The AL Central should be baseball’s easiest division to predict. The Cleveland Indians have captured three division titles in a row; last year, none of their competitors finished within a dozen games of first place. And so far, there hasn’t been any seismic winter activity to change the divisional landscape.
But there have been a few small tremors—most of them coming out of Cleveland, though none have been particularly promising for the team. The Indians have let essentially all of their free agents walk (Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Lonnie Chisenhall), and executed trades primarily to cut costs (Yan Gomes, Yonder Alonso, Edwin Encarnacion). None of these deals was bad, and taken the team doesn’t look dramatically worse. But it certainly doesn’t look better.
Cleveland’s cushion in the division is large enough to pull off this kind of lull: The team may not have improved, but it’ll almost certainly still win the AL Central. It’s easy to imagine the potential for a different approach here—using the security of a weak division as a green light to go all the way in and build a team designed to play not just in October, but through October—but Cleveland’s front office and ownership apparently hasn’t decided to play that way. After being swept out of the first round in 2018, the team hasn’t done much to avoid a similar fate for 2019.
It’s still far more likely than not that Cleveland wins the AL Central. What would it take for a different outcome, though? It’s not probable, but it’s possible, and Cleveland certainly hasn’t done much this winter to guard itself against any surprises. So… What would that look like?
There aren’t enough miracles around to bring anything real out of the ongoing rebuilds Kansas City or Detroit. The White Sox are lined up to start making a splash in 2020 or 2021, but even if they manage to secure their dream of Manny Machado, it’s hard to imagine them competing 2019. This leaves the most likely potential challenger as the Twins, who finished in second place last year—and played in the wild card game in just 2017, although that was easy to forget with a 78-win 2018. Will 2019 be closer to the former than the latter? It seems like it might! The Twins haven’t lost much this winter, but they’ve added a little. Most notably, they signed a one-year deal with slugger Nelson Cruz; they’ve also brought on pitcher Blake Parker, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, first baseman C.J. Cron and, of course, a new manager in Rocco Baldelli.
Individually, none of these seems like a transformative upgrade, but collectively, they might end up feeling fairly significant. Minnesota isn’t pushing all its chips in to go for something big, but it’s trying to do something. The 2019 Twins seem likely to be better than the 2018 Twins. The question is just by how much.
First, here’s what was working last year: Outfielder Eddie Rosario has had back-to-back seasons with a 115 OPS+ or above. Shortstop Jorge Polanco missed most of the first half with a PED suspension, but when he was on the field, he had his sharpest performance yet. Backstop Mitch Garver was quietly solid at the plate—just above average, which put him in the top third of hitters among catchers—and Jake Cave had a promising rookie season in centerfield, with a 113 OPS+. On the mound, Jose Berrios emerged as the staff’s ace in his second full year in the big leagues; Kyle Gibson rebounded from abysmal performances in the two seasons prior to have the best year of his career with a 121 ERA+; and Taylor Rogers stepped forward as a bright spot in the bullpen.
Obviously, taken together, this talent still wasn’t enough for a winning team. But it was and is enough for a decent foundation, which should only be strengthened by the fact that most of the above players are developing young talents. And if the team’s offseason additions perform roughly in line with what they’ve done in the last few seasons, they stand to add a few more wins. (In particular, Cruz can still rake even as he approaches 40, and Parker’s last two seasons have given him a quiet reputation as a steady bullpen talent.) With modest improvement from the aforementioned young players, along with a boost from winter acquisitions… Minnesota’s probably still not quite at the level of legitimate contention. It might be close, especially if injury and underperformance come for Cleveland—especially if the team doesn’t do anything to acquire the outfield and bullpen help that it desperately needs—but Minnesota could likely use an extra boost. What could get them there, then?
A Breakout or Two
Some moderate improvement by a set of individual players could help bump Minnesota from 78 wins toward the even mark of 81. If a handful of guys can produce something more than moderate improvement, obviously, the team’s picture might look considerably rosier. Who are the best breakout candidates, then? Two players who haven’t been mentioned so far are the two who were once expected to lead the team into the future: Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó, both of whom faced significant setbacks last year. They’d each been on the rise in 2017; Buxton was a down-ballot candidate for MVP, and Sanó was named an All-Star. But in 2018, Buxton spent much of the year injured and struggled even while healthy. Sanó, meanwhile, was sent down to the minors after a miserable stretch at the plate that followed a hamstring problem. If either can bounce back and move forward, it could pay off in a big way for Minnesota.
A Little Investment In Pitching
The Twins have hardly any payroll committed beyond next year—which could make it a perfect time to invest in their pitching, a long-standing weak spot for the team. A splashy signing like Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel doesn’t seem especially likely for this front office, but hey, with the way that the market’s been shaken up, maybe it’s not so crazy! (A pair of more realistic options might be Wade Miley and Cody Allen.) At any rate, an upgrade of some sort is needed here—Minnesota’s 98 ERA+ last year, 20th in baseball, shows that—and there are still several decent possibilities on the market.
The Twins’ path to contention isn’t clear; again, nor is it super likely. But Cleveland’s recent complacency means that, even if you have to squint to see it, the road is more visible than it was a few months ago.