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How corner infielders stack up in AL Central

@alysonfooter
January 22, 2020

Third basemen were of high interest on the free-agent market this offseason, and after Anthony Rendon signed his lucrative contract with the Angels, Josh Donaldson was in the enviable position of being able to wait things out until a team offered the number of years he was looking for, with

Third basemen were of high interest on the free-agent market this offseason, and after Anthony Rendon signed his lucrative contract with the Angels, Josh Donaldson was in the enviable position of being able to wait things out until a team offered the number of years he was looking for, with dollars to match.

Now that Donaldson is officially a Twin, it's fair to say Minnesota's infield is one of the most improved in the American League. The Twins aren't the only team in the American League Central with a strong corner-infield duo, but the Donaldson addition arguably makes them the class of the division. The Indians and White Sox are strong there, as well, with the Royals and Tigers expecting some transition at those positions in 2020.

Let's take a look at corner infielders around the division:

Division's best: Twins
The Twins didn't need a huge upgrade in the corner infield, but they went out and got the biggest fish left in the pond anyway. The addition of Donaldson on the largest free-agent deal in club history (four years, $92 million) gives Minnesota unmatched power potential at the corners in Miguel Sanó and Donaldson, who combined for 71 homers last season and finished second and seventh, respectively, in average exit velocity among qualified Major League hitters. Between Donaldson's long-term deal and Sanó's recent three-year, $30 million extension, the Twins figure to be set here for the foreseeable future.

Donaldson's offensive ability will rightfully garner the headlines, but don't underestimate the much-needed boost that he'll also give to the Twins' infield defense. Sanó was rated a below-average defender by Statcast last season (minus-3 outs above average), but he will move to first base, where his defensive ability will be less important. Meanwhile, Donaldson (plus-8 OAA) ranked as the third-best defender at the position last season behind only Gold Glove Award winners Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman.

-- Do-Hyung Park

The rest (listed alphabetically, not ranked)

Indians
The Tribe has a solid veteran duo manning the corners of the infield with Carlos Santana at first and José Ramírez at third. After the club declined second baseman Jason Kipnis’ $16.5 million option at the end of last season, Ramírez offered to make the move across the diamond to fill in the vacancy, but the Indians preferred to leave him at third. Though their defensive numbers may not be the most eye-grabbing, as Santana was worth minus-1 infield OAA and Ramírez was worth 0, according to Statcast, both will likely serve as the core of the Tribe’s offense in 2020.

Santana was the rock of Cleveland’s lineup last season, hitting .281 with a .911 OPS in 158 games and earning his first-ever All-Star Game selection. And when Ramírez rediscovered his swing in mid-June, he and Santana became a dangerous pair in the middle of the order. Now, the Indians will have to hope that Ramírez’s offensive struggles from late 2018 and early '19 are left in the past so the slugger can pick up right where he left off to get the Tribe off to a strong start in '20.

-- Mandy Bell

Royals
The Royals and general manager Dayton Moore made somewhat of a bold move by signing free-agent third baseman Maikel Franco this offseason, pushing Hunter Dozier to the outfield. The Royals are hoping Franco, who hit 17 home runs for the Phillies last season, will lengthen their lineup. But Franco’s career on-base percentage of .302, not much higher than Alcides Escobar’s career mark of .293, must improve if he is to help the offense.

One interesting battle in camp will be between first basemen Ryan O'Hearn and Ryan McBroom. New manager Mike Matheny has raved about O’Hearn, who got the fan base excited in 2018 when he hit 12 home runs with 30 RBIs in 44 games. But O’Hearn started miserably last season and was demoted in June to Triple-A Omaha. O’Hearn finished strong, hitting .297 with seven home runs and a 1.025 OPS in his final 28 games with the Royals. McBroom, acquired from the Yankees late in the season, hit .293 in 23 games with no home runs and six RBIs. O’Hearn and McBroom both have options in case the Royals sign a free-agent first baseman during camp.

-- Jeffrey Flanagan

Tigers
With Miguel Cabrera’s days at first base all but over after his right knee injuries, the Tigers filled first base by signing free agent C.J. Cron to a one-year deal. He’s an aggressive right-handed pull hitter in a ballpark that can be tough on those types of hitters, but he’s a solid defender with a chance to get regular at-bats in the middle of the order. His arrival, in turn, pushes Jeimer Candelario back to third base, where he’ll compete with fellow former prospect Dawel Lugo for the starting job. Candelario hasn’t been the same hitter since a left wrist injury in 2018. With power-hitting infield prospect Isaac Paredes expected to open the season at Triple-A Toledo, this could be Candelario’s (and Lugo’s) last chance to claim a spot in Detroit’s lineup.

-- Jason Beck

White Sox
The solid corner-infield combination of Yoán Moncada, José Abreu and Edwin Encarnación blends youth and veteran presence, while showing productivity from all angles. The 24-year-old Moncada struck out 217 times during his 2018 full-season debut, but he posted a 5.7 fWAR last season along with becoming more aggressive within the strike zone earlier in the count. That approach not only dropped the strikeout total (154) but helped turn Moncada into an offensive force with a .315/.367/.548 slash line to go with 25 home runs and 34 doubles. He also appeared to be a natural fit defensively in his move from second to third.

Abreu, who returned to the White Sox on a three-year, $50 million deal, topped the American League with 123 RBIs last season. The first baseman has hit at least 25 home runs and driven in at least 100 runs in five of his six years with the team and has value far beyond his on-field results through his clubhouse influence and leadership. The 37-year-old Encarnación will see some time at first base, but he gives the White Sox an experienced designated hitter to place in the middle of the order, not to mention eight straight seasons with at least 30 homers.

-- Scott Merkin

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.