Poll: Who Will Win The AL Central?

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The Guardians rode a late surge in 2022 to a runaway division title in the American League Central, trouncing the second-place White Sox and third-place Twins by 11 and 14 games, respectively. It was a testament both to the development of several key young players in Cleveland as well as some staggering injury woes both in Chicago and Minnesota. Further down the division ranks, the rebuilds in Detroit and Kansas City both hit roadblocks, with the Tigers and Royals losing 96 and 97 games, respectively.

There was plenty of offseason activity throughout the division, however, and we can expect to see several touted prospects make their debuts in 2023 as well. Will that change the outlook? Let’s take a quick look at each team heading into the season.

Cleveland Guardians (92-70 in 2022)

The Guardians hit the second-fewest home runs of any team in baseball last season but nonetheless ranked 15th in runs scored, offsetting their lack of power with far and away the lowest team strikeout rate in baseball (18.2%). The pitching staff posted a collective 3.47 ERA, ranking sixth in the Majors, and while they were only 12th in strikeout rate (23.2%), they also had the game’s fifth-best walk rate (7.3%). Cleveland also dominated in one other key area: health. Guardians players spent the fewest cumulative days on the injured list of any team in the Majors at just 709, per Spotrac. The second-lowest team, the Orioles, clocked in at 790. Cleveland had less than one-third of the IL days of MLB’s two worst teams in that regard: the Reds (2,638) and the Twins (2,363).

Over the winter, Cleveland signed Josh Bell and Mike Zunino, adding some thump to the lineup. Zunino, in particular is an all-or-nothing hitter at the plate, but Guardians catchers in 2022 were the least-productive in the American League, so he should be an upgrade over last year’s backstops. Top prospects like catcher Bo Naylor, outfielder George Valera and infielder Brayan Rocchio are among the many hitters on the cusp of the Majors and should all be key reinforcements as Cleveland defends its crown.

Chicago White Sox (81-81 in 2022)

The White Sox were tanked by key injuries in 2022, with each of Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Lance Lynn, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Michael Kopech, Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet spending at least a month on the shelf. The Sox ranked in the bottom third of the league in homers, the bottom half in runs scored and were also a middle-of-the-pack club in terms of rotation and bullpen ERA. Defensively, they were a mess, thanks in no small part to the outfield alignment. The Sox ranked 23rd in the Majors in Outs Above Average (-16), 27th in Defensive Runs Saved (-35) and dead last in Ultimate Zone Rating (-42.2).

The decision to let Jose Abreu walk in free agency was surely a blow to the clubhouse and lineup alike, but it’ll also allow Andrew Vaughn to slide from right field to his natural position, first base. Jimenez can spend significant time at DH, too, now that Andrew Benintendi has been signed to play left field. The Sox didn’t do much to address right field, where Gavin Sheets will try to fend off top prospect Oscar Colas, who should debut early in the season. They’ll hope that Mike Clevinger can replace the resurgent Johnny Cueto in the rotation, and Elvis Andrus is back to handle second base. All of baseball is pulling for closer Liam Hendriks as he battles cancer, and while his health takes priority above all else, there’s no getting around the fact that his absence hurts the relief corps as the Sox look for better results in 2023.

Minnesota Twins (78-84 in 2022)

The Twins were the opposite of the Guardians in terms of player health in 2022, and they’ll hope more than anything that their roster can remain on the field more in 2023. Even with all their health woes, the Twins still ranked in the top half of MLB in home runs and placed 16th in runs scored. Their rotation’s 4.11 ERA was 19th in MLB, while the bullpen’s ERA sat right at MLB’s midpoint.

Minnesota was the most active team in the division this offseason, improbably retaining Carlos Correa after an unprecedented free-agent saga saw deals with the Giants and Mets fall through. The Twins also traded star infielder Luis Arraez to land righty Pablo Lopez and a pair of prospects from the Marlins, giving them the deepest rotation they’ve had in some time — health permitting. Lopez, Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, Joe Ryan, a returning Kenta Maeda and Bailey Ober is a strong sextet around which to build the staff. Meanwhile, the Twins keyed in on defense, depth and defensive versatility with their other acquisitions. Catcher Christian Vazquez and outfielders Joey Gallo and Michael A. Taylor are all standouts with the glove (to say nothing of Gallo’s obvious power potential). Kyle Farmer and Donovan Solano can play all over the infield (and, in Farmer’s place, even behind the plate in a pinch).

The bullpen was left as is, with the Twins believing deadline pickup Jorge Lopez, sophomore Jovani Moran (who excelled late in the season) and a returning Jorge Alcala can provide the necessary boost alongside breakout star Jhoan Duran. Oft-injured top prospect Royce Lewis should return this summer, and the Twins could also get late looks at infielders like Edouard Julien and Brooks Lee.

Detroit Tigers (66-96 in 2022)

The Tigers’ 2021-22 offseason was headlined by acquisitions of Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez, but by the end of the regular season those headlines shifted to a front office shuffle. The Tigers’ poor results led ownership to oust GM Al Avila and hire Giants GM Scott Harris as the new president of baseball operations. The 2022 Tigers saw key injuries to the entire core of their promising young rotation, with Casey Mize having Tommy John surgery, Tarik Skubal requiring flexor surgery and Matt Manning missing substantial time due to shoulder troubles. Center fielder Riley Greene and first baseman Spencer Torkelson didn’t develop as hoped in their rookie seasons. Baez and Rodriguez, meanwhile, didn’t live up to their respective contracts.

In Harris’ first offseason on the job, he traded relievers Gregory Soto and Joe Jimenez to add some near-MLB talent, including outfielder Matt Vierling, infielder Nick Maton and catcher Donny Sands. Free agents Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen were signed to help solidify a rotation that’ll also get righty Spencer Turnbull back after he missed the 2022 season recovering from 2021 Tommy John surgery. It was the type of modest offseason that’s generally expected for a newly hired baseball operations leader as they take time to get a feel for the organization before making more sweeping changes. Prospect-wise, pitcher Wilmer Flores and third baseman/outfielder Justyn-Henry Malloy are among the names who could potentially make their debuts this season.

Kansas City Royals (65-97 in 2022)

The Royals had their own front office shakeup, as president of baseball ops Dayton Moore was dismissed after more than 15 years atop the front office. He was replaced by his own longtime top lieutenant J.J. Picollo. That decision came on the heels of a 2022 season in which the Royals, who’ve been focusing their rebuild on drafting and developing college pitchers, posted the fourth-worst rotation ERA in MLB (4.76). Right-hander Brady Singer had a breakout season, but none of Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar or Kris Bubic has found much success in the big leagues, and recent No. 4 overall pick Asa Lacy hasn’t progressed in the minors.

Given the manner in which the pitching stalled out, the Royals added veterans Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough while also re-signing Zack Greinke. That’ll raise the floor of the rotation while perhaps still allowing for some of Lynch, Kowar, Bubic, Jonathan Heasley or Carlos Hernandez to force their way into the picture. In the lineup, they’ll hope for further steps forward from a promising core of hitters including Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez. Youngsters like second baseman Michael Massey, outfielder Drew Waters and infielder/outfielder Nate Eaton should all get prominent looks in 2023 as well.

Projection systems are inherently divisive, so take this for what it’s worth, but FanGraphs gives the Guardians a slight edge on the Twins in 2023, with the White Sox in third place, followed by the Royals and the Tigers. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, meanwhile, projects the Twins ever so slightly ahead of Cleveland, followed by Chicago in third place, Detroit in fourth and Kansas City in fifth.

Who do you think will win the AL Central?

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