In June 2018, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh examined whether that year’s AL Central was the weakest division in MLB history. It was in rough shape, and by season’s end, things looked even worse: The White Sox, Tigers, and Royals combined to lose 302 games, while the Twins, who were just a season removed from making the playoffs, staggered to a 78-84 finish. The division’s only winning team, the Cleveland Indians, got smashed to smithereens by the Astros in a three-game ALDS loss.
Things weren’t much better in 2019. The Tigers and Royals were big league teams in name only; the White Sox improved to just 72-89; and while the Twins rode a record-setting offense to their best season since 1965, Cleveland missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Despite being lifted out of the cellar by the 101-win Twins, the average AL Central team went 75-87 last year and was outscored by 68 runs. It’s not every day you see an entire division get roughed up this badly—short of George Pickett’s at the Battle of Gettysburg.
With three months left until Opening Day, the AL Central still looks like one of the league’s weaker divisions top to bottom, as neither the Tigers nor the Royals have taken any significant steps toward climbing out of their 100-loss oubliette. But the top of the standings is less predictable than usual. Since 2014, the final margin of victory in the AL Central each season has been eight games or more, and the division has seldom produced more than one competitive team at a time. In 2020, though, this overlooked Midwestern wasteland could produce the most interesting race in baseball.
Two countervailing forces make this possible: First, the ongoing self-inflicted decline of the Cleveland Indians, and second, the emergence of the Chicago White Sox as one of the biggest players in this winter’s free-agent market.
Cleveland rose to prominence in 2016 thanks to a power vacuum at the top of the division created by the Royals and Tigers. Kansas City and Detroit are currently so bad not because of an intentional tanking project, but because both teams built up winning cores and ran out their windows of contention to the bitter end. That left two depleted farm systems, aging big league rosters with limited talent, and a hole at the top of the Central. The Indians, having quietly built up one of the best pitching staffs in baseball in the meantime, happily stepped into that void. They won three consecutive division titles, a pennant, and an average of 96 games a year from 2016 to 2018.
The Indians were never seriously challenged during that time—even the playoff Twins of 2017 finished 17 games off their pace—and they made their run without ever breaking into the top half of MLB payrolls. So in 2019, the purported weakness of divisional competition emboldened Cleveland ownership to attempt to defend the division title for the bottom dollar. Stalwart outfielder Michael Brantley left in free agency, as did bullpen aces Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, and neither was replaced. Meanwhile, the Indians dangled star pitchers Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer as trade bait—despite both being under team control at a discount price for at least two more seasons. Owner Paul Dolan also announced that the club would not make a serious effort to re-sign franchise shortstop Francisco Lindor, who is not only one of the most charismatic players in the game, but also the best Indians position player in the past 20 years.
Bauer was indeed traded—Cleveland shipped him down I-71 to Cincinnati at the July deadline—and though the 2019 club won 93 games, it ended up eight games behind Minnesota in the final standings. Since then, the cost-cutting has gotten deeper: Kluber was sent to Texas for a package of players that, three weeks later, still looks like someone forgot to add a top-30 global prospect to the trade call. Yasiel Puig, the biggest name acquired in exchange for Bauer, was allowed to walk in free agency, and the only free agent Cleveland has signed so far this winter is former Phillies second baseman César Hernández, who’s coming off his worst offensive season in five years.
And things could still get worse. The trade rumors surrounding Lindor have picked up, and if you think Cleveland will eventually come to its senses and put a stop to them, remember that Paul Dolan is a first cousin of Knicks owner and sometimes blues guitarist James Dolan. (If Lindor is traded, northern Ohio will be crying out for a remix of Ice2Ice’s single “Sell the Team.”)
If Lindor stays on the roster, Cleveland should be in the thick of the race in 2020, because while the Indians got punched in the kidneys by their management’s hubris last year, this is not a bad team. Lindor and third baseman José Ramírez are both capable of turning in MVP-type seasons (which is to say, finishing second to Mike Trout in AL MVP voting). Puig may be gone, but the other players from the Bauer trade—specifically pitching prospect Logan Allen and large, musical outfielder Franmil Reyes—remain in the fold.
And while life without Bauer and Kluber will be tough, Cleveland has spent the past decade turning second-day picks (like Kluber) and former top prospects who had fallen out of favor (like Bauer and Carlos Carrasco) into top-end rotation arms. Cleveland’s projected 2020 rotation of Carrasco, Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale is probably the strongest in the division overall.
Even so, the Indians are as likely to finish third in the division as first. That’s because they built a strong homegrown core and basically stopped there. Meanwhile, successful teams—specifically, each of the past four World Series champions, plus the Dodgers and Yankees—have built their cores, then filled in the gaps by spending in free agency.
That’s what the White Sox, who haven’t posted a winning record since 2012 or made the playoffs since 2008, are finally doing. Chicago lost 89 games in 2019, but there are two kinds of below-average teams: those composed entirely of below-average players, and those with a few bright spots. Chicago is in the latter designation.
The White Sox saw three key young players take huge steps forward in 2019: shortstop Tim Anderson, who won the batting title; third baseman Yoán Moncada, who increased his OPS by 200 points from 2018 to 2019; and right-hander Lucas Giolito, who went from the worst pitcher in the AL in 2018 to a Cy Young contender last season. Left fielder Eloy Jiménez also put in a solid rookie year, hitting 31 home runs in his age-22 season. And as if the numbers weren’t encouraging enough, Moncada, Giolito, and Jiménez are also important because they were all headline prospects in blockbuster trades during the White Sox’s 2016-17 teardown. Those trades, which sent Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and José Quintana out of the South Side, are finally paying off.
Unfortunately for Chicago fans, most of the rest of the 2019 roster played like a tribute act for the 100th anniversary of the Black Sox. Fourteen pitchers started a game for the White Sox last year; only two posted an ERA+ of 100 or better in any number of innings. One was Giolito, and the other was Ryan Burr, who served as the opener once and posted a season total of 19 2/3 innings with a 102 ERA+ before he tore his UCL in May.
According to Baseball-Reference’s wins above average metric, the White Sox got below-average production at every position except third base (Moncada), shortstop (Anderson) and catcher (James McCann). They finished 25th in starting pitcher production, and 29th in production from both outfielders and designated hitters.
That’s why it was encouraging, if surprising, when the White Sox made the first splashy free-agent signing of the offseason by grabbing catcher Yasmani Grandal in November. I praised the move at the time, because Grandal is one of the two best players in the world at his position, though I cautioned that Grandal alone would not fix all of Chicago’s problems; the White Sox needed to do more if they wanted to be a factor in the playoff race.
To their credit, they have—and because of that, they may very well see the postseason this year. During the holidays, the White Sox grabbed veteran left-handers Gio González and Dallas Keuchel, and DH Edwin Encarnación off the free-agent pile. All three are somewhat past their prime, but they’ll be a whole lot better than the players they’re replacing: Dallas Braden would’ve been the third-best starter on the White Sox last year, and Encarnación’s predecessor, Yonder Alonso, hit just .178/.275/.301 before he was released in July.
More help is also coming internally. Last week, Baseball Prospectus released its top prospects list for the White Sox and ranked outfielder Luis Robert, second baseman Nick Madrigal, and pitcher Michael Kopech first, second, and third. All three will feature heavily in Chicago’s 2020 plans, and Robert, a five-tool center fielder, will almost certainly start the season in the majors after the White Sox leveraged the threat of service time manipulation into a six-year, $50 million contract.
We should see Madrigal, the no. 4 pick in 2018 out of Oregon State, not long after. Madrigal’s stature (5-foot-7), near-telekinetic bat-to-ball ability, and god-level college production would ordinarily generate comps to Alex Bregman, but Bregman is built like a slot receiver and is therefore able to access 40-homer power. Madrigal, meanwhile, is just plain small and will end up at the top of the order. Kopech, the second-most important piece in the Sale trade behind Moncada, married Riverdale actress Vanessa Morgan just this past weekend. Somewhat more relevant to baseball, Kopech hit 105 miles an hour as a minor leaguer and made four starts in the majors in 2018 before he missed the 2019 season with a torn UCL. He will return to the big league rotation at some point early in 2020.
The holes in Chicago’s lineup are disappearing at a rate that ought to concern the Twins, a team that finished 28 1/2 games up on Chicago last year but benefited from two factors that can’t be counted on in 2020. The first is a historically weak schedule; the Twins played 47 games against 100-loss teams in 2019, close to a third of their total schedule, and went 36-11 in those contests. They also went 13-6 against the White Sox, which will almost certainly not happen again.
The second is the baseball itself. For the entirety of the 2019 regular season, MLB teams played with a baseball made of superballs and rocket fuel. There were 6,776 home runs hit in 2019, more than 10 percent more than in any previous season, and the Twins launched a league-record 307. Then, on the first day of the playoffs, that ball was replaced by one made of tissue paper and legislative gridlock, and the Twins’ offense stalled.
That’s not to say that all of Minnesota’s home runs last year were the result of the juiced ball, but no team owed more of its success to the long ball than the Twins. And if the ball stays as dead as it was in the 2019 postseason, no team will suffer more.
The good news for the Twins is that while the White Sox are relying heavily on a core of untested rookies and the Indians might as well be running out Bip Roberts and Travis Fryman in their Opening Day lineup, Minnesota is bringing back its 101-win roster, more or less wholesale. The only starting position players to leave this offseason were first baseman C.J. Cron and second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Last year’s Twins rotation was shaky enough that Randy Dobnak started Game 2 of a playoff series, but things would have been much worse in 2020 had Jake Odorizzi not taken the qualifying offer and Michael Pineda not re-signed. Minnesota also added veteran starters Homer Bailey and Rich Hill; the latter could make a huge impact in the postseason if he’s healthy and the Twins get that far.
If the Indians had invested in building around their 2016-18 core, they could have continued to run this division indefinitely, as the Dodgers and Astros have in the NL West and AL West, respectively. Instead, they’ve let their competitors back into the race, and the Twins and more recently the White Sox have seized on the opportunity. I have no idea which team is most likely to end 2020 on top of the pile—and that is novel and exciting for the AL Central.