AL Central preview: Win for the Windy City?

The American League Central is shaping up to be an intriguing division in 2021. In the truncated 2020 season, the White Sox slumped to a 2-8 finish which meant they just scraped into the playoffs along with the Indians, despite only finishing a game behind the division-winning Twins.

It was a tight top three with Kansas City and Detroit languishing at the bottom but with the Indians having already traded away Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to the Mets, and with rumours swirling of José Ramirez following the same path out of Cleveland, will it be a two-way battle this year?

We’ll start on the south side of Chicago. The Chi Sox, much like the Blue Jays, are a young, exciting team with another year’s experience behind them and with the additions of Lance Lynn and all-star closer Liam Hendriks, the hope is they can get past the first hurdle of the playoffs this year.

This young roster will be built around reigning AL MVP José Abreu and shortstop Tim Anderson. Despite all of his accolades, Abreu is, in my opinion, still a perennially underrated player, and Anderson is much more than just his bat flips. He was described by’s Scott Merkin as the emotional core of the team

Lynn joins a rotation headed by Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. This experienced top three will be rounded out by young studs such as Reynaldo López, Carlos Rodón, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease who have more experience behind them. Then, whenever these arms head off for a shower, names like Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall and Hendriks can round off a game.

The young studs are not just limited to the mound with infielders Nick Madrigal and Yoán Moncada, and outfielders Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez rounding out a lineup with the afore-mentioned Abreu, Anderson and Yasmani Grandal.

This is an extremely dangerous-looking roster but the one position that remains to be seen is the designated hitter. Edwin Encarnación remains available for a return and others such as Marcell Ozuna are also still on the market. Opening Day might be a bit too soon for prospect Andrew Vaughn but he has been mooted for the DH/1B role.

The Southsiders were beaten to the division title by the Twins who repeated their 2019 triumph and have filled their hole at DH with Nelson Cruz bringing his ‘boom stick’ back to the heart of Rocco Baldelli’s lineup. After a slow start in a slow free-agent market, the Twins have dived in recently with J.A. Happ, Andrelton Simmons and now Cruz bringing experience and quality to a team looking for a three-peat.

One not-insignificant subtraction was that of Eddie Rosario who was a key member of the ‘Bomba Squad’ and has signed with division rivals Cleveland. However, with big bats like Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Sanó and Max Kepler along with the glove-work of Simmons, Jorge Polanco and Byron Buxton, Minnesota still have plenty to be positive about and plenty for opposition pitchers to be scared of

Speaking of pitchers, it’s not all bats and gloves at Target Field with Happ joining Kenta Maeda, José Berríos and Michael Pineda in the rotation – not forgetting he of Uber-driving, goggle-wearing, goatee-sporting fame Randy Dobnak. Hansel Robles and Alex Colome add to a bullpen including Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers and Caleb Thielbar while prospect Dakota Chalmers figures to split time between the ‘pen and rotation.

That being said, they are the owners of the 2020 AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and he still has Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko behind him but with Carrasco gone and Mike Clevinger heading to San Diego at the 2020 trade deadline, the depth will be provided by young arms. The likes of Triston McKenzie, Logan Allen and the heir-apparent to Aroldis Chapman, Emmanuel Clase, are some exciting options for Tito.

With no Lindor and potentially no Ramirez, these are two gaping holes in the Cleveland lineup. The return for Lindor included Amed Rosario and Andrés Gimenez who are two light-hitting, glove-first infielders and Cesar Hernandez fits that bill too, although he brings speed to the table. Another exit that has gone relatively unnoticed is that of first baseman Carlos Santana who signed as a free agent with the Royals. This has widened the afore-mentioned gap.

Cleveland has long had a merry-go-round of passable but unspectacular outfielders and they are hoping the arrival of Eddie Rosario from Minnesota can help alleviate that. That being said, take your pick from Jordan Luplow; Óscar Mercado; Josh Naylor; Bradley Zimmer and Jake Bauers to fill the other spots while Franmil Reyes’ big but unreliable bat remains at DH.

As mentioned, the Royals have pulled off a bit of a coup in luring free-agent Carlos Santana to Kansas City. It may not just be the great BBQ either (salivating here). Since their 2015 World Series triumph, Kansas City has dropped off substantially and have only stayed off the bottom of the division due to the Tigers being… well… awful. However, the Royals have managed to hold on to their stars Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi while catcher Salvador Pérez who was so instrumental in that 2015 Fall Classic success seems to have put his recent injury nightmare behind him.

One big change is the retirement of ‘Mr. Royal’ Alex Gordon. Gordon was drafted by the Royals in 2005 and spent his entire career there before retirement at the end of last season. However, adding Santana makes a nice core to build around and let’s not forget the prodigious bat of 2019 AL Home Run Champion (and strikeout leader) Jorge Soler.

Pitching is where Mike Matheny is let down slightly. The boss is joined in his alliterated name by starters Mike Minor, Danny Duffy and Jakob Junis. Experienced hand Jesse Hahn and young studs Brady Singer and Brad Keller give KC more depth options while Greg Holland anchors an inexperienced ‘pen.

While these names are solid major league starters, they lack the star power to compete with the Biebers, Gioloitos and Maedas of the division. Kauffman Stadium will be a fun place to watch baseball this year (COVID-19 permitting of course) but it may be a year or two yet before the glory days of the middle of the last decade return.

Side-note: the Royals, rather appropriately, have numerous players on their roster whose names sound like they could be country singers. Look it up, I promise you’ll find about half a dozen names who you could picture on a billboard in Nashville.

Now to Detroit. Ah, Detroit. The city gets a bad enough name without their baseball team stinking the place out for the past few years. Sorry if this seems a little unfair but they lost 119 games in 2019 and, while they might not do that bad this year, the jury is out as to whether they can limit loses to double figures.

We must be fair and impartial and there are some bright spots, particularly in the rotation. Matthew Boyd will lead the starting core, provided he is not traded and will be followed by Spencer Turnbull and potentially Michael Fulmer, who is coming off a couple of injury-blighted years. The brightest spots come from Detroit’s young trio of arms – Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning.

As with all ‘tanking’ teams, the hope is that trades and high draft picks will bear fruit and the three mentioned above didn’t look out of place albeit in a small sample size in 2020 so there is excitement to see what they can do with a full season.

There are also some decent arms in the ‘pen with Daniel Norris, Buck Farmer, Tyler Alexander and Jose Cisnero leading younger arms such as Joe Jimenez, Rony Garcia and Gregory Soto. There is also some young talent in the field and at the plate with Daz Cameron, Willi Castro and Isaac Paredes looking likely to get plenty of game time.

Veterans Robbie Grossman and Wilson Ramos have joined ranks to assist all of these youngsters and another bright spot is that Tigers legend and nailed-on Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is on track to collect both his 500th home run and 3000th hit this season provided he stays healthy. So, it’s not all doom and gloom in the Motor City this year and they will have plenty of media attention with scorned former-Astros manager AJ Hinch making his return to the dugout at Comerica Park following his year-long suspension.

That being said, the club that Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline called home look destined for the AL Central basement but top spot isn’t quite as set. My expert opinion sees the division as such:

  1. White Sox
  2. Twins
  3. Royals
  4. Indians
  5. Tigers

It’s looking like another competitive division this year, much like many divisions but the Sox have another year of experience behind them so will be less prone to the slump that almost cost them a playoff spot last year. Do they have the legs to last 162 games? That remains to be seen and the back-to-back champion Twins will push them all the way in an exciting division race.

Photo credit: Ron Vesely/Getty Images

Mark is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @realmarkstrange

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