AL Central Hot Stove Preview: Can anyone make up ground on Tigers?

Wednesday November 6th, 2013

Reliever Joaquin Benoit and second baseman Omar Infante are two key free agents Detroit should try and retain.
Duane Burleson/AP

This week, is breaking down the offseason plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2013.

More Hot Stove previews: AL East | NL East | NL Central | AL West | NL West

Detroit Tigers

2013 Record: 93-69, first in AL Central, lost to Red Sox in ALCS

Run differential: +172, third in MLB

Pending free agents: 2B Omar Infante, RP Joaquin Benoit, SS Jhonny Peralta, C Brayan Peña, IF Ramon Santiago

Peralta was an All-Star in 2013, but the middle infielder the Tigers should prioritize re-signing is the less heralded Infante, who was second fiddle in Detroit's double-play combination. The addition of defensive whiz Jose Iglesias at short, the Biogenesis-related suspension of Peralta and the steady play of Infante (.318 average) makes bringing the latter back a smart move. The same goes for closer Benoit, who had 24 saves and a 2.01 ERA last season.

Top prospect on the verge: Nick Castellanos, LF

Castellanos, the No. 15 prospect on Baseball America's midseason list, could be the cure to the Tigers' leftfield woes. Detroit ranked just 20th in the majors in OPS at the position last year, but Castellanos, who'll turn 22 in March, is a career .303 hitter in the minor leagues and went 5-for-18 as a September call-up in 2013. He will push Andy Dirks in spring training for playing time in leftfield.

Targets: Relief pitching, second base

Keeping Benoit and Infante is a strong start to the offseason, but the Tigers need much more to shore up a shaky bullpen that has plagued them in consecutive postseasons. A larger role for fireballer Bruce Rondon will help, but Detroit should still seek a couple more impact contributors to a bullpen that had a 4.01 ERA in the regular season and a 4.07 mark in the playoffs. The Tigers have spared little expense in building their current roster, so why stop now when two more relievers could be enough? Some of the best available relievers -- Grant Balfour, Jesse Crain, Joe Nathan, et al. -- should be on Detroit's radar.

There have also been reports that the Tigers could trade likely Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who is entering the final year of team control and could fetch some $20 million in arbitration, but the club lacks rotation depth, meaning it would need another high-upside arm either as part of the trade's return or in free agency.

Bottom Line: The Tigers, who hired Brad Ausmus as their new manager last Sunday, have won three straight AL Central titles and advanced to at least the ALCS each time. They just need a few finishing pieces to get over the hump and claim a World Series title.

Cleveland Indians

2013 Record: 92-70, second in AL Central, lost AL wild card game to Rays

Run differential: +83, 8th in MLB

Pending free agents: SP Ubaldo Jimenez, SP Scott Kazmir, RP Joe Smith, RP Matt Albers, RP Rich Hill, RP Chris Perez, C Kelly Shoppach

Jimenez re-emerged as an elite pitcher last season and was arguably the AL's best starter in the second half, a fortuitously timed ascension leading into free agency. He likely priced himself out of Cleveland, though the club could retain Kazmir and a few of its relievers. Smith led the team in holds with 25 and could be a coveted set-up man this winter. Perez is a free agent after the organization released him last week before he entered arbitration.

Top prospect on the verge: Danny Salazar, RHP

Salazar not only reached the majors for 10 regular season starts but also got the ball in the AL Wild-Card Game against the Rays. The 23-year-old has a fastball that touches 100 mph and posted a 3.12 ERA and 11.3 K/9 down the stretch, though he allowed three runs in just four innings against the Rays in that postseason start. He'll assume Jimenez's spot in the rotation and, while some could argue he's past the point of being "on the verge," Cleveland's next impact prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor, who only reached Double A for 21 games and probably won't see the majors until 2015.

Targets: Starting pitching, relief pitching, third base

Even if Salazar adequately replaces Jimenez, Cleveland could stand to upgrade its rotation. The Indians won't be able to land one of the top tier starters but could target bounceback guys with upside, a group that should include Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, Phil Hughes, Josh Johnson and Colby Lewis. A late-inning reliever would be a welcome addition to improve upon the departed Perez. And another disappointing season from former top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall could force the Indians to explore the third base market, though the pickings there are slim unless Jhonny Peralta returns to Cleveland and is moved to third, where he played for the Tribe extensively in 2009 and '10.

Bottom Line: The Indians completed a remarkable turnaround in the first season under manager Terry Francona, improving by 24 wins and reaching the playoffs for the first time in six years. They did so with big free-agent additions Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher not playing to their potential, so the club's offense, which ranked fourth in the AL in runs, could improve without many changes. That should allow Cleveland's front office to instead focus on adding some pitching this offseason.

Kansas City Royals

2013 Record: 86-76, third in AL Central

Run differential +47, 12th in MLB

Pending free agents: SP Ervin Santana, SP/RP Bruce Chen

Santana's bounceback season (3.24 ERA, after a 5.16 mark for the Angels in 2012) probably pushes his open-market value beyond the Royals' means. Chen was a highly serviceable swingman, with a 3.27 ERA over 121 innings while working as both a starter and reliever and could be worth Kansas City keeping him in that role.

Top prospect on the verge: Yordano Ventura, RHP

The hard-throwing Ventura, 22, debuted in September, making three starts for the wild card-chasing Royals. He acquitted himself very well in two of those outings before a clunker to end the season. In all, he had a 3.52 ERA in 15⅓ innings in the majors after blitzing through Double A (2.34 ERA in 57⅔ innings) and Triple A (3.74 ERA in 77 innings) and could soften the rotation's expected loss of Santana.

The Royals would surely love to bring Carlos Beltran back to Kansas City, where he played from 1998-2004, but he's probably too expensive for them.
Ed Zurga/AP

Targets: Rightfield, starting pitching

Kansas City's biggest priority needs to be improving an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs. The lineup only received above-average production from three positions -- catcher (Salvador Perez), first base (Eric Hosmer) and leftfield (Alex Gordon) -- so the areas of need are plentiful, though Alcides Escobar is prized for his solid defense at shortstop and the Royals are likely inclined to give Mike Moustakas another chance at third base.

Lorenzo Cain was among the AL's best defenders in centerfield and second baseman Emilio Bonifacio showed solid on-base skills, making rightfield the highest priority. A return of Carlos Beltran or a splash for Nelson Cruz would be ideal, though both are probably out of the Royals' price range. Adding a veteran like Marlon Byrd or Michael Morse would be a more budget-friendly option.

An ESPN report stoked the Billy Butler trade fire, so the list of offseason targets may change if Kansas City deals its longtime DH, who is under contract for $8 million in 2014 and has a club option for '15.

The Royals led the AL in staff ERA this past season on the heels of a dominant bullpen (and an excellent supporting defense), but the rotation could use two starters. Ventura and Danny Duffy are two internal options for those jobs.

Bottom Line: Kansas City has ace James Shields under contract for one more year, which should increase the sense or urgency to improve the club for 2014. It would be a shame for the Royals not to reach the postseason during the two-year window they had after trading top hitting prospect Wil Myers to the Rays last winter to land Shields.

Minnesota Twins

2013 Record: 66-96, fourth in AL Central

Run differential: -174, 29th in MLB

Pending free agents: SP Mike Pelfrey

The Twins traded their most notable pending free agent, Justin Morneau, to the Pirates in August, meaning they only have to make a decision on Pelfrey, whom they may well let walk after he had a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts.

Top prospect on the verge: Miguel Sano, 3B

Sano, BA's No. 3 prospect on its midseason list, has awesome power and a developing bat. He hit .330 with 16 home runs in 56 games of High A ball and then reached Double A for 67 games in which he slugged 19 homers but batted only .236. Sano, 20, will likely start 2014 in Triple A before receiving an in-season call-up. Prodigious outfield prospect Byron Buxton, No. 1 on that same BA list, topped out in High A ball last year and is at least a year behind Sano's career trajectory.

Targets: Starting pitching, first base, rightfield

The Twins' rotation and offense are both in dire need of help, though don't expect lavish free-agent spending this offseason, as the organization has a clear preference for rebuilding through its farm system. If there's a dramatic overhaul in the works, it'll more likely happen via trade, with leftfielder/DH Josh Willingham as the most attractive bargaining chip.

That said, the rotation needs such extreme aid that a free-agent addition or two would be of great use. In 2013, the unit had a 5.26 ERA that was MLB's worst by nearly half a run and a 4.93 K/9 that was a strikeout and a half worse than any other AL club. While there's hope for prospects Kyle Gibson, Trevor May and Alex Meyer, not all of them will even make the majors next season. Maybe Vance Worley straightens out his 2013 struggles but look for Minnesota to add a mid-rotation helper. A flyball pitcher like Phil Hughes or Jason Vargas could make some sense for Target Field.

The offense scored just 614 runs last year, 13th in the AL, so a few lineup additions could be in the works. First baseman/DH Kendrys Morales would be a great fit but may be too pricey; Corey Hart, a two-time All-Star with the Brewers but coming off a year lost to injury, could play first or rightfield if he's healthy.

Bottom Line: Minnesota is rebuilding and will not contend in 2014. It has, however, stockpiled some impressive prospects in the minors. They alone won't be enough to turn this club around, so the Twins ought to start adding a few mid-level free agents or trade acquisitions to supplement the future stars in the system.

Chicago White Sox

2013 Record: 63-99, fifth in AL Central

Run differential: -125, 25th in MLB

Pending free agents: 1B Paul Konerko, SP Gavin Floyd

This may well be the end of an era on the South Side of Chicago. Konerko is a 15-year veteran of the White Sox who hit 427 home runs in their uniform and who in 2005 helped bring home the franchise's first World Series title in nearly nine decades. But his decline in 2013 at age 37 was precipitous, and the addition of Cuban free agent Jose Abreu likely means Konerko won't be brought back. Floyd is recovering from arm surgery and won't be ready to pitch on Opening Day.

Top prospect on the verge: Jose Abreu, 1B

Chicago's 2014 Rookie of the Year candidate may already be 26 years old, but Abreu was a polished hitter in the Cuban professional league who should make an immediate impact next season. Abreu, who signed a six-year, $68 million contract, has power and plate discipline and will likely take over Konerko's job at first base for the foreseeable future.

Targets: Starting pitching, lineup improvements

The second-half trades of Alexis Rios, Jake Peavy, Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain began the rebuilding process in Chicago and cleared a good chunk of payroll. The White Sox might not re-allocate it all immediately, given that returning to contention will take more than one offseason, but if the right player is available, the Sox could make a play for him.

The lineup doesn't have any black holes that qualify as spots where the team must improve, but most positions are stocked with players teetering too close to league-average, meaning the White Sox could improve almost anywhere. Curtis Granderson, a Chicago native, profiles as a power-hitter with a flyball swing who would excel at U.S. Cellular Field, if the club is willing to make either Ajejandro de Aza or Dayan Viciedo into a fourth outfielder for a year until Adam Dunn vacates the DH spot after 2014. (Avisail Garcia is likely entrenched in rightfield.)

Chris Sale is an ace with a team-friendly contract -- guaranteed through 2017 with two team options after that -- so he'll remain atop that rotation, with Jose Quintana, Hector Santiago and John Danks slotting in behind him. The Sox are likely to add at least one starter this winter. Someone with good groundball rates, like Jason Hammel or Scott Feldman, ought to be good fits in Chicago.

Bottom Line: The White Sox' second half wheeling and dealing positioned them to rebuild more efficiently. Signing Abreu was one major splash, but this club could stand to make another to accelerate its turnaround.

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