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Beyond the Box Score 2018 MLB previews: AL Central

Can anyone take on the Indians, or will they three-peat as division champs?

Left to right: Corey Kluber (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports), Byron Buxton (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports), Jose Abreu (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports), Miguel Cabrera (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports), Mike Moustakas (Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports).

Our long, winter nightmare is over. Baseball is back! To get ready for the 2018 MLB season, we at Beyond the Box Score are previewing all 30 teams, looking at the moves they’ve made since last year, the player (or players) who could make a big difference this year, and reflecting on their overall outlook. We’ll roll out previews for each division over the next two days (AL on Tuesday, NL on Wednesday). Enjoy, and welcome back!

Cleveland Indians

2017 record: 102-60, first in AL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 96-66, first in AL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 93-69, first in AL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: first in AL Central (18/18)

MLB: Spring Training-Cincinnati Reds at Cleveland Indians
You can’t ask for a better left side of the infield than this.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Let 1B Carlos Santana (Phillies), RHP Bryan Shaw (Rockies), OF Jay Bruce (Mets), and OF Austin Jackson (Giants) leave in free agency.
  • Let pitching coach Mickey Callaway leave to manage the Mets.
  • Signed 1B Yonder Alonso to a two-year, $16 million contract.
  • Signed OF Rajai “Game Seven” Davis to a minor-league contract.
  • Signed 1B/DH Mike Napoli to a minor-league contract.
  • Got two new pitches for RHP Trevor Bauer.

Today’s Indians aren’t big players in free agency. This offseason, they handed out only one guaranteed major-league contract (Alonso’s). The only other free agent on their roster whose name you’d know is Edwin Encarnacion. The rest of the team is built on draftees (Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Bradley Zimmer), amateur free agent signings (Jose Ramirez, Danny Salazar, Francisco Mejia), and trades (Corey Kluber, Bauer, Andrew Miller).

Suffice to say, it’s worked out for them.

Players/trends to watch: Michael Brantley, Francisco Mejia, and the deadline

Per Mr. Romano, my instructions here are to talk about a player or trend that’s integral to the team. Me being quite literal-minded, I confess I can think of no such angle. [Editor’s note: You’re on thin ice here, Mr. Pollack.]

The 2018 Indians are stacked top-to-bottom with talent. Their rotation is sick. Their lineup is very good. And their bullpen is shutdown. What trends can be integral to a team this good, other than backing away slowly, trying not to break anything (or anyone)?

With that said, here are three storylines to pay attention to:

That’s all I’ve got. Carry on.

2018 outlook

The AL Central is one of the least competitive divisions in baseball, if not the least competitive. The Indians are as far ahead of their peers as Tesla is ahead of other electric cars. The Twins made some smart investments this offseason but haven’t compiled enough talent to contend. The Tigers definitely started to rebuild, and the White Sox are undergoing theirs. The Royals ... no.

Something could go wrong for Cleveland. Some things could go wrong. Lindor, Ramirez, Kluber, Encarnacion, Kipnis, Salazar, Miller, and Bauer could fall victim to eight separate misfortunes. It’s happened before.

But if baseball analysis has taught me anything, it’s to separate the probable from the possible. So: look for the Indians to wrap up a third straight division title. I expect them to clinch by … oh, let’s say September 5th.

Ryan Pollack

Minnesota Twins

2017 record: 85-77, second in AL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 82-80, second in AL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 82-80, second in AL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: second in AL Central (18/18)

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros
As the wunderkinds go, so go the Twins.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Signed RHP Lance Lynn to a one-year, $12 million contract.
  • Signed 1B Logan Morrison to a one-year, $6.5 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Michael Pineda to a two-year, $10 million contract.
  • Traded SS Jermaine Palacios to the Rays in exchange for RHP Jake Odorizzi.
  • Signed RHP Fernando Rodney to a one-year, $4.5 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Addison Reed to a two-year, $16.8 million contract.
  • Signed LHP Zach Duke to a one-year, $2.2 million contract.

After a meteoric rise to the second Wild Card spot in 2017, the Twins had a moderately busy offseason. They really needed to bolster their starting rotation, which had a 5.08 RA9 and an 18.1 percent strikeout rate in 2017.

Lynn was a tremendous acquisition at just one year and $12 million. He was quite effective in 2017 with a 3.86 RA9 for the Cardinals. Even if his subpar strikeout and walk rates continue into 2018, he will still be an upgrade to the Twins’ rotation. He does need to get his home run rate under control — last season, he gave them up at nearly twice his career rate before Tommy John surgery.

The Twins acquired Odorizzi for Palacios, a low-end prospect whom the Twins will likely not miss. (More on Odo shortly.) Pineda signed a two-year deal, but he won’t pitch until next year, as he’s still recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Minnesota also got lucky in its acquisition of Logan Morrison, who got the Moustakas deal. He had a career year in 2017 thanks to being an adopter of the fly ball revolution. He hit .246/.353/.516 with 38 HR, and he boosted his walk rate to 13.5 percent.

The bullpen needed some help, too, so the Twins signed Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney, and Zach Duke. Rodney is slated to be the closer, with Reed as the likely setup man and Duke as a lefty specialist.

Players to watch: Byron Buxton, Jake Odorizzi, and Jorge Polanco

How can I not start with Buxton? His 130 wRC+ in the second half is probably not representative of his true talent, but it’s obviously a big step forward for what used to be a lackluster bat. He still needs to improve his contact rates, and his second-half walk rate was not great. I would like to see him attempt more stolen bases, too — he went 29-for-30 last year. With his defense and speed, if he can be even just an above-average hitter, he could be a top-10 player in the AL.

The Twins bought low on Odorizzi after a replacement-level season where he walked 10 percent of the batters he faced and had a 5.02 RA9. That was with a .227 BABIP, too! A high fly ball rate and mediocre strikeout rate are a bad combination in today’s game. He did suffer from some back and foot injuries last year, so Minnesota is likely hoping for some positive regression with a clean bill of health. The Twins hired Josh Kalk in December, who used to be the Rays’ director of pitching research and development. If there were not upside to this trade, I’m sure he would have advised against it. I’d keep an eye on him.

Though not exactly a player to watch for, I would be remiss to not mention Polanco missing 80 games after testing positive for the anabolic steroid Stanozolol. The Twins lose their starting shortstop who was hoping to improve on his 2.2-bWAR season in 2017. I’ve said this quite a few times already, but I will say it again: As a chemist, I can’t understand why a baseball player would take that particular steroid. It has some of the more serious side effects one can suffer from anabolic steroids, and it’s easily detectable for weeks or even months after use.

2018 outlook

The Twins made the playoffs last year after finishing dead last in the majors the year before. They enjoyed breakout seasons from Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sanó. Joe Mauer had a nice bounceback season. Ervin Santana managed a 3.62 RA9 despite striking out less than 20 percent of the batters he faced. José Berríos started showing promise. And, of course, Buxton started to show his superstar potential. He hit .300/.347/.546 in the second half of 2017 while continuing his elite defense and baserunning.

A team that improves by the absurd amount that Minnesota did in 2017 is bound to regress the following year. Both FanGraphs and PECOTA project the Twins as an 82-win team after they went 85-77 last year. I am higher on the team than those projections, mostly because I am high on Byron Buxton; I’ll peg them as an 84-win team. Unfortunately, in a top-heavy AL, that probably will not be enough to make the playoffs.

Luis Torres

Chicago White Sox

2017 record: 67-95, fourth in AL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 72-90, third in AL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 66-96, fifth in AL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: third in AL Central (8/18)

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals
The kids are all right.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded IF Jake Peter in a three-team deal with the Dodgers and Royals for RHP Joakim Soria, LHP Luis Avilan, and cash.
  • Signed C Welington Castillo to a two-year, $15 million contract.

Last year marked the beginning of a rebuild for the Chicago White Sox. They traded away many of their veterans over the course of the 2017 offseason and trading deadline, acquiring a lot of prospects in return, some of whom are MLB-ready. In contrast, their 2018 offseason was rather quiet, with some minor moves to acquire pitching depth. They also brought in Castillo to handle catching duties.

The main news from this offseason is the transactions that didn’t happen. As of this writing, Jose Abreu remains at first base, and Avisail Garcia will be the right fielder. There is a high chance that both players — and some of the pitching depth the White Sox acquired — get flipped at the 2018 trading deadline for more prospects. However, with Abreu and Garcia under team control through 2019, Chicago may hang onto them if the 2018 season goes well.

Players to watch: The unproven prospects

For the White Sox, this season is solely about figuring out what they have. Baseball isn’t a perfect world, and with prospects and second-year players, it can get even more dicey, but the White Sox have enough players where things don’t have to go perfectly for some successes to bear fruit. Part of the focus will be on Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito, who could be the stars of future South Side teams.

Chicago would also like a rebound from Tim Anderson, who had a first-half sophomore slump in 2017 to the tune of a .623 OPS. Setup man Nate Jones and starter Carlos Rodon are returning from injuries as well. The White Sox will need to figure out what the veterans have left in the tank as the organization’s prospects start nipping at their heels.

2018 Outlook

An organization in the middle of a rebuild but with such high upside is hard to evaluate. This could end up being three different teams — an April-to-June roster with some vets, a post-trade deadline stripped-down club, and a September squad stacked with rookie callups. Since the Indians and Twins look to be the class of the AL Central, it’s probably a good thing that the 2018 expectations for the White Sox are low, lessening the pressure on the young team.

The projection systems tag the White Sox as a 70-win team, but they could be a club that has a strong second half of the season. Moncada and company certainly have a lot of potential, and with all the young talent, Chicago should be fun to watch in anticipation of 2019.

Richard Bergstrom

Kansas City Royals

2017 record: 80-82, third in AL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 65-97, fifth in AL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 71-91, third in AL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fourth in AL Central (7/18)

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers
TFW all your free agents leave.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Let OF Lorenzo Cain (Brewers) and 1B Eric Hosmer (Padres) leave in free agency.
  • Re-signed 3B Mike Moustakas to a one-year, $6.5 million contract.
  • Re-signed SS Alcides Escobar to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
  • Signed 1B Lucas Duda to a one-year, $3.5 million contract.
  • Signed OF Jon Jay to a one-year, $3 million contract.
  • Traded RHP Joakim Soria, LHP Scott Alexander, and cash in a three-team deal with the Dodgers and White Sox for IF Erick Mejia and RHP Trevor Oaks.

This offseason must have been really heartbreaking for Royals fans, as their “Core Four” became free agents. They lost fan-favourites Hosmer (who once outshined Justin Bieber at his own concert!) to the Padres and Cain to the Brewers. But all was not lost, as Kansas City was able to bring back the left half of its infield.

After setting the franchise’s single-season home run record (38), Moustakas rejected a $17.4 million qualifying offer to pursue the long-term contract he deserved. He was one of many free agents victimized by ownership stinginess this offseason. In the end, he got Royal-ly screwed and signed a $6.5 million contract with the team that, only months earlier, was willing to pay him nearly $11 million more. Regardless, everyone will be happy to see their favourite third baseman back at the K. And it looks like he’s ready to play:

Since 2011, Escobar has played more games at shortstop (1105) than anyone in the major leagues. As the final member of that “Core Four,” he came back on a one-year deal. He said “I feel at home here in Kansas City,” and yes, I’m sobbing. Leave me be.

To round out the infield, the Royals also signed Duda to replace Hosmer. Duda has some pop, even if he is something of a platoon player, and he should be an adequate first baseman.

However, the most important signing of the offseason was Jay. I may be biased because he’s one of my all-time favourites, but I think he’s a good pickup. The Royals obviously went bargain hunting and signed essentially everyone to one-year deals, and Jay is no exception. He’ll play center field and left field, and while his defense isn’t as sterling as it was in 2012/2013, he’s still pretty good.

Player to watch: Alex Gordon

Gordon’s batting average has continued to dip since it peaked in 2011. He hit .220 in 2016 and then .208 last season, which is not at the level of production teams expect from a veteran outfielder. With his average, he should not be a middle-of-the-lineup bat, so if he doesn’t improve — and if his solid defense keeps earning him playing time — it will weigh pretty heavily on the Kansas City lineup.

Gordon’s problem isn’t just his average — it’s also power. He slashed .208/.293/.315 last season and had the lowest OPS of all qualified major league hitters (.608). His wRC+ last season was 62, which means he was 38 percent worse than the average MLB batter. That’s not the offensive production the Royals want for the $20 million they’ll pay him this year. Gordon needs to step up offensively for the Royals to be a legitimate offensive threat. But his .127 average in spring training doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

2018 outlook

Overall, the Royals are pretty “meh.” They have some good maybes in Moustakas, Gordon, Jay, and Escobar. Their pitching is okay, both starting and in the bullpen, but okay pitching does not win a whole lot of games against a Cleveland lineup.

Baseball is unpredictable, as always. Strange things happen, and the Royals could somehow snag a Wild Card spot. But I wouldn’t count on that happening — not with the Yankees/Red Sox battle brewing in the East and the Angels challenging the Astros in the West.

A lot of the Royals’ season will depends on the first couple of months. If they get to late June/early July and they’re third or fourth in the division, they’ll likely start to trade away some of those big names on one-year deals. Moustakas and Escobar could look pretty good to contending teams in August and September.

Whatever happens, the Royals will be a fun team to watch this season. Whether they can win enough ballgames to contend for a postseason spot remains to be seen, but they will play some good baseball. With half of their “Core Four” returning and some under-the-radar additions, the Royals’ bargain hunting might just pay off.

Audrey Stark

Detroit Tigers

2017 record: 64-98, fifth in AL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 68-94, fourth in AL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 70-92, fourth in AL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fifth in AL Central (11/18)

MLB: Texas Rangers at Detroit Tigers
The clock is ticking for these two.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded 2B Ian Kinsler to the Angels in exchange for RHP Wilkel Hernandez and OF Troy Montgomery.
  • Signed LHP Francisco Liriano to a one-year, $4 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Mike Fiers to a one-year, $6 million contract.
  • Signed OF Leonys Martin to a one-year, $1.75 million contract.
  • Signed Cs Derek Norris and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to minor-league contracts.

In its first full offseason without Mike Ilitch’s largesse, Detroit has been pretty conservative. After dealing J.D. Martinez, Alex Avila, and three Justins (Verlander, Wilson, and Upton) during the season, the team shipped Kinsler — one of the few remaining players with trade value — to LA in December. The return wasn’t all that great; still, for a player with one year to go until free agency, something is better than nothing.

Then there’s the five veterans. Liriano and Fiers were last good in 2015, and they’re both on the wrong side of 30; Martin and Norris were two of the worst hitters in baseball last year, and they both found themselves DFA’d midseason; and Salty is probably at the end of the line, having slashed .162/.271/.243 in Triple A last season. But hey — the Tigers aren’t going anywhere in 2018. Maybe one of these guys will return to form, and they can deal him at the deadline.

Player to watch: Daniel Norris

The Tigers have plenty of interesting players, but Norris is the one I’ll be watching the closest, because of both his lofty ceiling and his low floor. The key piece from the 2015 David Price trade, Norris has consistently dominated in the minors, yet hasn’t quite put it all together in the show. He looked like a front-line starter in 2016, when he cruised to a 3.38 ERA (and peripherals to back it up) over 69 13 innings. Then 2017 came around, and his ERA ballooned to 5.31 in 101 23 frames.

Norris had trouble with control last year, with a meager 59.7 percent strike rate, and he gave up more hard contact than any other pitcher with as many innings. The season before, he was pretty average in both regards; that combined with his swing-and-miss stuff to make him dominant. Keith Law has him pegged as a breakout candidate, which makes sense, but another uneven campaign could also be in the cards.

Left-handed starters with four legitimate pitches don’t grow on trees, so the Tigers will likely stick by Norris through whatever the 2018 season throws at him. He’ll get another shot in the rotation, and maybe he’ll stick this time. Or maybe he’ll give up a ton of walks and hits and flame out again. Who knows?

2018 outlook

You don’t lose 98 games without a lot of stuff going wrong. From Miguel Cabrera suddenly becoming a below-average hitter, to Jordan Zimmermann continuing his freefall, to Victor Martinez inexplicably getting 436 plate appearances — seriously, what were you thinking, Ausmus? — the Tigers suffered many a misfortune in 2017 en route to the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Miggy, JZ and V-Mart aren’t the future — the next competitive Detroit team won’t have them on it. The Tigers have started to revamp their farm system, moving up to 21st in BA’s ranking as well as BP’s. Unproven prospects like Jeimer Candelario (acquired in the Wilson/Avila deal) will get some time to shine this year, alongside Michael Fulmer, Nick Castellanos, and the other stalwarts.

With the White Sox already nearing the end of their rebuild, and the Royals procrastinating on starting theirs, the Tigers are sort of in the middle. They haven’t gotten a great return from their trades thus far, but with good drafts in recent years, they’re on the way back up. 2017 wasn’t pretty, and the next few seasons won’t be, either; Motor City will have to wait for its return to contention.

Ryan Romano