CARLSBAD, Calif. – Less than two weeks after White Sox general manager Rick Hahn promised the AL Central wouldn’t be so handedly won in 2022, his prediction began to take shape.
The Tigers made the first big move of the young free-agent season this week, reportedly signing lefty Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year deal. His addition bolsters a team whose rise is shaking up the division landscape.
“Detroit is going to be stronger next year, there’s no doubt about that,” Hahn said a couple weeks ago, in his end of season press conference. “Kansas City gave us trouble all this year, and they’re going to be better next year. And certainly, over the length of my tenure with this club, the last thing I’m ever going to do is underestimate what the Twins or (Guardians) are capable of doing. So, we’re going to get pushed next summer.”
As GMs from around the AL Central addressed their expectations of the division next year, while reporters floated from one to the next in a resort promenade during GM meetings last week, it became clear that Hahn’s evaluation was a common one.
“I think people are going to be surprised,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said, “because I think every team in our division has the potential to win, and I say that in all honesty.”
That, of course, wasn’t the case this past season. The White Sox (93-69) finished the regular season with a 13-game lead over second-place Cleveland (80-82). The margin was so comfortable, as early as the trade deadline, that Cleveland dealt its starting second baseman to Chicago.
Even before the White Sox lost the AL Division Series to the Astros in four games, the question arose: Was the White Sox’ lead too comfortable?
“It did benefit us this year strictly from a health standpoint to have that kind of lead,” Hahn said, alluding an extensive list of injuries that included monthslong absences from Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and Yasmani Grandal. “We had a very difficult health situation over the course of the summer. The big lead allowed us to protect some guys and rest some guys, both given what they were nursing as well as jumping from 60 (games) to 162.”
Hahn, however, avoided hypotheticals.
“Whether I see a benefit to (being pushed in the division) or not, it’s going to happen,” he said. “Our division is getting better.”
Cleveland and Minnesota were the White Sox’ most recent competition for the division title, with Cleveland finishing No. 2 the past three seasons and the Twins winning the AL Central crown in 2019 and 2020, before a surprise last-place finish this year. But the Royals and Tigers are threatening to flip that dynamic.
“Both organizations have made tremendous strides over the last few seasons,” Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said, “and we’ve started to see that young talent emerge at the major-league level and through the upper levels of their minor leagues. So, we’re expecting a very competitive American League Central next year.”
Even this year, the Royals won the season series against the White Sox 10-9. And the Tigers, with manager A. J. Hinch at the helm, turned around a rough start to post a winning record in the second half.
Avila, however, spent much of his media session at the GM meetings trying to temper the expectations of those imagining the Tigers’ potential if they could sign a big-name free agent like Carlos Correa this winter.
“You’ve got to be careful because, I keep on saying, one position, one player does not create a championship,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful how you put together that roster.”
Avila’s message was consistent: “There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re making progress in the right direction.”
They made more progress when they signed Rodriguez on Monday.
The White Sox, as the reigning division champs and the team squarely positioned in the mist of a championship window, still enter the offseason as the AL Central favorite.
“We’re going to be more of the hunted,” Hahn said, “so it’s going to be a little bit of a different approach when teams play us, perhaps.”
Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe not. But, if Hahn and his AL Central counterparts are right, the debate over the value of a tighter division race will be settled on the field soon enough.