The 2017 American League Central is proof that organizational ambition can vary from club to club in a given year. Certainly, every team wants to win the World Series, but suffice it to say, the championship dreams currently rate a little stronger in Cleveland, where the Indians are coming off
The 2017 American League Central is proof that organizational ambition can vary from club to club in a given year. Certainly, every team wants to win the World Series, but suffice it to say, the championship dreams currently rate a little stronger in Cleveland, where the Indians are coming off an AL pennant, than on the South Side of Chicago, where the White Sox are open to dealing their Opening Day starter.
With that in mind, each club in the AL Central might have to adjust its specific plan as 2017 evolves. Here are some Plan B possibilities.
After losing a 3-1 lead in the World Series and coming up short in that epic Game 7 against the Cubs, the Tribe is all in for 2017. Returning a healthy Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to the rotation is huge, as is the possibility that Michael Brantley -- who played just 11 games last year following shoulder surgery -- can again be a force in the lineup. The Indians will have a full season of Andrew Miller, and they have their biggest free-agent addition in a generation with Edwin Encarnacion. Because of the way 2016 ended, no outcome other than the organization's first World Series title since 1948 will be deemed acceptable.
So the Indians are expected to explore every avenue to align themselves for another deep October run. Should they falter in any one area, the farm system has enough talent to allow the Tribe to pull off another impact trade, a la the Miller deal last season. If Brantley has another shoulder setback or the platoon setups in center and right don't deliver, the Indians could be on the hunt for trade help in the outfield, or they could turn in-house to a farm system that includes the speedy Allen and top prospect Bradley Zimmer. Yandy Diaz possesses a Major League-ready bat that might help Cleveland in the outfield or infield. If the catching production should falter again in 2017, Francisco Mejia could emerge as an option -- though in a perfect developmental world, he's still at least a year away.
The Indians already made the substantial additions of Miller, Encarnacion and Boone Logan to the payroll in the last nine months, so it remains to be seen how much financial flexibility they'd have to make more upgrades. But to this point, ownership has not been shy about maximizing this moment.
Detroit explored the possibility of paring down the payroll and moving some big names over the offseason, but the market factors combined with the sizable contracts of its stars to make it a fairly static situation in the Motor City. The Tigers will field a 2017 product very similar to '16, with the hope that health and performance will cooperate and that another overall improvement (Detroit won 12 more games in '16 than in '15) is possible.
But if things go wrong health-wise in an aging lineup, the back end of the rotation doesn't deliver, the bullpen comes undone or a combination of factors leave the Tigers looking helpless at the turn, this is a potential fire sale situation. In Plan B, J.D. Martinez would be the obvious trade candidate in his walk year if -- and only if -- his current foot injury is not a major limitation moving forward. Francisco Rodriguez is another pending free agent, and Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Jose Iglesias are all only under control through 2018.
The bottom line for Detroit is that the farm system needs replenishment and the luxury-tax penalty is a concern. So even if the Tigers do contend this year, they'll likely be limited in their ability to add on.
One season removed from World Series glory, the Royals are simultaneously trying to re-establish their AL Central clout and prepare for the future. It's a tough trick, and the pending free agencies of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar put an increased emphasis on first-half performance.
In a perfect scenario, the additions of Nathan Karns, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood repair a pitching staff shaken by the tragic death of Yordano Ventura and depleted by the trade of Wade Davis. Jorge Soler, acquired in the Davis trade with the Cubs, could improve the Royals' power portfolio, and he and Brandon Moss could make the absence of Kendrys Morales' production more manageable. But Kansas City will need to prove to be a viable contender quickly, because the temptation to sign off on a sell-off will be strong, given the changes to the free-agent Draft pick compensation system, the difficulty of keeping this core together and the simple fact that the Royals have a recent ring in their back pocket.
Like the Tigers, the Royals aren't in a great position to turn to their farm or add payroll in a pinch. But the manageable contracts of their pending free agents provides Kansas City with more marketable assets should this become a sell situation.
When things went south on the South Side yet again in 2016, Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were traded for prospects. So Plan B is already in effect. General manager Rick Hahn enters 2017 with the intent of keeping the rebuild going and finding the appropriate package for Jose Quintana. The White Sox have valued Quintana every bit as highly as they did Sale (Quintana is attached to four more years of contractual control, one more than Sale was when he was sent to Boston), and taking Quintana into the year presents the risk that he regresses in some way or that the market becomes crowded by other non-contenders with starters to dangle.
In that scenario, the new Plan B (or is it Plan C?) would be to keep Quintana and perhaps build around him. With the system improved by the additions of near-Major League-ready talent in Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Michael Kopech and just north of $30 million owed to Quintana from 2018-20, it's possible Chicago's competitive timetable still aligns with the Quintana contract. And of course, Quintana's team-friendly deal means there are other junctures to move him. Hahn has been adamant about sticking to his asking price with Quintana, and there's no reason for him to venture away from that stance.
The White Sox, though, should probably just take the best possible deal they can get for pending free agents Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera and Derek Holland (if he re-establishes value on a one-year deal) and for closer Player Page for David Robertson, a free agent after 2018.
After losing more than 90 games in five of the past six seasons -- including 103 losses last year -- the Twins overhauled their front office this offseason with the additions of president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine. The roster, though, isn't all that different from what we saw at the end of 2016 (aside from Jason Castro behind the dish), which means it's hard to have too much faith in a major surge up the standings. But if the kids -- Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Adalberto Mejia, Jose Berrios -- all simultaneously step forward, Minnesota should field a far more respectable product this season than last.
But while Falvey and Levine inherited a strong system, the best bets beyond the players mentioned above are all in the low Minors, far from the Major League scene. The club also has the No. 1 overall pick in this year's Draft. So if Plan A is to maximize the value of a flawed-but-upside-laden roster, Plan B might be to go even younger and start thinking about what this club is going to look like several years down the road.
The first part of the process could involve not only entertaining offers for pending free agents such as closer Brandon Kintzler and starter Hector Santiago but also stud second baseman James Dozier (under contract through 2018) and starters Ervin Santana and Phil Hughes (both under control through '19). Dozier was, of course, already the subject of rampant trade rumors this offseason, but there are factors that could compel the Twins to be even more aggressive in marketing him.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.