The Cleveland Indians will enter the 2019 season as favorites to win their division for a fourth straight year. Can anyone in the AL Central knock them off?
For the second consecutive winter, the Cleveland Indians‘ top brass have evidently constructed their offseason plans around the expectation that the rest of the American League Central will resemble Danny Glover’s California Angels before Christopher Lloyd began intervening.
Most of the noteworthy roster changes thus far have been subtractions, save for the acquisitions of Carlos Santana and Jake Bauers (which, of course, also included subtractions). The Indians have spent no real money to retain their own free agents, nor to reel in new ones.
Indians’ upper management has sent a clear and resounding message to the fan base (albeit by saying and doing next to nothing at all): The American League Central is still a circus and we are good enough to win it as currently constructed, even though we saw firsthand last year what a questionable strategy that is.
With that in mind, it’s time for us to conduct an ocular pat-down of the AL Central in order to determine whether Cleveland’s place atop the division is at Threat Level: Midnight.
Of Detroit’s five regular starting pitchers in 2018, only Mike Fiers posted an ERA below 4.00. Suffice it to say the team with the fifth-worst record in baseball last year has not been diving headlong into the free agent pitching market this winter.
Maybe they benefit from a resurgence out of Michael Fulmer or an improvement from lefty Matthew Boyd. If one or both of these developments come to pass, the Tigers could boast a markedly better top of the rotation in 2019. It’s also possible that one or both are traded this summer if their performances command the attention of contending teams.
Offensively, the Tigers will once again be led by Nick Castellanos (assuming he’s not traded by Opening Day). They’ll hope for a full return to form out of Miguel Cabrera after he missed most of 2018 due to injury, but how much is left in the 36-year-old’s tank?
Moreover, Detroit will lose elite defensive shortstop Jose Iglesias to free agency (whenever he finally signs elsewhere). The 2019 season will be an extended audition for players like Niko Goodrum, JaCoby Jones and Jeimer Candelario, but Vegas has the Tigers as a 1000/1 favorite to win the World Series for a reason.
What I’m really doing here is looking for polite ways to say it’s going to be another long year at Comerica Park.
Threat Level: Early morning, still dark
Kansas City Royals
If you gave me my choice of any second baseman in the league not named Fully Healthy Jose Altuve, I’d probably take Whit Merrifield. Interestingly enough, Merrifield is about the only thing the Royals have going for them right now.
The Royals finished 2018 with the second-worst record in all of baseball, and boy, did they mail it in when the going got tough. Against teams with winning records, Kansas City was an astounding 18-56. I don’t see any reason to expect a much higher ceiling for the 2019 model.
Mike Moustakas isn’t coming back for another one-year deal, Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy aren’t getting any younger, and Merrifield can’t do it all by himself. Adalberto Mondesi and Jakob Junis are potential bright spots for the Royals, but this club isn’t standing in the way of an Indians playoff run.
Threat Level: Early morning, the sun is rising but it’s still unreasonably cold
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox sure have gotten cute this winter, haven’t they? Throwing their name into the ring for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, signing Kelvin Herrera, trading for Alex Colome (one of the sneaky-good transactions of this entire offseason); these are all preliminary phases in a plan with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the ruling class.
But do you know what I still see when I look at the White Sox? I see a team without a true number-one starting pitcher. Reynaldo Lopez looks like he might be trending in that direction, but I’m not ready to declare him an ace after one full season’s worth of innings.
And how about Yoan Moncada, one of the centerpieces in the trade that sent Chris Sale to Boston? How’s he faring? Well, he struck out more times than anyone in baseball in 2018, so there’s that. That’s bad enough all on its own, but how about doing it as an everyday leadoff hitter? Moncada recorded 399 at-bats as Chicago’s leadoff hitter in 2018, by far his most of any position in the batting order.
Chicago’s rotation was set back a year by last season’s abrupt and unfortunate injury to Michael Kopech, and their lineup is full of holes outside of Jose Abreu. The White Sox will win more than 62 games in 2019, but one $300-million mega-deal doesn’t fix the lineup all by itself.
Threat Level: Lunchtime (Late afternoon if they land Harper/Machado)
And now, at long last, we arrive at the team that was supposed to dethrone the Indians in 2018.
Evidently determined not to repeat last year’s 78-84 showing, the Twins have been among the more active teams this winter, acquiring Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron. That’s 88 new home runs in the middle of Minnesota’s batting order, and quite a nice supporting cast for Eddie Rosario. If Max Kepler and Miguel Sano become consistently reliable hitters, the Twins turn into a dangerous offense rather quickly.
Where the Indians still have an undeniable advantage over Minnesota is in the starting rotation. Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson put together solid 2018 campaigns with Jake Odorizzi coming in as serviceable. There is a considerable drop-off after those three, however, and none can reasonably be projected to perform better than Cleveland’s aces.
Maybe a Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel signing looms in the distance, the latter of which would render the Indians’ bullpen third best in the division. Until then, Minnesota remains a second-place team on paper.
In any case, the Twins were the only AL Central foe to give the Indians a hard time in 2018, and I’m concerned about them once again going into 2019. Their lineup figures to be anything but a treat to pitch to, and their rotation will be able to keep them in ballgames.
If Cleveland’s three-year reign as Central division champions comes to an end in 2019, the Twins are the only team close enough to see to the Tribe’s undoing. Threat Level: Sundown