. I feel more like I need to spend energy on, ‘OK, how do we get this group of guys to be as good as they can be?' as opposed to sitting here going, ‘Oh man, I’d love to have him over there.’ I never felt comfortable feeling like that."