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2019 Preview: American League Central

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 08: Francisco Lindor #12 of the Cleveland Indians reacts as he runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning against the Houston Astros during Game Three of the American League Division Series at Progressive Field on October 8, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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The AL Central is arguably baseball’s weakest division. The Indians were the only team in the division to finish above .500 in 2018, going 91-71. The Twins finished in second place at 78-84, followed by the Tigers at 64-98, the White Sox at 62-100, and the Royals at 58-104. It’s hard to imagine the AL Central being that bad again, but none of the other four teams aside from the Indians are looking all that threatening. This should be another cakewalk for the Indians, even though they are an arguably worse team than they were last year.

Let’s talk about the teams.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians feature one of baseball’s best young duos in shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman José Ramírez. The two each posted 7.9 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference, an elite total. Ramírez finished third in AL MVP voting while Lindor finished sixth. The Indians are in good shape as long as these two have stellar campaigns as expected.

Aside from Lindor and Ramírez, the starting rotation will be a source of strength for the Indians. The top four includes Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger. The No. 5 is likely to be Shane Bieber, a pitching prospect who flashed greatness at times last year despite a 4.55 ERA in 114 2/3 innings. Bauer and Kluber were both AL Cy Young contenders last year, finishing third and sixth, respectively.

The club’s biggest weakness is the outfield. As presently constructed, the Indians plan to roll with Leonys Martín and Tyler Naquin as starters while Jake Bauers, Matt Joyce, Brandon Barnes, and Jordan Luplow will all contend for playing time. Not exactly a group inspiring confidence. It is, frankly, surprising that the Indians didn’t do more to address the outfield in the offseason.

Minnesota Twins

Unlike the Indians, the Twins did take strides to improve the roster during the offseason. The club signed Marwin González, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Pérez, and Blake Parker. The Twins should hit for markedly more power after finishing 10th in the league in slugging percentage and 12th in home runs last year.

The Twins’ fortune will have a lot to do with Byron Buxton staying healthy and productive. Once a consensus No. 1 prospect across baseball, Buxton owns a disappointing .672 OPS across four seasons. He has played in 100-plus games only once. If he reaches his potential, Buxton is a dynamic five-tool player who will vie for the AL MVP Award with an 8- or 9-WAR season. That kind of season would put the Twins right in the thick of things for the AL Central title.

24-year-old pitcher José Berríos will also have a lot of sway depending on the kind of season he has. The right-hander has had solid campaigns in each of the last two seasons, finishing with ERAs slightly under 4.00, but he has the potential to be much, much better. No one would bat an eye if he finished the year with an ERA below 3.00.

Third baseman Miguel Sanó will miss at least the first few weeks of the regular season due to an Achilles injury. He is indicative of the Twins’ biggest weakness: the injury bug. Sanó, Buxton, Michael Pineda, Jorge Polanco, Trevor May, Jason Castro, and quite a few others have all been slowed by injuries in recent years.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox were in headlines throughout the offseason, viewed as the favorite to land free agent superstar infielder Manny Machado. Machado eventually got an offer he liked better from the Padres. Otherwise, the White Sox had a quiet offseason, only signing Kelvin Herrera, Jon Jay, and James McCann to major league contracts.

As presently constructed, the White Sox don’t seem like much of a threat in the AL Central. But the club has a lot of intriguing young players, staking claim to five top-50 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. Those players are Eloy Jiménez, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Luis Robert, and Nick Madrigal. Dane Dunning and Blake Rutherford can also be found in the top-100. Prospects are always a gamble, so it’s nice to have quantity along with quality. Hitting on just a couple of these prospects puts the White Sox in good shape to be competitive a few years from now.

First baseman José Abreu can become a free agent after the season, so it will be interesting to see if the White Sox let him walk or work towards signing him to a contract extension. From 2014-17, Abreu hit at least 25 home runs and knocked in at least 100 runs with a batting average of at least .290. He was slowed a bit by injuries last year, batting .265 with 22 dingers and 78 ribbies, ending the streak. Abreu is 32 years old, so he isn’t a long-term bet for the White Sox.

The major league White Sox team isn’t going to be terribly interesting to watch likely until rosters expand in September (the final year before September rosters expand to only 28 players). They are definitely a team to watch in 2020 and beyond, however.

Kansas City Royals

Woof. The rebuilding Royals could plausibly be baseball’s worst team in 2019. The club wasn’t terribly active in the offseasons, only adding free agents Billy Hamilton, Chris Owings, Jake Diekman, and Brad Boxberger.

Many of the Royals’ top prospects are still a year or two away from the majors, so this is just another development season in Kansas City. As much as I’d like to write more than a couple of brief paragraphs, there’s just not that much to write about. It will be interesting to see how many bases Whit Merrifield and Hamilton combine to swipe.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers will continue their rebuilding process while first baseman Miguel Cabrera plays out the back nine of his career. The veteran turns 36 years old in April, having played in just 38 games last season. When he’s healthy, he is always an offensive dynamo, but he won’t have as many RBI opportunities as he’s used to, given the quality of the Tigers’ lineup. Cabrera is only 35 home runs shy of 500 for his career, and he hit 35-plus as recently as 2016 (38), so it’s possible we see some history in Detroit this season.

Aside from Cabrera, the Tigers’ roster is pretty uninspiring. The club brought in the former Pirates middle infield duo of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer, but neither are the kind of players who can carry a team even with big years. Outfielder Nick Castellanos is arguably the Tigers’ best position player at the moment, but he was worth only 2.9 WAR in a career year last year, bashing 23 home runs with 89 RBI.

The starting rotation is highly volatile, featuring an array of oft-injured veteran pitchers. Michael Fulmer has the highest upside of the bunch, as he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016 with a 3.06 ERA across 26 starts. The likely outcome for this rotation, however, is an aggregate 4.50 ERA or worse with players going on and off the injured list throughout the year. If the injuries and underperformance add up, the Tigers could conceivably be worse than the Royals.

The upshot: The Indians have won the division title in each of the past three years. 2019 is looking like their easiest path to date. It would truly be surprising if anything else happened in baseball’s worst and least interesting division. The Twins will easily take second place, while the 3-4-5 slots will be fought over by teams that should feel lucky to reach 70 wins.

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