AL Central Preview: Cleveland looks strong again, but the Twins are rising quickly

Big League Stew

For many analysts, the American League Central will be the easiest division to predict. The Cleveland Indians are too strong and too deep to be defeated by any of their division-mates.

But is it really going to be that easy?

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Yes, Cleveland looks strong, but the Minnesota Twins didn’t just stand around idly this offseason. They attempted to capitalize on their surprising rebound in 2017 with moves aimed at helping them close the gap at the top of the division.

The rest of the teams here are perceived to be at least a year away … and that’s being generous. Of all the rebuilding clubs in the Central, the Chicago White Sox are the closest to realizing their full potential. Even if most of their prospects impress, the team may need another year before they become a trendy sleeper pick. Then again, the Twins and New York Yankees shocked the baseball world last season after their youngsters broke out, so anything is possible.

The Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are both starting what look to be lengthy rebuilds. This season will be more about identifying who will be around in the future, and who can be sold off for parts that will help at a later date. Both teams should be active at the deadline, and could play spoiler to their division-mates in the second half.

We’ll dissect the AL Central with a look at its new faces, its biggest questions and what each team would have to do to win.

Yonder Alonso is hoping to get back to his first-half numbers from 2017. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)
Yonder Alonso is hoping to get back to his first-half numbers from 2017. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

NEW FACES
In case you need you a reminder of who plays where now

Yonder Alonso, Cleveland Indians
The Indians needed a replacement for first baseman Carlos Santana, and they certainly found him. Alonso found his power stroke last year at age 30, which should teach baseball players everywhere that it’s never too late to change. He hit seven homers in 2016. In 2017, he quadrupled that number and finished the year with 28. Alonso has had a brilliant year or two in the majors, but before 2017, the lack of consistency paired with his lack of power made his offensive game a little one-sided. Adding the power turned him into a well-balanced offensive player with a triple slash that looks suspiciously like Carlos Santana’s.

Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn, Minnesota Twins
That the Twins did so well last year, unexpectedly making it to the AL wild-card game, is pretty incredible, considering they had a rotation that was held together with tape and a prayer. Ervin Santana was the standout star — yes, that Ervin Santana — which was a sign that they needed to bulk up their starting five in 2018. They certainly did that: Odorizzi came to the Twins via trade from Tampa Bay, and the Twins signed Lynn to a one-year, $12 million contract. Adding those two to their rotation already makes it significantly better than it was in 2017. The Twins want to prove that 2017 wasn’t a mistake or an aberration, and spending both money and prospects to do so is a risk. But for a team that hasn’t had a reason to take a risk in a long time, it’s one worth trying.

Welington Castillo, Chicago White Sox
For the most part, the White Sox, Royals, and Tigers made small, inconsequential moves this offseason, signing players to one-year contracts or minor league deals. But there is one multi-year deal that stands out, and that’s Welington Castillo’s two-year deal with the White Sox. The White Sox are rebuilding, but the team’s decision to invest $15 million over two years (with an $8 million club option for a third) couldn’t be wiser. The farm system is one of absolute best in baseball, and half of their top ten prospects are pitchers. Castillo is 30 and has spent eight seasons in the majors. He’s a veteran who can lead their young pitching staff (which is only going to get younger in the next few years). And to top it off, 2017 was the best offensive year of Castillo’s career. He might not move the needle on the White Sox in the standings, but that’s not really why the White Sox signed him anyway.

Lucas Giolito will be a crucial member of the White Sox in 2018. (Getty Images)
Lucas Giolito will be a crucial member of the White Sox in 2018. (Getty Images)

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE AL CENTRAL
Good news: We’ve got 162 games to figure out the answers

1. What are realistic expectations for the White Sox?
The White Sox have rebuilt their minor league system in a hurry and are poised to be contenders two or three years down the road. In the meantime, they probably won’t finish 2018 with a winning record, but could still prove dangerous as they start incorporating some of those prospects into the big league mix. In other words, they could still have an impact on the postseason picture, and should give fans plenty of reason for hope in 2019 and beyond.

2. Will pitching additions help the Twins take the next step?
The Twins were a great story in 2017, unexpectedly earning a trip to the AL wild card game. Now they’re looking to gain ground on the Cleveland Indians. While the Twins didn’t spend big money to land a top-tier free agent this winter, they did spread it around pretty wisely and could end up better off for it. The additions of starters Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn, in addition to reliever Addison Reed, helps fill out a pitching staff that desperately needed more firepower. If the offense manages to stay in the top ten, they could be very, very good.

3. Is this the Indians last chance to win it all?
The Indians are in the midst of a strong run, but could find themselves at a crossroads following the 2018 season. After losing Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith, Boone Logan, Austin Jackson and Craig Breslow in free agency this winter, the Indians still have enough talent to remain atop the division. Do they have enough though to keep pace with the Astros and Yankees, and how do they handle the pending free agency of Michael Brantley, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Josh Tomlin, McAllister and Lonnie Chisenhall after 2018. The bulk of their core will be around awhile, but there should be urgency surrounding this season.

4. Can the Royals or Tigers be this year’s Brewers?
The Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers seem committed to rebuilding in the coming months, but given the Milwaukee Brewers success in similar circumstances last season it’s fair to wonder if either would change course. Some elements are similar. In Mike Moustakas and Miguel Cabrera, each has an All-Star anchor offensively. Beyond them both teams still have valuable veterans who could help keep them remain competitive. The problem is that the American League is loaded at the top, and the second tier looks a lot better too. Anything is possible, but it would take some surprising developments for either to sniff relevance in September.

Byron Buxton and the rest of the Twins outfield will need to prove 2017 was no fluke. (AP Photo)
Byron Buxton and the rest of the Twins outfield will need to prove 2017 was no fluke. (AP Photo)

HOW THEY COULD WIN
Every team can’t win. Most won’t. But here’s how each could *could* win the AL Central:

• Cleveland Indians: Stay healthy. Let’s face it, the AL Central isn’t all that imposing. As long as Cleveland isn’t hit with a ton of injuries, they should be in good shape. Of course, it would help if Yonder Alonso returned to his first-half form and Trevor Bauer continued to build on a promising 2017.

• Minnesota Twins: Remember all the things that went right in 2017? Those have to happen again. Byron Buxton needs to prove his second-half surge was real this time … but, like, actually for real, because we can’t keep doing this. Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn need to bring some much-needed strikeouts to the rotation. Ervin Santana needs to get healthy, and then find a way to post another ERA in the low-threes.

• Chicago White Sox: Pretty much every prospect they call up has to perform immediately. Eloy Jimenez sprays the ball all over the field and Michael Kopech blows fastballs by people. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Yoan Moncada all take major steps forward. Nicky Delmonico goes the route of Ben Zobrist or Corey Kluber and becomes the next non-prospect to bust out in a big way. James Shields discovers the fountain of youth.

• Detroit Tigers: Father Time turns a blind eye to the Tigers, allowing both Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez to turn in MVP-type years. Jordan Zimmermann pitches like he thinks he’s still on the Nationals. Michael Fulmer shakes off last year’s injury to become a bonafide No. 1. The good Francisco Liriano shows up all season, somehow.

• Kansas City Royals: The departures of Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer don’t hurt that much, because Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler jump into the re-vamped Royals’ core. Not only that, but Alex Gordon turns back the clock to post a vintage slash line. Danny Duffy stays healthy and reaches the 200 inning mark. Jake Junis goes from a guy you’ve never heard of to a guy who is surprisingly decent when pitching against your favorite team.

Other division previews
AL East | AL Central | AL West | NL West | NL East | NL Central

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik

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