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AL Central Preview: 2018 Edition

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This really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow, the games start counting. Of those 162 games that count, 76 of them (almost 47 percent) will be played against other teams in the AL Central. If all goes according to plan, the 2018 Cleveland Indians should win their third AL Central title in as many years (their tenth overall, most in the division). But funny things happen every season, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that at least one team in the division gives the Tribe a bit of competition, even if they are awful against everyone else. So on this final day before the regular season, here’s a quick tour around the AL Central and what to expect.

Detroit Tigers

It was just five short years ago in 2013 when the Tigers seemed to curb stomp the Cleveland Indians every time the two teams faced each other. Whether in Comerica Park or Progressive Field, the Indians couldn’t figure out how to beat the Tigers and they owned a paltry 4-15 record against the AL Central champs.

But five years is an eternity in baseball years, and the 2018 Tigers are a mere shell of what they were in 2013. Detroit is now in full tank mode and are expected to be one of the worst teams in baseball this season. Without the likes of J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, and Justin Upton (to name a few), the team has gotten younger in some respects but has lost many key players who had been the core for the Tigers in seasons past. Conversely, the older players who do remain just aren’t very good anymore. Jordan Zimmermann has been trending downwards for the past three seasons. Miguel Cabrera will be 35 this season and, in 2017, put up his first sub-100 OPS+ season ever. And LGFT Victor Martinez will be 39 and can barely hit anymore and can field even less (i.e., he doesn’t).

Tigers fans looking for something exciting this season will turn to Michael Fulmer, the 25-year-old former Rookie of the Year, as well as a fairly competent defense led by Jose Iglesias at SS, Dixon Machado at 2B, and Leonys Martin in CF. Daniel Norris will also try his hand in the rotation again, but the question will be which version of Norris will show up: the 2016 Daniel Norris (3.92 FIP, 127 ERA+) or the 2017 Daniel Norris (4.39 FIP, 86 ERA+)?

Lastly, remember how the bullpen usually seemed to be a dumpster fire? Well, things don’t look much better for Detroit this season. Shane Greene, the assumed closer, projects to have a 4.43 ERA with a WHIP of 1.343 while striking out fewer than a batter per inning. Those getting the ball to him prior to the ninth inning don’t look to fare too much better, either. Alex Wilson may prove to be decent, VerHagen, Hardy, and Jimenez are all coming off of awful seasons. With Justin Verlander no longer dominating every fifth day, the bullpen is going to be called on to replace those innings and that’s not a good sign for Tiger fans.

There are a couple of players who the Tigers will hope to build around for the future, and I’m sure they’ll win a few games this season. But don’t expect this Detroit team to be the juggernaut it once was; if anything, they will be a bottom feeder in not only the AL Central, but all of baseball.

FanGraphs

Kansas City Royals

If I’m being honest, my disdain for the Kansas City Royals has grown to surpass that of the Tigers. In all honesty, it’s mostly out of spite and jealously and a little begrudging respect from what they were able to accomplish in both 2014 and 2015. I wanted the Indians to be the AL Central team to win for the first time since the White Sox did it in 2005 (despite what ESPN graphics will lead you to believe, a Chicago team won the World Series before the Cubs in 2016). But those years are come and gone. How do the Royals look heading into 2018?

In a word, confused. While the Royals let Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer leave to the Brewers and Padres, respectively, they did resign Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar to 1-year deals. In addition, they handed out 1-year contracts to Lucas Duda and Jon Jay as well. So it seems that the Royals know that a rebuild is inevitable, but they’re hoping they can coax one last season of magic out of their veterans before going into full tank mode like the Tigers.

The two best offensive players for the Royals this season will be Whit Merrifield and Salvador Perez. In 2017, Merrifield improved from 2016 and became an above average bat in the KC lineup, and projections expect that he’ll fall somewhere between those two seasons in 2018. Salvador Perez will continue to be one of the best catchers in baseball. He’s made the All-Star team every year since 2013 and there’s nothing to suggest that that won’t be the case again going forward. The only thing working against Perez is that he is on the wrong side of 30 and...wait, he’s only 28? It feels like he’s been in the league for a decade. Expect Salvy to lead the offense this season without the likes of Eric Hosmer around.

On the pitching side of things, Danny Duffy looks to be the staff ace, but everyone else in the rotation is a giant question mark. Jason Hammel was below average last season and looks to be so again. Nathan Karns was decent last season but has never thrown over 150 innings in a season. Ian Kennedy is like Hammel only slightly younger. And Jakob Junis had a solid rookie campaign last season, but his peripherals say that it’s only a matter of time before things crash around him.

In contrast to the Tigers, the Royals, over the past few seasons, have been known for their lights out bullpen. From Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Ryan Madson, and Kelvin Herrera, the Royals dominated late in games. Now, all that remains from that group is Kelvin Herrera, who’s been good but not otherworldly as of last season. The rest of the bullpen probably won’t be horrendous, but the Royals will not feel the same confidence in their relief corps as they felt in years past.

The 2018 Royals can’t decide if they are contending for a wild card spot a la the 2017 Twins or rebuilding like...the majority of the Royals time as a franchise. Expect them to be active at the deadline, either as buyers or (likely) sellers, depending on what their record is looking like.

FranGraphs

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are in the middle of their own rebuild and are getting to the point where they will start contending very soon. However, they are still a season or two out from challenging for the AL Central title.

While Miguel Cabrera may not be terrorizing Tribe pitching like he once did, another power hitting first baseman has stepped in to take his place, and that player is Jose Abreu. Abreu entered the league in 2014 and has not stopped hitting since. He’s durable as hell (average of 153 games/season), he’s hit over 30 home runs in all but one of his four season in the majors, and he just turned 30 last season. His career trajectory may follow that of Miguel Cabrera, but we’re a few years away from him being worthless at the plate; Jose Abreu will torment Cleveland pitching this season.

Are you a fan of stellar pitching? Then the 2018 White Sox is not the team for you. Following an absolutely horrendous 2017 in which the Sox deployed one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball, the good pitchers (such as Jose Quintana) are gone. Instead, staff ace duties will fall to the 22-year-old Lucas Giolito. The Sox are hoping that Giolito can be part of a core to build around in the next few seasons, but as it stands right now, he’s thrown fewer than 100 innings across two seasons in the majors and is now looking to lead a pitching staff in the absence of Carlos Rodon, who is injured. James Shields used to be good once upon a time, but those days are long gone. Dylan Covey will round out the rotation, and he was awful in his debut season last year (7.71 ERA, 56 ERA+ over 70.0 innings). The bullpen might do alright with Gregory Infante, Juan Minaya, and Nate Jones, but with the futility of the starting rotation, it may not make any difference.

A bright spot for the White Sox is their prospects. Between guys like Eloy Jimenez, Michael Kopech and Luis Robert, there is a lot of potential high end talent just waiting in the wings. This makes no mention of Yoan Moncada, who was a consensus top prospect in all of baseball just a season ago. Depending on how the Sox do early in the season, expect them to trade off more pieces like Abreu and Avisail Garcia to help bolster their farm system even further. Chicago is a season or two away from being a real pain in the ass in the AL Central, but the growing pains of their young players coupled with too few reliable veterans will make it hard to compete in 2018.

FanGraphs

Minnesota Twins

We’ve heard it all through offseason and spring training. “Don’t sleep on the Twins”, “Minnesota could take the AL Central away from Cleveland”, “Fernando Rodney is going to shoot one of his invisible arrows directly into Slider”. Okay, that last one is just my wishful thinking, but the point stands that the Twins look to be one of the few sources of AL Central competition for the Tribe in the 2018 season.

Having gone through their own rebuild process, the Twins are at the point that the Tribe was a few seasons ago: have a lot of good, young talent locked up for several years. Byron Buxton is a rising star and won’t be a free agent until at least 2022 (longer if the Twins sign him to an extension). Miguel Sano is a star and, again, will not be a free agent until at least 2022 (longer if the Twins sign him to an extension). Jorge Polanco just got busted for using PEDs, so maybe his future isn’t as rosy as it was, but he should be with the team through 2023. Jose Berrios emerged as a budding staff ace and will be on the team through 2023. Eddie Rosario is getting ready to enter his prime and will likely continue to hit for high average and power through at least 2022. And Max Kepler... exists. But he exists as a 24-year-old with 20+ home run power, so don’t write him off just yet.

Pair the young guys with solid veteran contributors like Ervin Santana, Brian Dozier, and Joe Mauer, and you have the makings of a team that could make some noise in 2018 and beyond. Despite being 34 years old, Joe Mauer still had an OPS+ in 2017 of 116, so don’t expect his bat to just roll over and die. Brian Dozier will only be 31, but he projects to have an OPS of .831 (per baseball-reference). Santana is starting the year on the DL after having a procedure on his right middle finger, but he could be back for the home stretch and provide just enough to get the Twins over the edge and into the playoffs like last season.

The aforementioned archery enthusiast Fernando Rodney turns 41 this season and doesn’t project to be all that good. At all. But he had a decent season for the Diamondbacks last year and has stuck around in the league since 2002, so don’t be surprised if he ends up defying logic and becomes the next Andrew Miller. It’s unlikely, but I suppose there is a non-zero chance of it happening. The rest of the bullpen is sufficiently whelming, so don’t expect them to be as bad as the Tigers but they won’t be anywhere close to as good as the Indians.

The Twins will be watchable and even competitive this season, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I do believe that the Indians are the clear favorites to win the AL Central, but that doesn’t mean that they will steamroll everyone in the division. The Twins, if not this season, will eventually win the AL Central in the next five years. Their window is starting to crack open while the Indians’ is starting to slide close. Cleveland’s team is getting older, Minnesota’s team is getting younger. However, because of the strength of teams in the AL East and potentially AL West, the Twins may find themselves left out of the postseason. Their best shot looks to be a wild card spot, but to do that, they will have to get through the Yankees/Red Sox and Angels.

FanGraphs

Projected standings

  1. Cleveland Indians
  2. Minnesota Twins
  3. Chicago White Sox
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Detroit Tigers