AL Central preview: Twins or Guardians? Can the White Sox rebound? What’s in store for Tigers, Royals?
Our countdown to MLB Opening Day continues with a deep dive on the American League Central.
Baseball season is right around the corner, which means it’s time for divisional previews! Between now and MLB Opening Day on March 30, Yahoo Sports will be rolling out our thoughts on each division, including a quick recap of the offseason and best- and worst-case scenarios for each team.
We began last week with the AL East and NL East. Next, we look at the American League Central.
Projected record (per PECOTA, as of March 14): 88-74
Carlos Correa takes the strangest, most circuitous route back to Minnesota
Joey Gallo, Michael A. Taylor provide oft-needed outfield depth, defense
Twins trade batting champ Luis Arraez to Marlins for solid starter Pablo López
Best-case scenario: In some ways, 2023 has already proven to be a best-case scenario for the Twins, who got their guy — and at a discount — when Correa’s tumultuous offseason landed him back on the team that fell in love with him last year. We can’t prove it was a savvy coup by a team trusting its own experience with a player over external medical analysis, but a mostly healthy season for Correa is key to the Twins’ success.
Of course, all teams need their best players on the field for things to break right, but the Twins treat “injured list” like a curse word after last year and would send Byron Buxton out ensconced in bubble wrap if they thought it would help. Even in an ideal world, Buxton’s playing time is limited, but let’s say he starts at least 100 games, Taylor proves plenty capable as an insurance policy, and whatever it was the Twins saw that made them jump at Gallo works to turn him back into his pre-2022 self.
The rotation — a weakness in 2022, as the Twins started anyone in the stadium healthy enough to throw the ball 60 feet, 6 inches — suddenly seems to runneth over with not-quite-aces but plenty of upper/mid-rotation types. Stockpiling competent options — along with López: Sonny Gray, a healthy Kenta Maeda, a healthy Tyler Mahle, Joe Ryan wielding a couple of new weapons, and organizational success stories such as Bailey Ober, Josh Winder and Louie Varland — turns out to be an effective strategy, especially with Minnesota’s league-leading defense.
The team not only makes it back to the postseason, but also, for the first time in 19 years, they win a game once they get there.
Worst-case scenario: Two words: Ankle termites.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? A full, healthy season from Correa would constitute an important moral victory, but that won’t be enough to justify the whole contract. In an era of teams being all too willing to count themselves out on Opening Day, the Twins spent the past two seasons truly believing they’d built a contender, only to find themselves sitting at home come October, so anything less than a playoff berth will be another painful disappointment.
Minnesota certainly tried to learn from last year by adding contingency plans to account for inevitable injuries to key pieces. And so even though there’s a heavy element of success in team health, the Twins want to feel good about their options — lineup and rotation — come late summer. Success would mean they did enough to shore up predictable weaknesses by adding the kind of depth that not only keeps them afloat but also can carry them into the postseason. — Keyser
Projected record: 88-74
Guardians plug lineup holes with Josh Bell, Mike Zunino signings
Jose Ramirez has thumb surgery to correct issue he played through
Best-case scenario: Cleveland’s pitching development program has been a best-case scenario assembly line for years now. Triston McKenzie, the most electric beanpole since Chris Sale, joined Shane Bieber atop the rotation in 2022. He fired 191 innings — assuaging some concerns about his durability — and leveled up along the way, posting a 2.19 from July 1 on, with underlying metrics to back it up. McKenzie performing in that realm again creates a dynamite combo, and by season’s end, more reinforcements arrive in the form of top prospects Gavin Williams and Tanner Bibee.
Less common in Cleveland? Wins in hitter development and acquisition, but those start piling up, too. After Steven Kwan and Andrés Giménez emerged and broke out in 2022, the Guardians finally strike gold with a power hitter in free-agent signing Josh Bell and foster improvement from Oscar Gonzalez to give Jose Ramirez real threats around him.
Add the bullpen pyrotechnics of Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak, and the result is a well-rounded team that distances itself from another otherwise weak AL Central crop — with the muscle necessary to actually make noise in October this time.
Worst-case scenario: The young Guardians, a big surprise in 2022, have some serious room for regression. It wouldn’t even be a doomsday scenario long-term, but there is definitely a world in which most or all of McKenzie, Kwan, Gimenez and Gonzalez fall upon harder times and leave Cleveland scrapping for a .500 record.
Bell, no one’s idea of an inspiring offseason splash, spends most of the year in one of his cold streaks, a la his .192/.316/.271 stint with San Diego in 2022. Once again thrashing against the current with an offense featuring Jose Ramirez and not much else, the Guardians’ pitching health doesn’t hold up quite as well, and they slump into a second-place finish well removed from the playoff hunt.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? The Cleveland lineup struck out less than any other in 2022. It tallied the seventh-best batting average and 12th-best on-base percentage. But still, it couldn’t scrape above league average in total production — as measured by wRC+ — because there were minimal levels of punch. On a scale as broad as baseball’s — a 162-game season and the postseason that follows — there’s no one neat trick to winning big. There are, however, some pretty singular ways to take yourself out of the running, and one of those is not being able to muster runs via power when push comes to shove.
The Guardians are operating on a shoestring budget, presumably at the behest of team owner Paul Dolan, yet they appear to have mastered one aspect of the sport: pitching. Success would be continuing that tradition while building toward something bigger and better on offense. Ramirez, the superstar who actively limited his own earning potential to stay in Cleveland, is signed through 2028 and likely has three or four years of his prime remaining. The Guardians don’t need to conjure an Astros-esque lineup to seriously contend for a ring, but they have significant work to do to mimic even the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays or … the 2017 Cleveland squad. A little more pop would go a long way. — Crizer
Chicago White Sox
Projected record: 78-84
Former Rookie of the Year, All-Star, Silver Slugger, MVP José Abreu leaves the South Side, signs with Houston Astros
White Sox address some but not all of their biggest needs by adding Andrew Benintendi to the outfield and Mike Clevinger to the rotation
MLB investigation into Mike Clevinger following domestic violence accusations ends without any discipline imposed
Best-case scenario: Best-case scenario, banking on bounce-back seasons from a handful of core players makes the White Sox’s relative reticence this offseason look savvy (if still not very exciting). We’re not necessarily saying that installing Pedro Grifol at the helm helped this team finally amount to more than the sum of its parts, but that’s an admittedly compelling narrative.
After troubling down years in 2022, in which they were limited to about 100 games each and turned in sub-replacement performances, Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal look like their old, almost All-Star-ish selves again. For Tim Anderson, who missed more than half of 2022, the turnaround is even more pronounced. His work with Driveline in the winter pays off, as he competes for another batting title and steps up in Abreu’s absence as something of a team leader. And to round out the injury return: Luis Robert Jr. sees his national profile rise with a compelling performance for Team Cuba in the WBC and stays healthy enough for his first All-Star appearance. Meanwhile, Andrew Vaughn learns to put the ball in the air and be a bit more selective with his swings, becoming a real power threat, and Andrew Benintendi looks like one of the smarter pickups of the winter in left field.
Also, at least two of Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease and Lucas Giolito receive Cy Young votes, which is enough to offset the White Sox’s lack of rotation depth.
Worst-case scenario: The lack of rotation depth proves to be a problem and quickly. Even before the accusations of domestic violence came to light and even after MLB’s investigation ended without a suspension imposed, Clevinger wasn’t the most exciting solution to the Sox’s pitching needs. Once an almost-ace for Cleveland, he was ineffective and oft-injured in San Diego, and the velocity drop after Tommy John surgery follows him to Chicago. Cease and Giolito are still Cy Young material, but they fail to make 30 starts like they did last season. Lynn’s best days are behind him, and suddenly, the Sox are scrambling.
It’s the same story in the lineup, where every IL stint seems to underscore that Chicago could’ve done more to bolster a club with a talented, young core. The combo of high batting average, no discipline at the plate and little power adds up to a lot of frustrating innings that end with runners left on base, which only serves to exacerbate a fan base running out of patience.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? In this lightweight division, you need to finish first to secure a playoff berth, and the White Sox need to be in the postseason to not disappoint. Unfortunately, they backed themselves into a bit of a corner by not doing more in the free-agent market. To be honest, success might look like the two teams above them in these projections struggling enough for the Sox to take advantage. — Keyser
Projected record: 65-97
Tigers welcome back starter Matthew Boyd, add Michael Lorenzen
Sleeper hitters Matt Vierling, Nick Maton arrive in Gregory Soto trade
Best-case scenario: As a preface, it’s tough to overstate how bleak the 2022 season was in Detroit. A surging finish to 2021 led to some wishful optimism in the offseason, which led to some big-ticket, “the rebuild is over”-style signings in Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez. Then Baez tanked to a below-average batting line, and Rodriguez missed half the season due to injury and personal issues. Starters Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, the main sources of 2021 optimism, underwent major arm surgeries.
Meanwhile, in a year of sparkling rookie debuts around the league, former No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson flailed to a miserable .197/.282/.295 line in 298 plate appearances before Detroit mercifully demoted him to Triple-A. He was better in a September return to the majors but only marginally so.
What does a best-case scenario look like for a team that just went through that? Perhaps someone shakes A.J. Hinch awake and tells him, “Hey, it’s OK, bud. You were just having a nightmare.”
Short of that, though? It’s about beginning the long slog of repairing everything that broke down or at least seriously malfunctioned last year. The Tigers made a long-needed move in hiring Scott Harris as GM to modernize the front office and, presumably, the player development apparatus. While several avatars of their future (Mize and Skubal) will remain sidelined to start the season, the Tigers could show promise by getting Torkelson — a record-smashing hitter in college — on the right track and helping outfielder Riley Greene build on what was, comparatively, a promising 2022 debut.
The other thing to watch is how Harris mimics the Giants model of unearthing and deploying useful role players. Matt Vierling and Nick Maton showed signs of promise on a stuffed Phillies roster and will now get better cracks at regular playing time. It would be a pleasant sign of progress if one of them — or returning Tigers veteran Matthew Boyd, whom Harris has now acquired for two teams — makes a jump from previous levels.
Worst-case scenario: I hesitate to say that it can’t get worse than 2022, but it probably can’t get worse than 2022. This is a Year Zero, in football parlance, in which very few of the players, coaches or front office members will face serious career repercussions if the overall results are mediocre. But progress is important. If Torkelson doesn’t improve, if Greene goes backward, if the new acquisitions don’t pan out, if Baez and/or Rodriguez fall flat again, it might be panic time in Detroit. One or two misses are understandable. Widespread organizational failure for a second straight year would be disastrous and perhaps lead to a whole new teardown cycle.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Returns to form for Baez and Rodriguez might be the most immediately noticeable asks for a successful season, but the more important signifiers will be in Torkelson, Greene and starting pitcher Matt Manning. Those young players are going to be bellwethers of the core’s potential. If Torkelson can mount an above-average campaign with the bat, that would almost individually make this season a winner. — Crizer
Kansas City Royals
Projected record: 64-98
The Dayton Moore era is over … sort of, as deputy J.J. Picollo takes over
Zack Greinke returns, Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough join to bolster rotation
Best-case scenario: The Royals’ young core achieves liftoff under a new, more forward-thinking regime. Bobby Witt Jr. vaults into a star as he improves his plate discipline and finds a more comfortable home at third base. The swing decision revolution, which at one point appeared to take root in the Royals’ minor-league system, makes it to the majors more clearly. Vinnie Pasquantino, the young first baseman/designated hitter who turned out to be the brightest light in 2022, surges even more and establishes himself as one of baseball’s best on-base and power threats. Former top pick Nick Pratto seizes a lineup spot, and at least one of Kansas City’s many other young (or young-ish) hitting options — Drew Waters, Michael Massey, Nate Eaton, Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares — takes advantage of playing time to firm up his status as a winning role player.
Perhaps more importantly, a new approach yields gains on the pitching front. The Royals spent years of first-round picks on college pitchers who have largely floundered. Brady Singer, the exception so far, steps up as a true ace, while others such as Daniel Lynch find their footing. With a more solid foundation underneath them, the Royals threaten .500 in 2023 and enter the offseason with a better idea of their roadmap to another cycle of contention.
Worst-case scenario: Witt’s approach at the plate is exploited once again, and he sinks into bust conversations as others in his prospect class — namely Julio Rodriguez and Adley Rutschman — soar into MVP discussions. The Royals’ pitching turnaround doesn’t manifest, and there’s little to suggest that changes at the top are creating changes on the field for the latest young crop of players. Even as Pasquantino and Singer continue to progress, the bottom half of the roster is so inept that the Royals tumble into the Central cellar with too many holes to address in one winter.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Wins on the standings page would be nice, but this is a season about wins in the player development realm. Kansas City needs to see steps forward from Witt and at least one other young player — ideally someone who could join the starting rotation. Singer is a worthy arm to build around. Having one more hurler to dream on — Lynch looks like the best bet, to me — would brighten the Royals’ outlook significantly. — Crizer