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AL Central season preview: What's in store for the Twins, Guardians, Tigers, Royals and White Sox in 2024?

With a little injury luck, the Twins could be legitimate contenders. The White Sox could be the worst team in MLB.

No need to beat around the bush: This division was atrocious last season.

As late as August, the AL Central boasted — or whatever the opposite of “boast” is — the worst combined winning percentage of any division in MLB history, somehow worse than the all-time record these teams set in 2018.

While a semi-competent September saved the division from historic embarrassment — shout-out to the Tigers, who were sneaky awesome down the stretch — it was another troubling year for this crop of Midwestern clubs, particularly juxtaposed with an increasingly loaded American League otherwise. Besides the Twins’ finally winning a playoff game (three, even!), there wasn’t a whole lot in 2023 that made us feel like the AL Central was trending in an overwhelmingly positive direction.

But hey, credit to Detroit and Kansas City, who each spent legitimate coin this winter in an effort to improve their ballclubs, with the Tigers trying to launch themselves out of mediocrity and the Royals desperate to avoid another 100-loss season. While their rosters still look fairly incomplete, we can applaud those efforts.

As for Minnesota and Cleveland’s offseasons? Er, not so much. And we know the White Sox aren’t planning on a whole lotta W’s in 2024.

All of this amounts to a division that should be markedly improved from a year ago but still projects to lag significantly behind the contenders in the East and West.

Let’s dig in to the American League Central.

Other divisions: AL East. NL East. NL Central. AL West. NL West.

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MINNESOTA TWINS

Projected record (per FanGraphs, as of March 22): 84-78

Best-case scenario: The injury gods finally smile down upon Minnesota’s troubled trio of Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton and Royce Lewis, as they combine to play 400 games and anchor a shockingly explosive offense all summer long. Beyond Lewis, sophomore sluggers Edouard Julien and Matt Wallner continue to prove themselves as plus bats, further strengthening a lineup that is far and away the best in the division. Carlos Santana is exactly the same beloved (and sneaky productive) veteran presence he has been at previous stops in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Kansas City.

The improved offense helps make up for a pitching staff that takes a minor step back following the departures of Sonny Gray and Kenda Maeda but is still plenty good enough to fuel another comfortable division title. Back in October, when playoff games are no longer a cursed endeavor, Minnesota surges all the way to the ALCS before falling to a team with more star power.

Worst-case scenario: The injury gods continue to haunt Correa, Buxton and Lewis, who combine for fewer than 250 games played, severely limiting the team’s ability to consistently score runs. All the lefty bats struggle to perform against southpaws, exposing a serious weakness in the lineup that drags the offense down closer to the level of its division rivals. In September, the Twins find themselves in an unexpectedly tight race for the division with Cleveland and/or Detroit, one with especially high stakes given that the runner-up will surely miss the playoffs with so many non-Central teams crowding the wild-card picture. Minnesota drops a series at home to powerhouse Baltimore on the final weekend, clinching the AL East and another 100 wins for the Orioles, while the Twins fall short of another Central title with just 83 wins.

Make-or-break player: Carlos Correa. Respectfully, I’m done speculating about Buxton as our annual X-factor in Minnesota. Maybe he stays healthy this year and rakes; maybe he doesn’t. I hope he plays all 162 games and hits 50 homers, but I’m finished trying to guess.

I am much more fascinated by what happens next for Correa after an undeniably underwhelming second season in the Twin Cities that was only partially forgotten because of how good he looked in the postseason. What exactly happened? In roughly the same number of plate appearances, Correa’s OPS+ plummeted from 138 in 2022 to 94 in 2023, a season in which he led MLB by grounding into a staggering 30 double-plays. We know he was dealing with plantar fasciitis for much of the year, and it might be as simple as him being hampered by that, but whatever the cause, this is not the level of performance for which Minnesota is paying him the big bucks.

Sure, the Twins still won the division last year with Correa playing at a subpar level for much of the season, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening again if he continues to struggle offensively. Correa needs to rediscover his star form if the Twins want to be considered serious contenders.

Season prediction: I’m quite confident in Minnesota’s ability to repeat as AL Central champs, and I’d take a pretty comfortable over on the projected win total of 84. Four-hundred games from Buxton, Correa and Lewis might be pushing it, but even a more conservative estimate of 300 among the three of them could do wonders for this offense, especially if Lewis continues to blossom into a legitimate star.

And while the starting rotation might be too reliant on big contributions from a post-surgery version of Chris Paddack and a talented but unproven Louie Varland, the bullpen could quietly be one of the best in the American League, assuming closer Jhoan Duran doesn’t miss serious time due to the oblique issue he’s currently dealing with. There are certainly questions here, but I feel pretty good about the direction of this team and its standing relative to its divisional competition.

CLEVELAND GUARDIANS

Projected record: 79-83

Best-case scenario: Jose Ramirez goes 30-30 for the second time in his spectacular career and reestablishes his reputation as The Totally Valid MVP Candidate You Aren’t Talking About Nearly Enough In August. More importantly, Josh and Bo Naylor each continue to rake like they did in the second half of last season, ensuring that Ramirez isn’t the only Guardians bat capable of striking fear into the hearts of pitching staffs. Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie return to fully healthy form as co-aces atop an excellent rotation that sees additional steps forward from sophomore Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen and Gavin Williams. Though the offense continues to frustrate at times for its lack of power, the pitching staff is so good that the Guardians manage to win 89 games and a division title in Stephen Vogt’s first year at the helm.

Worst-case scenario: The punchless offense continues to limit Cleveland’s ability to hang with more traditionally powered offenses, forcing the stellar pitching staff to be nearly flawless every time out in order to lock down an exhausting number of tight, low-scoring victories. But unlike the 2023 Cardinals, who knew they were bad early enough to decide to be big-time sellers at the trade deadline and restock the farm system, Cleveland remains in the mix long enough to hang on to the likes of Bieber and Emmanuel Clase, only to fall short again in September and lose Bieber to free agency for possibly no more than a draft pick.

Make-or-break player: Bo Naylor. It’s not just that Naylor projects to be one of Cleveland’s best hitters in an offense that will need all the help it can get. It’s also that after years of the Guardians rolling with glove-first backstops to handle their vaunted pitching staffs, the 24-year-old Naylor appears primed to be given the keys as the every-day guy behind the plate. That’s a massive responsibility on top of what the team is hoping he does with the bat, and how he adjusts to his crucial, new role will impact so much of what Cleveland is hoping to accomplish in 2024. It’s no accident the Guardians brought back defensive wizard Austin Hedges to help ease the burden of the position physically and mentally for Naylor, but he can do only so much. It’s Bo’s job now, and I can’t wait to see how he handles it.

Season prediction: Recall that Cleveland was in first place in the AL Central as late as July 9 last season, even amid a rash of injuries and disappointing offensive performances. Health permitting, the Guardians are in a solid position to hang with Minnesota for an even larger portion of the season and maybe even give them a legitimate scare in September. Ultimately, Cleveland’s decision to do maddeningly little to upgrade in the offseason will prove unwise in contrast to the meaningful steps taken by Detroit and Kansas City, thus making the division much more competitive at the Guardians’ expense. I think this team will be better than last year but not better enough for it to matter much.

[Read more: MLB 26-and-under power rankings: Guardians, D-backs, Mariners, Braves and Orioles make up this year's top 5 teams]

DETROIT TIGERS

Projected record: 79-83

Best-case scenario: The prophecy is fulfilled: Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson both become All-Stars, elevating the Tigers lineup to a level it hasn’t reached in years. The hype surrounding Tarik Skubal’s spectacular second half of 2023 and handful of electric outings in spring training turns out to be entirely warranted, as the 27-year-old emerges as one of the best left-handers on the planet. With a more complete roster capable of building and holding early leads, the underrated Tigers bullpen becomes far more celebrated as it gets far more consistent opportunities to close out victories.

Javier Baez hits, at least a little bit. The veteran additions of Mark Canha, Gio Urshela, Jack Flaherty and Kenta Maeda prove to be exactly what this young team needed to take the next step toward contention, opening a competitive window that manager AJ Hinch is extremely familiar with from his time in Houston. Detroit barely edges out the Twins as the AL Central winner or remains relevant far deeper into the wild-card race than most expected.

Worst-case scenario: The veteran additions flop or get injured, while the young guns struggle to jell in a discouraging campaign that was meant to inspire optimism for the future. The organization gains little clarity on who among the next wave of players on either side of the ball are no-doubt members of the 2025 squad. Javier Baez doesn’t hit (again). The Royals surge past the Tigers on the backs of their own offseason additions, resulting in an especially painful fourth-place finish for Detroit.

Make-or-break player: Jack Flaherty. If we’re talking big-picture, there are plenty of younger players who are far more important to the future of the Tigers. But for 2024, Flaherty is the key to this rotation being anything close to contender-worthy. Now five years and several injuries removed from his breakout 2019 that had much of the industry crowning him as one of the game’s next great starting pitchers, Flaherty has fallen fast but still showed enough to lure the Tigers into giving him a fairly lucrative ($14 million) one-year deal entering his age-28 season.

As much as we all want to see it again, I’m far past expecting him to rediscover his 2019 form. But if the Tigers are going to make a surprise push for the playoffs this year, Flaherty needs to improve upon the 4.99 ERA over 144 1/3 innings that he delivered in 2023, the worst stretch of which came after his trade to the Orioles. If he’s Detroit’s No. 2 starter behind Skubal, he needs to be better than last year for the Tigers to have a shot.

Season prediction: While I wouldn’t go as far as to call Detroit this year’s D-backs, I do think that regardless of where exactly they finish in the standings, we’ll go into next offseason feeling really good about the future of the Tigers. Whether this year’s roster is good enough to compete remains to be seen, but there are so many intriguing young players — including some still in the minors whom we expect to see in Detroit at some point this summer — that I’m optimistic that by year’s end, the core of the next great Tigers team will have started to crystallize in a very exciting way. That said, I think the safest bet for this year’s team is still a finish closer to third than first.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Projected record: 76-86

Best-case scenario: Bobby Witt Jr. delivers a 6-WAR season and is an MVP finalist in Year 3, solidifying his status as one of the best players in the world. Cole Ragans delivers a 6-WAR season and is a Cy Young finalist in Year 3, solidifying his status as one of the best pitchers in the world. Vinnie Pasquantino returns from shoulder surgery and resumes raking like he did preinjury, posting a .390+ OBP and restoring the middle of the Royals lineup to a respectable level. Maikel Garcia shines defensively at third base and hits enough to form one of baseball’s most productive left sides of the infield with Witt.

Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha combine for 300 innings with an ERA under 4.00, giving Kansas City a boatload of competent frames it severely lacked in 2023. The team is relevant late enough into the summer that during Chiefs training camp, Travis Kelce convinces Taylor Swift to take a detour on an off-day during her European tour to watch Dairon Blanco and the boys ball out at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals finish above .500 after losing 106 games in 2023, and the vibes are immaculate.

Worst-case scenario: All the money oddly spent on ill-fitting position players such as Hunter Renfroe, Adam Frazier and Garrett Hampson indeed turns out to be of little help to what is once again a hapless offense, and Lugo and Wacha don’t throw enough innings to meaningfully improve the pitching staff. Witt and Ragans try to be superheroes, but the barren farm system fails to produce any depth to help the Royals take a sizable step forward from last year’s disaster. In a season with serious intentions of improving and competing, Kansas City finishes dangerously close in the standings to the full-blown tank fest taking place on the South Side of Chicago.

Make-or-break player: Brady Singer. Let’s grant that Ragans will indeed be fantastic, and Lugo and Wacha will do roughly exactly what they were brought in to do. Could Singer bounce back in a big way and make this an Actually Good rotation? The righty had real promise entering last year, coming off a quiet breakout in 2022, but he got positively torched for the majority of last season, allowing an avalanche of hard contact while having no worthwhile secondary pitch to rely on for whiffs. It was bad. However, with Singer just 27 years old, I’m not giving up on him as a serviceable, mid-rotation workhorse, one who suddenly looks a whole lot more valuable behind a few more proven arms in the rotation, instead of at the top of it by default. I’m watching Singer closely in 2024.

Season prediction: I’m not nearly as bullish on Kansas City’s immediate future as I am on Detroit’s. That said, I like a good amount of what they did this winter and think they will be noticeably better, albeit still nowhere near a playoff spot. Last year’s 106 losses is so, so many; it’s not hard to envision a 16-game improvement for this squad and avoiding 90 defeats in 2024. That’s probably not what the team is hoping for after spending so much (by their standards) in free agency, but it still looks like a fairly incomplete roster. Sorry, K.C. fans. Just enjoy Witt and Ragans as much as you can because they truly are special.

The best-case scenario for the White Sox might still involve them being the worst team in MLB. (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)
The best-case scenario for the White Sox might still involve them being the worst team in MLB. (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports) (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Projected record: 67-95

Best-case scenario: With such an intentional strategy to bottom out and dramatically refresh the roster already in effect, the most optimistic outlook for the 2024 White Sox involves things that have little to do with their place in the standings. We want to see some exciting steps forward from some of their top prospects — especially those acquired in recent trades (Edgar Quero, Drew Thorpe, Jairo Iriarte, Ky Bush, Dominic Fletcher) — and promising performances from the veterans still on the roster (Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Paul DeJong, Max Stassi, Erick Fedde) that could entice potential trade partners to offer another compelling package of prospects in a deal come July.

Worst-case scenario: The newly acquired prospects perform poorly in their first full year in the White Sox organization, and none of the veterans plays well enough to warrant significant trade value at the deadline. The White Sox are the worst team in MLB, with few obvious building blocks in place going into 2025. Yuck.

Make-or-break player: Garrett Crochet. I’ll be honest, if you had told me in January that I would be writing the AL Central preview and I’d pick Crochet as the X-factor for the White Sox, I would’ve been stunned. That the 24-year-old left-hander, coming off another injury-plagued season in which he appeared in 13 games as a reliever, is going to be Chicago’s OPENING DAY STARTER is a shocking turn of events, even in the context of Chicago’s rebuild.

Once Dylan Cease was finally out the door, I assumed one of the more experienced starters brought in this winter (Mike Soroka, Erick Fedde, Chris Flexen) would have the inside track on the Opening Day nod, considering their track records as, you know, starting pitchers. Instead, I genuinely love the choice of Crochet as an organizational signal of appreciation for one of their own, a homegrown talent who has overcome enough to look like a legitimately exciting pitcher again this spring. I have no idea if he’s going to sustain any level of competence as a starter in the long haul, but southpaws who throw as hard as Crochet does don’t grow on trees, and I’m eager to watch him attempt a return to the rotation in earnest — and that begins on Opening Day.

Season prediction: The truth is, a lot of the best-case scenario described above could take place, and the White Sox could still end up being the worst team in MLB. That’s not the worst thing in the world in the context of their big-picture plan, but it will be crucial for them to show signs of improvement in other areas of their organization — namely, player development. New general manger Chris Getz has his hands full, and it’s probably going to get a good bit worse before it gets better.