Here we go! Finally baseball is here! We are headed into unknown territory as we are about to experience a season unlike any other in MLB history. This is going to be a sprint to the finish with more variance than anyone can imagine. If you haven’t already checked out the AL East preview, make sure you give that a look right here.
A few quick notes before we get into it. The delayed season has thrown a wrench into everyone’s plans, and there is still some uncertainty surrounding how some aspects of the game will be put in place. So, for simplicity’s sake, I will be going forward with this preview assuming the following stipulations are in place:
- All table info has been heavily based on what Roster Resource has reported. Their rosters are projected for 30 players as all teams will begin with 30 before pruning down to 26 after four weeks. My total rosters may not add up to exactly 30 for each team.
- I decided against showing individual tables for platoons. That’s far too many tables. I’ve tried to include platoon information in the descriptions where necessary.
- Rotations/benches/bullpens are going to be especially fluid this year with the addition of taxi squad players. The tables below do not show all of these players, but rather those who I believe will see the most playing time.
2019 Record: 93-69 (.574 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: Domingo Santana, César Hernández, Emmanuel Clase, Delino Deshields
- Subtractions: Corey Kluber, Yasiel Puig, Danny Salazar, Jason Kipnis
Questions abound when one takes a look at the potential lineup in Cleveland this year. In 2019, Cleveland ranked in the middle of the pack (quite literally) for almost every hitting category except for stolen bases. They were ranked 6th when it came to thefts, and a cursory look at their lineup begs the question of whether they might be an underrated source of steals again. However, there are bigger and more impactful questions surrounding this lineup.
The biggest question mark swirls around whether or not Cleveland will deal Francisco Lindor; and if they do, when will he leave? In a full season, Lindor likely would have been a lock for another 30+ homer and 20 steal season while maintaining a good average and OBP. Assuming Lindor isn’t dealt, the top half of this lineup looks pretty great. Oscar Mercado is one of the trendier industry sleepers and his 97th percentile sprint speed suggests that he has more stolen bases than he has shown. José Ramirez is an interesting case and too much has been made of his fall from grace last year. Most would take a quick look at his triple slash from 2018 of .270/.387/.552 with 39 HR and 34 SB, compared against his final 2019 line of .255/.327/.479 with 23 HR and 24 SB. However, his first half was fueled by an abysmal .218 AVG, so I’m not all that worried.
There are a few interesting players in the Cleveland farm system, but none are likely to make a big impact this year. So after the more obvious names on offense, I can squint and see the hope behind a potential power bat like Franmil Reyes or even a bounce-back guy like Domingo Santana. To me, it feels sort of like the same hope we were given with the Jake Bauers acquisition last year. So when it comes down to it, I could see a repeat of last year’s offense, but probably not much better.
Projected Starting Rotation
There always seems to be so much more intrigue than meets the eye with this starting rotation. There’s a pretty big void with the offseason trade of Corey Kluber to the Rangers. If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that someone will step up to replace Kluber. The question is, who’s it going to be?
Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Carrasco are what’s left behind to anchor the rotation after the Kluber deal. To be honest, you might have a hard time finding a better 1-3 in the AL, so long as those guys are all healthy. The unfortunate delay to the start of the season actually works pretty heavily in Clevinger’s favor. Clevinger got shelved in February after needing surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his knee. Carrasco was also hit with the injury bug in early March with elbow inflammation. Both of these guys are far enough along in their recovery to now be “full season” contributors. For this reason, I still think that if Cleveland can make the playoffs, they will be more dangerous than they are given credit for.
There was quite a bit of buzz around both Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac at the end of last season. The 60 game season benefits both of these guys in a huge way. In April, the management here looked to be playing service time games, which meant neither Civale or Plesac were projected to be in the starting lineup. It is hard to see more than a ceiling of a number 3 starter for either of these guys, but there is nothing wrong with that. They will both get plenty of run and round out this incredibly deep rotation.
A little deeper into the farm system you have a guy like Triston McKenzie. The shine has really come off of this once top 50 prospect. Given his injury history, Cleveland is going to be pretty careful with him this year. Maybe he gets a cup of coffee as a spot starter or he could even be a good candidate as a high leverage multi-inning reliever. Either way, his upside is still more than he gets credit for.
Brad Hand had eclipsed the 100 strikeout mark for three years running before last year and was regarded as one of the top closers in the game. Here’s a look at his combined innings from 2016-2018:
As you can see, Hand was a force to be reckoned with in that 3-year stretch. Let’s take a look at his 2019 line.
Upon first glance, the numbers don’t appear to indicate too wild a difference. In fact, the case could be made based on his FIP that Hand will be just as effective going forward. What’s concerning is how he performed to finish the year. From the All-Star break on, Hand’s ERA ballooned to 5.40 and his HR/9 nearly doubled to 1.80. It was definitely more up and down for him to close the year.
What’s my point with all of this? Well, it is entirely possible that Cleveland could become sellers rather quickly or maybe just replace Hand internally if the way he ended 2019 carries over to this season. The easiest replacement would seem to have been Emmanuel Clase, the player who headlined the return in Corey Kluber to the Rangers deal. Clase throws serious heat, as he can touch triple digits with his fastball. However, Clase was suspended 80 games in May, which puts him completely out of play in this shortened season. One last interesting thing to note here is the handedness of essentially the entire team. There really aren’t a lot of lefties here, so if a change is made at closer due to underperformance or a trade, Hand should be kept around as a high-value lefty.
Storylines To Follow
This offense is going to be drastically affected if and when Cleveland decides to sell. Lindor really seems to be the first domino that would need to fall. Here’s a crazy thought, what if the front office decided to actually extend him instead? He’s one of the top players in the game, at a premium position, and he’s just 26 years old. It really boggles the mind that they would consider trading him… but… time will tell.
The rotation has the potential to be unbelievable, but of course, that is the optimistic viewpoint. Clevinger and Carrasco have both dealt with their fair share of injuries, and Shane Bieber really only has one outstanding year under his belt. So while there could be a rotation with the ability to control a series, there is also just as much risk that they could take a step backward. Although, Cleveland always seems to squeeze every last drop of potential from their pitchers. Would anyone really be surprised if another pitcher or two came from seemingly out of nowhere to become a household name in the same way as so many before them in this system? It could happen!
This Cleveland team is an enigma, but mostly because no one really knows how their ownership will steer them. It really seems like they are having an identity crisis and need to figure out if they want to go all-in on a rebuild (and maybe keep Lindor?!) or if they would rather see if they can find the magic and make a run into the playoffs. Sitting on the fence is only going to hurt them in the long run. The AL Central is not a strong division, and the depth of this pitching staff gives Cleveland as good a shot as any to make a run. The short season makes health less of a concern for some of their more injury plagued pitchers. In light of all this, this team still needs to get past the Twins and fend off the rising White Sox squad.
2019 Record: 101-61 (.624 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
This may be one of the more potent lineups in the entire AL heading into this season. The departure of C.J. Cron looked like it would sting, that is until the Twins signed Josh Donaldson to a 4 year, 92 million dollar contract. Donaldson will fit into the cleanup role nicely and has the ability to hit 40 bombs. Hitting in front of Donaldson is the seemingly ageless Nelson Cruz. It is almost unheard of to have someone his age still performing at the level he is. He will be turning 40 on July 1st and is showing no signs of slowing down. Let’s take a moment and just look at some of his more impressive Statcast numbers from the last 3 seasons, as they really do make you wonder if he discovered a fountain of youth.
After Donaldson and Cruz, there are a few other really interesting bats in this lineup. Max Kepler broke out in a big way last year with 36 HR and returned a 4.4 WAR. He’s firmly entrenched in the top of the lineup and slated to bat leadoff ahead of the aforementioned big boppers. Don’t forget about Byron Buxton. While it may seem like he’s been around the league forever, he is just 26 years old. The talent is still there for an above-average regular at the plate and his outfield defense in CF is stellar…so long as he can avoid hurting himself while tracking down the ball.
For as good as this major league lineup is, there are also a few really interesting guys knocking on the door at the top level of the minors. Alex Kiriloff, Trevor Larnach, and Royce Lewis are all likely to be big contributors to this team in the future. Kiriloff in particular has been overlooked as of late, but the Twins are looking for creative ways to accelerate his timetable to the majors, which says a lot. They recently moved him from the OF to 1B. While Miguel Sanó has that position locked down right now, he really isn’t known for his defensive prowess. The writing on the wall appears to be saying the Twins are looking at moving Sanó to the DH spot if Cruz tails off and then utilize Kiriloff at 1B. Whether that ends up happening, or they find space in the OF, the offense on this team doesn’t look like it will be slowing down any time soon.
Projected Starting Rotation
When the Twins made the move to steal (yes, steal) Kenta Maeda away from the Dodgers in an offseason trade, what they got in return was an ultra-reliable middle of the rotation starter to soak up innings alongside their staff ace José Berrios. Maeda had his innings managed like crazy in LA, so it will be interesting to see how the Twins use him over the course of a full season. Berrios on the other hand threw 200 innings last year and 192 the year before that. He is earning that workhorse label, and just might be an adjustment away from ascending the ranks to a bona fide ace.
After those two pitchers, the rest of the rotation is some upside and a whole lot of risk. They signed Homer Bailey and Rich Hill in the offseason. Bailey is certainly not the pitcher he once was, and Hill always seems to be on the Injured List. If they can stay healthy and contribute, they are both the types of gambles who could pay dividends in this shortened season. Jake Odorizzi is a solid pitcher but has shown that he really can’t hang past the second time through the order. Here is his 2019 ERA from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd time through the order.
|1st Through Order as SP||67.0||3.36|
|2nd Through Order as SP||63.1||2.70|
|3rd Through Order as SP||28.2||5.65|
When it comes down to it, the Twins are probably going to be playing musical chairs with their starting pitchers after the first 3 guys. The shortened season could very well work to their advantage if they have trouble settling on the backend starters.. This means their bullpen will be of utmost importance.
Heading into 2019, there was some confusion around this bullpen and who exactly was going to step to the forefront. Taylor Rogers did more than just step forward, he busted out and became the leader of this bullpen. From 2018 to 2019, he improved his K/9 from 9.88 to 11.74 and his BB/9 from 2.11 to 1.43. Granted, in his 69 innings of work he only had 30 Saves, but that’s pretty remarkable considering he wasn’t anointed as the sole closer until June.
After Rogers, the rest of the bullpen here is good but not great. Sergio Romo should be a decent setup guy, but he is in the twilight of his career. Failed starter Trevor May has found great success as a reliever and he might actually be the next in line for saves over Romo if Rogers were to get hurt. The big problem with the bullpen is the same problem the starting rotation has, they just don’t have a lot of quality lefty options. This could really come back to hurt them if they face some lineups that just crush right-handed pitching.
Storylines To Follow
Minnesota is going to be a really fun team to watch bat. Their offense is going to have games where they put up video game numbers. The big question revolves around the depth of this pitching staff. José Berrios could still take another step forward, but after Berrios, Maeda, and Odorizzi, where are the innings going to come from? This might not be a huge problem at the outset, but what is really concerning is the size of the question marks surrounding pitchers like Homer Bailey, Rich Hill, and Jhoulys Chacin.
This all really makes you wonder if the Twins are looking to make a move and add another pitcher. There isn’t a lot of pitching in the top levels of their minors ready to contribute right now outside of Jordan Balazovic (who is a really underrated pitching prospect). The Twins do have depth on the hitting side, so maybe they could trade from there to add a more established pitcher. If they do go this route, you just have to hope they don’t trade for another pitcher with really obvious warts. Maybe, just maybe, they will convince a team to let go of a guy without huge health concerns or awful splits (Matthew Boyd anyone?!).
One way or another, this will be the team to beat in the AL Central. A 100 win season would have been within reach if we knew how many games were going to be played. Since we don’t, it’s safer for us to just pencil them in as the AL Central favorites. However…there could be another team in the division who may give them a good run. The Twins are going to have to hope they can outslug everyone, and if their bats go cold, they could be in trouble.
Chicago White Sox
2019 Record: 72-89 (.447 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
Subtractions: Wellington Castillo
There were points this offseason when it seemed like every free agent was either going to get signed by or rumored to be signed by the White Sox. Of course, they didn’t sign them all, but this offense looks drastically different than it did a year ago. The free agent acquisitions of Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnación, and Nomar Mazara give much more legitimacy to this lineup than a year ago. Add to this top prospect Luis Robert and the eventual call up of Nick Madrigal, and this Sox team will be loaded with weapons from the front to the back.
The top of this lineup in particular is going to give opposing pitchers some problems. Some might say Anderson’s BA last year was an outlier, but his xBA of .294 still points to him hitting right around the .300 mark. Combine that with his 20/20 potential (granted that’s full-season potential), and you have a weapon in that leadoff spot. Moncada’s K% since coming into the league has been alarming and had many calling him a bust. However, last year he made serious strides cutting his K% down from 33.4% to 27.5%. While that’s still high, his hard hit%, exit velocity, and xBA are all tops across the league.
The graduation of Robert and the presumed call-up of Madrigal will leave 2019’s top pick Andrew Vaughn as the next prize of this farm system. A hot start to the season could see management considering Vaughn as just one more weapon to add to this already revamped lineup. Whether he sees time this year or next, Vaughn is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the majors. He projects as an eventual middle of the lineup .300/.400/.500 type of hitter.
Projected Starting Rotation
The shortened season could benefit the White Sox pitching staff in a huge way. They are anchored by 2019 breakout Lucas Giolito. The difference between Giolito’s 2018 and 2019 was nothing short of extraordinary. He saw his ERA drop from 6.13 in 2018 to 3.41 last year. The questions most skeptics might be asking are, what fueled this breakout and is this even repeatable? His swinging-strike rate jumped close to 7 points to 15.5% and his FB velocity also ticked up almost 2 mph indicating a reason behind the outcome. Add to this a 3.43 FIP, and it’s hard not to expect his growth to be sustainable.
Things get a little murky on the mound once you get past Giolito. Dallas Keuchel, Reynaldo López, and Dylan Cease all have the ability to be strong arms in a 60 game season. They could be the types of arms that buoy the White Sox rotation and pave the way to the playoffs. However, they also have an amount of variance in their outcomes that could lead to some really hard to stomach outings. A closer look at López, in particular, would indicate an equal amount of solid performances mixed in with the poor ones. His biggest problem last year seemed to be keeping the ball in the yard as his HR/9 rocketed up to 1.71 from 1.19.
Lost in all of the news about offensive acquisitions, is the impact that Yasmani Grandal’s catching will have on this pitching staff. In 2019, the primary backstops for the Sox were Wellington Castillo and James McCann who rated in the 3rd and 11th percentile respectively for pitch framing. On the other hand, Grandal rates in the 79th percentile. This is not a skill that will be easily quantified early in the season, but it will make a marked difference for these pitchers.
Things appear on the surface to be settled in the White Sox bullpen, at least on the surface. Colomé was able to secure 30 saves in 2019 while pitching to a 2.80 ERA. Looking a little deeper, his 2019 FIP was over a run higher than his ERA at 4.08, which signals a bit of luck behind his numbers last year. Granted, the best reliever in the bullpen isn’t always the closer, so maybe he could hold the job all year even if his numbers decline.
There certainly are other options in this bullpen for saves, but are they that much better than Colomé? The closer you look, the more you realize the bullpen is filled with a real “who’s who” of former closers whose stars have faded. Both Cishek and Herrera have the ability to step into a more prominent role, but what seems more likely is a lot of mixing, matching, and playing the hot hand.
Storylines To Follow
There truthfully aren’t a lot of major holes in this lineup anymore. In 2019, they finished in the bottom third of the league in OBP (23rd), OPS (24th), Runs (24th), and HR (25th). The expectation this year will be drastically different, even in a shortened season. It is hard to see this club remaining stagnant or taking a step back offensively given just how much that lineup has evolved. Just how big a step forward remains to be seen. They have a lot of exciting, young players and if things click for them, they might out muscle the Twins for offensive superiority in the AL Central.
Similarly to the Twins, one has to wonder if the White Sox are going to make deals for any pitching. They do have Michael Kopech and Carlos Rodón slated to be contributors this year. Could they be enough of a boost in the bullpen, as long relievers, or maybe even starters to put the White Sox more firmly into the playoff picture? That could be one of the more interesting factors for this team this year.
Kansas City Royals
2019 Record: 59-103 (.364 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
Subtractions: Cheslor Cuthbert, Jorge Bonafacio
Whit Merrifield remains one of the more under-appreciated lead off players in the game today. The lack of recognition he receives is likely due to his breakout into the majors coming so late in his career. In all likelihood, this is a .300 AVG player with the ability to add in quite a few thefts. On the downside, his steals dropped precipitously last year. They went from 45 in 2018 to just 20 last year with a success percentage of just 66%. The difference in his sprint speed was not that much different from year to year, so one has to imagine maybe he needs to work on his technique to get back to the stolen base totals he had exhibited.
Batting second in the lineup is the very divisive Adalberto Mondesi. There are those who believe that his output is real and sustainable, and then those who are much more skeptical because of the underlying numbers. Upon his call-up to a full-time role in 2018, he accrued 14 HR, 47 Runs, 37 RBI, and 32 SB in just 291 plate appearances. There was also the matter of a strikeout rate of 26.5%. So let’s fast forward to his follow up to this success in 2019. Did Mondesi take a step forward? Well, he had 9 HR and 43 SB, but his strikeout rate actually rose to 29.8%. While his AVG last year was .263, his xBA of .237 potentially paints a more grisly picture. This 60 game season might not help the baseball community gain much clarity around Mondesi as a particularly hot or cold stretch could be used to support one argument or another.
After these top two, there isn’t much else to write home about in this lineup besides Jorge Soler. There are a lot of below league average hitters littering this lineup who would have a hard time finding at-bats on a better team. Of course, there are some interesting names in the Royals farm system, but none close enough to matter this year. Expect the other AL Central pitchers to beat up pretty regularly on this lineup.
Projected Starting Rotation
The Royals staff ERA last year was 5.20…that is not a typo. Conventional thought would be for some drastic changes to be made to rectify this problem. Apparently, conventional thought doesn’t exist in regards to the Royals pitching staff.
There is not a single starting pitcher in this lineup projected to strike out more than one batter an inning. That’s not good. All of these guys have the ability to rack up innings, but in a 60 game season, that is not going to be all that important. If you squint hard enough you can see serviceable years from Danny Duffy and maybe Mike Montgomery. Both of these guys have the ability to put together a sub 4.00 ERA this season. Either way, this is going to be a tough pitching staff to watch, particularly against the Twins, White Sox, and Indians. Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic are all guys to keep an eye on as integral rotation pieces. For now, they will continue to be “seasoned” away from the majors.
|LR||Stephen Woods Jr.||R|
One of the bright spots for this team last year was Ian Kennedy’s transition into the closer’s role. A former starting pitcher, Kennedy thrived closing out games in 2019. He racked up 30 saves and 73 strikeouts in 63.1 IP. The move to the bullpen revitalized his career and seemingly his ability as well. Saves are going to be even more variable this year, since it remains to be seen how managers will employ their best relievers with only a 60 game sprint. Kennedy should be counted as the best option in this bullpen though, and it’s not close.
Storylines To Follow
All it takes is one look at the Royals dismal 2019 to lead the average baseball fan to believe there have to be some changes on the horizon. Their management seems to disagree. They decided free agency would not be the best way to build the team and instead opted to allow their young players more opportunity to sink or swim. There are a lot of interesting names on this squad still. Players like Nicky Lopez, recently acquired Maikel Franco, and maybe even Brett Phillips might be given a long leash this year. Who knows, maybe one or two of them will grow into the next out of nowhere breakout player like Whit Merrifield before them.
Most Royals fans are more anxious about the talent in their minors and seeing how they develop. Players like Bobby Witt Jr, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, Erick Pena, and Daniel Lynch are not household names quite yet. This management is holding out hope that they will be the core to lead this team to a resurgence, just don’t bet on it this year.
2019 Record: 47-114 (.292 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
The Royals and Tigers might both be rebuilding teams, but the Tigers seem to want to rebuild while also putting out a product on the field that is better than last year’s. They went out in the offseason and made low-cost acquisitions to get C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, and Cameron Maybin. Cron will add some thump to the middle of their lineup and Maybin slots in as a new leadoff option. Meanwhile, Schoop offers a veteran presence until the club feels that prospect Isaac Paredes is ready to take over at 2B. None of these guys are long term solutions here, but you have to applaud Tiger’s management for wanting to be more competitive.
There are of course some other interesting offensive players here. Christin Stewart could still develop into a more consistent power threat, and Victor Reyes displayed some skills towards the end of last year. Reyes slashed .304/.336/.431 and could sneak his way into the leadoff spot if Maybin struggles or is traded. Now 37 years old, Miguel Cabrera can not be counted on for too much. His batting average is still good at .282, but his power is a shell of what it once was. His barrel percentage of 6.4% and a hard-hit rate of 44.6% would back up his decline as well.
Projected Starting Rotation
The rotation for the Tigers should just be referred to as “Matthew Boyd and a bunch of dudes.” That is, unless the Tigers finally find a trading partner for Boyd. Then it can just be called “a bunch of dudes.”
Boyd has his faults to be sure, but he had a great year pitching 185.1 innings with a 4.56 ERA and a 11.56 K/9 (up from 8.40 K/9 in 2018). His home runs shot up as well, maybe fueled by the juiced ball, but there is still a lot to like here. Boyd’s slider in particular is an elite pitch with a 20.4% SwStr. The Tigers will most likely be shopping him again around the league. There is not a lack of teams that could use Boyd, the bigger question is, will the Tigers accept a reasonable offer?
The Tigers have 3 prospects chomping at the bit to contribute, but will they start their service clocks this year? Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, and Casey Mize look to be the foundation of a really scary Tigers rotation for years to come. So it makes sense that they would be careful with how and when they bring them to the majors.
Once the Tigers traded Shane Greene last year, it seemed as if their bullpen would be an unreliable mess. Joe Jiménez didn’t set the baseball world on fire as the new closer, but he wasn’t terrible either. If we just look at the last two months of the season, when he took over the 9th inning, we’ll find a respectable 2.89 ERA and 11.57 K/9. Small sample size aside, the Tigers will hope for another step forward from the 25-year-old reliever. There isn’t much else in this bullpen to challenge for that role, so Jiménez will have some room to fly or fail.
Storylines To Follow
The 2019 Tigers ranked last or next to last as a team in OBP, OPS, Runs, and HR. The optimist would say there’s nowhere to go but up, right? They at least made some moves to fortify weaker parts of their lineup, but will it hinder the growth of some of their prospects? Would they be better suited to just play guys like Isaac Paredes, Riley Greene, Daz Cameron, and maybe even call up their most recent top prospect Spencer Torkelson? A lot of this could hinge on management’s ability to trade away their veterans and continue their rebuild. A guy like Matthew Boyd should net a really nice return, the Tigers just need to find the right fit in the trade market.
This team shouldn’t be as hard to watch as they were last year offensively, and there are some things here to get excited about. Tiger’s fans should have some optimism knowing that their team isn’t just sitting on their hands hoping things will get better. They have the makings of an excellent rotation in the top level of their minors and some very talented hitters as well.
What can be expected from these teams? This is a unique division in that there are two teams in full-on punching bag…I mean, rebuild mode with the Royals and Tigers. After that there is the Indians, who really need to figure out if they are in or out for this year. Then of course you have the favorites to win the division in the Twins and the trendy sleeper White Sox. Here is what I think could happen:
Yes, that’s right. I think the White Sox could squeak out the division here. This is the trendy pick right now, but who cares? Their offense is going to be really good and their pitching is underrated. After the White Sox, the Indians pose the biggest threat because of their pitching. Health still remains an issue for Cleveland even in a shortened season. The Twins could easily be the top in this division again, but unless they acquire some pitching, their offense just won’t be able to keep up. Bringing up the rear is the rebuilding Tigers and Royals…at least they only have 60 games this year, right?
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)