The American League Central has had three different winners in the past three years. The Twins took the top spot in both 2019 and the shortened 2020 season but have since seen injuries hamper them significantly in the past two campaigns. A resurgent White Sox club took over in 2021, making the playoffs for a second consecutive year for the first time in franchise history. Many thought those two clubs would be battling it out in 2022 but a young Guardians team pulled off a surprise upset as both the Twins and Sox were snakebit by poor health. During that time, both the Royals and Tigers have been struggling to come out of rebuilds.
With just over three weeks until pitchers and catchers report, how much has the picture changed this offseason? There’s are still a few unsigned free agents and some trades could always change the picture, but let’s take a look at where things stand now.
Cleveland Guardians – 2022 Record: 92-70, projected 2023 fWAR: 45.1
The Guardians were the youngest team in baseball last year and expectations were fairly modest at this point one year ago. However, they snuck up on everyone and took the crown. Many will debate whether it was sustainable or a fluke, but they’ve gone into the offseason in a good position to repeat. Since so much of the roster was young and controllable, their most notable free agents were Austin Hedges and Bryan Shaw. That means the vast majority of the club that won 92 games last year will be back, with plenty more exciting prospects potentially joining them throughout the year.
Since they lost so few players at the end of last year, it’s been a fairly quiet winter for the club so far. However, they did make two notable additions by signing Josh Bell and Mike Zunino. Those two should help bolster the squad, and there will also be reinforcements coming from within. Prospects Brayan Rocchio, George Valera and Logan Allen all reached Triple-A last year and could make their MLB debuts this year, with Tanner Bibee, Daniel Espino and others not far behind.
Chicago White Sox – 2022 Record: 81-81, projected 2023 fWAR: 40.6
The Sox won 93 games in 2021 and were picked by many for a repeat in 2022. Unfortunately, many of their lineup regulars spent significant time on the injured list or disappointed or both. The rotation got huge results from Dylan Cease and Johnny Cueto but the rest of the rotation dealt with various ailments and slumped when on the mound. Manager Tony La Russa also dealt with health issues down the stretch and decided not to return to the dugout for 2023, leading to the hiring of Pedro Grifol.
They lost Cueto in free agency, along with their long-time fan favorite José Abreu. It’s hoped that Andrew Vaughn can come in from the outfield and take over for Abreu at first, which should at least help the team by subtracting his awful defense on the grass. Andrew Benintendi was signed to take over one of the outfield spots in Vaughn’s absence while Mike Clevinger was signed to replace Cueto in the rotation. It’s a fairly similar roster to the ones that won 93 games two years ago and 81 games last year. Better health might be enough to get them back to the 2021 form, but they’ve already lost their closer for an undetermined amount of time with Liam Hendriks starting treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Minnesota Twins – 2022 Record: 78-84, projected 2023 fWAR: 42.0
After two straight divisions titles in 2019 and 2020, it’s been two disappointing campaigns in Minnesota. A mountain of injuries kept them below .500 in each of the two most recent campaigns. They were also facing the loss of a superstar this winter as Carlos Correa opted out of his contract and seemed unlikely to return. He then underwent one of the most surprising trips through free agency in recent memory, agreeing to a 13-year deal with the Giants that was later scuttled when the club grew concerned by the long-term health of his right leg. Correa then agreed to a 12-year deal with the Mets, though that agreement was also kiboshed by the medicals. That culminated in Correa coming back to Minnesota on a six-year guarantee with four vesting options.
Getting Correa back is a nice coup for the Twins but it still means they’ve effectively ended up back where they started. Christian Vázquez was signed to replace the departing Gary Sánchez and they’ve also taken a gamble on a Joey Gallo bounceback, but the roster currently looks fairly similar to the one that disappointed last year. Better health alone could get them right back into the race and they hired a new head athletic trainer to try to help in that department. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if injuries were an issue again since many of their key players appear to be prone to IL trips.
Detroit Tigers – 2022 Record: 66-96, projected 2023 fWAR: 30.0
The Tigers were a popular sleeper pick for a postseason berth about this time last year. They had many exciting prospects on the cusp of their debuts, including Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson. They decided the time was right to strike by signing Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez, as well as upgrading via trade. Unfortunately, just about everyone on the roster had a disappointing season, especially on offense. The team hit just .231/.286/.346 for a wRC+ of 81 that was dead last in the majors. Their collective 110 home runs was also last and 17 behind the nearest team.
It seems like 2023 will be about figuring out how to proceed. The club fired general manager Al Avila and brought in Scott Harris as president of baseball operations. Since then, they’ve traded away a couple of relievers in Joe Jiménez and Gregory Soto while also signing a couple of starters to one-year deals in Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen. It seems the all-in approach is on hold until they figure out which parts of their roster to build around.
Kansas City Royals – 2022 Record: 65-97, projected 2023 fWAR: 30.7
The Royals have finished below .500 in each of the past six seasons. Their attempted rebuild was failing to bear fruit, which led to major shakeups this winter. Both manager Mike Matheny and president of baseball operations Dayton Moore were fired, with Matt Quatraro now in the skipper’s chair and J.J. Picollo the chief baseball decision maker. The roster changes have been fairly modest so far this winter, with Zack Greinke the most notable departure, though he’s still a free agent. The additions include Jordan Lyles, Ryan Yarbrough and Aroldis Chapman.
The club has some exciting young players in Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino and MJ Melendez, but many of their top draft choices have gone to pitchers that have disappointed thus far. Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Alec Marsh, Jonathan Bowlan and Asa Lacy were all taken in the first or second round of the draft and haven’t yet delivered much to be excited about. However, Brady Singer showed in 2022 that the narrative can be flipped. Turning young players into viable big leaguers is key for a club that doesn’t throw around piles of cash in free agency. The recent lack of success in that regard has hurt them and they’ll need to do better somehow.
While the Tigers and Royals seem likely to be using this year to evaluate younger players, the other three clubs all have a plausible path to winning the division. The Guardians are reigning champs and have added Bell to give them some extra thump. The Sox have stars like Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Dylan Cease but just need everyone to stay healthy. It’s a similar story for the Twins who have elite players like Correa and Byron Buxton but need to keep them and others off the injured list. The three clubs are separated by just 4.5 projected WAR, according to FanGraphs, which points to an exciting battle in the upcoming campaign.
What do you think? Can the Guardians repeat or will one of their competitors surpass them? Have your say in the poll below.
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