Last year’s AL Central was set up almost perfectly. Three evenly matched teams duked it out at the top of the division; the fourth-place Kansas City Royals were good enough to keep their opponents honest; and the division’s only genuinely bad team, the Detroit Tigers, brought up enough interesting prospects—like Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Daz Cameron—to make the aftermath of their Well-to-Hell–style tank job intermittently watchable.
Obviously, the battle for first place was the division’s most attractive quality. But it wasn’t just that Chicago, Cleveland, and Minnesota finished the season one game apart in the standings. The makeup of the three clubs complemented each other. Cleveland’s roster was pitching-heavy and balanced on a razor’s edge between competitiveness and austerity. Minnesota’s roster emphasized power and featured a bevy of veteran sluggers. Chicago had more balance between offense and defense, but its young roster was built on athleticism: big, imposing figures like Lucas Giolito, Luis Robert, Yoán Moncada, and Eloy Jiménez; and wiry table setters like Tim Anderson and Nick Madrigal.
More than anything, though, these three teams fit together because their championship windows intersected perfectly. Chicago, the team on the rise, was playoff-ready for the first time in a decade. Cleveland dominated the division in the late 2010s, but was on the decline after parting out much of its pennant-winning roster. And situated between the two was Minnesota, coming off a 101-win season and a record-setting 307 home runs. (This dynamic—of a once-dominant force on the decline, a contender in its prime, and an up-and-coming champion of the future—is the same as the relationship between the King, Chick, and Lightning in Cars, so it definitely follows the conventions of narrative fiction.)
And we took it for granted. The American League’s eight-team playoff structure reduced the stakes for these clubs (though for what it’s worth, all three would have made the playoffs under the standard five-team format), and with a pandemic underway outside the ballpark, 2020 wasn’t a good year for getting lost in a pennant race.
With so many top free agents still left unsigned, and the schedule and rules of the coming season still in flux, any concrete predictions about the 2021 AL Central would be premature. But at the moment, it doesn’t look like the division will maintain the balance that made it so great last year. This time around, the White Sox appear to be pulling away from the pack.
Actually trying to win is baseball’s new market inefficiency. In this uncertain and tepid offseason, that assertion has been repeated so frequently it’s becoming a cliché. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Many of the familiar stalwart clubs of the past half-decade have spent the winter of 2020-21 either quietly sloughing off payroll or liquidating their rosters quickly and noisily for not much in return.
As star players float across MLB’s great transactional membrane, the greatest shift in the balance of power comes not from the newly flush Mets or the Padres’ Hungry Hungry Hippos approach to team building—but from the White Sox. Chicago hasn’t improved as much as the Mets or Padres in absolute terms, but the team has improved more relative to its divisional competitors. Perhaps it’s inelegant to just list the players who’ve come and gone so far this offseason, but there’s no easier way to illustrate how much things have changed in the AL Central.
Chicago White Sox
In: RHP Lance Lynn, RHP Liam Hendriks, OF Adam Eaton
Out: OF Nomar Mazara, RHP Dane Dunning, C James McCann, RHP Alex Colomé, DH Edwin Encarnación
Notable Promotions: LHP Garrett Crochet, RHP Michael Kopech (opted out of 2020 season), 1B/DH Andrew Vaughn
The Lynn trade and Hendriks signing were splashy enough to obscure the fact that the White Sox are actually losing a decent amount of big league production from last year. Closer Alex Colomé was outstanding in 2020, as was McCann, who signed with the Mets in December. Dunning, who went to Texas for Lynn, leaves behind a substantial hole in the rotation as well. But Hendriks is an upgrade over Colomé; and Lynn, probably the best pitcher to change teams so far this offseason, gives the White Sox a championship-caliber top of the rotation. Eaton was terrible in his last season in Washington, and at age 32, he might be cooked. But if 2020 was an aberration, he’ll be a great fit in Chicago’s lineup.
Eaton has never had the ideal offensive profile for a corner outfielder; he’s never hit more than 15 home runs in a season, and has never slugged better than .431. But the White Sox don’t need power from their right fielder, because they’ve got so much elsewhere on the roster. That’s the advantage of having Yasmani Grandal behind the plate—if your catcher can hit like a right fielder, it’s much easier to fill out the rest of the lineup. Eaton’s customary .360 OBP would be good enough, but it helps that Mazara, the man he’s replacing, was essentially replacement level in 2020. So he doesn’t have big shoes to fill at all.
Chicago’s new-look roster puts a lot of pressure on the back end of the rotation, however. Michael Kopech is one of the most talented young pitchers in baseball, but he’s thrown just 14 1/3 career major league innings and hasn’t made a competitive start since 2018 thanks to Tommy John surgery and a 2020 opt-out. And second-year pro Garrett Crochet is likely bound for the bullpen, but could be stretched out for a shot at the rotation at some point. Crochet and Kopech are untested, but they’re two of the hardest-throwing pitchers of all time—there’s reason to be optimistic. Dylan Cease, meanwhile, had a 4.01 ERA in 2020 that belied truly abominable underlying numbers (including a DRA of 7.36). The White Sox might have been better off with Bob Dylan in the rotation. But Cease, 25, is almost certain to improve in 2021, not just because he’s got nowhere to go but up, but because he’s been retooling his arsenal this offseason.
While these weaknesses shouldn’t be ignored, in context they seem more and more like nitpicks of a very complete team. From top to bottom, the only spot on Chicago’s roster that looks weak is left field, where Adam Engel might not be up to snuff as a full-time starter, or even in a platoon with utility man Leury García. Otherwise the worst you can say about any of their likely contributors is “talented but inexperienced.”
In: INF Andrés Giménez, INF Amed Rosario
Out: SS Francisco Lindor, RHP Carlos Carrasco, LHP Brad Hand, 2B César Hernández, 1B Carlos Santana, C Sandy León, LHP Oliver Pérez, OF Domingo Santana, RHP Adam Cimber, OF Tyler Naquin
Notable Promotions: LHP Logan Allen, OF Josh Naylor, RHP Cal Quantrill, RHP Emmanuel Clase (suspended for 2020 season), 3B Nolan Jones
Compare that to Cleveland, a team that somehow finished 10 games over .500 last year despite having only five position players with an OPS+ over 90. Three of those players—Lindor, Hernández, and Santana—have moved on this offseason, and the team will be hard-pressed to make up that production.
Cleveland’s strength has always been pitching development, whether that meant getting the most out of talented but finicky top prospects like Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, or turning nobodies and college strike throwers like Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber into elite starters. That track record remains, and is a reason to be optimistic about the likes of Quantrill, Clase, Allen, and Triston McKenzie, the 6-foot-5, 165-pound 23-year-old who impressed as a rookie last year. Bieber might be Cleveland’s best developmental project to date, and Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac give the northern Ohio club plenty of depth.
But it’s very, very difficult to win that way consistently, even with a player like Lindor in the lineup. In a world where Mike Trout doesn’t exist, Lindor would be a perennial MVP contender, and Cleveland swapped him out for Giménez, who profiles as a good defensive shortstop but an average hitter at best. While Chicago upgraded areas of strength and is promoting more and better prospects than Cleveland, the 2016 pennant winners shed their closer, their no. 2 starter, three-quarters of their infield, and a handful of other players. And nobody special is coming to fill those gaps.
In: A bunch of lottery-ticket relievers
Out: DH Nelson Cruz, OF Eddie Rosario, C Alex Avila, UTIL Marwin González, LHP Rich Hill, RHP Tyler Clippard, RHP Trevor May, RHP Jake Odorizzi
Notable Promotions: OF Alex Kirilloff, INF Nick Gordon, INF Royce Lewis, OF Trevor Larnach
While Chicago and Cleveland have already done their big preseason business, the Twins have done almost nothing, which makes them hard to judge. The decision to non-tender Rosario, the periodically frustrating but consistently productive left fielder, was ugly—but under certain circumstances, defensible. Minnesota handed Kirilloff his MLB debut during last year’s playoffs, and there’s an argument to be made that Kirilloff will be better than Rosario by next year. In fact, Minnesota has several exciting position player prospects due for debuts as soon as this year.
What remains to be seen, however, is how—or if—Minnesota will spend the $10-ish million it saved by cutting Rosario loose, the $7.75 million a year the team didn’t spend on May, and the roughly $44 million coming off the books in the form of Hill, Cruz, Clippard, González, and Odorizzi.
All of those players are replaceable. But none of them have been replaced. And that’s a huge problem, because as exciting as Kirilloff and top prospect Royce Lewis may be, there is no equivalent young pitcher coming down the pipeline. Even if there was, Minnesota would need three or four to fill all the holes left by departing veterans. If the Twins return to their spending levels of the past few years, they have more than enough money to fill the holes in their pitching staff, and thanks to the slow-moving free-agent market, there are still good pitchers to be had: Bauer, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, or even Odorizzi himself, who remains unsigned. Until and unless they do, however, the Twins are set to take a major step back.
Which would leave the White Sox in uncontested command of the AL Central. And once there, the Sox would seem difficult to dislodge. Jiménez, Robert, Madrigal, Moncada, and Giolito are all 26 or younger and their contracts are under team control through at least 2023. One of the hardest decisions in baseball is determining whether to commit long term to a productive player in his 30s or let him walk. That decision is the source of most of the uncertainty around this year’s Twins, but it’s still a couple of years away for most of the White Sox stars. And if Kopech and Crochet reach anything like their full potential, Chicago will be able to field a rotation as good as Cleveland’s and a lineup as good as Minnesota’s. That’s not an invincible opponent by any means, but it would be the clear top roster in the AL Central—and a far cry from last year’s exciting scramble at the top.