The corner infield around the American League Central hosts some powerful hitters, with AL Most Valuable Player José Abreu as the leader of a quickly rising White Sox team and MVP runner-up José Ramírez anchoring Cleveland’s lineup. The Royals have welcomed Carlos Santana into the fold at first base, while the Twins have a pair of sluggers in Miguel Sanó and Josh Donaldson.
In preparation for the 2021 season, MLB.com is taking the next few weeks to go around the horn and compare where each team in the AL Central stands at each position in advance of what could be the closest division race in years.
Each team in the division has some unknowns and new faces, but it’s hard to bet against Chicago’s corner infield, with Abreu at first base and third baseman Yoán Moncada, who will be looking to return to the 2019 version of himself. The Twins could vault to the top if Donaldson, their starting third baseman, can get healthy and pair with Sanó at first base.
Here’s a look at the corner infield situations for each of the AL Central teams.
The known: There are plenty of question marks surrounding the Tribe’s lineup this year, but the one thing that’s known is that José Ramírez will start at third base. There were a few trade rumors involving Ramírez over the past month, but Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti recently said that he fully expects Ramírez to be their starting third baseman on Opening Day. Ramírez was the runner-up for the AL MVP last season, hitting .292 with a .993 OPS.
The unknown: The other corner is where most of the question marks start popping up. The Indians decided against picking up Carlos Santana’s option for the 2021 season, leaving first base up for grabs. The top candidates are Jake Bauers, Bobby Bradley and Josh Naylor, although Antonetti indicated that Naylor will probably factor more into the outfield than first base. Both Bauers and Bradley spent the 2020 season at the Tribe’s alternate training site. In 2019, Bauers hit .226 with a .683 OPS in 117 games. Bradley was briefly called up to the big leagues in ’19 and batted .178 with a .600 OPS in 15 games after logging a .912 OPS in 107 games at Triple-A.
The known: The Royals had watched Carlos Santana develop into a productive hitter with Cleveland and quickly took advantage of his free agency this offseason, signing the first baseman to a two-year deal. The Royals believe they’ve found their middle-of-the-order bat, and Santana figures to start the majority of games at first after he earned his first All-Star selection and Silver Slugger at the position in 2019. Santana hit just .199 with a .699 OPS over 60 games in ’20, but he led the American League in walks (47) and had an on-base percentage of .349. The domino effect of Santana’s signing was at third base, where Hunter Dozier will likely play this season. Dozier started 2020 in right field, then switched to first base and now will likely start the season at third, where he started his career with the Royals.
The unknown: The Royals have said all offseason that they were looking for a left-handed bat, and third base could be a spot to fill with that need. Dozier’s versatility is an asset — he could move to the outfield if the Royals add a third baseman. Or he could be the everyday third baseman if the Royals find an outfielder. The backups will be something to watch for in Spring Training: Ryan McBroom and Ryan O’Hearn can slot in at first base or the occasional outfield spot, while third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez hopes to build on his solid winter ball performance by contributing off the bench. Third baseman Emmanuel Rivera is a non-roster invite to keep an eye on.
The known: Miguel Cabrera, who turns 38 in April, would like to play some first base again after being limited by injuries to DH for the past season and a half. The Tigers haven’t said no, but they’d like to limit his time there to limit wear and tear on his back and knees. Jeimer Candelario is an everyday player at one of the corners, coming off a breakout season that included a 135 OPS+ and team-best 1.9 bWAR. Top prospect Spencer Torkelson, who starred at first base at Arizona State but moved to third base upon being drafted last summer, isn’t part of the mix yet.
The unknown: There’s a lot we don’t know at the corners. The Tigers have had interest in free-agent first basemen but haven’t signed anyone, and might not. Last year’s Opening Day first baseman, C.J. Cron, remains a free agent but is coming off knee surgery following a season-ending injury on Aug. 10. Third baseman Isaac Paredes has opened eyes with a Mexican Winter League batting title and could win a job in Spring Training, especially if Candelario plays first, but Paredes could play some second base if Candelario is the everyday starter at third. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who re-signed with the Tigers last week, talked with new manager A.J. Hinch about playing at other positions and says he’s eager to move around. Schoop played some third base early in his career in Baltimore. Hinch loves positional versatility, so the Tigers could mix and match for the season.
The known: Miguel Sanó continues to post some of the gaudiest hard-hit numbers in the league as the club’s first baseman, while $92 million man Josh Donaldson will look for a healthier season at the hot corner. Sanó’s athleticism actually translated well to first base in 2020, and his instincts should continue to improve as he logs more time at the position. Meanwhile, Donaldson was limited to 28 games last season and missed the postseason due to calf issues, but the Twins are looking to be more proactive with his health in 2021. Brent Rooker and Alex Kirilloff should back up at first base, while newly minted utility man Luis Arraez figures to get most of the backup reps at third.
The unknown: How will the Twins manage Donaldson’s health? Earlier this offseason, manager Rocco Baldelli mentioned that the club could take it easier on the third baseman’s usage earlier in the season, with hopes of keeping him fresher for the end of the season and the playoffs. That would have the added advantage of giving Arraez some built-in playing time at third base because he no longer has a consistent position to call home. Beyond that, which prospects could break through at some point? Has Nick Gordon done enough to recover from gastrointestinal issues, and, later, COVID-19, to finally get the call, or is Travis Blankenhorn the next man up?
The known: For six seasons, José Abreu proved himself as one of the top middle-of-the-order presences in the American League. Then in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, after some pundits questioned giving the 33-year-old a three-year deal, Abreu took his game up to an even loftier notch and captured the AL MVP Award. Abreu, who needs two home runs to reach 200 for his career, slashed .317/.370/.617 to go with 19 home runs, 15 doubles and 60 RBIs to lead the AL in that category for a second straight season. His defense noticeably improved at first base, although Abreu will see some time at designated hitter in ’21, and he continued to be a true leader on this rising team. Abreu remains an elite force with an elite work ethic to match.
The unknown: Yoán Moncada put up MVP-caliber numbers at third base during his breakout 2019 campaign, after finishing with an MLB-high 217 strikeouts in his first full season the year before. He tested positive for COVID-19 as part of the ’20 intake process and never felt fully healthy while battling the virus. A healthy Moncada becomes a major boost to one of the most potent lineups in baseball. First baseman Andrew Vaughn, the No. 14 prospect overall, per MLB Pipeline, is the reason why the White Sox didn’t add a designated hitter this offseason. He has a professional approach at the plate, both physically and mentally, but he only has 205 Minor League at-bats and none above Advanced Class A Winston-Salem in ’19. It’s a highly talented risk taken by a White Sox team in search of a title.