The American League Central is Comedy Central no more. Once a division loaded with more rebuilding projects than an HGTV series, the Central now figures to feature one of MLB’s more compelling division races… and it will be fun to follow it all on MLB Network.*
*Sorry, just had to complete the cable TV trifecta in that paragraph.
Now that Josh Donaldson has rejoined the division after his long, unforgettable 16-game run with the Indians in 2018, the intrigue is elevated in the Central.
First, for the sake of perspective, here’s how FanGraphs’ projections frame this race:
Yeah. That’s close.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the three teams up top and how this might all play out.
Storyline: In 2019, the Twins jumped out to an 11 1/2-game lead by June 2, only to be dead even with the Indians on Aug. 11, only to run away with it again in September. But much like many great Twins seasons of the past, their bomba-boosted, 101-win effort was quickly upended by the Yankees in October. It left them hungry to further legitimize their roster.
Strength: This is a Twin-turbo lineup. Rather than rely on their record-setting offense from 2019 to repeat the past, the Twins staved off potential regression with the stunning acquisition of Donaldson on a four-year deal. So with an impact offense (every projected regular in the lineup is expected to fare better than league average in wRC+, per Steamer), the Twins ought to be able to outhit a lot of deficiencies.
Weakness: Minnesota seemed a safe bet to aggressively pursue one of the high-caliber starting arms in free agency, but the club took a different path. In addition to retaining José Berríos, they brought back Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda (who will miss the first 39 games of the season while he serves the remainder of a suspension) and added veterans Homer Bailey and Rich Hill (who will likely be out until the summer following elbow surgery). The result is that they are projected by FanGraphs to finish in the lower-third in MLB in Wins Above Replacement from the rotation. They really need the retreads -- Bailey and Hill -- to come through.
Possible upgrade: The Twins have elevated their big league profile while still building and retaining a strong farm system. They have the pieces to land an arm that further solidifies the starting group. If Robbie Ray actually gets dealt by the D-backs prior to Opening Day, the Twins should be one of the teams in on him. Ultimately, though, another upgrade here might have to wait until midseason.
Storyline: The narrative is that the Indians traded away a two-time Cy Young Award winner in Corey Kluber and could further shake things up by dealing all-world shortstop Francisco Lindor. The reality is that Kluber made just seven starts for them in a 93-win 2019, and Lindor is still on the roster. So while the Tribe, as usual, has not been a major player in free agency, this is still a strong ballclub.
Strength: Pitching, period. While Kluber’s pedigree is unquestioned, the Indians barely felt his absence (or the absence of Carlos Carrasco and the trade of Trevor Bauer) last year because of the way Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger asserted themselves and the way rookies Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac came through in a pinch. There is more depth at Triple-A in the form of Logan Allen and Triston McKenzie (both of whom were Top 100 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, at one point) and others. The Kluber trade added Emmanuel Clase and his 100 mph cutter to a bullpen that, with the promotion of James Karinchak, has a lot more firepower than last season, with a lot of intriguing arms in the upper levels of the farm.
Weakness: The lineup lacks depth. With Lindor at leadoff and Carlos Santana, José Ramírez and Franmil Reyes in the middle, there’s a lot to like in the top half, but it gets iffy in a hurry. The Tribe has a hodgepodge of outfielders (Oscar Mercado, Jake Bauers, Greg Allen, Jordan Luplow, Bradley Zimmer, Daniel Johnson, etc.) who are interesting in their own way, but they don’t add up to much in terms of ready reliability.
Possible upgrade: It feels like people have been clamoring for the Indians to add an outfielder throughout their current contention window, and there’s no reason to stop now. The return of Yasiel Puig would fit the budget. While he did not light the world aflame in his brief Tribe tenure, he’s more likely to deliver above-average offensive performance than many of the current options.
Storyline: This is nothing short of one of the most fascinating teams in the Majors. The White Sox entered the winter a trendy breakout pick because of the strides made by their young cornerstones in 2019, and they capitalized on their opportunity with a busy winter that put a lot of proven commodities on their roster.
Strength: Upside. No team in the Central has more of it right now, and that -- even more than the additions of Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnación and others -- are what make the Sox so compelling. It’s no small thing to go from 72 wins to contention, but the South Siders can do it if the growth we saw from Yoán Moncada (.915 OPS, 141 OPS+), Eloy Jiménez (.828 OPS, 117 OPS+), Tim Anderson (.865 OPS, 129 OPS+), Lucas Giolito (3.41 ERA, 134 ERA+) continues, and if any of Luis Robert (No. 3 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100), Michael Kopech (No. 17), Andrew Vaughn (No. 21) and Nick Madrigal (No. 40) hit the ground running. Trade acquisition Nomar Mazara is still young, too.
Weakness: Though Grandal’s framing skills will help, it’s still hard to be totally sold on the pitching. The two external additions to the rotation -- Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez -- create their share of traffic, so there will be a lot of reliance on the defense. And while Giolito asserted himself in 2019, Dylan Cease and Reynaldo López have yet to do so. Kopech will be in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, so he’ll be limited. Don’t sleep on a bullpen in which Steve Cishek augments a group anchored by Alex Colomé and Aaron Bummer, but don’t assume it will be a strength, either.
Possible upgrade: General manager Rick Hahn has had a busy winter, and we’re inclined to let him put his feet up and see what happens. But if the Sox add anywhere between now and Opening Day, it would probably be in the bullpen. The relief market is pretty picked over at this point, but Brandon Kintzler, Collin McHugh and Jeremy Jeffress are among the remaining options.
If you’re betting with your brain, then assume that a Twins team with a loaded lineup and flexible farm system figures out a way to stay on top, with the Indians vying for a Wild Card spot and the White Sox surging north of .500 but falling short of October.
If you’re betting with braver parts of your body, the White Sox do have all the ingredients to become overnight contenders -- a la the Braves, who went from 72 wins in 2017 to the top of the National League East the following year. Keep the Indians in second place and put the Twins, reliant on an iffy rotation and the aging bats of Donaldson and Nelson Cruz, in third.
Put me down for the latter, because fortune favors the bold.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.