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AL Central Preview and Prediction: Royals improve, Twins and Guardians battle for Division.

Publish Date: 03/28/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

AL Central Preview and Prediction

The AL Central looks like a two-team race between Minnesota and Cleveland. The Tigers and White Sox have a lot of questions and the Royals re-build seems to slowly be working.

5) Detroit Tigers

According to all accounts, last year was a complete and utter disaster for Detroit. Despite investing more than $100 million in free agency, their record plunged from 77-85 in 2021 to 66-95 in 2022. Furthermore, little improvement was made to an offense that finished dead last in runs per game with 3.44.

Javy Baez must rebound from one of his worst seasons, finishing with a 90 wRC+* last season. Indeed, everyone in this lineup must strive for improvement. Let’s start with former number-one overall pick Spencer Torkelson, who proved ill-suited for the majors. At 23, Torkelson posted an offensive stat line: batting.200 and hitting just eight home runs in 47 games. Riley Greene, another highly touted prospect, was the shining light in the lineup last season. In 418 at-bats, Greene finished with a 98 wRC+* while playing stellar defense in center field. Greene must take another big step this season, as Detroit desperately needs a reliable core to build upon. Austin Meadows and Jonathan Schoop are top-notch MLB players who were anything but that last season. Meadows was sidelined most of the season, while Schoop experienced his worst statistical season ever. With heavy reliance on them in this weak lineup, both must turn things around quickly. In the Gregory Soto trade, Matt Vierling and Nick Maton were acquired. It appears both will be immediately integrated into this lineup. Vierling brings average batting ability with tremendous defensive versatility, while Maton showed promise during his second year with the Phillies. While this lineup remains unimpressive, Tigers fans will see future Hall-of-Famer Miguel Cabrera play one last time in navy blue – potentially his last season before retirement.

The rotation remains uncertain. Eduardo Rodriguez was brought in as the ace of this staff, signing a five-year, $77 million deal last offseason. But after only eight starts, Rodriguez left for personal reasons and returned in late August with an ERA of 4.02 in his final eight starts. Casey Mize only pitched ten innings before being forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. While it remains uncertain when he will return, there can be no doubt that the former number-one pick is highly injury prone. Spencer Turnbull and Tarik Skubal are the stars of this rotation, both likely to begin the season on the injured list. Turnbull recently returned from Tommy John surgery in 2020, posting an impressive 2.88 ERA in nine starts before surgery. Last season, Skubal made a stunning comeback, posting a 3.52 ERA over 117 innings before needing surgery for flexor tendon issues. At 26 years old, he’s the most valuable young pitcher on this staff; Matt Manning should also be watched closely as another promising young arm on this staff. Skubal, 25, had a 3.43 ERA in 12 starts before suffering forearm issues. Aside from their injuries, both Skubal and Manning have shown glimpses of great potential during their early big league careers. Veteran pitching duo Matt Boyd and Michael Lorenzen will round out the rotation as vital depth pieces, both signed to one-year deals with the option to be traded at the trade deadline. While having depth is always beneficial in a starting rotation, it doesn’t mean much when your team lacks top-tier starting pitching. While Detroit has some promising elite prospects, nothing has been consistently proven.

Last year, Detroit’s bullpen was its strongest asset; however, lefty closer Gregory Soto has since been traded away. Without Andrew Chafin, Soto, and Michael Fulmer gone, it is uncertain what can be expected from this group moving forward. Predicted Win Total 71

Video: Under the Radar: Two Tigers Prospects to Watch in 2023

Under the Radar: Two Tigers Prospects to Watch in 2023

4) Chicago White Sox

2022 was a year marked by injuries, inconsistencies and underperformance for the White Sox. If they want to compete this fall, Chicago must turn around all these struggles without their franchise player Jose Abreu who left in the offseason for Houston. Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, and Yasmani Grandal are all excellent MLB players. However, their health issues have always been an issue – so why do we expect any different this year? Abreu was this lineup’s sole consistent elite producer but is now gone for good. The top of the order will be highlighted by shortstop Tim Anderson and free agent signing Andrew Benintendi, widely considered one of the White Sox’s marquee signings during the offseason. While Benintendi has shown excellent contact ability, his power numbers have yet to impress. Over his entire career, Benintendi has only hit 20 homers once (in 2017). I’m unsure if Benintendi can consistently produce enough offensive production to justify earning $75 million over five years. Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets must both step up. These two young prospects have adjusted well to big-league action, demonstrating they can produce at a high level with impressive offensive numbers. Unfortunately, trusting an injury-prone lineup with so many potentially injured pieces is difficult. If this lineup can stay healthy, they could potentially compete for the division title; but will that happen? Based on past seasons, my prediction would be no.

If they wish to compete, Chicago needs its starting rotation to be a strength. Dylan Cease has already proven his worth as an elite starter after finishing second in AL Cy Young voting in 2022 and will look to continue his dominance and guide a group filled with questions going forward. Lance Lynn missed the early part of last season and didn’t look the same. His fastball velocity dropped by one full mph (94-93), leading to a much less effective arsenal. At 35 years old, it is doubtful we will see the Cy Young contending version of Lynn we saw in prior years. Michael Kopech can fill this void, as he can become one of the top three starters on any playoff team. Kopech recently set his career high with 119 innings pitched, showing he can handle a starter’s workload well. Lucas Giolito had a dismal year last season, his ERA rising nearly one full point and a half from the prior season. Like Lynn, Giolito’s fastball velocity dropped 1.3 MPH (94-92.7), thus diminishing the effectiveness of his entire arsenal. Together with Lynn, this rotation must rebound for it to be dominant. However, the backend of the rotation remains uncertain, with Mike Clevinger currently under investigation for alleged domestic violence and child abuse allegations. If Clevinger cannot pitch, righty Reynaldo Lopez could take his place. Lopez has starting experience and posted a solid 2.72 ERA last season as a reliever. Besides Lopez, however, the team lacks starting pitching depth – an issue given Lance Lynn, Michael Kopech and Mike Clevinger all missed time due to arm issues last season.

This team’s bullpen is above average, featuring quality relievers such as Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly, Jake Diekman and Aaron Bummer. Unfortunately, closer Liam Hendriks is currently suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; we wish him all the best in his recovery journey; Hendriks is truly an electrifying player and competitor in our game. It’s really that simple.

Last year, Chicago struggled to stay healthy and ended up finishing just below.500. With such a team lacking its best player (Jose Abreu), it’s hard to envision this year turning out well for them. Predicted win total 75

Video: 2023 Chicago White Sox Hype Video

2023 Chicago White Sox Hype Video

3) Kansas City Royals

Three years into the Royals’ rebuild, Kansas City still seems some way away from contention. Yet we may finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. Bobby Witt Jr., M.J. Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino lead the young lineup as proven major-league studs. Another group of young and highly touted prospects like Nick Pratto, Drew Waters, Michael Massey and Edward Olivares will need to prove themselves this year. If a few of these players can develop into reliable MLB-caliber players, the Royals will have an impressive group to build upon. Most importantly, Kansas City has already identified Bobby Witt Jr as their future franchise player; the 22-year-old had a fantastic rookie season with 20 homers and 57 extra-base hits.

Brady Singer is a shining beacon on an otherwise disappointing starting pitching staff. After returning from Triple-A on May 17th, Singer posted a 2.85 ERA over 23 starts and became the first Royals pitcher to win ten games last season while striking out 150 batters over 153 innings. Unfortunately, Singer represents the only young arm Royals fans can look forward to seeing in the future; everyone else in the rotation – Zach Greinke, Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough – are veterans whose performance level falls far below average. These three veterans, along with Brad Keller and Jonathan Heasley – highlight what needs improvement in the future for this rotation.

Other than Singer, every other starter on this staff is significantly below average. I couldn’t comprehend the signing of Jordan Lyles; signing someone who has never had an ERA below 4.10 to a multi-year deal seems foolish. Predicted Win Total 78

Video: Could The Royals Be SOMETHING In 2023?

Could The Royals Be SOMETHING In 2023?

2) Cleveland Guardians

Last year, the Guardians shocked everyone by winning their first division title since 2018 and making an impressive postseason run. Although some might argue they had it more manageable due to terrible divisional opponents, there can be no denying the front office has put together a solid roster.

Starting the season off right requires an elite rotation that performed admirably in October. After another impressive campaign, Shane Bieber will aim for his second Cy Young Award. Even after losing about 1.5 mph on his fastball velocity, Bieber maintained an impressive 2.88 ERA over 200 innings. His slider had a pitch value of 15.8 runs above average – leading all MLB starters. Triston McKenzie had his best season last year, reducing his ERA by two points (2.95) while setting a career-high in innings pitched. But is it safe to say the Guardians won the Mike Clevinger trade? Josh Naylor and Cal Quantrill were also valuable assets the Guardians acquired in the Clevinger deal, making it even more painful for Padres fans to contemplate. The right-handed starter finished his second consecutive regular season with a sub-3.40 ERA. Quantrill had a solid regular season yet struggled in the postseason with an ERA of 5.40 in two playoff starts. While Cleveland boasts the top three starters in the division, what happens to the bottom half of their rotation remains an open question. Last year, both Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac posted 4.30+ ERAs, with Civale struggling in his only playoff start. While this should serve as a significant red flag, we must consider who else could potentially join this rotation. Cleveland has long been known for producing top-tier starting pitchers. Consider that this team once featured Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco among its former members. No longer do any of these pitchers exist, but Cleveland still boasts an impressive and youthful rotation. It has already become evident that this organization can consistently produce quality starting pitching; therefore, we should expect further development in the starting rotation this year.

As for the bullpen, it ranks amongst the league’s best, led by All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase. During their postseason run, Clase didn’t just dominate; Trevor Stephan, James Karinchak, Eli Morgan, and Enyel De Los Santos all showed they could easily handle high-pressure situations. This talented group will be instrumental in helping Cleveland defend their division title this year. Predicted Win Total 92

Video: What's Next for the Cleveland Guardians? Offseason Moves and 2023 Outlook

What’s Next for the Cleveland Guardians? Offseason Moves and 2023 Outlook

1) Minnesota Twins

After an impressive offseason, Minnesota appears on track for their third division title in five years. Even after trading away AL batting champ Luis Arraez, the Twins still boast the best lineup in this division. At the forefront of this lineup are two perennial MVP contenders, Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton. Joey Gallo and Max Kepler will join Buxton in the outfield, both looking to rebound from statistically down years. Christian Vazquez and Ryan Jeffers will alternate behind the dish, with Vazquez signing a three-year deal over the offseason. After Gary Sanchez’s disappointing year last year, Vazquez looks to bring stability back into catching for the Twins. With the trade of Arraez, Jorge Polanco will move up to second and 24-year-old Jose Miranda will take his place at third. Last year, Miranda had an impressive rookie campaign, hitting.268 with 15 homers in his debut. Former number one overall pick Royce Lewis also proves himself an exciting young talent. The 23-year-old was an impressive star before needing season-ending knee surgery. Minnesota should easily secure this division title if Lewis can return to elite form at the major league level. The front office has done an excellent job acquiring depth over the past few offseasons. Kyle Farmer, Donovan Solano, Nick Gordon, Michael A. Taylor and Trevor Larnach are all MLB-caliber players on Minnesota’s bench. Minnesota has plenty of capable replacements to maintain strong offensive production if any of these stars struggle.

Though the starting rotation lacks a true frontline ace, it’s filled with above-average starters who could pitch for playoff teams. Veteran Sonny Gray is likely to get the start on Opening Day and should serve as an anchor for this talented group. Newly acquired Pablo Lopez has the potential to step into an ace role. Boasting one of the league’s premier changeups, we saw Lopez’s dominance at the beginning of last season. Over the season’s first two months, Lopez posted a 1.83 ERA early on and was impressive with teammate Sandy Alcantara. But his performance gradually declined during the remainder of the regular season as he finished with an ERA of 3.75. At 26 years, in Minnesota, Joe Ryan looked as if he could potentially bring home AL ROY after seeing how well he did early in the season. Rumors swirl that Ryan has been working on developing a splitter and slider this offseason, hoping to expand his arsenal even further. While Tyler Mahle was impressive with the Reds, his success didn’t translate to Minnesota after being traded at the deadline. Mahle struggled during his tenure in Minnesota, losing fastball velocity and eventually landing on the injured list. It remains uncertain whether Mahle can stay healthy. Much like previous starters we’ve mentioned before, Mahle is an above-average pitcher who looks like an ace at times but never entirely lives up to that billing. Can any of these four starters go beyond “above average?”

This team’s bullpen is led by flame-throwing righties Jorge Lopez and Jhoan Duran. Both have had outstanding seasons, showing they can easily handle a closing role or pitch in high-leverage situations. Predicted wins 94

Video: Can The Twins Win It All In 2023? | 2023 MLB PREVIEW

Can The Twins Win It All In 2023? | 2023 MLB PREVIEW

 

 

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