MLB Preview: AL Central Guide and Predictions

Matt Boyd: AL Central PreviewOur next MLB preview focuses on the AL Central, a division that was top-heavy in 2018. The Cleveland Indians won the division with a 91-71 record but beyond them, there wasn’t much to celebrate.

The AL Central was the only division in MLB to have just one team with a .500 record or better. They are also the only one to have two teams hit the 100-loss mark. Fortunately for the Central, the expectations are a little better in 2019 as two teams are projected to finish with 81 wins or better.  So how has the outlook changed in 2019?

  1. Detroit Tigers – Last year was not a memorable one for any AL Central team not named the Indians, but among the five, the Tigers actually finished in third. It wasn’t quite a respectable third as they still lost 98 games, but that’s how bad the Central really was.

Looking on the bright side, despite the Tigers expected to drop to the division’s cellar, they are actually projected to have an uptick in wins by four.  Part of the reason for this is that Detroit’s starting pitching staff is actually fairly good; in fact it’s second best to the Indians in the division. Led by Matt Boyd and Jordan Zimmermann and bolstered by Michael Fulmer and Tyson Ross, the Tigers have four starters who class in at average or above and that’s pretty good.

Unfortunately, even if your pitcher allows zero runs, there are no ties in baseball. You have to score to win and for Detroit that was a real low point in 2018. The Tigers had the fourth worst OPS and scored the fifth fewest runs. Among those in the regular lineup, just two batters, Nicholas Castellanos, managed to hit over .260 or what would be considered as average in MLB.

Offensive woes are still expected to be a problem for the Tigers, who are in the midst of a rebuild. The return of Miguel Cabrera, who missed much of the season with injury, should provide a boost but beyond that, there isn’t much reason to be excited about Detroit’s ability at the plate or on the bases.

  1. Kansas City Royals – Just a few years removed from a World Series Championship in 2015, the Royals have been in a bit of a freefall since. In 2016, the team won just 81 games, followed by 80 the following year and then a huge drop to just 58 wins, the second worst mark in baseball, in 2018.

There is reason to believe that Kansas City could be working their way back up, as evidenced by their predicted 11-win increase this year. Now, that would still put them at just 69 wins, but hey, baby steps. Much like the Tigers, Kansas City is in the midst of a rebuild as much of that World Series winning team has moved on.

The Royals are led by hot shot prospects turned recent major leaguers in Whit Merrifield, one of the best second basemen in baseball, and Adalberto Mondesi, who showed why he could be the shortstop of the future. Offensively, these are two solid players to build around and two who could make some big strides in 2019.

Kansas City really is the opposite of Detroit because for what they have to be optimistic about from the plate, that is certainly not the case on the mound. In order to help build that World Series team, the Royals mortgaged their future for the present and in terms of their pitching prospects that decision is starting to have its implications. Last year, the team had the second worst-ERA with both starters and bullpen combined and they did little to address this concern in the offseason.

  1. Chicago White Sox – Also expected to see a significant increase in wins (62 to 71), the White Sox are kind of just floating in the middle of the Central. They aren’t the worst team, they aren’t the best team. They have their flaws no doubt, but they aren’t as bad as the Royals or Tigers and aren’t as good as the Minnesota Twins or Indians.

It’s a tough position to be in because a middle of the road finish can lead to a never-ending pattern of being stuck in purgatory, not really moving up or down. The White Sox will look to change that in 2019 and they will rely in large part on their bullpen to help their win totals return to a point of respectability.

For the first time in a long time, the White Sox bullpen is actually pretty strong and has arms who can help keep the team in position to win when given the ball with a lead late in the game. The only problem is, they might not get the ball with leads that often as the White Sox starters were among the worst in baseball last year, with a 5.07 ERA.

With an offense that also ranked among the worst in runs scored, Chicago was in the rough situation of having both offense and pitching lackluster. This led to a 100-loss season, the franchise’s first in nearly 50 years. There is reason to be optimistic however as the White Sox made some solid additions in free agency including Ivan Nova for the pitching staff and Jon Jay and Yonder Alonso for the lineup.

  1. Minnesota Twins – Another team mostly hovering in the dreaded middle of the pack is the Twins, who finished second in the AL Central last year and are projected to have a similar finish in 2019. Expected to see an increase in about five wins (78 to 83), Minnesota has a team that is right on the cusp of moving from average to possible division winner.

The Twins finished last year as the 13th best team in baseball in runs scored and that was with struggles of two of their top players. Expected increased production from both Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano could allow the Twins to jump into the top-10 in that category. Then there is the addition of power-hitting Nelson Cruz.

Overall, the Twins have a solid lineup that borders on pretty good, complete with young up-and-coming bats and veterans as well. It’s a good balance. Where the Twins lack balance however is in their pitching. Minnesota has been churning and burning pitchers at an insane rate over the past two decades but don’t have much to show for their efforts. In fact, the team has managed to convert just two of the last 21 pitchers they drafted in the first three rounds of drafts into starters. That’s not a very good success rate and it explains why Minnesota hasn’t quite managed to get over the hump recently.

Interestingly enough however, the Twins aren’t straying from this formula as they are looking to farm products in their rotation once again. Only Michael Pineda, who wasn’t able to debut last year with his new team due to Tommy John surgery, is a non-Twins groomed starter. Only time will tell if this works out and if Minnesota manages to make this a race in 2019.

  1. Cleveland Indians – In many ways, the AL Central was the least exciting division to watch in 2018. That’s because the winner was practically known at the halfway point as only the Indians had managed to do anything of substance. The other teams remained so far out at bay they might as well have been at sea. This year, despite each of the previous four teams expected to improve, so are the Indians (91 to 93 wins), meaning this could be a one-horse race yet again.

The Twins could challenge but really, this is Cleveland’s division to win once more. For starters, the Indians have maybe the best rotation in the American League. They are led by 20-game winner Corey Kluber with three of four other starters reaching 10+wins. That’s an incredible accomplishment for any team and this year, not only do the Indians have the same four guys returning, but they will have even more help from their farm system.

There is no reason not to pencil in all five starters for 10+ wins yet again, especially with No. 1 prospect Triston McKenzie possibly in line to make his MLB debut. One area the Indians failed to improve however was with their offense. Already a little short in 2018, the team lost some heavy hitters in the offseason and didn’t quite replace them in a way that leaves many excited. That said, Cleveland still has a great team that once again will finish with a playoff season.