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2 key questions for every AL Central team

@williamfleitch
July 15, 2020

Throughout February and March, I spent a disturbingly large percentage of my pre-pandemic hours writing incredibly long division season previews for a season that, as it turned out, would not happen as originally planned. In these previews, I asked (and tried to answer) five big questions about each team in

Throughout February and March, I spent a disturbingly large percentage of my pre-pandemic hours writing incredibly long division season previews for a season that, as it turned out, would not happen as originally planned. In these previews, I asked (and tried to answer) five big questions about each team in each division and then, at the end, predicted exact records for every one of them. For what it's worth, every one of these predictions would have been right on the money, had the season happened as scheduled. Trust me.

Anyway, now that we are getting a truncated season, it's time to dig back into these previews. Because there are only 60 games now, rather than 162, we will ask only two questions in these previews, often relating to these decidedly new and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves facing. The predictions are still coming, though, and they're still 100 percent guaranteed correct. These will run twice a week until the season begins on July 23.

So far, we've revisited the American League East, the National League East and the NL Central. Today, we look at the AL Central.

Indians

1. Does the short season give a green light to make a run now?
Heading into March, it looked like 2020 was going to be a one-foot-in, one-foot-out year for Cleveland. Maybe they might hang around the AL Central, but maybe they might cash out and trade Francisco Lindor, effectively ending this mini-boomlet of contention that came this close to at last bringing a World Series title to Cleveland. But now that it’s just 60 games … maybe they should just go for it? If they can keep everybody on the field, this is a strong lineup, and some of the depth issues could be offset in a short season. And say what you will about the oddness of this season, but if this is the year Cleveland finally does it, trust me, no Indians fan will ever care whether anyone considers it “legitimate.”

2. Could this be a fantastic rotation?
The Indians took a lot of heat for trading Corey Kluber in the offseason, but this rotation looks plenty formidable as is. Shane Bieber was a revelation last year, Mike Clevinger is fully healthy and Carlos Carrasco, defying the odds yet again, looks rested and ready to go. And it’s not unreasonable to think Aaron Civale and/or Zach Plesac could step up as well. It’s possible at the end of this season, we look back at the Indians' rotation and think, “Jeez, where would they even have put Kluber?”

Royals

1. Can Jorge Soler hit 20 homers?
There are some debates about the math, but generally speaking, if you hit 20 homers in this truncated season, you are somewhere in the vicinity of 50 homers in a “normal” season. So: Can Soler get there? He obliterated the all-time Royals record for homers in 2019 with 48 -- just about the quietest 48 homers you can possibly hit -- and he is in his absolute prime right now. Certainly the Cubs have had a better past few years than the Royals, but that Soler for Wade Davis trade the Royals made feels like more of a steal by the day.

2. Can Mike Matheny settle in as manager?
The new Royals manager has earned rave reviews for his perspective and leadership ability in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: It’s a reminder of why the Cardinals were so excited to hire him in 2011 in the first place. (He was similarly strong when the Cardinals faced tragedy, as with the death of top prospect Oscar Taveras.) The problems tend to come with the on-field-strategy part of the job. Matheny has reportedly studied and worked to improve his analytical abilities. Wins won’t be how Matheny is judged this year; the ability to change his worst tendencies in St. Louis will be his measuring stick.

Tigers

1. The hitting has to be a little better, right?
In 2019, the team had one hitter -- lineup regular or otherwise -- with an OPS+ over 100, and that was Nick Castellanos, whom they of course traded after 100 games. Otherwise, the best hitter was … Victor Reyes? Niko Goodrum? Jordy Mercer? (It might have actually still been Miguel Cabrera, who had 12 homers.) They’ve tried to make it a little better this year, with C.J. Cron, Austin Romine, Jonathan Schoop and Cameron Maybin added to the mix. This still isn’t a good lineup, mind you. But it’s slightly more watchable.

2. Could the rotation be sneaky good?
The Tigers didn’t trade Matthew Boyd when many people wanted them to last year, and now they have him as their pseudo-ace. There are other reasons the Detroit rotation should have a little extra oomph this year. Ivan Nova was signed as a free agent, Spencer Turnbull was better than many thought last year. Jordan Zimmermann couldn’t possibly be worse than he was last year (and this is the last year of his seemingly endless contract). But the real reasons for optimism: Michael Fulmer will return this year, and top prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning could make their debuts as well. Either debut will likely serve as the defining highlight of 2020, and perhaps a glimpse into a brighter future.

Twins

1. Can this lineup actually improve?
The Twins bashed their way into the playoffs last year, playing with a homer-happy style that would put those old late 1980s Twins teams to shame. And that’s going to be even more accentuated with the addition of Josh Donaldson, who bet on himself with a one-year deal with Atlanta last year -- a bet that absolutely paid off. He instantly becomes an AL MVP candidate in the middle of this lineup, and balls could be flying out of Target Field at an even higher rate than last year. A warning sign, though: Byron Buxton is already hobbling, and we’ve seen how different this team looks when he is healthy than when he isn’t.

2. Does anything matter without a postseason series win?
The Twins look geared for this season. Their offseason pitching additions look ideal for a short season -- Rich Hill probably wishes they played 60 games every year -- and, again, that lineup is packed. The AL Central is improving, but the Twins still look like the class of this division. But this is when we must discuss, again, their jaw-dropping postseason record: Minnesota has somehow lost 16 consecutive postseason games, dating all the way back to 2004. (Their last postseason win featured a homer by Jacque Jones, a win by Johan Santana and a save by Joe Nathan.) Until they break that streak, you can be forgiven for still not quite believing.

White Sox

1. Is Luis Robert for real?
The long-term contract the White Sox gave their top prospect in the offseason assured that he’d be in the lineup on Opening Day, and now the team gets to see the raw, bulging talent of Robert up close and personal. Robert may still have holes in his game, but the talent is off the charts -- particularly impressive for a team that already has its fair share of young guys with massive potential. How much time will he need to adjust? Or, perhaps more apt, how long will it take for the league to adjust to him? Robert has the skill and physicality to take over this game. Can he do so right now?

2. Should they just go ahead and take over now?
The general consensus is that the White Sox are in a position to rule the AL Central the first half of this decade. The question is when that starts. Hey: How about now? Yoan Moncada’s status is up in the air, but otherwise, you’ve got guys in their prime (Eloy Jiménez, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito) combining with vets (Jose Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnacion, Dallas Keuchel) to establish a scary lineup and fascinating rotation. The White Sox could have one of those seasons in which they don’t worry about “potential”; they just let the kids take over, no waiting necessary.

One man’s AL Central prediction …

Twins: 35-25
Indians: 33-27
White Sox: 32-28
Royals: 26-34
Tigers: 24-36