2024 AL Central preview: The search for signs of life beyond Minnesota

In 2023, the AL Central was easily the worst division in baseball. It wasn’t in danger of going full 1994 AL West or anything, but at the All-Star break, the Cleveland Guardians were in first place at a dead-even 45-45. All four other teams were below .500. The Minnesota Twins pulled ahead shortly afterward, and while they had a mere 69-65 record at the end of August, it was enough to propel them to the division crown with 87 victories.

To the Twins’ credit, they made the final standings look a smidge better with a hot September, and they even snapped their torturous 18-game playoff losing streak by beating the Toronto Blue Jays. They liked winning in October so much that they did it again the next day, earning their first postseason series victory in 22 years. Not even an ALDS loss to the Houston Astros could completely squash the feeling of pure excitement in the Twin Cities. Exorcising decades-long playoff demons goes a long way.

The regular-season script might not change much this upcoming season. Right now, FanGraphs projections have the Twins as the lone AL Central team with a winning record (just as they were in 2023). Offseason changes only have them a handful of games better than their division rivals though, and indeed, there’s currently a 44.3-percent chance that Minnesota doesn’t win it. That’s just a little worse than a coin flip!

Don’t lock in the AL Central for the Twins just yet. After all, just two years ago, the Chicago White Sox had the best odds to win the division of any team in baseball. Whoops.

Notable additions and departures were limited to a maximum of five players for efficiency.

2023 season: 61-101 (4th place)
Notable additions: Erick Fedde, Martín Maldonado, Paul DeJong, Nicky Lopez, Michael Soroka
Notable departures: Dylan Cease, Tim Anderson, Liam Hendriks, Yasmani Grandal, Aaron Bummer

How did it come crashing down for the White Sox so quickly and yet simultaneously in such an agonizing manner? There were actually back-to-back playoff seasons on the South Side from 2020-21 — somehow a franchise first for a team that has been around since the very founding of the American League in 1901. They had an MVP in José Abreu, a batting champion in Anderson, and a terrific core with Cease, Luis Robert Jr., Yoán Moncada, Eloy Jiménez, Lucas Giolito, and more.

As Yogi Berra used to say, “It gets late early out there,” and so it was for these White Sox. Hell, out-of-touch skipper Tony LaRussa can only be blamed so much. He wasn’t exactly helping matters, but any manager would’ve had trouble steering Chicago away from mediocrity in 2022. They were 81-81 and far behind Cleveland, and rather than bouncing back last year, the wheels came off so catastrophically that it made the car crashes in The Blues Brothers look elegant in comparison.

Longtime front-office leaders Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams are gone. Many of the players from their teams have moved on, too, with Cease the latest to depart.

So 2024 will be all about forging a brand-new path. Robert will provide some fireworks in the meantime, and thanks to his 2020 extension, he’s the right combination of young enough and talented enough to potentially play on the next good White Sox team. Moncada and Jiménez might not be so lucky. They need rebounds.

Erstwhile Astros pitcher whisperer Maldonado is on hand to lead a pitching staff featuring 2023 KBO MVP Fedde, 2019 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Soroka (finally 100-percent healthy), and Garrett Crochet, a 2020 first-rounder who was in the bullpen but will be making his first career start on Opening Day, no less. Shortstop Colson Montgomery is a legitimately dynamic prospect and might get his shot sometime this year, as could the prize of the Cease trade, changeup artist Drew Thorpe.

Alas, there’s no getting around the fact that the Pale Hose and new GM Chris Getz have a long, grueling rebuild ahead of them. Proceed with caution, especially with owner/crypt keeper Jerry Reinsdorf still calling the shots.

2023 season: 76-86 (3rd place)
Notable additions: Scott Barlow, Austin Hedges, Carlos Carrasco
Notable departures: Cal Quantrill, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, Enyel De Los Santos, Zach Plesac

The newly-christened Guardians soared as the ChiSox sagged in 2022. Although they were the youngest team in baseball, they were also a bunch of contact-oriented pests led by one excellent all-around bat in José Ramírez, and their pitching factory could go toe-to-toe with anyone. With 92 wins and a 28-17 record in one-run games, they helped deliver future Hall of Fame skipper Terry Francona his third career Manager of the Year Award.

Sadly, the magic was gone last year, as essentially everyone without a Naylor surname saw their performances dip across the board. Cleveland fell under .500 and Tito elected to step down after over a decade as skipper. How does one replace such a deeply respected leader? Well, president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti decided to throw it back, hiring someone who hadn’t played an MLB game since the last time they made the playoffs: Stephen Vogt.

Cleveland Guardians Introduce Stephen Vogt as Manager

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

“Wait a sec,” you might be wondering. “Weren’t you just talking about how Cleveland won the AL Central in 2022?”

Correct! A two-time All-Star and ten-year veteran, Vogt called it a career a mere 17 months ago, homering in his final career at-bat on October 5, 2022. The popular catcher became the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen and quality control coach last year, and when Cleveland gave him a crack at their top job, the 39-year-old wowed them in interviews.

It’s a nice story! Vogt is a smart, charismatic figure who could have a bright career as a skipper. The problem is that the Guardians might as well have the spent the rest of the winter cleaning the drain pipes. There are boring offseasons, and then there are boring offseasons. Their biggest moves involved bidding adieu to disappointing starters and swapping relievers with the Padres. Enthralling, no?

There’s a reason why Cleveland didn’t just follow in Chicago’s footsteps in dealing their ace, though. Soon-to-be free agent Shane Bieber worked at Driveline this offseason and is aiming to recapture the dominant form he demonstrated from 2019-22. More importantly, he’s just one member of an excellent rotation on paper. Tanner Bibee was runner-up for the 2023 AL Rookie of the Year, beanpole Triston McKenzie is finally healthy again, and both Logan Allen and Gavin Williams offer serious hope for optimism.

Fuse all that with a bullpen featuring All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase, and this club is justified in at least attempting to give Minnesota a run for its money. The Naylor brothers and 2022 standout Andrés Giménez might even give Ramírez some support in the lineup, too. The Guardians believe in Stephen Vogt, and Stephen Vogt believes in the Guardians. Let’s see what happens.

2023 season: 78-84 (2nd place)
Notable additions: Kenta Maeda, Mark Canha, Jack Flaherty, Gio Urshela, Shelby Miller
Notable departures: Miguel Cabrera, Eduardo Rodriguez, Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull

Detroit officially bid adieu to future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera after one last season at the DH spot. It was the end of the eight-year extension he signed when he was still among the most feared hitters in the game. As his performance fell off a cliff, so did the fate of the 2010s Tigers. They haven’t had a winning season since 2016, and they’re tied with the Los Angeles Angels for the longest postseason drought in baseball. If they don’t get it done this year, then it will be a full decade without playoff ball in the Motor City.

It’s been a weird rebuild for the Tigers. They jumped from 47-114 in 2019 to 77-85 just two years later under former champion Astros skipper A.J. Hinch, and that inspired a minor spending spree. Shortstop Javier Báez got a six-year, $140 million deal, and starter Eduardo Rodriguez cashed in for five years and $77 million. Detroit promptly fell flat on its face in 2022 with 96 losses as the whiff-happy Báez wasted no time in making that contract look extremely misguided, E-Rod missed most of the year due to personal issues, and the other young Tigers stagnated. General manager Al Avila was shown the door.

2023 was at least a little better under president of baseball operations Scott Harris, as they’re now essentially back to where they were after 2021 with a 78-84 record. Báez is a lost cause and E-Rod opted out after a bounce-back season, but the kids came to play in the 39-34 second half. By FanGraphs WAR, southpaw Tarik Skubal was MLB’s best pitcher in the second half following his return from flexor tendon surgery, outplaying even Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole. 2020 first overall pick Spencer Torkelson finally hit to his pedigree over the final two months with 16 homers in 55 games with an .855 OPS, topping 30 bombs in a season for the first time.

The combination of Skubal, Torkelson, 2019 first-rounder Riley Greene, and six Top 100 prospects per ESPN—including already-extended second baseman Colt Keith—indicates that there might be a hint of optimism in Detroit. Harris made some small offseason tweaks to raise the roster’s floor, as the steady Maeda was plucked from the division rival Twins’ rotation in free agency and a trade with Milwaukee for Canha gave them a rock-solid starting outfielder (and foodie).

Detroit will still need some things to go right beyond them. Starters Casey Mize and Matt Manning were once considered to be just as good as Skubal, but the 2018 top draft choice Mize is returning from both Tommy John surgery and back surgery and Manning has yet to beat 100 innings in a season. Maybe they put it all together. Maybe the 28-year-old Flaherty does the same by replicating his better Cardinals days. Maybe the surging Jackson Jobe comes up and demonstrates why some evaluators think he’s on the same level as the most recent draft sensation, Pittsburgh’s Paul Skenes.

That’s a lot of maybes, and it’s all without a great deal of depth, too. Nonetheless, this is the AL Central and not the NL West. The Tigers don’t have to topple the Dodgers, just the Twins and Guardians. Go get ‘em, Tigers.

2023 season: 56-106 (Last place)
Notable additions: Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, Hunter Renfroe, Adam Frazier, Will Smith
Notable departures: Zack Greinke, Edward Olivares, Brad Keller

The Royals have made the postseason just twice since The Simpsons debuted. That ain’t great, but the baseball gods smiled on them during those two years and they were a Madison Bumgarner away from winning back-to-back titles in 2014-15. As it stands, the 2015 World Series is the AL Central’s most recent championship. It wasn’t terribly long before almost everyone was gone, owner David Glass had sold the team to propane executive John Sherman, and with KC doddering through its sixth consecutive losing season late in 2022, Dayton Moore was fired after 16 years on the job.

Two key pieces remain from the 2015 champions: beloved captain Salvador Perez and the head of baseball operations, J.J. Picollo (Moore’s old deputy). Salvy socked a franchise-record 48 homers back in 2021, more than any catcher has ever hit in a single season. However, at age 34, he has 1,200 games of wear and tear and though the pitching staff holds him in high regard, he is not quite the same defender anymore, let alone hitter. At least he can still pop off for 20+ homers.

Salvy leads the Royals on the field, and away from it, Picollo has been tasked with getting this rebuild into overdrive. Remarkably, they were even worse than the tire-fire White Sox in 2023, tying a franchise record with 106 losses. Sherman is trying to build a new downtown ballpark in KC, so while he’s engaging in the regrettably typical public funding appeal shenanigans, he is also investing in a more compelling product on the field. The Royals made much more offseason noise than they usually do, and none was bigger than the 11-year, $288 million extension for burgeoning superstar Bobby Witt Jr.

Witt’s sophomore season left his merely-adequate rookie debut in the dust. He joined the 30/30 Club with 30 dingers and 49 stolen bases, made huge strides at the six to be a Gold Glove snub, and cemented his place in Kansas City’s future (with a stamp of approval from minority owner Patrick Mahomes, too).

The 23-year-old Witt will be what makes this Royals engine go, though they did drop 106 last year while he excelled anyway. The base of this club is better. The Pasquatch, first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino, is back following June shoulder surgery that derailed his season, and with love and respect to the possibly-retiring Greinke, the pitching was horrendous. Lugo and Wacha offer credibility to the rotation, and they’ll get a full season of second-half sensation Cole Ragans.

Kansas City will be far more watchable in 2024. Will they sniff .500? Ehhhh, just get some Gates BBQ and enjoy the Bobby Witt Jr. Show.

2023 season: 87-75 (AL Central champions)
Notable additions: Carlos Santana, Manuel Margot, Justin Topa, Anthony DeSclafani
Notable departures: Sonny Gray, Jorge Polanco, Kenta Maeda, Joey Gallo, Michael A. Taylor

We’re back to where we started with the division favorites, who are already dealing with some uncertainty. There’s a Sonny Gray-sized hole near the front of the rotation, as the runner-up for the AL Cy Young Award left for St. Louis, and as noted in the Detroit preview, Maeda now pitches for a division rival. Derek Falvey and the Twins’ front office have to be extremely thankful that Gray’s 2023 co-ace, Pablo López, accepted a four-year, $75.3 million extension last April. It’s a testament to what López did last season that Luis Arraez easily won a batting title for the Marlins and the Twins don’t regret the swap.

It does feel like this Twins ballclub could use another starting pitcher, though. This was true even before the trade acquisition DeSclafani went down with a dreaded forearm strain. Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober are modest enough to keep them in the game most nights, and Minnesota really seems to think that Chris Paddack is ready to become a healthy big-league starter again. But their pitching will be worth tracking in the early goings, especially because intimidating closer Jhoan Duran will miss time with an oblique injury.

The righty reliever Topa tallied a 2.61 ERA in 69 innings with Seattle in 2023, so he could pitch in at the end of ballgames. To get Topa, DeSclafani, and a couple prospects, Minnesota made the tough decision to send away a man who had been with their organization since he was a teenager: Jorge Polanco. The Mariners coveted him, and rookie Edouard Julien’s breakout last year enabled the Twins to let Polanco go. Julien will be part of a fascinating infield that features playoff standouts Carlos Correa and Royce Lewis. When healthy, they will rake.

There are reasonable concerns about the Twins, and we haven’t even said the name “Byron Buxton” yet. Although they’re in the driver’s seat, stay tuned.

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