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November 11, 2015

Rubbing Mud

The Great Big Exasperated AL Central Shrug

by Matthew Trueblood

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If you set out to list the five most surprising and the five most disappointing teams of 2015, there’s a good chance you would name at least four of the five American League Central clubs along the way. The Royals, you know about, but don’t forget the Twins, whom Sports Illustrated foresaw losing 100 games, but who were eliminated from the playoffs only on the final Saturday of the season. The same publication also picked the Indians to win the World Series, but Cleveland went 81-80. Personally, I picked the White Sox to win the division on the heels of their aggressive winter—but Chicago won 76 games. And PECOTA’s pick to cruise into October was Detroit, but the Tigers’ competitive window closed a year early, and they went 74-87.

I mention this because, if confounding expectations was the theme of the 2015 season in the AL Central, utter inscrutability might just be the theme of the winter there. I wouldn’t know where to begin forecasting next season’s standings in that division, and the major reason for that is that it’s virtually impossible to tell what any of the five teams are going to do with their offseasons. In most of the other divisions, there are clear favorites or co-favorites, and the objectives of at least three or four teams are very clear. Not in the AL Central. Let’s examine these teams one at a time.

Chicago White Sox
By declining their club option on Alexei Ramirez, the White Sox admitted the dreariness of their present and immediate future, and signaled an intention to break their habit of haphazard team-building and create a coherent, comprehensive long-term plan. It’s that, or they need some of the $9 million they saved by declining that option to fix one of the several holes on their roster and make another run at winning a division without a clear juggernaut. They might even want Ramirez back, and simply think they can get him for less than the option year promised him.

GM Rick Hahn has stuck to contending rhetoric for the most part, talking about the window during which the team has their core of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, and Adam Eaton in place, but he’s also started throwing around the words “young and controllable,” which are often used to dodge questions while filling up reporters’ recorders, but also signal at least some modification of the strategy that brought in David Robertson, Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Samardzija last winter.

Maybe the biggest signal the Sox sent was when they announced their intention to keep Robin Ventura. The Ventura experiment has been a disaster, and it’s probably the wrong decision under any circumstances, but the explanation that would come closest to selling me on keeping Ventura is that the Sox intend to make at least one more run at this before entertaining trade offers for Sale, Quintana, or Abreu. Of course, the early buzz around the team all seems to be about the potential that the team could trade Quintana as part of its effort to get better elsewhere, so maybe the reason the plan is tough to suss out is that it’s not as simple as buying or selling. That’s true for many teams around the league lately, and it’s why the trade and free-agent markets have been so much more active and interesting since the end of the 2013 season.

I still think that if your hopes of contending ride on trading a perfectly solid starting pitcher to whom you owe $5.4 million next season for just the right haul, the limb you’re out on is creaking too much, and you’d better focus instead on improving your organization from the bottom up. The Sox are so habitually aggressive, though, that they might try it anyway.

Cleveland Indians
All I mentioned about the Indians in the introductory paragraphs of this piece was that they didn’t really contend, finishing 81-80 and trading away any non-core pieces owed any significant cash late in the year. Here’s the thing I didn’t mention: The Indians had the best third-order winning percentage in the division, and it wasn’t close. Their .580 mark blew away the Royals (.532), and the other three teams had third-order records well under .500. This might have been the most talented team in the AL Central in 2015, and it has an even better chance to take that title in 2016.

Cleveland has just $46.3 million committed to its roster for next season, and that includes $5 million its paying the Braves as part of the cash-dump deal the Indians made last summer to rid themselves of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. For that sum, they can account for Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley (who just had surgery, but should be back no later than early May), Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Chris Johnson. They’ll owe significant arbitration awards to Cody Allen and Lonnie Chisenhall, but Danny Salazar and Francisco Lindor will both play for the league-minimum salary next year. There are a thousand options available to Chris Antonetti and his staff, as long as they can get the support they’ll need from ownership to run a respectable payroll.

Unfortunately, that last qualifier might be a killer. The rumors that the team is willing to deal either Carrasco or Salazar don’t make any sense, but they won’t go away. There are few enough holes on this roster that they should look to plug them without giving up their most attractive big-league assets, but that seems to be all we hear about. If nothing else, the team is in good enough position to execute a straight exchange of prospects for a medium-cost, high-value asset at one of their weaker spots—Adam Jones, Jay Bruce, Carlos Gonzalez, I’m talking about aiming fairly high here. Until we stop hearing that they might trade a good pitcher just to avoid spending money on a good position player, though, the safest bet seems to be that their hands are tied by a lack of willingness to spend.

Detroit Tigers
Like the White Sox, the Tigers improbably retained their manager at the end of a hugely disappointing season. Unlike the White Sox, the Tigers fired their GM, not so that they could put the team he built in the rearview, but seemingly because they better trusted his lieutenant to finish the job and push that team over the top, as soon as possible.

It’s profoundly strange to see a team fresh off a last-place finish seemingly committed to jumping all the way to first place without making significant personnel changes. That’s why, despite the infeasibility of trading Justin Verlander or Miguel Cabrera, and despite the lack of any trade rumors surrounding Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, or J.D. Martinez, I’m skeptical that the Tigers are really doing this. Then again, as mentioned in the White Sox section, this is a brave new marketplace. Teams don’t feel hidebound by their place in the standings, especially in the American League. The Rangers went from worst to first with relatively few changes this season, though two things must be noted there:

1. They traded for Cole Hamels and a new pair of set-up men in July, and for a solid pair of bench players in August. The Tigers have nowhere near the prospect capital necessary to transform themselves mid-season the way Texas did.

2. They still had a .496 third-order winning percentage. Now, in such a wide-open competitive climate, it’s okay to shoot for .500 when it’s attainable, knowing good luck can carry you to a playoff position from there. Still, we should keep in mind that the Rangers were by no means the best team in the AL West this season.

So, yes, the Tigers appear to be going for it. If they’re serious about that, though, they’d better aim really, really high. Sign Jason Heyward. Sign David Price. Don’t engage in half-measures or give good veterans short-term deals, because win or lose, 2016 absolutely cannot be only about 2016 in Detroit. If it is, the following five years will be catastrophic.

Kansas City Royals
The Royals proved themselves (to us, at least) to be legitimate in 2015. They were more of an 87-win team than a 95-win one, though, and they now face a winter in which their starting right and left fielders, their starting second baseman, and two of their three best starting pitchers (down the stretch, at least) are all becoming free agents. Their MVP-finalist center fielder and their slow-developing third baseman both start getting rich in arbitration this year. They’ll have to either re-sign Ryan Madson or find a way to replace him in a bullpen that probably won’t be as deep or as dominant as it has been, even if they do one of those things.

All over this team are questions. They have a really good core, and there’s no way they can or should break it up. Not even that core group is immune to serious questions, though. Salvador Perez had a rough year at the plate, continued to be overused by Ned Yost, and was thoroughly battered by opponents’ backswings, foul balls, and fastballs to the ribs during the playoffs. Alcides Escobar is a shortstop whose value lies almost exclusively in his glove, and he’s turning 29. Lorenzo Cain is turning 30, played through pain for much of the season, and didn’t finish strongly.

Maybe ownership is willing to really pony up, having realized the profits of hosting six World Series games and one massive parade over the last two years. The fans have supported the team very well. It’s possible Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist are back next year, and that Dayton Moore proves to have a knack for finding the mid-rotation free-agent starters who won’t grossly underperform, and that the Royals are raising another division-title banner after next season. Until we see how Moore intends to help his team overcome the rough course correction immediately ahead, though, it’s hard to project that. Neither David Glass nor Moore are on the short list of executives I would trust to get the answers to so many questions right in such a short amount of time.

Minnesota Twins
The biggest movers and shakers of the winter, so far, the Twins won the rights to negotiate with Korean first baseman Byung-Ho Park. That’s fascinating, because it figures to push Miguel Sano either to left field or third base. Sano was a phenomenal rookie slugger, but did his damage mostly as a DH, because Trevor Plouffe was so established at third base. Sano isn’t a good runner and had a hamstring strain that made him totally immobile late in the season, so he wasn’t even in the outfield picture at that point.

With Torii Hunter retiring, a little room has opened up in the Twins’ outfield. In any other organization, though, Byron Buxton, Aaron Hicks, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario would be enough to make moving a potential defensive liability into a full-time outfield role a non-option. Buxton has been yanked around so much by now that it would surprise few if he opened 2016 in Triple-A. Kepler won the Southern League MVP this season and made his big-league debut at the end of the season, but it’s the Twins, so the smart money says he starts in Rochester, too. If those things come to pass, then Sano sliding to left makes sense. Since there’s no long-term future in fitting those five players into the outfield, though, Park’s arrival signals that the team prefers the idea of trading away Plouffe and getting Sano back to his most familiar position.

Unfortunately, Plouffe bloomed so late that he’s showing early signs of decline, and he’s due for an unappealing raise in arbitration this winter thanks to some good-looking counting stats. His trade value is low. So Park could end up solving a big problem for the Twins, by solidifying the middle of their lineup, but whether or not he does so, he could also exacerbate what is a true logjam there, forcing the team to move on from a good option, and stripping them of chances to sort out the best of a number of bad options.

That last bit is echoed on the pitching side for this team. They could go into 2016 with as many as eight guys competing for their five starting slots, but of those eight (Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, Trevor May, Tommy Milone, Tyler Duffey, and Jose Berrios), the most attractive options seem to be the longest shots. The organization systematically failed to develop starters from within for about five years, and set out to paper over that failure two winters ago. The result: a bunch of money owed to Hughes, Santana, and Nolasco, all of whom carry significant questions about health or performance into 2016, and a few pitchers (most notably, Duffey, May, and Berrios) developing into higher-upside options with tough sledding just to crack the rotation.

They surprised everyone last year by pushing for the playoffs for as long as they did, but the 2015 Twins still had a .449 third-order winning percentage, and in the end, they won only 83 games. They’re deep and talented enough to take the next step next season, but their talent seems so misaligned and mismanaged right now that it’s hard to feel confident that they will.

Conclusion
The idea here was to lay out the bizarre landscape that is the division, heading into the segment of the calendar during which a lot can change. I wasn’t trying to concretely answer any question here—just get us talking. Keep an eye on this division this winter, because it’s hard to say who’s in the best position heading in, and given the wide range of possibilities for every one of the five teams, there’s no telling how they’ll stack up on the other side.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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