Roundtable: Who will win the AL Central?

February 8th, 2021

Who will win the American League Central? gathered a group of reporters to debate the possibilities:

Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): Let’s start by examining each team in terms of whether it took a step forward, step back or stayed the same this offseason. Indians first. Clearly, after they traded Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, it would be impossible to say they took a step forward. But how much did their transactions weaken the team? As much as we think?

Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand, executive reporter): Trading Lindor is obviously a huge deal. But when I look at where the Indians have fallen the most, it’s in the rotation. It wasn’t long ago that Cleveland had a rotation with Cy Young-level Corey Kluber, followed by Trevor Bauer, Carrasco and Mike Clevinger. They’re all wearing new uniforms now.

Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin, White Sox beat reporter): But isn't their rotation still fairly solid -- just a little less accomplished on the back of the baseball card?

Feinsand: Bieber is great. But after him, there are a lot of “could be” very goods.

Mandy Bell (@MandyBell02, Indians beat reporter): Their biggest strength has always been their rotation. Carrasco is certainly a loss, but still having the AL Cy Young Award winner in Shane Bieber and Zach Plesac as your 1-2 is still pretty elite. Aaron Civale has proven enough to be a solid No. 3 starter. What it comes down to is how the rest of the young starters turn out. Triston McKenzie gave us a solid taste of what he could be moving forward; however, does that ring true in his second year in the big leagues? Can he stay healthy? And who will be the fifth starter? If they can have a solid rotation, then they can get by with having a weaker lineup (although Eddie Rosario will undoubtedly help) once again. Even without Lindor.

Merkin: Plesac has been very impressive from the little I've watched him. Civale, just based on his work against the White Sox, is a Cy Young Award contender (I kid).

Feinsand: Can Plesac throw 180+ innings? We don’t know that yet.

Footer: The Twins -- forward, backward or status quo?

Feinsand: I think the Twins are status quo, which is still pretty darn good. But Nelson Cruz is a year older. And except for Tom Brady, Father Time still usually wins at some point. I like the J.A. Happ signing, though. And José Berríos should get better. I’m also probably as big a Josh Donaldson fan as there is.

Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark, Twins beat reporter): Mark, that implies that Cruz isn’t Father Time himself. The man takes naps every day and wears bathrobes into the dugout. Have we ever seen Cruz and Father Time in the same room?

I agree with Mark -- status quo, but that’s also the level of a team that repeated as AL Central champs last season with a ton going wrong. Remember that the Twins only had two or three healthy starting pitchers at a time throughout 2020, and you’re adding a full season of Michael Pineda and Happ to that. There’s a lot of turnover in that bullpen, but as a whole, the Twins’ path to '21 was always likely to be making targeted improvements here and there and hoping the offense could come close to 2019 Bomba Squad form again. Maybe not full supernova again, but closer to that.

Merkin: The Twins are the team to beat until someone actually beats them in the AL Central. They proved that fact again last year, and it's not as if they took a decided step back for 2021.

Feinsand: [Executive vice president and chief baseball officer] Derek Falvey and [senior vice president and general manager] Thad Levine are two of the best executives in the game. It’s not smart to bet against them.

Merkin: The White Sox fan base likes the Happ signing, since the team was 14-0 against left-handed starters last year. But I agree with Mark in that was a good signing. I also agree with Do in that Pineda could be a difference-maker.

Footer: I feel like the Twins have always been keenly aware of how to compete in that division. The AL Central is not a powerhouse. Slow and steady wins the race?

Merkin: I agree. I also think the Tigers and Royals will be more competitive in 2021, although it's still clearly three at the top and two closer to the bottom of the division.

Bell: I agree with Scott. I think that the Royals especially will be more competitive in 2021; however, I still think there will be enough separation this year that the White Sox/Twins/Indians will hold steady as the top three.

Feinsand: There is no traditional powerhouse in the division, that’s for sure. What these teams do at the Trade Deadline could be a big factor in how the AL Central plays out. I like what the Royals have done this offseason. They should be a more competitive team for sure. I’m still not sold on the Tigers being more than a 60-win team.

Park: I’m not sure it’s slow and steady so much as it is doing more with a well-rounded roster that might not be as flashy or as laden in star power. There’s no real weakness on the club, and depth is always the priority. So maybe there’s something to “slow and steady” in that they prepare to run the marathon and hope to win the war of attrition.

Footer: Still, a team that goes into a season with three really strong starting pitchers has to have the advantage. The White Sox trio of Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel seems like a good way to start out (says Captain Obvious).

Merkin: Giolito and Keuchel proved to be a great 1-2 punch for this team last year, but Lynn was probably the biggest addition made this offseason -- no offense to Liam Hendriks or Adam Eaton.

They have some great young pitching at the back of the rotation, a group that included Dane Dunning, who started Game 3 in the Wild Card Series against Oakland last year. But they needed a veteran presence in that third spot, especially when you project things toward the playoffs. They were missing that last year and with Tony La Russa at the helm again, this team is built to win now.

Feinsand: The additions of Lynn, Hendriks and Eaton have been solid for the White Sox. They’re the “winners” of the offseason in the division, but how many times have we seen the offseason winner fail to live up to that hype when the season begins?

Bell: With the Indians' neverending list of starting pitchers, I thought that it would be years until they lose the title of strongest rotation in the AL Central. The Tribe obviously has a great chance to be one of the best in the game yet again, but if there's going to be any year that they get dethroned in that category, I think the 2021 White Sox rotation has a lot of potential to top them.

Merkin: I agree with Mandy. They have three solid forces at the top of the rotation and really good young arms to fill the last two spots in Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech, who is returning to action. Carlos Rodón also is back and this is his walk year, so it will be interesting to see what he does in a chance to start at least in the early part of the season. Kopech figures to begin the season in the Minors to build back up.

Footer: Everyone fill in this blank: The strength of the team I cover, as of today, is ...

Bell: The strength of the Indians, as of today, is still their rotation. It's largely unproven but has a lot of potential.

Merkin: The strength of the White Sox is their offensive firepower, especially if Yoán Moncada returns to 2019 form after battling COVID-19 last season. I also liked the signing of Hendriks. Alex Colomé was excellent for two years, but Hendriks gives the team a different feel in the ninth. They targeted him and they got him.

Feinsand: White Sox: Lineup.

Indians: Rotation (though it has a lot of question marks).

Twins: Lineup.

I don’t love the bullpens in this division in general. The White Sox are the only team whose bullpen I would trust in the long haul.

Park: The strength of the Twins is depth. People really don’t give the Twins enough credit for how outstanding their pitching staff has been for the past two years because they don’t necessarily have star power and the offense stole the show in 2019. They have a combination of talent and veteran presence everywhere, with top prospects knocking at the door in every position group.

Footer: I think from the outside, a lot of us have already anointed the White Sox as division champs because of their splashy moves and an already stable roster that got to the postseason last year. But this has a chance to be a lot closer, doesn't it? Three-team race to the finish? Two teams?

Merkin: I still think it's three teams.

Feinsand: Definite two-team race between the Twins and White Sox, though if the Indians’ young arms can take another step, it will be three teams. I just don’t like the Indians' lineup much. It’s not very deep.

But, just as I said that betting against Falvey/Levine isn’t smart, people who bet against [Indians president of baseball operations] Chris Antonetti and [general manager] Mike Chernoff usually live to regret it, too.

Park: Three teams. I’m never counting out Cleveland’s pitching staff until they give me a reason to believe they won’t stop pumping out right-handers that will immediately jump in with a 3.50 ERA.

Merkin: It's interesting for the White Sox in that their best years since I've covered them usually come when there's not a great deal of hoopla around them going into the season. Chicago has a group that developed together, lost together and now is very ready to win together. And again, with La Russa as a manager, this is a World Series-or-bust mentality.

Bell: I think a lot of people will look at this as a two-team race with the Twins and White Sox, but the Indians always seem to have a way to be tricky enough to be a factor. As manager Terry Francona always says, "You can never be counted out as long as you have great pitching." They still do, although they need to rely on a lot of young arms. James Karinchak will anchor the bullpen, and the team will finally get to see what it has in Emmanuel Clase. A lot of the Indians' future is a question mark because they are so young, but they still have a decent chance to make this a three-team race.

Park: Karinchak is a monster.

Bell: If Karinchak's command gets even better in 2021, that's scary stuff.

Feinsand: It’s crazy that the Indians may come away as the big winner in that Kluber trade.

If Clase is good, it’s a big win. If he’s not, it’s a draw.

Park: I see the White Sox as where the Twins were two years ago. The young core has finally arrived and got its first taste of winning together. But as the Twins also found in 2020, continued development -- and sustaining that improvement and performance -- is never a sure thing, whether due to injuries, regression or otherwise.

Feinsand: I will be fascinated to see what kind of impact La Russa has. He’s the wild card for the White Sox. But Chicago got some October experience last year, which helps.

Merkin: The White Sox are the best overall team in the AL Central. They still have to turn the offseason hoopla into knocking out the Twins.

Footer: Let's wrap this up with predictions. Rank the AL Central teams, 1-5.

Feinsand: Twins-White Sox-Royals-Indians-Tigers (Hot take alert!)

I like what the Royals have done. I’m not saying they’ll make the playoffs, but I think they’ll surprise some people this season. Salvador Perez, Carlos Santana, Adalberto Mondesi, Whit Merrifield, Michael A. Taylor, Jorge Soler … they’ve got a pretty good lineup.

Bell: Maybe if the Indians wouldn't have added Eddie Rosario and Cesar Hernandez, I'd be in that same boat, predicting a lower finish. But I think those additions will help them at least solidify a top-three finish. That being said, I'll go: White Sox-Twins-Indians-Royals-Tigers.

Merkin: I'll go White Sox-Twins-Indians-Royals-Tigers as well. But it's going to be a real fight for that top spot, and both teams will make the playoffs.

Park: At the risk of being boring: Twins-White Sox-Indians-Royals-Tigers.