Editor’s note: With Major League Baseball aiming to return for a 60-game season amid the coronavirus pandemic on July 23, we have updated our division previews. Plenty of questions remain about whether the season is safe or feasible, but as teams return to summer camp, here is a look at the on-the-field prospects for the division.
What will the Minnesota Twins do for an encore? Perhaps hit even more home runs.
Last year’s Twins hit more homers than any team in MLB history. They also had five players reach the 30-homer mark, which was another MLB record. So what did they do this offseason? Went out and signed a guy who hit 37 homers last season.
Josh Donaldson is now part of Minnesota’s Bomba Squad, a fact that bolsters their status as the team to beat in the AL Central. The Twins also added a handful of veteran pitchers — Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill — to a team that won 101 games last season. This is, as it sits now, their division to lose.
The Indians had been the presumed AL Central champs in 2019 until Minnesota’s bopping rise, and the 2020 version of Cleveland’s squad seems equally content for second place and the hope of a wild-card spot. They traded ace Corey Kluber and are entering the season with an outfield of Oscar Mercado, Franmil Reyes and Jordan Luplow. No, those are not COVID-era replacement players.
While the Indians shrugged at the offseason, the White Sox went bold. Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnación and Yasmani Grandal joined on free-agent deals. Nomar Mazara came over in a trade. Add them to Eloy Jiménez, Tim Anderson and burgeoning prospect Luis Robert, and the White Sox have a chance to surprise some people if their pitching holds up.
Even if it doesn’t happen in 2020, their window is wide open for the future.
Due up …
Three people who could make the difference in the division this year.
1. Luis Robert, White Sox OF: The future is now on the South Side of Chicago. An impressive foundation of young players has been built and several accomplished veterans have been added to the White Sox roster, giving them the appearance of a contender. Perhaps the only question is which star will be leading the charge.
Despite the fact he's never played in an MLB game, one of the top contenders has to be Luis Robert. The 22-year-old outfielder backed up immense hype with a breakout 2019 season in the minors, hitting .328/.376/.624 over 122 games between High A, Double A and Triple A. He also put together a collective 30-30 season, combining to hit 32 home runs and steal 36 bases. The White Sox are clearly confident in the budding five-tool player, giving him a six-year, $50 million contract in January. It's possible Robert will be the AL Central's most exciting player the moment he debuts, which is a scary proposition for Chicago's rivals.
2. Francisco Lindor, Indians SS: The Cleveland Indians traded one franchise cornerstone over the winter, shipping ace pitcher Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers for an underwhelming return. At various points during the offseason, it seemed another cornerstone, Francisco Lindor, was destined to follow. That didn't happen, but with Lindor's free agency looming after the 2021 season and extension talks unlikely to lead anywhere, this season may well represent Lindor's farewell tour.
The All-Star shortstop is on record saying he wants to stay in Cleveland. He also says he won't take a hometown discount. Indians president Chris Antonetti says the small-market franchise has to budget wisely in order to remain competitive, which doesn't leave much room for optimism. There's no overstating what Lindor means to the team. He's a run-producing machine and a two-time Gold Glove winner at an important position. If Lindor were traded, it would damage Cleveland’s chances and potentially change the balance of power in multiple divisions.
3. Miguel Sanó, Twins 1B: The Minnesota Twins made a big splash when they signed former AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million contract in January. They also created a logjam that will force former top prospect and regular third baseman Miguel Sanó to move across the diamond to first base.
It’s a tough request to make. Approaching an established player about changing positions can lead them to question where they fit in. The added layer of learning a new position and altering their routine can be met with outright resistance, which can create tension. Fortunately for the Twins, that hasn't been the case at all with Sanó. The 26-year-old slugger reportedly told Donaldson he’s the "only player" he would have made the move for. He’s since backed that up by embracing the change.
Sanó, who launched a career-best 34 home runs in 2019, also signed a three-year, $30 million extension around the same time Donaldson was signed. That likely helped to ease his mind. If the move works out, it will give Minnesota's infield a dominant slugging duo through 2022.
How 2020 could go so right ... or so wrong ... for each team. Listed in order of projected standings via Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system.
Best-case: Remember all the stuff that went right last season? It happens again. Max Kepler continues his steady Marcus Semien-esque improvement and becomes this year’s surprising MVP contender. Josh Donaldson, Mitch Garver and Miguel Sanó combine for 115 home runs. Homer Bailey and Jake Odorizzi repeat their strong 2019 performances. In a “The Santa Clause” situation, Nelson Cruz kills and becomes Father Time — remaining ageless and hitting dozens of home runs again. The scenario: Another division title and a long-awaited playoff victory over the dreaded Yankees.
Worst-case: The juiced ball goes away, and takes the basis of the Minnesota offense with it. The 34-year-old Donaldson begins showing his age just as he starts his four-year contract, while Sanó regresses following the move to first base. Kenta Maeda, it turns out, really can’t stick in a rotation for a full season, and, for that matter, neither can Bailey. Rich Hill’s blisters return, as do a slew of other arm issues. The scenario: Not even a chance to lose another playoff series.
Best-case: Cleveland didn’t need Corey Kluber anyway. The team continues to get the most out of its young pitchers, as Shane Bieber pitches like an ace and Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac take big steps forward. Francisco Lindor isn’t traded, José Ramírez returns to MVP form and Franmil Reyes does a star turn of his own after cutting his strikeout rate. When the trade deadline rolls around, Cleveland makes the bold decision to take on payroll, which results in them passing the Twins to win the division. The scenario: 36 wins and a division title.
Worst-case: Cleveland’s ability to churn out high-strikeout starting pitchers exits with Trevor Bauer’s tinkering, and losing Kluber hurts plenty too. The team’s rotation isn’t a clear strength for the first time in more than half a decade, allowing its many weaknesses to take over. The Lindor contract standoff festers in very public fashion, leaving the team to trade its best homegrown player in a generation for a meh return (though not as meh as Kluber’s). Whatever happened to Ramírez last year keeps happening. The scenario: An under-.500 season and the window to contention is slammed shut, but at least the team is fiscally responsible now.
Chicago White Sox
Best-case: The White Sox finally give baseball fans a reason to remember them. Luis Robert immediately takes to the majors and asserts himself as a top-30 player in baseball. Strikeout-proof second base prospect Nick Madrigal bats .300 and makes you wonder why the White Sox put off his promotion so they could manipulate his service time. Reynaldo López reveals he worked with Lucas Giolito’s old coach in the offseason, and becomes the latest successful renovation project. Michael Kopech and Carlos Rodón come back healthy and give the White Sox a formidable pitching staff down the stretch. Tim Anderson keeps backing up his smack talk. The scenario: 35 wins and a surprising division title.
Worst-case: Anderson’s batting title really does turn out to be a BABIP-driven fluke. Madrigal hits .270 but slugs .310. Nomar Mazara hits like the Nomar Mazara of 2016 — as well as 2017, 2018 and 2019. José Abreu, Edwin Encarnación and Dallas Keuchel fully enter their decline phases. A rotation full of upside shows its significant downside instead, with none of the team’s approaching prospects making an impact. The scenario: An sub-.500 finish and a hard pause on the rebuild.
Best-case: We won’t just write Casey Mize 50 times, though we’re tempted. His hopeful debut should be must-watch television for Tigers fans. Mize is considered one of the best, if not the best, right-handed pitching prospect in the game. As for guys expected to begin the season in the majors, Miguel Cabrera turns in one more excellent year to inspire Tigers fans. Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull refine their control, and turn into pretty decent starters (or perhaps trade chips). Daniel Norris’ long-awaited breakout actually happens. Michael Fulmer returns from Tommy John surgery and looks like his old self. The scenario: 28 wins, and one more fun Miggy season.
Worst-case: It’s the Tigers, a team that won 47 games last year. You don’t need to be too creative. One-year stopgaps like Cameron Maybin and Jonathan Schoop fail to elevate the team from terrible to merely bad. Boyd never recaptures the magic of last season’s first half and ceases to rate as a significant trade asset. Another mortal season from Cabrera lands his contract squarely in the realm of Albert Pujols. Mize struggles in his MLB debut. The scenario: Another MLB-worst season and a long, long road ahead.
Kansas City Royals
Best-case: Adalberto Mondesi improves his contact rate and plate discipline and looks like a future superstar. AL home run champ Jorge Soler proves his blazing second-half improvement was for real, while Hunter Dozier picks up at his pre-injury breakout pace. Nicky Lopez turns into the player he was in the minors and flirts with a .300 average. Salvador Pérez doesn’t miss a beat in his return from injury and plays in an absurd amount of games once again. Danny Duffy finally stays healthy and gets to 200 innings. The scenario: 28 wins, and plenty of burnt ends from your favorite local barbecue joint.
Worst-case: Mike Matheny learned very little during his hiatus from managing, as it happens. Soler doesn’t come close to a repeat league-leading homer season. Pérez stumbles in his comeback season. A rotation that was mediocre at best becomes truly heinous as Brad Keller takes a step back amid plentiful injuries. The team’s lone free agent signed to an MLB contract, Maikel Franco, makes a definitive case that his career as an MLB regular should be over. The scenario: 20 wins, and Kansas City fans realize the rebuild is just getting started.
How entertaining will this division be as a race and TV show?
By Mike Oz
The AL Central has the Bomba Squad, Francisco Lindor and plenty of young White Sox hitters to gush over. It also has the Royals and Tigers. But what the AL Central lacks in competitiveness, it has in fun factor.
It might have the best collection of interesting players this side of the NL East when you count Lindor, Mike Clevinger and his color cleats and tattoos, Tim Anderson’s bat flips, and Chicago’s mashing trio of Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, plus the Twins’ underrated Eddie Rosario and the ever-dependable Nelson Cruz.
Truth is, there aren’t many players who can compare to Lindor in the fun category, whether we’re talking about his all-around fantastic play, his changing hair colors or his style.
If you like home runs, this will also be fun. The Twins will definitely hit them. The White Sox should hit plenty, too. And heck, the Royals and Tigers should give up plenty.
If everything goes according to plan, watching the White Sox try to take down the Indians and Twins should make for plenty of fun this season.
AL Central UFR (Ultimate Fun Rating) = 8.0
More MLB previews from Yahoo Sports: