The Cleveland Indians are in an enviable, and rare, position among baseball teams. They are coming off a World Series run that came just a home run shy of winning it all, and nearly everyone in their division is either rebuilding or entering a sort-of transition phase from former World Series winner to the 2021 Indians. Their path to a repeat AL Pennant couldn’t be simpler on paper.
So, while you were distracted by the Indians being all flashy and signing Edwin Encarnacion and Boone Logan like it was no big deal, the rest of the AL Central took the approach normally reserved for the Tribe — go small, and go smart. That’s not to say what the Indians did wasn’t smart, but it certainly wasn’t small, and it certainly wasn’t with the bottom line in mind.
To avoid the tunnel vision that a lot of sports fans fall into, including myself, I reached out to some fellow SB Nation writers from rival AL Central blogs to get their thoughts on underrated moves by their teams.
I don’t want to know about their own Encarnacions, I want to hear about their version of Austin Jackson.
Kansas City Royals: Peter O’Brien
First up is one of the two teams most likely to challenge the Indians for the AL Central crown this season. Just one year removed from their first World Series win in 30 years, the Royals are about to see their core depart to free agency. Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Jason Vargas will all be gone after this season, unless a deal is reached in the next few months.
So it’s a real make-or-break first couple months for the Royals. Win by midseason and have a chance to win one more World Series, or be anything but at the forefront of the division and have your core sold off before August.
With that in mind, I spoke to Royals Review managing editor Max Rieper about the team’s most underrated move. His answer was Peter O’Brien, a 26-year-old former prospect who can hit towering home runs all day, but he has struggled to adjust to major-league pitching. According to Rieper, O’Brien does not have much of a chance to make the team, but there’s a chance his right-handed power bat could fill in at designated hitter.
Considering they acquired him for Sam Lewis, a 25-year-old pitcher who has never made it past High-A, any value they get out of O’Brien will be a surplus.
Chicago White Sox: Dane Dunning
Ask most baseball fans who the White Sox acquired in the deal that sent Adam Eaton to Washington and they will tell you something along the lines of "Lucas Giolito and who cares they got Lucas Giolito, the top pitching prospect in all of baseball." But he was far from the only part of that huge deal that netted the White Sox a package of outstanding pitchers and the Nationals up to five years of Adam Eaton.
They also acquired Dane Dunning, a 22-year-old pitcher who was drafted 29th overall by the Nationals in 2016. Josh Nelson, host of the South Side Sox podcast, believes the White Sox have big plans for Dunning, either through promotion or trade:
Dunning pitched for a terrific University of Florida team which just churns out excellent pitching prospects. The Nationals took him with the 29th overall pick in 2016, and the White Sox do believe he can develop into a starter. His arsenal is a mid-90's fastball with sink, a slider, and a changeup that needs more work. Dunning is a prospect that the White Sox can take their time with developing, and who knows, might be a contender in a couple of years to earn a spot in the rotation. Or, he could catch the eye of other teams, and the White Sox could use Dunning in a package to upgrade elsewhere on the field when they are ready to content again.
For a team preparing to dive head-first into a full rebuild, the offseason has gone about as good as the White Sox could expect. They got a justifiably massive return for star pitcher Chris Sale, and they somehow convinced the Washington Nationals that Adam Eaton was worth the league’s top pitching prospect and another potential starter in Dunning. The White Sox may be entering unfamiliar territory with a rebuild, but they’re off to a great start.
Detroit Tigers: Mikie Mahtook
The Detroit Tigers are the other AL Central team gunning for the Indians, though their season-long effort probably doesn’t depend on the first half quite like the Royals’. This team is old and it’s expensive, but it’s not going anywhere soon.
Finding an underrated move for a team like the Tigers is difficult — they don’t have that many holes to fill if everyone can play up to their ability. But with the majority of Detroit’s core pushing into their mid-30s (Michael Fulmer notwithstanding), health over 162 games cannot be assumed.
The Tigers have been uncharacteristically quiet this offseason, and in speaking with manager editor of Bless You Boys, Rob Rogacki, the most underrated move may just be added depth in the outfield in the form of Mikie Mahtook.
Mahtook, a 27-year-old who spent the first seven seasons of his career in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, was acquired by the Tigers for cash or a player to be named later.
"We don’t know how exactly he will pan out," says Rogacki, "but it’s tough to argue against it when they gave up hardly nothing. Mahtook will, at the very least, be a serviceable fourth outfielder who can play all three positions and hold his own against left-handed pitching."
Last season was Mahtook’s first getting semi-significant playing time in the majors, and he responded with a wet thud. His final slash on the season after 196 plate appearances was .195/.231/.292 with three home runs and a 34.7 percent strikeout rate.
The Tigers are banking Mahtook hitting closer to the .288/.331/.423 slash he put up against left-handed pitching in Triple-A two seasons ago. All of Mahtook’s power last season was against southpaws — his .409 slugging percentage against them was a nearly double what he slugged against righties.
Minnesota Twins: Jason Castro, Byungho Park
The Twins. Oh, the Twins. Unlike the other AL Central teams, when I mock the Twins it’s normally out of love. I love this weird little dysfunctional team right now, even if they still have Joe "no-hitter killer" Mauer. They also have one of my favorite players on the edge of being either really great or really bad in Byron Buxton (also the star of my favorite-ever sports Vine), and they appear to be taking the analytical approach in their rebuild, which is always encouraging.
Minnesota probably will not compete in the division, but that doesn’t mean they cannot make some good moves in the offseason. In fact, if they are a team that hopes to compete in the future, they are almost relying on smart moves now, before the rebuild hits its upswing.
Their first underrated move, as laid out by Twinkie Town managing editor Maija Varda, was signing Jason Castro. The three-year, $24.5 million deal was the biggest of the Twins’ offseason, but I’ll still count it as underrated because I completely missed it even happening.
Castro, 29, is coming off three-straight seasons of typical play at catcher — awful on offense, pretty good on defense. He has always been a positive player in terms of wins above replacement, though, and his walk rate spiked to 12 percent last season.
Another, actually, underrated move was designating 30-year-old Korean first baseman Byungho Park for assignment and managing to sneak him through waivers. Park was not great, good, or even acceptable last season, mind you, but his bat at least has some pop and he’s relatively cheap with three years and $8.75 million left on the deal negotiated by former Twins GM Terry Ryan. Park has the history as a Korean player and a wrist injury dragged him down last season — there has to be at least some bounce back potential there, right?
If the Twins can hide him in Triple-A to eventually find out what they have, managing to keep him without taking up a roster spot in the meantime is a great move.