The Cleveland Indians are once again set to defend their American League Central crown and look poised to win their fourth consecutive division title with one of baseball's best rotations still intact for 2019. The Minnesota Twins are positioned to challenge the Indians for AL Central supremacy after a busy offseason, but the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Kansas City Royals will continue to rebuild their clubs with an eye toward future success.
As we march toward Opening Day, here's all you need to know about the AL Central.
2018 record: 62-100 (4th in AL Central)
O/U win total: 70
World Series odds: 75-1
3-year trend: 2016 (4th); 2017 (4th); 2018 (4th)
Highest projected WAR: Eloy Jimenez (3.1)
X-factor: Yoan Moncada
Prospect to watch: Dylan Cease (MLB.com: No. 21)
Winter report card: F
|1||Jon Jay (L)||RF||0.2|
|2||Yoan Moncada (S)||3B||2.3|
|4||Yonder Alonso (L)||1B||0.7|
|8||Yolmer Sanchez (S)||2B||1.2|
|Leury Garcia (S)||IF/OF||0.1|
|Daniel Palka (L)||OF||0.5|
The White Sox fell short in signing Manny Machado this offseason but did acquire one of his in-laws in Yonder Alonso and his good buddy Jon Jay. Their additions - along with the return of Welington Castillo behind the dish following a suspension over performance-enhancing drugs - should provide the South Siders with more production in a lineup that finished near the bottom of the AL in runs and OPS last season. Jose Abreu remains a force in the middle of Chicago's lineup, although he did put up career lows in most offensive categories last season. Keep an eye on Moncada, who's talented enough to be an All-Star but led the majors with 217 strikeouts in 2018.
Chicago added veterans who've had varying degrees of success into the team's pitching mix during the offseason. The White Sox made a trade with Pittsburgh to bring in Ivan Nova and his 78 career wins and are hoping for a return to form from Ervin Santana, a former Cy Young candidate who missed nearly all of 2018 with finger issues. Chicago also acquired Alex Colome from the Seattle Mariners to anchor the back of the club's bullpen and brought in two-time All-Star Kelvin Herrera on a free-agent deal. The pair have combined for 156 career saves.
2018 record: 91-71 (1st in AL Central)
O/U win total: 96
World Series odds: 14-1
3-year trend: 2016 (1st); 2017 (1st); 2018 (1st)
Highest projected WAR: Francisco Lindor (6.5)
X-factor: Trevor Bauer
Prospect to watch: Triston McKenzie (MLB.com: No. 41)
Winter report card: D-
|1||Leonys Martin (L)||CF||1.1|
|2||Jason Kipnis (L)||2B||1.8|
|3||Jose Ramirez (S)||3B||6.1|
|4||Carlos Santana (S)||1B||2.0|
|5||Jake Bauers (L)||LF||1.3|
|6||Carlos Gonzalez (L)||RF||1.2|
*Francisco Lindor to start season on IL
|Max Moroff (S)||IF||0.4|
|Tyler Naquin (L)||OF||0.4|
|Greg Allen (S)||OF||0.0|
The Indians' lineup looks very different from last year after several free-agent departures and a number of trades. Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, and Yan Gomes are out. Carlos Santana, Carlos Gonzalez, Jake Bauers, and Hanley Ramirez are in. Cleveland will also begin the campaign without superstar Lindor, who's expected to miss the first week or two of the regular season after straining his calf in early February. However, once he returns, the combination of a healthy Lindor and Jose Ramirez will continue to provide the Indians with one of MLB's deadliest one-two punches.
Cleveland's rotation should be one of baseball's best again next season, with all five starters capable of authoring All-Star campaigns. The bullpen, which lost Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to free agency after posting one of the worst combined ERAs in the AL last year, is another story. If Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger can all toss nearly 200 innings and strike out more than 200 hitters each as they did in 2018, an average 'pen should be serviceable enough to get the Indians through the year. That'll be a tall order, though.
2018 record: 64-98 (3rd in AL Central)
O/U win total: 67
World Series odds: 250-1
3-year trend: 2016 (2nd); 2017 (5th); 2018 (3rd)
Highest projected WAR: Jeimer Candelario (2.3)
X-factor: Miguel Cabrera
Prospect to watch: Casey Mize (MLB.com: No. 17)
Winter report card: C+
|4||Jeimer Candelario (S)||3B||2.3|
|5||Christin Stewart (L)||LF||1.7|
|6||Niko Goodrum (S)||DH||0.4|
While the additions of former Pittsburgh Pirates teammates Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer bring veteran stability to a rebuilding Tigers club, having them on board won't tip the scales in Detroit's favor. A healthy Miguel Cabrera - combined with another productive year from Nicholas Castellanos and the continued improvement of Candelario - could be a difference maker, but it's doubtful that difference is big enough to earn the Tigers anything higher than a third-place finish. Fans in Detroit should prepare for another losing season.
*Michael Fulmer will miss season
The Tigers' bullpen doesn't feature a single pitcher projected to earn more than 0.4 WAR, but their rotation has the potential to be decent. Matthew Boyd had the best year of his career in 2018, Jordan Zimmermann is healthy and has looked solid in spring training, and Matt Moore and Tyson Ross should be able to fill innings and make for great trade bait if they do anything worthwhile in the first half of the season. Michael Fulmer, on the other hand, has been advised to undergo Tommy John surgery, which would keep the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year out long term.
2018 record: 58-104 (5th in AL Central)
O/U win total: 71
World Series odds: 250-1
3-year trend: 2016 (3rd); 2017 (3rd); 2018 (5th)
Highest projected WAR: Adalberto Mondesi (2.9)
X-factor: Billy Hamilton
Prospect to watch: Brady Singer (MLB.com: No. 54)
Winter report card: C
|1||Adalberto Mondesi (S)||SS||2.9|
|3||Alex Gordon (L)||LF||1.2|
|5||Ryan O'Hearn (L)||1B||0.4|
|7||Brian Goodwin (L)||RF||0.1|
|9||Billy Hamilton (S)||CF||1.5|
Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections have the Royals winning 71 games and finishing third in the division in 2019, but one thing they should be able to do well is steal bases. The trio of Mondesi, Whit Merrifield, and Hamilton combined for 111 steals last season and should create chaos for opposing teams on the basepaths, while Chris Owings and Terrance Gore will offer additional speed from the bench. Jorge Soler (.466 SLG) and Ryan O'Hearn (.336 ISO) intrigue with their potential to hit for power in the middle of Kansas City's lineup, although both also struck out in more than 26 percent of their at-bats last season.
With recurring shoulder issues hampering the progress of ace Danny Duffy, the Royals enter the 2019 campaign with Brad Keller as their Opening Day starter. Duffy's potential stint on the injured list isn't expected to be lengthy, so it appears Kansas City will roll with four starters until his return. However, the Royals' rotation looks pretty average even with Duffy. The addition of Brad Boxberger provides Kansas City with veteran stability, but this bullpen looks nothing like the units the Royals became famous for during their back-to-back World Series trips in 2014 and 2015.
2018 record: 78-84 (2nd in AL Central)
O/U win total: 81
World Series odds: 50-1
3-year trend: 2016 (5th); 2017 (2nd); 2018 (2nd)
Highest projected WAR: Nelson Cruz (2.9)
X-factor: Byron Buxton
Prospect to watch: Royce Lewis (MLB.com: No. 5)
Winter report card: A-
|1||Jorge Polanco (S)||SS||2.6|
|3||Eddie Rosario (L)||LF||2.5|
|5||Max Kepler (L)||RF||2.7|
|7||Marwin Gonzalez (S)||3B||1.5|
|8||Jason Castro (L)||C||1.7|
*Miguel Sano to start season on IL
|Ehire Adrianza (S)||IF/OF||0.2|
It's been a productive offseason for the Twins, who locked up Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler long term and acquired home-run power (Cruz, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop) and versatility (Marwin Gonzalez) in free agency. An already-dangerous starting nine could put the Twins in prime position to unseat the Indians atop the division if Buxton can build off a torrid spring and return to his 2017 form. Minnesota is also expected to have Miguel Sano return in May after he underwent a procedure to repair an Achilles injury.
Following solid 2018 campaigns from Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson, the Twins follow up their strong one-two punch with a solid No. 3 in Jake Odorizzi and wild cards in Michael Pineda and Martin Perez. Pineda hasn't thrown a big-league inning since July 2017 after working his way back from Tommy John surgery, while Perez was awful (6.22 ERA, 5.72 FIP) for the Rangers last year, but showed promise in 2016. Minnesota's bullpen finished 10th among AL teams in combined ERA last season and, with the exception of adding Blake Parker, returns most of the same unit.