American League Central Preview

Photo Courtesy of Andy B Sports

Written By: Matthew Haines

Welcome to the first edition of our series where we, the SOTG analytics team, will be breaking down each and every team in each and every division for your reading pleasure. Expect a breakdown of your favorite teams to be released within the next few weeks, and if you would like to read more, please feel free to peruse our other analytics articles!

Let’s get right into it.

While I would like to hype up this year’s AL Central race, in the end, there is going to be a clear winner in this division, and that winner is the Cleveland Indians. According to all projections, the Indians are expected to run away with the division with little challenge along the way. However, this does not mean that the AL Central should be ignored. The Indians, as everyone should realize by now, will be a fun team to watch with ripe characters that will keep fans entertained through their on and off the field antics. Nevertheless, the AL Central will also be home to some of the best young talent in the game. Many of these clubs have rich farm systems with prospects that are ready to make the jump to MLB competition in 2019. Likewise, many of these clubs will be experimenting with a rebuilding phase in their club’s life, so fans will have quite of but of upside to look forward to and should pay close attention to the intricate moves these teams make.

Without further ado, let’s get started into this AL Central Preview.

1st Place: Cleveland Indians

Overview:

The Indians bring back a slew of talent that has already seen success and know what it takes to win. Currently, the PECOTA projections have them listed to win 97 games, putting them 15 games ahead of the next contender. Looking at the division as a whole, the Indians are the only team with 3 or more players projected to contribute more than 3.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) throughout the season. Combined with their current talent, the Indians have also made some subtle offseason moves that may improve the team, as well as a rich farm system that will keep them supplied with new talent as the year progresses. The real test for the Indians will be their bullpen. Last year saw a drop in productivity from key role players such as Andrew Miller, so it will be interesting to see how their bullpen can bounce back and support their elite starting staff.

Key Players:

The Indians have by far the best lineup on paper within the AL Central. With key players both in their lineup and in their pitching rotation, the Indians will be looking for some big performances from these players if they are to continue their dominance of the Central.

First up, we have Francisco Lindor, the All-Star shortstop that has cemented the infield since his breakout rookie season in 2015. Since then, he has only improved in his play, posting a 7.6 WAR last season and a projected 2019 WAR of  6.6. Last season also saw his best number for Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), at 130. He is projected for another year of 130 wRC+, furthering his essential role in the lineup. The Indians also look to bring back slugger Jose Ramirez who led the team last season in WAR and wRC+ with 8.0 and 146 respectively. This year, he looks for an encore to his performance last season, with projected WAR of 6.6 and projected wRC+ of 143.

While Cleveland boasts the best lineup in the Central, it is their rotation that rises above and beyond to anchor the squad. Anchoring the rotation is All-Star stud, Trevor Bauer who is looking to put up similar number to his Cy-Young worthy campaign of 2018, where he posted a WAR of 6.1 and a 3.14 Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP). In 2019, he is projected to post similar numbers with a projected WAR of 5.5 and xFIP of 3.46. Following up last year’s campaign will be tough, but all signs from Bauer in the offseason say he is up to the challenge and is looking to come out in 2019 with another big year. Following in the rotation is the robot, Corey Kluber, Kluber saw outstanding numbers in 2018 with a WAR of 5.6 and xFIP of 3.08. He is expected to contribute well this year, with a projected 2019 WAR of 5.3 and xFIP 3.20. With numbers like this, Kluber will play a vital role in the Indians’ pitching staff, and will further compliment this staff’s depth. Up next, we have Carlos Carrasco, who posted a 5.3 WAR and a team lowest 2.90 xFIP throughout the 2018 season. Carrasco will continue to be one of the most elite starting pitcher in the MLB, as he is projected for 4.4 WAR and 3.32 xFIP for the 2019 season. Rounding up the key players within the Indians current squad is Mike Clevinger who posted a 4.3 WAR and 3.86 xFIP in 2018, and looks to follow up is sophomore campaign. While is projected numbers for 2019 see a steep drop off, only time will tell how he, as well as all other players in this lineup will contribute.

Offseason Moves:

The Indians’ offseason saw relatively quiet, but solid moves around their lineup. Some key losses include the trading of Yan Gomes and Edwin Encarnacion, two frequent starters for the Indians in 2018. However, Yan Gomes’ projected WAR looks to drop from 2.2 in 2018, to 1.2. Encarnacion, on the other hand, looks to increase his production from last year’s 1.0 WAR, to a projected 1.9 WAR in 2019. The off season also saw the Indians bring in Carlos Santana, who looks to contribute a projected 2.2 WAR in 2019 and can play a key role in the Indians lineup this upcoming season. The Indians also made some smaller moves, signing Tyler Clippard and Hanley Ramirez to minor league contracts. It is tough to say how these moves will play out in the future, but overall, the Indians seem to have done a subtle restructuring that will elevate their team to the next level, hopefully being able to compete for the World Series trophy in 2019.

Players to Watch:

The Indians have a strong farm system, but also a young one. For this reason, much of their talent is not projected to make their MLB debut until 2020 or later. The most promising prospect in the Indians’ organization is RHP Tristan McKenzie, who has dominated AA, posting a 2.86 ERA, along with 87Ks in 90.2 innings last season. He is projected to make his debut sometime in 2019, however, with an already strong starting rotation, don’t be surprised if the Indians’ decide to use him as a piece to strengthen their lineup elsewhere. Looking into the future, we see two of some of my favorite players from the 2018 Draft Class in RHP Ethan Hankins and 3B Nolan Gorman. While largely untested, remember the names of these two, as they can make quite the splash in a couple of years with their callups. Some other names that can look to be called up this year include UTIL Yu Chang, who impressed in the Arizona Fall League, being named to their top prospects list this year. Along with Chang is 1B Bobby Bradley, a big-swinging lefty that has recently been lighting it up in AA with 26 HR, make it his 4th consecutive 20+ HR season.

Edit:

In my hastened confusion, I seemed to have forgotten to include an addition player to watch, R.C. Orlan, LHP. The local product out of Glen Allen, VA had one of his best years, statistically, last year. The local product spent last year carving hitters, leading to a 0.61 ERA with 29.2 IP, while simultaneously holding a 0.91 WHIP while K-ing 39 batters in the span.

2nd Place: Minnesota Twins

Overview

As I said before, the AL Central is essentially a race for 2nd at best, per me as well as PECOTA projections, where the Twins are currently projected to go 82-80, 15 games outside of 1st. However, the Twins look to improve on their 2018 season win total of 78. The Twins, by all means of measurability, look to be serviceable team in 2019. A playoff contending Twins would not be shocking by any means, however, do not expect them to post up 90+ wins and run away with the division in the end.

Key Players:

Eddie Rosario looks to continue his anchoring of the lineup, where he posted a 3.4 WAR along with a 113 wRC+ in 2018. For 2019, he is projected to put up decent numbers, with a 2.8 WAR and a 109 wRC+. In the pitching rotation is where we see the next key players for the Twins. Jose Berrios will look to continue his role as ace and follow up his solid year in 2018 which saw him post a 3.3 WAR as well as a 3.89 xFIP. For 2019, he is projected for another good year of 3.3 WAR and 3.94 xFIP. Another player that has the ability to play a key role for the Twins is Taylor Rogers, who posted a 1.9 WAR last season along with a 2.94 xFIP. While a less talked about name, Rogers has the opportunity to really breakout this season and make a name for himself in the Twins’ pitching staff.

Offseason Moves

The key loss for the Twins is that of Eduardo Escobar, who posted solid numbers in 2018 with a 2.4 WAR as well as what would have been a team leading 124 wRC+. In 2019, he looks to continue his productive play with a projected WAR of 2.5 and a wRC+ of 111. The 2019 offseason also saw the loss of Twins legend, Joe Mauer. Luckily for the Twins, Mauer’s production had been down in his final seasons, and they look to improve their lineup with the addition of Marwin Gonzalez, he comes from the Astros where he is projected to increase in production from 1.6 WAR in 2018 to 2.2 in 2019. If all goes as planned, 2019 can see Gonzalez making an immediate impact on the Twins lineup, securing an everyday role and helping rebuild the team.

Players to Watch:

The Twins have some elite prospects currently in their system that can make future impacts for the team, or used as key roles in trades that improve the MLB club as is. However, Twins fans have some names they should keep in mind for the 2019 season as well. First up is LHP Stephen Gonsalves. Although his short MLB stint did not go as planned, he has posted a 2.76 ERA in AAA as well as putting up 120Ks in only 121 innings of work. Another name to keep in mind is 1B-OF Brent Rooker along with one of the best twitter presences in the MiLB, Rooker has also put up solid numbers in AA with 22 HR in 503 At-Bats.

T-3rd Place: Kansas City Royals

Overview:

The Royals head what I am going to call the bottom half of the AL Central, with a PECOTA projected record of 70-92, they are projected to sit 12 games out of second place, and a monstrous 27 games out of the top spot. However, it is not all downside for the Royals, there is some upside for the struggling club.

Key Players:

Up first for the Royals we have Whit Merrifield, who went above and beyond the rest of the lineup last year with a 2018 WAR of 5.2 and a 120 wRC+. Merrifield has produced well throughout his first two seasons in the bigs, and looks to continue that production in 2019. Currently, his projected 2019 sits at 3.6, with a projected wRC+ of 104. If all goes well, 2019 can be another big year for the Royals second baseman, anchoring the lineup with another successful campaign. The Royals have another strong presence in the middle infield with SS/2B Adalberto Mondesi. Last year he accumulated a solid 2.8 WAR with a 114 wRC+ and looks to contribute to the lineup again in 2019 with a projected 3.3 WAR and 97 wRC+. Adalberto is one of the few players on the roster expected to increase his production this year. Likewise, Mondesi is also one of the youngest players on the club, making him a key role player for the Royals in the future. 2019 also brings the return of Brad Keller, the Royals’ breakout star of 2018, who accumulated 2.5 WAR and posted a 4.26 xFIP last year, and is projected to have another solid year. The best news about Keller, is that he is also only 23 years old, and is set to be quite the rising star for the Royals in the future, hopefully anchoring the rotation for years to come.

Offseason Moves:

With the coming of the 2019 season, the royals see themselves without the return of Mike Moustakas, who accumulated 1.7 WAR along with 106 wRC+ and is projected to produce more during his 2019 campaign. Not all is grim for the Royals’ offseason transactions, as they signed former Reds speedster, Billy Hamilton, who posted a 1.3 WAR along with a 69 (nice) wRC+ in 2018 and is projected to increase his production in 2019 to 1.5 WAR and 72 wRC+. The 2019 season also sees our first season since the retirement of beer league legend, Billy Burns, god bless his soul.

Players to Watch:

The Royals have one of the most electric young arms in Brady Singer although he did not play in 2018, he remained one of the most talked about young prospects in baseball, and could make an early debut for the Royals in 2019 if all goes well. The Royals also hold onto local Richmond product, Daniel Lynch. Currently listed at the number 8 prospect in the farm system. After holding an impressive 1.58 ERA in high A, Lynch has impressed scouts across the MLB and fans could see him in the rotation within the next couple of years.

T-3rd Place: White Sox

Overview:

The White Sox have a similar grim PECOTA projection, with the same record as the Royals sitting at 70-92. Luckily for White Sox fans this means there has to be a lot of upside for the future of this club. The White Sox showcase some of the richest farm talent in the MLB, with a multitude of players than can see playing time in the 2019 season.  

Key Players:

The White Sox return a couple of players that produced solid, not great, numbers in 2018, and are looking to improve during the 2019 season. Starting off, there is young star, Yoan Moncada, while the young player was essentially a star before he ever signed an MLB contract, his numbers have been somewhat lackluster, given his hype. While not his fault, Moncada has a projected 2.7 WAR in 2019, a solid jump from last year’s 2.0. Additionally, his projected wRC+ is expected to rise in 2019 at 106. Reynaldo Lopez is another youngster for the White Sox. In only his second season, he posted a solid 2.0 WAR and 106 wRC+. While his numbers are projected to drop in 2019, this young player remains largely untested, and could surprise a lot of people.

Offseason Moves:

2019 brings the loss of Omar Narvaez, a reputable role player in the organization, posting a 2.1 WAR in 2018. However, this is not all bad news for the White Sox, for Narvaez is projected to see a drop in WAR and wRC+ for the 2019 season. The White Sox made another solid offseason move with acquisition of Ivan Nova, who posted a 1.1 WAR and 4.28 xFIP, and is expected to remain fairly steady for the 2019 season. If his production remains steady, White Sox fans can expect to see Nova take an immediate role in the starting rotation.

Players to Watch:

The White Sox showcase a slew of young talent that can be expected to make huge contributions in 2019. Up first is OF Eloy Jimenez, recently, he has been tearing it up in the minors and with 80 grade raw power, White Sox fans can expect him to make an impact on the team this year. Another young stud that will be familiar with college baseball fans is MIF Nick Madrigal. Arguably the best hitter in the 2018 draft class, Madrigal can just about do it all. He is projected to make his debut in late 2019, but with an increase in his power, he can be called up much sooner than expected. It is also impossible to talk about the White Sox prospects without mentioning flamethrower, Michael Kopech, showcasing a fastball well into the upper 90s, often touching 100+. While 2019 will be a wash for Kopech due a UCL tear, expect him to be a big name very soon. Last we have RHP, Dylan Cease, a projectable prospect who currently sits at 47 in Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101. While recent Tommy John Surgery has held him back, fans can expect Cease to make an immediate impact sometime within the 2019 season.

Last and also kind of Least: Detroit Tigers

Overview:

With a PECOTA projection 67-95, the season looks quite grim for the Tigers and their fanbase. However, the Tigers do return some quality players that can make them a reputable club.

Key Players:

The opening of the 2019 season brings the return of WAR leader Nick Castellanos. Castellanos had a quality 2018 season, accumulating 3.0 WAR with an outstanding 130 wRC+. He is projected to continue this production in 2019 with a pWAR of 2.5 and a pwRC+ of 125. Another player that will play a key role for the Tigers is relief pitcher, Joe Jimenez. He will look to continue to cement is role in the bullpen throughout the 2019 season with a projected 1.0 WAR along with a projected 3.59 xFIP.

Offseason Moves:

The biggest loss for the Tigers came in 2018 with the exit of Leonys Martin. Despite not competing for the Tigers for the entire duration of the season, Martin was second in total WAR for the Tigers. Unfortunately, the bad news does not end there. The 2019 season also sees the loss of middle infielder Jose Iglesias. Last season, Iglesias was one of the top performers in the Tigers lineup, accumulating 2.4 WAR and 90 wRC+. Small upside for Tigers fans, his projected 2019 WAR is projected to drop this season 0.7.

Players to Watch:

The biggest name to keep watch of is RHP Alex Faedo, listed at #79 on the Top 100 list, Faedo exhibits strong ability to pitch at the next level. Along with Faedo is young prospect Christian Stewart, who made his MLB debut in 2018 for a brief 60 At-Bats, and is expected to play a larger role in the Tigers’ lineup this season.

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