In 2018, the Indians feasted on the weakest division in baseball. But at the turn of the new year, the American League Central looks like it could be a lot more wide open in 2019.Who's going to challenge the Tribe? Based on how the offseason's gone, two teams look like
In 2018, the Indians feasted on the weakest division in baseball. But at the turn of the new year, the American League Central looks like it could be a lot more wide open in 2019.
Who's going to challenge the Tribe? Based on how the offseason's gone, two teams look like they have the potential to make a push: the Twins and the White Sox. The Twins have made several upgrades already -- the latest, and biggest, agreeing to a deal with free-agent slugger Nelson Cruz on Thursday -- and the White Sox are a dark horse lurking, with a couple of moves under their belt, too, and a ton of young talent.
The Indians are still the clear favorites, to be sure. They still have Francisco Lindor, and Jose Ramirez, and Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco (although Kluber's name has come up in trade rumors). But they've lost a couple of key free agents -- Michael Brantley to the Astros, Andrew Miller to the Cardinals -- and have real question marks in the outfield and bullpen.
If Minnesota and Chicago can add a few more key pieces, maybe they give the Indians a run for their money. Here's why each of them could make a jump into contention.
What they've done: Added power
The Twins ranked 12th in the AL with 166 home runs in 2018. Now, they've already brought in a trio of home run threats -- Cruz (37 homers last season), C.J. Cron (30) and Jonathan Schoop (21).
Cruz, especially, looks like a perfect signing for Minnesota. Even at age 38, he's remained one of the most consistent, and dangerous, power hitters in baseball. He gives the Twins the middle-of-the-order bat they wanted at the designated hitter position, a major area of weakness from 2018. The Twins didn't need to commit to Cruz long-term, and in the short term, recent historical comparisons suggest he should be able to maintain his elite power.
What they already had: A homegrown Major League core
The Twins' new offensive weapons add to an emerging group -- Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano. The development of that core could be the key to Minnesota making another playoff push after its surprise Wild Card run two years ago.
The two to watch in particular: Sano and Buxton. Why? The Twins need them to bounce back from injury-plagued and unproductive 2018 seasons. Sano and Buxton were major sparks for Minnesota's 2017 postseason run, both are just 25, and their upside is undeniable. If Sano can tap into his power -- and Cruz should help mentor him -- and Buxton can add offensive consistency to his all-world defense in center field, like he did in the second half of '17, the Twins suddenly look a lot more dangerous.
What they need: Bullpen arms
The Twins don't have any true lockdown relievers, especially after trading closer Fernando Rodney and Thomas Pressly last season. Their relief corps is currently led by Addison Reed and Trevor May. But there are plenty of relievers still out there in free agency, from more top-of-the-market arms like Adam Ottavino to second-tier options like Brad Brach, and a whole lot more.
The White Sox
What they've done: Made strategic upgrades across the roster
The White Sox haven't added a big name like Cruz -- yet -- but they've made a significant addition apiece to the lineup, rotation and bullpen.
Two of those came via trade. First, the Sox snagged Alex Colome from the Mariners for Omar Narvaez. Colome should step in immediately as closer in Chicago. (The Sox also signed catcher James McCann to help replace Narvaez.) Second, the White Sox got Yonder Alonso -- from the Indians, no less -- for Minor Leaguer Alex Call. Alonso gives the Sox a starting designated hitter, a left-handed power bat in the lineup and a veteran presence alongside star Jose Abreu.
The third was the free-agent signing of Ivan Nova, an innings-eater who will solidify the starting rotation with James Shields hitting free agency and Michael Kopech out for the year after Tommy John surgery. The White Sox have been opportunistic this offseason, getting good Major League value without giving up a lot of it, and more moves could be ahead.
What they already had: Talent in the pipeline
That applies to the Major League and Minor League level. Chicago's success in 2019 will depend on both areas -- the continued development of Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, Carlos Rodon and Reynaldo Lopez, who were already with the big league club in 2018 but haven't yet fully realized their potential, and the hopeful emergence of Eloy Jimenez and the team's other elite prospects, like Dylan Cease.
Jimenez is the real X-factor. The 22-year-old outfielder is ranked the No. 3 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline (Cease is ranked No. 25), he's ready to come up, and he's a preseason favorite to be in the AL Rookie of the Year hunt along with the Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Who knows -- maybe Jimenez can make a difference like what Ronald Acuna Jr. did for the Braves last year.
What they need: To make a big splash
Rebuilds can accelerate a lot faster than anticipated, and the White Sox seem to know it. They're shooting for the moon in free agency -- targeting Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
For now, Chicago's window looks like it opens in 2020, when Kopech comes back. But if the White Sox can land one of those superstars (or, somehow, both -- they have the payroll flexibility), they might not have to wait that long to fight for the division. Harper and Machado can have that level of impact on a franchise.
They're also not the only players the White Sox are targeting. Even after adding Colome, for example, they're also interested in bullpen upgrades. MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi reported Thursday that Chicago is interested in Ottavino, one of the best arms left on the market. The White Sox could also try to go out and get another starting pitcher before Opening Day.
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.