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Big changes mean a competitive AL Central in 2020

A roundtable discussion of the American League Central from site managers around SB Nation

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

From now until Opening Day (and a little bit beyond) Let’s Go Tribe will be previewing the 2020 season for the Indians from every angle — position previews, a look at the AL Central, players you should know, and more. See the full preview here.

For the first time in several years, the Indians will enter 2020 as a divisional underdog. The Twins augmented their American League Central-winning team of a year ago with former MVP Josh Donaldson, and the Chicago White Sox have pried their window to win open with an old friend in Edwin Encarnación and one of the best catchers in baseball in Yasmani Grandal. The Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are also there.

More important than the Indians’ underdog status, the division will actually be fun this year. Of course the hope is to come out on top, but at least we’ll be seeing more competitive, meaningful games and a potential three-team race down the stretch.

In the spirit of this newfound competition, site managers from around SB Nation’s AL Central teams hopped in a group email together to answer some questions about their respective teams.

1. What’s changed for your team over the off season?

Rob Rogacki, Bless You Boys Managing Editor: If you take the thousand-foot view, not much has changed for the Tigers over the past several months. They are still mired in a rebuild, and still won’t be very good in 2020. Their top prospects are a bit closer to the major leagues now, and we should finally see some of their top arms in Detroit at some point this year. However, they still don’t have much in the way of impact talent on the other side of the ball in their system. They will be better this year (courtesy of a couple of former Twins!) but it will still be a long season for us Tigers fans.

TJ Gorsegner, Twinkie Town Managing Editor: For the first time in... ever... they are acting like actual contenders. Even when the Twins were expected to be good, they would rarely, if ever, go acquire big pieces. This off season, they were players in the sweepstakes for several big name pitchers, before missing out and pivoting to Josh Donaldson. They also played with the big boys on the Mookie Betts trade, and despite the drama, still ended up getting their guy.

Matt Lyons, Let’s Go Tribe Managing Editor: Well, the sadness levels have increased, that’s one. Corey Kluber is longer a member of the Indians, but Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields are. The payroll has been slashed by several million dollars with no sign of reinvestment. It’s going great, actually.

Max Reiper, Royals Review Managing Editor: You won’t have Ned Yost to kick around anymore! Ned retired on his own terms, championship ring in hand, and was replaced by former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. Matheny initially had success in St. Louis, winning a pennant, but crashed and burned toward the end with a tense clubhouse that included some hazing. He has acknowledged his mistakes and has said all the right things, including emphasizing a desire to learn analytics and deal with the press better. He likely won’t be judged much by wins and losses here, but Royals fans will be watching to see how he deals with the clubhouse and develops younger players.

The Royals also have a new owner, local businessman John Sherman, who was once part of the ownership group in Cleveland. He hasn’t said much about how he wants to run the team, but there are indications he wants to invest more in innovative strategies and he has spoken some on wanting to get into behavioral analysis. Having just spent a billion dollars on a baseball team, the ownership group likely isn’t cash-heavy enough to spend on free agents, so expect a low payroll as they rebuild, but Royals fans will want to see investments in players before very long.

On the field, it was a very quite off-season, with the only significant addition being third baseman Maikel Franco, who fell out of favor in Philadelphia. The Royals did bring All-Star outfielder Alex Gordon for what will likely be his last year. Other than that, they mostly took flyers on low-cost minor league free agents like Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland, and looked for young available talent, getting pitcher Chance Adams from the Yankees and pitcher Stephen Woods from the Rays in the Rule 5 draft.

Brett Ballantini, South Side Sox Managing Editor: Well, where to begin? The ballclub acted like a big-boy team in a major market and Spent Some Money. Whoa. From the payroll cellar to … 18th. It’s a start. After a 2018-19 offseason marked by signing a bunch of clods to attract Manny Machado who ultimately advised it was better for Manny to take San Diego’s millions, things went a little better in 2019-20.

1a. Any noteworthy free agents or trades, new coaches or front office people? How will these changes impact your team in 2020?

Rob: As I hinted above, the Tigers went out and addressed one of their biggest needs this offseason by signing a pair of former Twins: Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron. The two combined for 48 home runs, or roughly one-third of the Tigers’ team total for the entire 2019 season. The two will add some much-needed thump to the Tigers lineup, and upgrade a right side of the infield that ranked dead last in baseball last year.

However, the biggest upgrade may come behind the plate, where Austin Romine takes over as the starter. Yes, I know how this sounds, but the Tigers were so bad behind the plate last year that even a career backup like Romine represents a massive upgrade. Tigers catchers were nearly four wins below replacement level last year, so even a modest 2 WAR season from Romine in 100-plus games is a 5-6 win upgrade.

TJ: Josh Donaldson, obviously, for one. The biggest free-agent bat that was available comes to Minnesota, and sets a record for the Twins in the process. Donaldson officially moves Miguel Sano off of third, and over to first, where many thought he would eventually end up. Donaldson is a much better defender at the hot corner than Sano, while Sano won’t be much of a drop off from C.J. Cron, so the infield D got better, and the Twins picked up a big offensive upgrade in the process.

While the Twins didn’t pick up any of the top pitchers in free agency, they did successfully re-tool their rotation. Going into the off season, only Jose Berrios was a lock. Jake Odorizzi accepted the QO, so he will slot in at number two, while Kenta Maeda comes over from the Dodgers to slot into the number three spot. Free agent Homer Bailey will look to keep some of his magic from 2019 in Kansas City and Oakland going, in the Twins fourth rotation spot. The fifth spot will be held down by either NRI Jhoulys Chacin, or a rookie in Lewis Thorpe, Devin Smeltzer, or Randy Dobnak. The Twins also lined up some high-end rotation reinforcements, with suspended Michael Pineda due back in May, and injured Rich Hill likely to be available by July. In the bullpen, former Spider Tyler Clippard will be added to a strong group.

Matt: The coaching staff and front office remain the same, outside of some quality additions to the pitching staff. The Twins already stole Derek Falvey, quietly one of the most important members of the Indians front office when he was there. As for on the field, Francisco Lindor is there (for now), and the bullpen looks a bit better with Clase in the mix and hopefully James Karinchak getting a full year there. Domingo Santana is the most recent addition and hopefully he can provide something resembling his 2017 offense. If he does, dare I say the Indians offense might actually be good? I do dare.

Brett: There were a buncha signings, and one noteworthy trade. You guys really wanna read all these free agents? OK. Yasmani Grandal, four years. Dallas Keuchel, three-four years. Gio González, 1-2 years. Edwin Encarnación, 1-2 years. Steve Cishek, 1-2 years. Grandal instantly became the most important persona on the team. Keuchel, a dude whose stuff should play at Sox Park and an instant No. 2. González, a necessary second lefty in the rotation, slotting at No. 5. Encarnación is where the White Sox entered the why-they-hell-not stage, dropping $12m on a DH. Cishek, provided they don’t work him to death as was done on the north side, should slot in as righty setup.

Trades, not much, but the White Sox flipped future Name Hall-of-Famer Steele Walker to Texas for Nomar Mazara. Mazara was gifted the right field job, which would be more offensive if the 2019 RFs on the South Side hadn’t put up a collective -27.8 WAR, give or take.

Extensions! Holy man, a biggie: Luis Robert got the Eloy Jiménez treatment, signing a LONG deal that buys out arbitration, free agency, road trip minibar charges, an assortment of colorful vehicle rims, and more. Like Eloy, he’ll be roaming the outfield on the South Side until at least 30 years of age.

Coaching? The White Sox, tired of their roughly four strikeouts per walk, parted ways with hitting coach Todd Severson and hired ex-Marlins coach Frank Menechino.

The changes will impact the White Sox into not sucking in 2020.

1b. What guys got traded away, walked as free agents, or retired that will impact your team in 2020, and what will that impact be?

Rob: The few losses the Tigers suffered this offseason will not hurt them in 2020, and might even help them improve. Second baseman Josh Harrison missed most of the 2019 season, and still managed to be worth -0.6 WAR in just 36 games. Tyson Ross and Gordon Beckham were replacement level players who were just in the way of younger players by season’s end. Edwin Jackson was on the team at one point.

The only real loss came last July when the Tigers traded Nicholas Castellanos to the Cubs. While there was some debate around the fanbase whether this was a right move — Castellanos was reportedly interested in an extension heading into last year, but never got a contract offer — the Tigers will need to find a way to replace his offensive production this year.

TJ: The Twins didn’t lose a lot of impact guys from 2019. Michael Pineda and Jake Odorizzi both ended up coming back in the rotation, as did Sergio Romo in the bullpen. Kyle Gibson is gone, signed with Texas, but will be more missed off the field than on it. He was an eminently replaceable third starter. Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron both signed with Detroit, so they’re gone, but otherwise the offense comes back intact. Luis Arraez had mostly supplanted Schoop by the end of the season anyway, and Sano will be replacing Cron. Jason Castro for Alex Avila as a back up catcher is also a generally even swap.

Matt: Losing Corey Kluber sucks on an emotional level, but I think his decline was in the cards. He was already walking a lot of batters before his injury and his sinker just wasn’t working the way it used to, so I get why the Indians traded him but I still hate it. It helps that the rotation is still one of the best in baseball without him. No one else of note really left besides Jason Kipnis, but he wasn’t much of a factor in his final year in Cleveland — for better or worse this is mostly the same team as last season.

Max: No one. There were some trade rumors surrounding Whit Merrifield, with the Cubs and Padres both reported to be interested, but the Royals have insisted on a very high asking price, and while there was a report that San Diego thought they were close to a deal, Merrifield remains a Royal. The A’s and Yankees were interested in lefty specialist Tim Hill, but no deal was made. The Royals did not lose a single free agent, and the only notable player they cut loose was third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert.

Brett: See “bunch of clods” above. You can probably measure the losses of Jon Jay, Yonder Alonzo, Dylan Covey, Welington Castillo, Odrisamer Despaigne, Hector Santiago, Manny Bañelos, Charlie Tilson and others. There probably exists a device that records such small measurements. An electron microscope, maybe?

Yolmer Sánchez did take the rather odd route this offseason: 1. being a clubhouse and fan favorite 2. winning a Gold Glove after a piteous defensive open to 2019 3. non-tendered. There is some loss there, not just to Gatorade jugs and rain delay theaters; Yolmer could have been re-upped as a defensive swiss army knife player, but his bat had gone increasingly limp through the seasons. Methinks Sánchez was sort of sacrificed at the altar of SEE WE’RE CHANGING AND CHASING THE POSTSEASON NOW.

2. What players that we haven’t heard of will we want to know about going into 2020? Guys with bigger roles, prospects that might be called up, or breakout candidates?

Rob: If you paid any attention to the Tigers last year — first of all, why? — then most of the names here will look familiar. Former Twins prospect Niko Goodrum is probably the best bet to serve as a breakout candidate, if only because he finally has a defensive home to open the season. He was the Tigers’ most consistent player last year, and defensive metrics have liked his work at shortstop much better than in the outfield. Former Rule 5 pick Victor Reyes was also a nice surprise last year, with 1.6 WAR in 69 games.

But the names to follow will all likely start the year in the farm system. Barring injury, top prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning should reach the majors this season, and 2019 breakout prospect Tarik Skubal won’t be far behind. Catcher Jake Rogers and infielder Willi Castro looked lost at the plate in their first taste of major league action last summer, and outfielder Christin Stewart should also take a step forward (PECOTA projects him for 27 home runs!).

TJ: A few guys come to mind. Luis Arraez got some press as a rookie last season, but will now have a full-time role at second base, and has a great approach at the plate, so could be someone to watch. Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer both pitched well in limited outings last season, and Lewis Thorpe is still a highly regarded prospect, so any of the three could grab a rotation spot and run with it. With all of that said, I think I’ll go with Trevor May. He’s now a couple years removed from injury, and quietly become a shutdown reliever last season. Look for him to become a dominant set-up man for Taylor Rogers. The Twins bullpen as a whole could qualify is a “breakout candidate” because they could actually be sneaky good this year.

Matt: James Karinchak for sure. I think this whole bullpen is going to surprise anyone not paying attention. If Daniel Johnson, who was part of the return for Yan Gomes last offseason, can break into the outfield I think he has a chance to be something special as well. Apparently Zach Plesac has been mentored by Mike Clevinger in the offseason, so I’m anxious to see if he’s really transformed into a middle-of-the-order guy with the newfound tutelage.

Max: The Royals went very heavy on college pitchers in the 2018 draft, and many of those arms will be knocking on the door for big league action this year. First-round pick Brady Singer is expected to compete for a rotation spot in spring training, and Jackson Kowar, his teammate at the University of Florida, should be right behind him. Lefty Daniel Lynch might be better than both, but had a setback last year when he missed six weeks with arm soreness. Lefty Kris Bubic led the entire minor leagues in strikeouts with a Clayton Kershaw-like delivery and could be an underrated prospect.

Brett: A lot of guys fall into the bigger-roles category, top prospects who will get time to shine. Michael Kopech is back from TJS and throwing like 99.5 instead of 100. Or maybe it’s 100.5. He’ll be on a innings watch but will see rotation time. Luis Robert probably won’t hit a ball to the moon or catch one heading to the moon, but he’ll come close. Nick Madrigal seems destined to start the season in Charlotte in this year’s edition of the Service Time Game, but should see Chicago sometime in the first half.

It’s being talked up a lot as a make-or-break year for Reynaldo López, who came over from Washington with Lucas Giolito in the Adam Eaton deal a few years back. The White Sox hope for a Giolito-esque resurgence, because by some measures he was as bad in 2019 as Giolito was in 2018. López has a very live arm and very infectious spirit, so it’s a safe bet him impact the lower end of the rotation, or at worst a late-inning role in the second half of the season.

3. What are the general feelings of your fan base going into 2020? Optimism, Pessimism, a little of both?

Rob: There is still plenty of apathy to be found around the Tigers fanbase, but those of us still paying close attention are hopeful that the team will at least be a little more watchable in 2020. From the added thump to the lineup — Cron, Schoop, and Romine are all huge upgrades over complete black holes — to the plethora of arms that should debut this year, there are several more reasons to pay attention to the Tigers in 2020, even if they still lose close to 100 games.

TJ: There are a few “grumpy Gus’s” out there who think the team deserves a failing grade for the off season, because they didn’t magically procure an “ace” and that the Twins’ pitching staff won’t be able to stand up to the Yankees’ in a playoff series. Most fans, however, are optimistic or at least cautiously optimistic. We are in uncharted waters, as the Twins have never quite reloaded after a successful season like this. I think we have every reason to believe that the Twins will be in the hunt for a second consecutive division title, and to be considered serious World Series contenders.

Matt: There are strong opinions on both sides that no matter how you feel you’ll find someone who vehemently disagrees with you. But I think this offseason, combined with last offseason, has disillusioned a lot of Indians fans. The team is being clearly run like a business, not an organization that’s goal is to win a World Series. Hopefully they luck into one before I die, though.

Max: Times have been tough the last few seasons, but I think most fans feel the team is on the right track, although they may feel the rebuild has not been as quick as they would like. The Royals have done a pretty good job in the last two drafts, have found a few gems like Hunter Dozier and Brad Keller that, with young players like Adalberto Mondesi, they can build around. They have reportedly signed a new local TV deal that should more than double what they were making before, and they are starting to shed some of the onerous contracts on the books, which could mean re-investing in player payroll in the next year or two. Patience will start to wear thin if the team doesn’t start making improvement soon, but I think fans see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Brett: VERY upbeat. I mean, the 2010s were pretty much one long kick in the crotch for White Sox fans, so there could be some Stockholm Syndrome going on — but folks outside of the South Side have issued plaudits for the team, so the optimism may be true. There’s still a lot of abused-puppy flinching going on; when certain fans heard Giolito had the flu and had to miss SoxFest, he went right to coronavirus watch. But all in all, boy howdy, we’re pissing rainbows in on the South Side these days.

4. Who is your pick to win the AL Central, and why?

Rob: Even though the White Sox did everything they could to vault themselves into contention this year, I think the Twins win the division in a walk. Cleveland has once again failed to do anything of note (besides trade Corey Kluber — remember that?), and their 93-win season from 2019 was buoyed by an 18-1 record (!) against the Tigers. If that series comes back to the middle even a bit, the Tribe will struggle to keep pace with a Minnesota club that made some savvy moves themselves this offseason.

TJ: I’m picking the Twins. Cleveland looks worse than last year, but everyone else looks better. Still, Detroit and Kansas City are in the heart of the rebuild, so they aren’t likely threats. The White Sox are going to be a pretty decent team this year, but I don’t think they did enough to catch up to Minnesota. I think the Twins walk away with around 96 wins and about a ten-game gap. Chicago and Cleveland will duke it out for second place, with both teams finishing with between 82 and 88 wins, and of course, we know the others will be cellar-dwelling.

Matt: The Indians. Fight me.

Max: The Twins were the best team last year and only improved their team, while the Indians seemed to take a step back to re-load, so it seems like Minnesota is the slam dunk answer here. I’m not yet sold on the White Sox, and the Royals and Tigers should be mathematically eliminated by Labor Day.

Brett: Pfft, these answers have been boring so far, and in the case of Matt’s just sad. So hell, I’ll say the White Sox. NOT because the White Sox are so great — they’re like upper-80s wins if we want to spit on a cupcake and call it frosting. But more because, hey, perhaps those big bad bouncy meaty Minnies ain’t so bad after all. I don’t see upper-90s wins for the Twins, and yes I do remember they are playing in a division with both the Royals and Tigers. And a few bad breaks … some bats go nerf, a shaky rotation gets the shimmies, it turns into a Tripod of Terror death match reminiscent of 2008. And we remember how that all shook out, right, Twins. Cleveland, I just don’t get: Paltry O, somewhat shaky P. I’m not sold. So, White Sox 2020? Why not us?

5. What else should our readers know about your team?

Rob: Well, they’re certainly a team. The Tigers will look similar to last year’s club, but will hopefully provide a bit more resistance to their AL Central foes (and everyone else). The team that starts the year in Detroit will look wildly different from where they end up in August and September, which should make things more interesting for Tigers fans and opponents alike.

And hey, maybe they won’t finish in last place this year!

TJ: This is going to be a really, really fun team to watch. The “Bomba Squad” put up a record number of dingers last year, but more importantly, looked like they had a blast doing it. Eddie Rosario seems to have taken a firm leadership role in the clubhouse, and he is a very fun personality, so the team will follow that mold. Adding a well-respected vet in Donaldson will also help. Willians Astudillo is still around. Trevor May has a huge following among people who aren’t traditional baseball fans, and Maeda is specifically known for his humor, so don’t be surprised if the Twins are among the most entertaining teams this year, outside of the win-loss column.

Matt: They’re very poor, please give them money.

Max: New owner John Sherman has been a big booster of downtown Kansas City and is reportedly open to the idea of moving the team downtown, an idea that has been kicked around Kansas City for nearly two decades. Kauffman Stadium is beautiful and has a lease through 2030, but will probably need a facelift by then, and some feel moving the team downtown would be a better investment for the city and for the club rather than spending money on what is an isolated stadium in the middle of nowhere. There likely won’t be action for awhile, but it is something to keep an eye on for Royals fans in the next decade.

Brett: Last year at this time, the most exciting news about the White Sox was the fact that the team moated off a couple of sections in right field and erected a massive GOOSE HEAD. It’s pretty cool that a bunch of great stuff has happened since then. The team of the 2020s is ready to get rolling.