Breaking down the AL Central outfields

Detroit Tigers

Are you a fan of highlight-reel defense? The outfields of the American League Central certainly have you covered. How about tape-measure blasts? These clubs have got something for you there, too.

The White Sox appear primed to make a big push for the division title, and that outfield should be as entertaining as any in the game thanks to the potential for Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez to bring the “wow” factor into any contest. But the star power also extends to Byron Buxton in Minnesota and Whit Merrifield in Kansas City, and don’t sleep on solid newcomers to the division in Andrew Benintendi and Robbie Grossman, either.

Let’s have a look around at what we know — and what remains to be seen — in each of the division’s outfields.

The known
Eddie Rosario. The Indians know that Rosario will be in one of their two corner outfield spots this year, barring any injuries. The Tribe signed him to a one-year deal on Feb. 4, and was probably the best fit the club could’ve found. In 45 career games at Progressive Field with the Twins, Rosario hit .353 with a 1.031 OPS, 11 homers, 12 doubles and three triples. He’ll be the much-needed offensive boost this outfield has needed over the last few seasons.

The unknown
Everything else. The Indians still need to sift through the rest of their outfielders to determine who will join Rosario as the other two starters. It’s likely that Oscar Mercado will get the nod in center field despite having a rough sophomore campaign in 2020, but Bradley Zimmer could give him some competition.

From there, the team will need to determine if Josh Naylor will play more of a factor in the outfield or at first base. If it’s the outfield, he’s the leading candidate to man the other corner for the Tribe. However, the team will still have Jordan Luplow, Daniel Johnson, Billy Hamilton, Ben Gamel, Nolan Jones and possibly Franmil Reyes (who wants to see more time in the field) to evaluate this spring.

The known
The Royals entered the offseason with two major outfield questions and started Spring Training with what appear to be three locks for Opening Day. Kansas City signed Michael A. Taylor to a one-year deal at the start of the winter, and the 29-year-old projects to be the Royals’ center fielder come April 1. Taylor brings a .237/.291/.395 career slash line with solid defense in center.

Merrifield will likely be in right field to start the season, but he could play second base if needed. The Royals also ended the offseason with a major trade, landing Benintendi to be their left fielder for at least the next two seasons. The Royals are confident the 26-year-old can return to his 2018-19 form now that he’s healthy, giving the Kansas City lineup some power and needed on-base percentage.

The unknown
What’s unclear at the start of spring camp is who will fill the outfield bench spots. The Royals could rely on Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom as their backup corner infielders and corner outfielders. Nick Heath’s speed off the bench could prove valuable both in the outfield and as a pinch runner in late-game situations, and Edward Oliveras could also receive opportunities as a fourth outfielder for the Royals. Spring performances will likely determine how the bench pieces shake out.

There’s also still some question as to whether Taylor and Benintendi can bounce back from their 2020 seasons, when Taylor hit .196 with the Nationals and Benintendi hit .103 in 14 games with the Red Sox. With Taylor in particular, the Royals want to figure out what kind of hitter he can be. A slap hitter who puts the ball in play and tries to beat it out with his speed? A hitter who swings for the fences? How to balance the speed and power will be the question Taylor and the Royals try to answer in the early part of the season.

The known
The Tigers have struggled mightily to get production out of their outfielders ever since trading J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton in 2017. However, they overhauled their corners with mid-tier free agent signings this past offseason. Grossman drew the Tigers’ first multi-year contract since Upton five years ago, having convinced Detroit officials that his pull-focused power surge in a short season for Oakland in 2020 can play at Comerica Park over a full schedule for the next two years. He figures to bat somewhere near the top of the order.

Nomar Mazara signed a one-year deal just before Spring Training to give the Tigers a bounceback candidate, reuniting him with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh as he tries to regain his 20-homer power from his days with Texas. He’ll likely platoon with switch hitter Victor Reyes in right.

The unknown
Can JaCoby Jones stay healthy for a full season? He returns to center after hand injuries on hit-by-pitches have shortened his last two seasons amid signs he was on the verge of a breakout. Meanwhile, the two signings leave Christin Stewart and Daz Cameron likely headed to Triple-A Toledo for more work, facing uncertain futures.

Rule 5 Draft pick Akil Baddoo drew praise two months ago but could now be in a roster crunch as team officials weigh keeping the former Twins prospect against carrying a more versatile utility player like Harold Castro. Then, there’s the question of how quickly top outfield prospect Riley Greene could climb the Tigers’ farm system as the 20-year-old prepares for a likely assignment to Double-A Erie.

The known
Byron Buxton almost certainly won’t finish second on the team in homers again (a power surge late last season brought him to 13), but he’s still going to play an exceptional center field — and perhaps even more so now that the rangy Andrelton Simmons will cover more shallow ground from the shortstop position. Max Kepler was among several Twins hitters who took a step back at the plate in 2020, and he’ll seek a resurgence from a .228 average and .760 OPS as he mans his customary right field position.

It also appears a near certainty that Alex Kirilloff, the club’s No. 2 prospect with a highly regarded bat, will push his way into a consistent role this season after he became the first position player to make his debut and collect his first career hit during a playoff contest in last year’s AL Wild Card series against Houston.

The unknown
When will Kirilloff get that opportunity? There’s an opening in left field due to Rosario’s departure, but the Twins also have Jake Cave, Brent Rooker and Luis Arraez available to fill that slot if they don’t put Kirilloff on their Opening Day roster. No. 3 prospect Trevor Larnach is also expected to break into the Majors at some point this season, seeking opportunity in an outfield situation that remains crowded, even following the trade of LaMonte Wade Jr. to San Francisco.

And as always, there’s also the question of whether this is finally the season Buxton can remain healthy. Two more strokes of bad luck — inflammation in his surgically repaired shoulder and getting hit by a pitch in the helmet — limited him to 39 games last year, even as the Twins played him deeper in the field to limit his wall impacts.

The known
Left fielder Jiménez won a Silver Slugger during the 2020 season, while Robert captured a Gold Glove Award for his defense in center. Combined, they only have parts of three big league seasons under their belts, and they are both under the age of 25 (Jiménez at 24, Robert at 23). So, these two really are just beginning to learn their craft, and their high talent level leaves an even higher ceiling for both. Robert also finished second in the ’20 AL Rookie of the Year Award balloting with 11 home runs, 31 RBIs, eight doubles and nine stolen bases, while Jiménez featured an .891 OPS with 14 homers, 14 doubles and 41 RBIs.

The unknown
Jiménez’s defense remains a work in progress, a concept he understands. But he’s also working diligently to be an individual who plays a whole game and isn’t replaced in the late innings because of his glove. Robert was an MVP candidate last year at the end of August but finished 11-for-81 at the plate in September, expanding his strike zone too often. In adding Adam Eaton through free agency, the White Sox brought back a familiar face who brings a bit of an edge to the deep lineup. He opens the season as the starting right fielder, with a career .801 OPS against right-handed pitchers, but the White Sox also have right-handed hitting Adam Engel, who has Gold Glove capabilities and a better career OPS against southpaws.

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