What is up everybody?! It’s the year blackjack after twenty and we’re ready to talk about the most exciting fly-over division in Major League Baseball: the AL Central. The AL Central features the Bomba Squad and a slew of 2020 award winners: AL Cy Young Shane Bieber, the AL MVP in Jose Abreu, 2/3 of the Silver Slugger winners, 4/9 of the Gold Glove winners, the AL Comeback Player of the Year in Salvador Perez and the Player’s Choice Award winner in Nelson Cruz. Not so much the fly-over division that you thought it was, right?
While lacking the traditional “nation-building” teams seen on the coasts like the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers, the AL Central is the division for “the underdog baseball fan.” You’re a fan of the Twins because you might have been born in the Dakotas and can’t find a game within 8 hours drive. The Tigers are holding up Detroit, Cleveland can’t figure out its mascot, and the White Sox are “the other Chicago team.” I can’t tell you how many friends I have in Oklahoma and Arkansas that follow the Cardinals instead of the Royals. It’s flyover country even for those who live in the Midwest and don’t appreciate the teams right in our own backyard. So! Let’s change that sentiment and showcase what the AL Central has to offer.
2020 Record: 36-24 (.600 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
Well, the Bomba Squad lost a bit of the Bomba and a whole bunch of the squad. That’s fine. The Minnesota Twins were one time the “piranhas” and rebuilt into a new identity. The Twins have always prided themselves on building from within, even when that “from within” part didn’t necessarily work out. After missing on players like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. in favor of Wander Javier and Byung-ho Park during international free agency in the mid-2010s, the Twins have maintained a low-spending, high-powered demeanor under new manager Rocco Baldelli. Anchored by Nelson Cruz, the Twins of 2020 claimed the division title and, as has been the case for nearly the past twenty years, lost all of their playoff games. It seemed management sensed that 2021 wouldn’t be all that much different, and they let a number of players walk while adding bit pieces that probably won’t add up to a championship, let alone that elusive playoff win.
Andrelton Simmons brings elite defensive prowess to shortstop, which will be essential behind a lackluster starting rotation. Although the Twins are anchored by Jose Berrios and Kenta Maeda in the front of their rotation, the remainder of their rotation isn’t known for their strikeout prowess. With Simmons at shortstop, Jorge Polanco moves to second base. With a career WAR comparable to Brock Holt, Polanco looks to fend off young Luis Arraez, who has demonstrated proficiency beyond his years with the bat. The Twins’ outfield remains rather mundane, with post-hype prospect Byron Buxton looking to stay healthy (Spring Training update: he broke a tooth eating a steak), Max Kepler looking to make consistent contact, and Alex Kirilloff looking to establish himself as a Major Leaguer. With Josh Donaldson looking to rebound after an injury-filled 2020, the new-look Bomba Squad seeks to claim another division crown, albeit without some of the key players from 2019 and 2020 that helped them.
Projected Starting Pitchers
Jose Berrios has grown into the number one starter that Twins fans have been waiting for, but given the dominance of other starters throughout Major League Baseball, he still trails nearly 20 other pitchers in achieving “ace” status. Despite Berrios being the leading pitcher for the Twins over the past several years, relative newcomer Kenta Maeda will take the opening day nod for the Twins in 2021. Kenta Maeda’s first year outside of Los Angeles went well, and he nearly tossed a no-hitter in 2020. However, he’s never been known as the kind of pitcher who goes “the distance,” and his bid for a complete-game no-hitter was followed by a period where he was clearly tired. Michael Pineda returns from a suspension that took most of his 2020, and he seeks to re-establish his career in a contract year. With many elite pitchers hitting free agency in 2022 — Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, and so on — there’s not going to be a strong market for sub-par pitchers. Pineda hopes to build upon his 2019 where he had a 2.6 WAR and 146 IP for the Twins. The back-end of the rotation is filled by newcomer veterans J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker, each of which brings a seasoned sensibility to a team that was once known for eschewing any player that was post-arbitration.
The bullpen improved in the off-season, although it became more cluttered in the hierarchy of saves. Incumbent closer Taylor Rogers now has competition from Alex Colome, who previously worked with the White Sox. Colome has been the superior reliever — in terms of counting stats and metrics — to Taylor, and on-lookers see Colome taking the 1A closer role to Rogers 1B closer role. Hansel Robles — the one-time closer for the Angels — is also on the roster, leading to a 1A/1B/2 closer situation that could be messy for people desiring a clear-cut closer hierarchy. Randy Dobnak — who was a valuable spot-starter in 2019 and 2020, looks to start in the bullpen after the signing of Matt Shoemaker.
Storylines to Watch: The Twins haven’t won a playoff game in 17 years. 18 consecutive playoff losses. The storyline in Minnesota is whether the new-look Bomba Squad can finally get over that historically bad slump. Because that playoff drought can be found under “humiliating” in the Baseball Encyclopedia, every storyline in Minnesota takes a back burner to the Twins finally notching a post-season W.
Impact Prospects: Alex Kirilloff is the star of the Twins’ farm system and it looks like he’s got “seasoning” (cough manipulation cough) to do until May. Once he’s back in the majors, Kirilloff will look to claim his starting spot from fellow rookie Brent Rooker, who has a bigger bop in his bat but less shine to his prospect profile. Shortstop prospect Royce Lewis will lose 2021 after slipping on ice and injuring his knee during the freak Texas snowstorm last month. Ryan Jeffers looked good in a small sample last year, but incumbent catcher Mitch Garver looks to resume his lead catcher duties in 2021. Randy Dobnak just surpassed his rookie eligibility, but the “everyman” of the team serves as insurance against the faltering of Matt Shoemaker, who hasn’t pitched more than 31 IP in an MLB season since 2017.
2020 Record: 35-25 (.583 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
Cleveland’s been the team to beat in the AL Central for the better part of the past 5 years, with three first-place finishes in the division, two second-place finishes, and an appearance in the World Series in 2016. But the shine from the past wins has dulled over the past year, as the club faces challenges both on its roster and in its management. At the top, the controlling ownership under the Dolan family received criticism for penny-pinching, when they jettisoned home-grown stars Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets for four unproven players, two of which — Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario — will compete for playing time in Cleveland. In short, Cleveland traded two all-stars for one everyday starter. Not very exciting from a fan standpoint, right? Then, manager Terry Francona came under fire by the media and his own son for being oblivious to and possibly covering up the sexual harassment conducted by former coach Mickey Callaway. Additionally, Cleveland struggles with its identity, promising to remove its racist mascot and change the team name. Yet nearly a year after announcing the name change, the club has taken no practical steps to resolve any of the above issues, which leaves the team in a state of disarray going into 2021. This year’s spring training has already been muddied by management’s decision to quarantine Franmil Reyes and Jose Ramirez after Reyes went for a haircut and dinner with his teammate.
On the field, new faces Eddie Rosario brings a big bat to the lineup, while potential starting shortstop Andrés Gimenez brings the speed. Cesar Hernandez lines up at second again, and although he’s been capable with the bat for years, the Gimenez/Rosario combo could be coming for his job in the near future. Oscar Mercado will start down in the minor leagues in favor of Bradley Zimmer, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Mercado gets a call back in May and an opportunity to bounce back after a disappointing 2020. Another possible scenario is that prospect Daniel Johnson gets a look in the outfield at some point this year. After putting up a 20HR / 12SB outing in the minors in 2019, Johnson only saw 13 plate appearances in 2020. A strong start from Johnson — who had nearly a .600 slugging rate in 2021 spring training — could get him time on the big league team.
Of course, the story — and possibly the future of the team — rests on Jose Ramirez, who goes into the final year of his guaranteed contract. Ramirez had a wild 2020, where he slashed .292/.386/.607. He’ll be 29 by the end of the year, and Cleveland retains team options at $12 million and $14 million for the next two years. If the Dolan family truly is pinching pennies, they’ll decline Ramirez’s options and allow him to hit the free-agent market, where he’ll undoubtedly get more money. But if they’re just trying to keep control of high-performing players for under-market money (Ramirez currently makes slightly more per year than Kevin Kiermaier, and is slated to make nearly as much as Brandon Crawford), then the Cleveland front office undoubtedly keeps Ramirez until 2023.
Projected Starting Pitchers
Keeping in line with our “affordable stars” trope introduced above, reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber hasn’t even reached arbitration yet. In 2019, Bieber finished 4th in the Cy Young vote, so his performance isn’t mercurial; it’s electric. Problem is, from a player standpoint, he won’t get “paid,” as the parlance goes, until 2025. Hopefully, the team grants him a contract or lets him go somewhere he can get some compensation. That said, Cleveland’s got one of the stronger rotations in the league. Bieber needs no further introduction. Plesac was most well-known for joy-riding and complaining about Covid restrictions last year when he took former teammate Mike Clevinger out on the town and moaned about the punishments on Instagram. Aaron Civale and Triston McKenzie quietly filled out the 2020 rotation, putting up elite command numbers while each finishing with a FIP near 4.00. The fifth rotation spot will likely go to Cal Quantrill, who came over from the Padres in 2020 when Mike Clevinger was traded following the aforementioned Plesac incident.
The bullpen is the bigger question, with former closer Brad Hand going to the Washington Nationals in the off-season. Assumed closer James Karinchak is an elite strikeout creator, but he also has only 30 MLB innings to his resume and a 5+ BB/9 last year. If he can control his pitches a little better, he could be an elite closer. If he continues walking a batter nearly every outing, he could find himself back in the setup role behind Nick Wittgren or Emmanuel Clase. The Cleveland bullpen isn’t thrilling, and we could see a number of free agents or minor leaguers work their way through this year. However, with such a strong starting rotation, it shouldn’t place a burden upon Cleveland’s pen.
Storylines to Watch: Scandals, racist mascots, talent drain…we could devote an entire series to Cleveland in 2021. From a competition perspective, Cleveland teeters on that edge of “good” to “rebuilding,” so 2021 will likely see a fair amount of roster turnover while the front office gauges the plethora of young players on their roster.
Impact Prospects: Triston McKenzie got the call-up last year when Mike Clevinger departed for the Padres, and the young pitcher showed great poise and stunning control. In an organization that drafted and trained Shane Bieber, McKenzie’s trajectory as a starter is exciting. Andres Gimenez just passed his rookie eligibility and looks to hold off Amed Rosario to remain the starter in Cleveland. Emmanuel Clase is a closer option if James Karinchak — also just past his rookie eligibility — reverts to his 5 BB/9 ways of yore.
Chicago White Sox
2020 Record: 35-25 (.583 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
The co-second place finishers in the AL Central opted for the “make your team a contender” option this off-season and added some pitching to go with their dynamic hitters. Most of the everyday players return in 2021, with the likely exception of Edwin Encarnacion going someplace else in free agency. The White Sox have the reigning AL MVP in Jose Abreu, and he’s surrounded by breakout stars Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. All right, let’s pause there. Was surrounded by Eloy Jimenez. Right before this article went to the editors, Jimenez unwisely decided to Superman (which is a verb) his way to an uncatchable home run ball, getting his shoulder caught on the outfield fence in the process. Ugh. Jimenez will miss, basically, all of 2021, which causes a shift in the batting order. Andrew Vaughn is going to skip most of the minor leagues and is penciled in as the starting left fielder now. Adam Eaton returns to the Sox after a stint with the Nationals where he battled injuries and a deep outfield roster for playing time. With the White Sox, he looks more certain to play, although he’ll need to improve upon last year’s .226/.285/.384 slash. He’s never been a solid defender, meaning that continued struggles at the plate could lead to a platoon between Eaton and Leury Garcia. Otherwise, the majority of the starting lineup returns, a year older and wiser. The top of the order will likely be a revolving door based on matchups. Coach Tony LaRussa already mentioned that he wants to use Adam Eaton frequently in the second spot, but Eaton’s skill set doesn’t make sense there. With so many talented bats, it’s more likely we see rotation between the 2/6/7 spots.
Projected Starting Pitchers
The White Sox have one of the stronger rotations and bullpens in Major League Baseball. Anchored by Lucas Giolito, the rotation features low-key veteran Dallas Keuchel and the new addition of Lance Lynn. Each of these pitchers is going to eat innings — which projects to be uncommon among starters in 2021 — which will lessen the burden on the Sox bullpen. Promising young pitchers Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodon fill out the rotation, and although they’ve yet to establish themselves as everyday starters, they’ll take 2021 to try and maintain their spots in the rotation. Rodon has had a brilliant spring, but he has several years of sub-par MLB experience to drive popular sentiment that spring is more of a small sample size than a reinvention of his skill set.
Liam Hendriks comes over from the Athletics, where he was the Closer of the Year in 2020. At 32 years old, Hendriks hasn’t followed the prototypical career path of an elite closer. Originally coming through the Twins farm system, Hendriks bounced around clubs before he found his footing in Oakland, where he thrived and rekindled his career. He’s buoyed by Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall, and Garrett Crochet. Spot start duties will go to Michael Kopech by default, a promising talent who opted to sit out in 2020 while he managed his mental health. Even if the White Sox offense struggles, the pitching rotation is likely strong enough to hold the team together through cold streaks.
Storylines to Watch: New White Sox manager Tony LaRussa doesn’t have an exceptional reputation among the modern stat-based fans and analysts. Although LaRussa will likely entire the Hall of Fame based on his managerial credentials, pundits are left puzzled why the 76-year old would return to MLB to manage a team that doesn’t seem to mesh with his style. But the talent on the team is enough that the players could just auto-pilot themselves to a division crown.
Impact Prospects: Andrew Vaughn is the alpha and omega of the prospect list. With reigning MVP Jose Abreu on the team and Vaughn due up soon, the White Sox considered Edwin Encarnacion expendable in the off-season and did not re-sign him. Michael Kopech looks to maintain a spot on the roster after mental health issues in 2020, and he could slot into a 5th starter role by the end of the year. Nick Madrigal seems to be an upside option at 2B, but Danny Mendick — just past his prospect status — is actually a more well-rounded hitter and has plus defense as well.
Kansas City Royals
2020 Record: 26-34 (.433 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
It took like a minute to write the “subtraction” section up there because there really weren’t any notable subtractions. When Maikel Franco is your biggest loss, you can’t say you truly changed your team all that much, right? The Royals — darlings of the AL Central in the first part of the 2010s — fell on hard times recently. One could say that those times started when the Royals shipped out uber-prospect Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for James Shields, who walked in free agency. However, the Royals also received Wade Davis, who had a fair career in Kansas City before being traded for Jorge Soler, who is one of the backbones of the Royals offense. With a Soler/Merrifield/Mondesi trifecta powering the heart of the order, the Royals have the capability of contending and playing against some of the best teams in the MLB. They’re further bolstered by 2020 Comeback Player of the Year Salvador Perez and new addition Carlos Santana, who give the Royals a very deep batting roster that can hurt opponents via the home run or the base paths. Hanser Alberto was a starter for the Orioles before coming to be the utility man on the Royals. I don’t want to get excited about the Royals, but they’re a balanced deep in a weakened division and could play well in 2021. That said, they’re a team more composed of possibilities than actualities.
Projected Starting Pitchers
Alright, take whatever I wrote about being excited for the Royals and throw it in the trash. Sigh. The Royals hitters will need to put up 6 runs a game to keep up with this rotation. I don’t want to use the word “ace” or “first starter,” but incumbent rotation leader Danny Duffy will lead the Royals into 2021 ahead of Brad Keller. If you combine their projected strikeouts for 2021, you’re almost at Shane Bieber’s projected strikeouts. Woof. Mike Minor comes over from Oakland to help provide a floor to the rotation, and it’s surprising he doesn’t sit as the de facto #1 starter on the rotation. Minor’s not thrilling, but he’s got a bit more experience and track record than the Royals pitchers. Brady Singer is just entering his first year of service time and hopes to be a breakout #4 starter who could easily be next year’s opening day ace. Then again, the opening day starter for the Royals isn’t a tough job to come by.
The bullpen is a collection of former closers and dart throws that are more there for “bounce back” potential than winning in 2021. With Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Brad Brach all coming in with closer potential, it seems the Royals are hoping one of them steps forward to rebuild their career before the club trades them mid-season for more building blocks. Jakob Junis takes over the spot-starter position, but he’s a less-than-thrilling option given the hitters in the AL Central. The Kansas City front office knows that 2021 isn’t their window of competition. With prospects Asa Lacy and Bobby Witt a few years away from the show, the Royals are probably going to stock up more to support their future cast than their current cast.
Storylines to Watch: As noted, the Royals could be sneaky good in 2021. They’re looking at Minnesota and Cleveland — teams that jettisoned talent this year — and the Kansas City front office knows that an opening to the division crown will be coming soon. Will they build upon the veterans they have on the roster already, or will they keep the rebuild going to surround Witt and Lacy with greater talent in the future?
Impact Prospects: Bobby Witt Jr. is one of the top prospects in MLB, but he probably won’t see more than a cup of coffee this year. Then again, if the Royals get traction with those hitters and are remotely competitive, Witt might see the Majors later this year. Asa Lacy is one of the top pitching prospects in the league, but also won’t see more than a cup of coffee this year. Kris Bubic looks to hold the 5th starter spot against Jakob Junis.
2020 Record: 23-35 (.390 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
Well, there’s nowhere to go but up, right? This roster looks like the place where players go to get reborn. After former manager Ron Gardenhire had to step down from his position due to health concerns last year, the Tigers hired former Astros can-man A.J. Hinch to restart the franchise that had fallen into historical-levels of poor performance. The lineup features a group of players like former superstar Miguel Cabrera, journeymen like Robbie Grossman, and players looking for a fresh start, like Renato Nunez. There’s very little to get excited about from a Tigers fandom standpoint, unless your idea of a #2 hitter is a guy with a career .326 on-base percentage and a .395 slugging percentage (that’s Jeimer Candelario). It seems that a lot of these players are on board to help restart the franchise and restart their careers. Where they might not have been guaranteed playing time elsewhere, they can come to one of the worst teams in the majors and get a starting gig to hopefully get some helium for one more contract. With most of Detroit’s prospects in the pitching stable, the hitters are almost without challenge and will be given a reasonably long leash. Hopefully they perform well.
Renato Nunez was a surprise, not for the fact he made the Tigers, but for the fact that so few teams were interested in his bat, which has average contact and easy 30HR power. The Tigers’ outfield will likely be a mess throughout the year, with Rule 5 pick Akil Baddoo needing to stay on the team throughout the year. He’s been hitting like mad in spring training, but the former Twins prospect has never played in the advanced minors and may prove to be more a burden than a boon once the games start to count. Baddoo’s presence affects so many other positions, from Victor Reyes to Nomar Mazara, that the Tigers will likely platoon the outfield all year and let the players set themselves up for a more competitive situation in 2022.
Projected Starting Pitchers
Ahh, there’s always a bright side. The Tigers rotation is actually pretty OK. Like, if they made a movie out of the rotation and you watched it on Netflix, you’d probably watch it at least 75% of the way before turning it off and watching Bake Off. Matthew Boyd is well-known for his catastrophic home run rates, but when batters aren’t parking the ball against him, he manages to miss a fair amount of bats. Spencer Turnbull has a rotation spot and he looked good last year, keeping his ERA and FIP below 4.00 in 53 IP in 2020 with an 8 K/9. RosterResource has some veterans slotted into the 3-5 spots in the rotation, but I would bet that A.J. Hinch has a very short leash for the likes of Jose Urena and Julio Teheran, preferring to give prospects like Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize experience. A late spring training update: Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize made the opening day roster, which puts them on the fast track to restart the franchise that has been at the bottom of the league the past few years. Another pitching prospect, Matt Manning, could see a lot of time at the MLB level as well, as Teheran is on his last ropes in the MLB. It’s likely that Hinch wants to leverage Teheran early in the season to keep Manning in the minors, but come June, we may be looking at one of the more exciting rotations in the big leagues. The bullpen is mundane — as is most everything about the Tigers — but they’re not looking to contend this year or next. The Tigers are about giving experience to those youngsters and re-starting some veterans to lead the franchise under its future star starting pitchers.
Storylines to Watch: A.J. Hinch already made waves by taking the previously dismal Houston Astros and turning them into a perennial powerhouse. Now, the question of whether the in-house video system and a strategically-placed set of trash cans and wires was the cause or the result of that success, we may never know. Hinch gets another shot to prove his worth with a team that, in 2019, was one of the worst offensive teams in MLB history. With so many top prospects in the Tigers system, Hinch’s defining career moment will likely no longer be remembered as the Astros, but what he does with the Tigers.
Impact Prospects: Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning. Three of the best pitching prospects in MLB, all on the Tigers. And! Spencer Torkelson — the first overall pick of the 2020 draft and consensus uber-prospect — also coming up soon. Isaac Paredes will likely see significant time this year in the Detroit infield. It’s an exciting time for Tigers fans, assuming you’re ready for the 2022-2023 seasons. 2021 might have some growing pains, though.
|Chicago White Sox||88-74|
|Kansas City Royals||76-86|
With the Sox bolstering their pitching staff and bringing back all their star hitters, they’re the favorite to take the AL Central in 2021. Minnesota and Cleveland will likely have some periods where they swap in the standings, but the Twins’ superior lineup will power them to a second-place finish and Wild Card contention. The Royals could be explosive and overtake Cleveland for third place, but it’s unlikely given their weak pitching staff. Detroit isn’t looking to compete this year and we’ll likely see a lot of roster turnover as they prepare for 2022 and 2023, when their stash of prospects are MLB ready.
Photos by IconSportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)