The American League Central has become a curious case study, with one or two teams expected to emerge from the pack but no one playing quite to form. With trade season picking up, the buzz in the division should soon take on a different shape.
The Royals sending Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals on Monday for prospects is expected to be the first step in a busy summer for them and the rest of the division. Now that the Draft is over, the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline becomes the top priority for many organizations, regardless of whether they're making a postseason push. For scouts, midsummer travel often becomes a barnstorming tour to watch potential trade targets or evaluate prospects in the Minors. For general managers, the meetings become debates, from the club's direction to potential targets from scouts and analytics.
• Non-waiver Trade Deadline explained
One AL Central team, the Indians, clearly are in position to contend. The rest are either rebuilding, retinkering or rethinking. Here's a team-by-team look at the pressing questions for each club.
The question: Will Cleveland acquire bullpen help?
Things went off the rails for the Indians' bullpen in May, when the group turned in an 8.01 ERA that sent its relief corps toward the bottom of the AL rankings. While lefty Andrew Miller has dealt with injuries, manager Terry Francona has struggled to find consistency with his bullpen, making relief help an obvious need as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline nears.
Over the past two weeks, the Tribe has taken strides toward improving its 'pen. Core arms like Zach McAllister and Dan Otero have performed better, while the acquisition of veteran lefty Oliver Perez and emergence of Neil Ramirez have also helped shore things up. Miller's eventual return should continue the upward trend, but Cleveland could still greatly benefit from adding a lockdown relief arm for the stretch run.
The question: How many players will general manager Dayton Moore move before the Trade Deadline?
Moore has said repeatedly he won't trade players for the sake of trading them, but he also is committed to restocking Kansas City's farm system. Trading Herrera and Jonathan Jay has already landed the Royals several prospects, and Moore has other attractive assets in third baseman Mike Moustakas and super utility man Whit Merrifield. Moore is hesitant to move his best asset, All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, because he doesn't think he'd get the return they'd expect. But the Royals will likely entertain offers on anyone else, from Danny Duffy to Jason Hammel to Justin Grimm and so on.
The question: Will GM Al Avila trade young stars Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd and Nicholas Castellanos, or will they become part of Detroit's rebuilding process?
Don't let the second-place standing fool you. The Tigers are still committed to rebuilding around young talent, and they will trade veterans for prospects to restock their farm system. Veterans like Francisco Liriano, Mike Fiers, Leonys Martin and Jose Iglesias are no-doubt conversation starters, but the most popular targets will be younger players like Fulmer, Boyd and Castellanos, all still in their 20s with club control and emerging talent.
Castellanos is a year and a half away from free agency, but he has made it clear he'd like to stay in Detroit. Fulmer and Boyd aren't even in their arbitration years yet, let alone free agency. Avila said last weekend that he'll listen to any deal that makes his team better in the long haul, but he doesn't have a mandate to trade players. He'll deal anyone if the offer is right, but don't expect the Tigers to even consider trading Fulmer -- an All-Star with four more years of control -- without a premium return. Detroit's top prospects are all starting pitchers, so the Tigers will have arms to step up when the time comes.
The question: Can Minnesota stay alive in the division race?
It's still too early to know if the Twins will be buyers or sellers at the Trade Deadline, as it appears their best path to the postseason is winning the division given how far out they are of the AL Wild Card race. If they're buyers, they'll be looking for relief help and possibly a catcher. But if Minnesota is a seller, it will have several players in the final years of their contracts who could be moved, including James Dozier, Eduardo Escobar, Lance Lynn, Zach Duke, Fernando Rodney and Logan Morrison. Last year, the Twins sold at the Deadline, but they ended up having an impressive August which led to the second AL Wild Card spot. So it shows how things can change in a hurry.
The question: Should they stay or should they go?
From July 13 to August 31 of last season, the White Sox traded nine players from their Major League roster and received 12 young players in return. General manager Rick Hahn already has acknowledged on numerous occasions the trade movement not expected to be as significant in 2018, with the rebuild focus falling more upon talent development, but there still could be some moves made.
James Shields has made 11 straight starts of at least six innings with a 4.13 ERA in that span, making him a possible back-end-of-the-rotation addition for a contender. Closer Joakim Soria entered play on Thursday with six saves and a .138 batting average against in June, while currently injured players, such as outfielders Avisail Garcia and Leury Garcia, reliever Nate Jones and starter Miguel Gonzalez, could draw some interest with a successful return when healthy.