The middle infields of the American League Central underwent some changes this offseason, from the Francisco Lindor trade out of Cleveland to the Andrelton Simmons signing in Minnesota. But there are plenty of familiar faces near the top of their games. Tim Anderson looks like the standard-bearer of division shortstops, coming off a seventh-place finish in AL Most Valuable Player Award voting and 2.5 bWAR in a 60-game season for the White Sox, but the rest of the division has young talent on the way. Second base could be an interesting debate, with Cesar Hernandez (1.8 bWAR in 2020) and Jonathan Schoop (1.2 bWAR) returning to Cleveland and Detroit, respectively.
In preparation for the 2021 season, MLB.com will go around the horn and compare where each team in the AL Central stands at each position in advance of what could be the closest division race in years. It’s a tight-enough race that the club with the most production out of the middle infield could determine the difference at the top, while also helping to determine whether youth movements elsewhere are headed in the right direction.
Here’s a look at the situations for each of the AL Central teams:
There's no question who will start at second base for the Indians in 2021. Barring any injuries, Hernandez will be back on another one-year deal after his Gold Glove-winning season for the Tribe last year. The Indians weren't initially sure whether they would be able to afford to re-sign Hernandez, but they managed to increase their financial flexibility with the trade that shipped Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to the Mets. Hernandez was excellent for Cleveland in '20, hitting .283 with a .763 OPS, an AL-best 20 doubles, three homers and 20 RBIs in 58 games.
It will likely come down to Amed Rosario and Andrés Giménez (both of whom were acquired in that Mets trade) at shortstop. When looking at the big picture, it seems more probable that the Tribe would envision Giménez as its shortstop for the next few years to come. However, for the immediate future, Cleveland could decide to send him to Triple-A Columbus to gain an extra year of control, while starting Rosario at shortstop. If Giménez gets the job from Day 1, Rosario could get a look at either of the two corner outfield spots.
-- Mandy Bell
Barring injury, the Royals' middle infield seems set to open the season -- Nicky Lopez at second base and Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop. Mondesi finished the season on a tear: In the final month, he hit .356/.408/.667 across 100 plate appearances, with six home runs and 20 RBIs. He then entered the offseason healthy, which wasn’t the case in 2019 after left shoulder surgery. Mondesi remains full of potential if he can start '21 as hot as he finished ’20.
Despite how solid Lopez is in the field, he has lacked some pop offensively, with a .228/.279/.307 slash line over 594 plate appearances across the past two years. Even though it might not match his elite defense, the Royals would like to see Lopez’s production increase in his third year in the Majors. What might help him is Kansas City’s acquisitions of Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi -- two offensive-minded players who could help take the pressure off Lopez as he works through his struggles at the plate. Beyond Mondesi and Lopez, the battle for bench spots will play out in Spring Training. While Whit Merrifield can play second base if needed, Hanser Alberto could provide nice depth for the middle infield, and Lucius Fox is also on the 40-man roster.
-- Anne Rogers
It’s Willi Castro’s time to show whether he’s the Tigers’ long-term answer at shortstop. The former Indians prospect, acquired for Leonys Martin at the 2018 Trade Deadline, was arguably Detroit’s best hitter not named Jeimer Candelario last September and finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year Award voting despite playing just 36 games. The switch-hitter batted .349 (45-for-129) with a 150 OPS+. Schoop is back to handle primary duties at second base, where he was a Gold Glove finalist while posting a 115 OPS+.
Schoop talked upon his return about showing off his infield versatility, but it isn’t clear yet how the Tigers might try to take advantage of that. He was a shortstop coming up in the Orioles' farm system and a third baseman in Baltimore as a rookie, but neither position seems likely to yield more than an occasional start for him. The same versatility intrigue surrounds third-base prospect Isaac Paredes, who started half the season at third last year and won a batting title in the Mexican Winter League. He played a good amount of shortstop in the Minors and has been mentioned as a possibility for second base. Then there’s super-utility player Niko Goodrum, who was a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop last year but now seems poised for a Marwin Gonzalez-type role under new manager A.J. Hinch.
-- Jason Beck
What's obvious is that the Twins' defense up the middle will be much better in 2021 than it was last season, when both Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez were average to below-average defenders at shortstop and second base. Fielding wizard Andrelton Simmons will now start at shortstop and Polanco will move to second, giving the club defensive upgrades at both positions. Arraez will still back them up as he bounces between the infield and outfield to collect consistent at-bats, and that group should be better both offensively and defensively than Polanco, Arraez and Ehire Adrianza in that same capacity in '20.
How exactly will the Twins navigate Arraez's playing time? Despite the fact that Arraez is now an everyday player without an everyday position, it's clear that Minnesota benefits from having his contact ability and career .331/.390/.429 line in the batting order. Injuries are a fact of life, but who gets days off to make room for Arraez when everyone is healthy, and how often? The other question is whether the Twins will be comfortable moving Polanco back to shortstop on Simmons' days off or keep him in a consistent role with a different backup at short -- though the roster's flexibility is limited by the presence of Nelson Cruz as designated hitter.
-- Do-Hyoung Park
Anderson hit .335 in 2019 and won the AL batting title, then silenced any remaining doubters by hitting .322 in ’20 and tying for the AL lead with 45 runs scored. Simply put, the White Sox shortstop has figured out exactly what he needs to succeed and now can make adjustments from pitch to pitch within an at-bat. He has become the face of the club through his dynamic, exciting bat-flipping presence and one of the most watchable players in the game. The team really goes through Anderson and José Abreu.
Nick Madrigal gained 29 games and 109 plate appearances worth of experience last season in his debut shortened by a separated left shoulder suffered on a slide on Aug. 4. He had expected offseason surgery to correct the issue and plans to be fully ready by Opening Day. The second baseman hit .340 overall and gave the White Sox what they expected with elite bat-to-ball skills but not any power. Of course, there’s plenty of room for the soon-to-be 24-year-old to grow into some sort of extra-base potential. Leury García, who can play everywhere on the field, looks to be the backup at shortstop and second, although Danny Mendick's similar versatility makes him an Opening Day roster candidate as well.
-- Scott Merkin