If you like competitive baseball, the American League Central is the place for you.
That may sound strange considering the division featured just one team with a record above .500 in each of the past two seasons and two of the teams were among the three worst in the AL last year. This season does not project to be much different on that front. There were few major moves in the offseason for any of the five squads.
Still, the AL Central offers intrigue that few other divisions can match.
In each of the past three years, a different team has captured the division title. The Minnesota Twins won it in 2020, then the Chicago White Sox took their turn at the top in 2021, and the Cleveland Guardians ran away with it last season. Considering the state of the division, it will probably only take 85 wins or so to come away with the crown in 2023.
So, who will it be this year? Can the Detroit Tigers or Kansas City Royals win to make it four different teams in four years? Will the Guardians go back-to-back and begin another era of division dominance like when it won three straight from 2016-19? It will be a relatively low bar needed to get the job done compared to a division like the AL East with four teams above .500 and one more just under that mark, leaving the door open for any of the five teams to make a run.
Let’s get into breaking down all of the information about the AL Central, starting in alphabetical order.
2022 Record: 81-81 (.500 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
“It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses. In the Major Leagues, you either do or you don’t.”
The Chicago White Sox didn’t.
Those were the departing words of manager Tony La Russa after announcing his retirement – again – from major league baseball. The Hall of Fame skipper led Chicago to a division title in 2021, but his two years were marked by controversy and then frustration as the team crashed in 2022.
The Sox were the favorite to win a second straight AL Central title in 2022 after going 93-69 in 2021. While Fangraph’s 2022 ZiPS projections of 89-73 were closer to the disheartening reality, those same projections also picked the Sox to be the top team in the division and better than all but two teams in the American League. Instead, Chicago needed to win five of its final seven games just to close out at .500 and finish eighth in the AL. General Manager Rick Hahn said the team needed to earn back the respect of its fans. Thankfully, Rick, the best way to do that is by winning and there’s no reason to think last year’s hope was misplaced.
Despite the departure of José Abreu to the Houston Astros, the Sox remain stacked with talent. Anderson leads all qualified hitters in batting average since 2019 and is a threat to win a second batting title in any healthy season. Jiménez is a premier power bat. In his last “full” season (the pandemic-shortened 2020), he hit 14 home runs in just 55 games with an elite .263 ISO. Robert is one of the league’s best five-tool players when he’s on the field. And Moncada provides consistently strong production in any season he plays at least 130 games.
Do you sense a pattern? Over the past few seasons, the Sox have relied heavily on a cadre of hitters that have proven to be talented but brittle (more on that ahead).
Benintendi was brought in on a five-year, $75 million contract. He doesn’t offer much power or speed, but his much-needed left-handed bat that provided a 122 wRC+ last season and he plays strong defense in left field. Vaughn returns to his natural position at first base and should finally get consistent playing time free from La Russa’s meddling. A career year could be in store for the former third-overall pick.
If you put together the best seasons for each of the Sox’s five starters, you could make a case that the best rotation in the world is on Chicago’s south side. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case so far.
Cease has become one of the league’s best strikeout pitchers. While he still walks far too many batters, he generates weak contact with elite vertical movement on his pitches and his 82.3 LOB% was nearly 10% higher than the league average. His 5.13 PLV last year ranked 24th in the league.
The rest of the rotation is Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates. After performing at an All-Star level for three straight seasons, Giolito barely kept his ERA above 5.00 in 2022. Lynn wasn’t much better, going from a 2.69 ERA in 2021 to 3.99 last season. Clevinger has the best career ERA of the bunch (3.39), but he missed 2021 after Tommy John surgery and faced allegations of domestic abuse earlier this year. Kopech comes with a strong pedigree but has dealt with his own injury concerns. His 119 1/3 innings last year were a career-high.
The bullpen is a strength with at least five pitchers capable of running with the open closer job. First-year skipper Pedro Grifol likely will stick with a committee approach unless one player separates from the pack. That could be difficult considering how many valuable arms the team employs. Grifol can instead play the matchups and feel comfortable with any player in the late innings.
Storylines to watch: Injuries. That’s been the story for the Sox and could be again. All-Star closer Liam Hendriks signed as a free agent before the start of 2021 and has lived up to his $54 million deal. But Hendriks was diagnosed in January with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and will be away indefinitely while undergoing treatment. Reliever Garrett Crochet, a first-round draft pick in 2020, is recovering from Tommy John surgery. And Anderson, Robert, Jiménez, and Moncada have missed a combined 581 games over the past two seasons (no, that is not a typo).
Impact prospects: Colas is the most interesting. He is all but assured a spot in the starting lineup after signing as an international free agent in 2021. The 24-year-old Cuban defector rocketed through three levels of the minor leagues last season, hitting .314/.371/.524 with 23 home runs over 481 at-bats. He also struck out 120 times against 38 walks, so expect growing pains. Shortstop Colson Montgomery is the team’s No. 1 prospect. He struggled in his first taste of Double-A last season, but the 2021 first-round pick has impressed scouts with his hit tool.
2022 Record: 92-70 (.568 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
The Cleveland Guardians surprised many last year. The team ran away with the division title last season by double-digit games, and ZiPS projections put Cleveland on top of the division again this season at just 83-79. An overlooked key to the Guardians’ success was their overall health compared to the rest of the division. Cleveland players spent a total of just 709 combined days on the IL, which was better than all 29 other major league teams by a good margin. In comparison, the Twins were second worst in the majors with 2,363 games lost.
Breakout performances also helped push the team forward. Giménez finished sixth in the AL MVP voting in just his third season in the majors and second in Cleveland. His 140 wRC+ led the team – yes, even better than Ramírez who continues to be one of the best players in the world. Giménez batted .297/.371/.466 with 17 home runs, 20 stolen bases, and 6.1 fWAR. Kwan also added to the team’s success in his rookie season. He burst onto the scene with a 5-for-5 performance in just his third game and closed out April with a .354 batting average and just six total strikeouts. It all seemed to come apart for Kwan in May with a .173 average, but he made the necessary adjustments to finish the season .298/.373/.400 with a minuscule 9.4% strikeout rate. For his efforts, he received the third most votes for AL Rookie of the Year.
Ramírez continues to be the engine that makes the team run. He hit 20+ home runs for the fifth time in the past six seasons, stole 20 bases, had a career-high 126 RBI, and batted .280/.355/.514. He won’t have to do all the heavy lifting alone this year after Cleveland signed Bell as a free agent to bolster a team that finished 29th in the league in home runs. Bell hit 37 homers with Pittsburgh in 2019 and 27 with Washington in 2021. His 123 wRC+ last year with both Washington and San Diego was the second-best of his career. Zunino also will help in that category after hitting 33 dingers with Tampa Bay in 2021.
There was concern for Bieber last year coming off an injury-shortened 2021 campaign and with diminished velocity on all five of his pitches. The former Cy Young winner mostly put those concerns to rest in 2022. He pitched exactly 200 innings with a 13-8 record, 2.88 ERA, and 1.04 WHIP. His velocity stayed down and his strikeouts fell in turn with a career-worst 8.91 K/9 (down from a high of 14.2 in 2020), but there should be little concern that the results will be there at season’s end.
McKenzie also saw a breakout in his third season with a 2.96 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 190 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings. The back end of the rotation won’t excite, but should be able to get the job done. Civale was the worst of that group last year with a career-worst 4.92 ERA, but he actually looks the best under the hood with a 3.62 xFIP that was better than both Quantrill and Plesac (both with 4.39 xFIP). Plesac is just two seasons removed from a 2.28 ERA and 9.27 K/9.
The bullpen is headed by Clase who is simply one of the best relievers in all of baseball. He had 42 saves last year with a 1.36 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, and 77 strikeouts over 72 2/3 innings. Karinchak is just as elite in a setup role. His 14.31 K/9 last year was third in the league behind only Edwin Diaz and Josh Hader despite missing the first few months of the season with a shoulder injury.
Storylines to watch: Taking the next step. The Guardians made the jump back to relevance much sooner than expected after jettisoning the likes of Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley, and others over just the past few years. Cleveland already was trending in the right direction with one of the league’s highest-ranked farm systems, but the process and expectations sped up considerably with the team’s success last year. In hindsight, that should not be a big surprise for a team managed by Terry Francona, who won his third AL Manager of the Year award.
Impact prospects: Almost too many to mention. Daniel Espino had a 2.45 ERA and a ridiculous 17.18 K/9 in his first exposure to Double-A last year. Gavin Williams led all minor league pitchers with a .173 batting average against while going 5-4 with a 1.96 ERA and 149 strikeouts in 115 innings at Double-A. Tanner Bibee also reached Double-A and finished with a 2.17 ERA and 167 strikeouts in 132 2/3 innings. George Valera is the team’s most MLB-ready bat. He had 24 home runs and .816 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A last year. And catcher Bo Naylor is hoping to earn a spot this spring after putting together a 20-20 season in the minors.
2022 Record: 66-96 (.407 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
The Detroit Tigers were basically the living embodiment of Murphy’s Law last year. That is, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. I’m not sure even the best version of the Tigers could have been in a playoff chase, but the team’s run of bad luck, injuries, and regression certainly guaranteed they would finish in the basement.
On the injury front: Greene’s highly-anticipated rookie season was derailed by a broken foot in Spring Training, Meadows missed most of the season with a laundry list of ailments from tendinitis, to COVID-19, to vertigo, and starting pitcher Tarik Skubal was in the midst of a breakthrough before suffering a season-ending hand injury. The team hopes Skubal can return sometime this season.
On the regression side: Báez fell flat in his first year in the D. In his last five seasons playing 135 games or more, Báez’s 2022 saw lows in home runs, stolen bases, walk rate, ISO, batting average, OBP, and wRC+. Other Tiger hitters that took a step back included Cabrera, Schoop, Baddoo, and Haase. Torkelson, the team’s top prospect, disappointed with a debut slash of .203/.285/.319 and spent 35 games in the minors to try to get on track.
If I may borrow a few words from Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings.
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
If even one of the aforementioned players can shake the shadows, the Tigers will inevitably show improvement. It’s easy to forget that Báez came to Detroit as a consistent 30-homer, .800+ OPS hitter or that Meadows hit .291 with 33 home runs in 2019 and added another 27 home runs in 2021. Greene ultimately returned to put together a fine rookie season, Torkelson is just 23 years old, and new additions Maton and Vierling have both played well this spring after being acquired in a trade with Philadelphia.
The Tigers were excited when they signed Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million contract before last season. A rib injury and a lengthy absence from the team for personal reasons ultimately limited Rodriguez to just 91 innings. Both issues clearly hurt his performance. Check out these Statcast drops from 2021 to 2022:
The Tigers are hoping to get Rodriguez back to the pitcher who had a 3.76 xERA or lower for three straight seasons from 2018-21.
And they need it, badly. Skubal is out indefinitely as he heals from flexor tendon surgery and Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, had Tommy John surgery last June. Boyd, Manning, and Lorenzen will try to fill the void in the meantime, but each is more serviceable over short spurts than an entire season. Turnbull is a reason for optimism. He threw a no-hitter on May 18, 2021, but then had his own Tommy John surgery a month later. He posted a 2.88 ERA in nine starts before hitting the IL.
Detroit had the eighth-best bullpen ERA in 2022 at 3.45, but that group will likely take a step back after trading away top relievers Soto, Jimenéz, and Fulmer, and losing Chafin to free agency.
Storylines to watch: Cabrera made it clear he intends this to be his final season before retirement. The first-ballot Hall of Famer crossed the 3,000-hit and 500-home run plateau last year. Miggy currently is 24th all-time with 3,088 hits and can move into the top 15 with another 100-hit season. He is 27th all-time with 507 home runs. He only hit five last year, but repeating that number would move him into a three-way tie for 23rd with Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews.
Impact prospects: Jackson Jobe is the team’s top prospect and debuted last season in the minors with a 3.84 ERA and 81 strikeouts over 77 1/3 innings. Pitcher Wilmer Flores and infielder Jace Jung (the brother of Texas Rangers top prospect Josh Jung) are also highly regarded. Ryan Kreidler is a hitter with a strong track record in the minors and in 2021 hit .270/349/.454 with 22 home runs and 15 stolen bases. His 2022 season was marred by a broken hand, but he could make an impact at the major league level this season.
2022 Record: 65-97 (.401 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
The Kansas City Royals have finished fourth or fifth in the division every year since 2018. They haven’t finished higher than third since winning the division – and the World Series – in 2015. That one title was not enough to save team president Dayton Moore who was fired in September following the 13th losing season of his tenure. General manager J.J. Picollo was promoted in his place. He inherits a roster that is still not ready to compete but comes with several intriguing pieces.
The most intriguing is Witt, who finished fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year race. He hit .254/.294/.428 and became one of just a handful of players in MLB history under the age of 22 to hit at least 20 home runs and steals 30 bases (reaching that exact mark in both categories). Others in that group include Ronald Acuña Jr., Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez, and Barry Bonds. Pretty good company.
In all the Witt frenzy, another rookie in Kansas City was largely overlooked. Pasquantino was promoted in June and hit .295/.383/.450 with 10 home runs and a 137 wRC+ in 72 games. He had 18 home runs in 73 minor league games before his promotion. His max exit velocity in the majors of 112.7 miles per hour was better than the likes of Manny Machado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Freddie Freeman. Melendez also had a strong debut with 18 home runs in 460 at-bats.
Perez rounds out the top four. Despite a regression from a career-high 48 home runs in 2021 to 23 last year, Perez continues to be a dangerous cleanup hitter just two seasons removed from a 161 wRC+ season.
After those four, the lineup drops off. Olivares (110 wRC+) and Eaton (101 wRC+) are the only other players to offer above-average production in 2022, however slight. Kansas City also signed former Cleveland outfielder Franmil Reyes who provides more power. He hit 30 home runs in 115 games in 2021.
There seems to be little left in the tank for Greinke, who re-signed with Kansas City on a one-year deal this offseason. His reunion last year with the Royals, the team that drafted him way back in 2002, was a mixed bag. He went 4-9 with a 3.68 ERA, but his 4.54 xFIP suggests a little luck may have been involved. Singer is another homegrown talent trending in the opposite direction. He has pedigree as a first-round pick and had his best season to date with a 3.23 ERA backed up by a 3.30 xFIP. Most of the improvement came in his control where he saw his BB/9 drop from 3.72 to 2.05. There is still work to be done and the Royals hope new pitching coach Brian Sweeney is the man for the job.
While Kansas City made few moves in the offseason, the team did bolster its bullpen by signing Aroldis Chapman, a seven-time All-Star and former World Series champion. Chapman has trended downward in recent years with a career-worst ERA, strikeout rate, and walk rate last season, but he remains one of the hardest throwers in the league. Barlow is the bullpen’s best arm and picked up 24 saves last season with a 2.18 ERA while holding hitters to a .138 batting-average against.
Storylines to watch: The new rebuild. Piccolo started his tenure as GM with a few strong young players, but he will need to do more to turn the team into a consistent winner. He started by trading oft-injured infielder Adalberto Mondesí to Boston and Michael A. Taylor to Minnesota. Strong development of the team’s young stars with a new training staff will give Piccolo a heading through likely a couple more years of rough sailing in KC.
Impact prospects: The team’s top prospect, Maikel Garcia, received a nine-game run in the majors last year at midseason. He performed well with a .319 batting average. Between Double-A and Triple A last season, he hit .285/.359/.427 with 11 home runs and 39 stolen bases. He’s being given a look at third base this spring, which would push Witt to shortstop. Outfielder Tyler Gentry was a third-round pick in 2020 and rose through two levels last season with a line of .326/.422/.542 to go along with 21 home runs and 10 stolen bases.
2022 Record: 78-84 (.481 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
The Minnesota Twins are talented enough to win the AL Central and could get the job done even if they don’t put together their best season. However, the same was also true last year where the team finished third in the division at 78-84 and a full 14 games behind Cleveland. Minnesota will have to do more than just look good on paper if it wants to win its first crown since going back-to-back in 2019 and 2020.
A healthy season from Buxton would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. Buxton remains the most talented player on the roster even with the return of Correa, who opted out of his contract after last season before ultimately re-signing the team. Unfortunately, the words “health” and “Buxton” rarely ever go together. He’s played more than 100 games just once in his career way back in 2017. When he is on the field, Buxton offers a rare power/speed combo. One of the league’s hardest hitters, he had 13 home runs in 2020 in 39 games, 19 home runs in 2021 in 61 games, and 28 home runs last year in 92 games. Doing the math, that’s a 50-homer pace or better in each of the last three seasons. Constant injuries have sapped some of his willingness to steal bases, but his sprint speed is still in the 92nd percentile.
Correa is a key piece to the Twins competing for the division and bringing him back in the offseason was a huge victory for general manager Thad Levine. Correa hit .291/.366/.467 with 22 home runs and a 140 wRC+ last season. He has consistently been worth about 4 fWAR or better throughout his career.
Polanco is underrated as a hitter. He quietly hit 33 home runs in 2021 and his 119 wRC+ was third on the team last season. The Twins brought in Gallo as a free agent looking to add power to the lineup. Gallo had 38 home runs in 2021 and has two seasons in his career with 40 or more. Just ignore that batting average which has not been above .200 for three straight years.
The addition of Pablo López might be the most notable offseason signing in the AL Central. López has struggled to stay healthy in five major league seasons but has posted elite numbers when he takes the mound. He had a 3.61 ERA in 2020 and 3.07 ERA in 2021 with a 10.08 K/9. He stayed mostly healthy last season for the first time and was one of just 27 pitchers to throw at least 180 innings. The added workload took its toll on his ratios with his ERA falling to a still-respectable 3.75 and his K/9 dipping to 8.70. If López can manage to combine his elite arsenal with a large workload, he could emerge as a top-three starter in the division.
Gray pitched just 119 2/3 innings last season but posted a 3.08 ERA and 2.4 fWAR. Ryan’s rookie season added 2.1 fWAR with a 3.55 ERA and 9.24 K/9. Mahle came over in a trade with Cincinnati last year. His poor 4.40 ERA was the product of a 10-start stretch to start the season where he had a 6.32 ERA. A shoulder injury also played a role. Maeda missed part of 2021 and all of 2022 after Tommy John surgery but went 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
The bullpen is a strength for the Twins who plan to rotate between Jorge López and Jhoan Duran in the closer role. Duran is the more talented of the two. He averaged 101 mph on his fastball, which he threw 50% of the time. That led to a 1.86 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 89 strikeouts over 67 2/3 innings. López came over in a midseason trade from Baltimore and saved 23 games overall with a 2.54 ERA.
Storylines to watch: As we already discussed a few weeks ago, all eyes will be on Correa this season. Concerns about the structure of his surgically repaired ankle cost Correa two massive contracts with the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets. His ankle has held up just fine since the surgery way back in 2014, but there was enough concern that he failed two physicals. So, is it a matter of if it fails? Or when?
Impact prospects: Brooks Lee was drafted eighth overall in 2022 and quickly surged all the way to Double-A. In a seamless transition to professional baseball, Lee hit .303 with a .839 OPS across three levels and could find himself getting a taste of the majors sooner rather than later. Royce Lewis is becoming a mainstay on this list, but that’s what happens when you suffer two separate ACL tears while working up through the minors. Finally healthy, he made a brief MLB debut last season and hit .300 with two home runs and a .867 OPS.
Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Ric Tapia, Frank Jansky, Scott Winters & Joe Robbins / Icon Sportswire