AL Central Big 3: The intangibles

Hammer down: Ricky Renteria, seen here with batting champ Tm Anderson, is looking for some team hardware of his own in 2020. (@WhiteSox)


It’s been quite the interesting offseason in the AL Central.

The White Sox have added a number of solid veterans to its young core, while also granting extensions for veteran slugger José Abreu and phenom outfielder Luis Robert. The Twins added Josh Donaldson to its already potent offense while adding rotation depth in the forms of Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. Cleveland, in the meantime, has basically maintained their status quo with the exception of trading pricey hurler Corey Kluber for reliever Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields Jr. as they hope to maintain their success by simply staying healthy.

Of course, based on last season, there’s quite a bit of separation among the three teams: The Twins are coming off a 101-61 season, Cleveland a 93-69 record, and the White Sox a 72-89 mark. But as there should unquestionably be some better bunching at the top this season (PECOTA projects 93, 86 and 82 wins, respectively), we’re ramping up to the start of Cactus League play with three looks at the Big 3 ball clubs, on offense, pitching and intangibles. 

This final piece will be less data-based and more analytical, as looking into the intangibles that could affect each team’s attempt at a division title.


Minnesota Twins

The Twins, after adding numerous pieces to a team that finished 78-84 in 2018, soared all the way to 101-61 last year. Many teams, after such an improvement, level off the following year in part because it took a bevy of career years to reach those unexpected heights.

Just ask the Chicago Bears. Remember them? The Bears, after undergoing a coaching change and seemingly adding to every position after a difficult 5-11 season in 2017, skyrocketed to 12-4 in 2018 before falling to 8-8 last year. While there are some similarities between the Twins and those Bears, the Twins likely won’t drop to .500 in 2020. This is in part because there’s no salary cap to hinder the addition of potential stars, and also because of the weakness of the bottom two teams in the AL Central (Kansas City and Detroit). While the Twins didn’t get that premier starter they were looking for via free agency, they did add Kenta Maeda and a couple aging, veteran starters who’ll pick up the slack for Michael Pineda (out due to suspension) and Rich Hill (out due to injury). Did I forget to add that they added slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to their record-breaking lineup?

While the Twins obtained their vast improvement on the strength of many career years in 2019, the team should still be a force to be reckoned with. For one, they didn’t rest on their laurels, continuing to add more muscle into its lineup. From the moment he was first introduced as the new Twins manager in October 2019, Rocco Baldelli spoke earnestly about his emphasis on building relationships and creating a fun, comfortable clubhouse environment to empower his players, and those elements laid a strong foundation for his collaboration with his staff and team executives as the 38-year-old skipper learned on the job in his first season at the helm. He’s employed a sabermetric approach that did nothing but aid his young offense, and it’s clear that his players love playing for him. Of course, over time, players may eventually take advantage of his good nature — but don’t expect that to happen right away.

What will happen if the Twins find themselves struggling for a divisional title in 2020? The Twins strike me, based upon their acquisitions via trade and free agency, as a team that would certainly consider trading some of their higher-end prospects to fill holes — holes built into their pitching staff, or created by injuries. Royce Lewis, the first pick in the 2017 draft, is just one such player who could be an attractive commodity despite hitting just .236 in Double-A last year; he’s currently ranked ninth by MLB Pipeline among all prospects and is just 20 years old.

While the Twins may have some prospects who’ll contribute to the squad this year (Lewis Thorpe), many won’t be expected to be key contributors for 2020 and could potentially be considered for trade: Alex Kiriloff, Trevor Larnach, Jordan Balazovic and Nick Gordon are just a few of the team’s prized prospects who could help the Twins add key contributors for their playoff run if need be. The Twins have a Top 10 system, and that’s even after the departure of flamethrower Brusdar Graterol. 


Cleveland

Despite a 93-69 season last year which actually eclipsed its division-winning record of 91-71 the year before, Cleveland seems to be entering a period of decline driven by financial concerns. The team has been rock-solid over the past four years, averaging 95 wins and winning three divisional titles and a league pennant. However, Cleveland’s best pitcher during that stretch (Corey Kluber) was dumped off traded to the Texas Rangers for a reliever and a backup outfielder, and more such miserly moves seem inevitable.

But even though Cleveland may be at the beginning stages of a decline, that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded as a divisional competitor. In fact, they still have the best pitching staff in the division while possessing several outstanding bats including Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, Carlos Santana and Franmil Reyes. If everything goes well for this team, they could easily put together another 90-win season.     

The team is managed by two-time AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona, who has won an impressive 1,667 games during his 19-year tenure with the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Indians. He’s won three pennants and two World Series titles during that span, and it would have been three championships if he hadn’t discovered a way to over-manage the over-managing Joe Maddon in 2016. Francona’s always found ways to win with above-average talent, and players generally enjoy playing for him. It’s difficult to find managers with a more impressive track record. 

But Cleveland does appear to be on the beginning stages of decline, not unlike what the Cubs endured last year. It’s not to say the team is bad — the Tribe still has numerous offensive and pitching weapons at their disposal, along with a venerable manager. Trade rumors regarding Lindor dominated the headlines this offseason, but none came to fruition. Expect those rumors to multiply for Lindor, as well as Carlos Santana and Ramírez, if the Indians get off to a disappointing start. Sometimes, those rumors take a life of their own and distract the players to perform at less-than-optimal values. Fortunately for Cleveland, Francona should be able to help the team avoid such distractions.

The Indians, unlike the Twins, seem unlikely to add significant talent if the team needs additional help at the trade deadline. Aside from the acquisitions of second baseman Cesar Hernandez and Domingo Santana, Cleveland really didn’t add to their team (OK, Emmanuel Clase came via the Kluber trade). There is some talent in the pipeline available for trade, such as third baseman Nolan Jones and Triston McKenzie, in addition to recent draft choices like Daniel Espino, Ethan Hankins and Bo Naylor. However, with Cleveland crying poor, it would be counterintuitive to swap away cheaper young talent in a postseason push.   


Chicago White Sox

The White Sox, as most fans know, have undergone an 11-year playoff drought since last appearing in the postseason in 2008. Now, after a massive rebuild which began in 2016 with the trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, the team now appears to be on the precipice of long-term pennant contention. Youth, and productive youth at that, seems ready to blossom in 2020. Thanks to recent free-agent acquisitions such as Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Gio González and Edwin Encarnación, the team has now added veteran leadership to a young core of Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease. If this young team can gel at the same time, it could easily contend for the divisional title; if not, there should still be enough talent to succeed in 2021 and beyond.

Ricky Renteria, with a career record of 274-373, has by far the worst winning percentage among these three managers. To be fair, he’s really only been given rebuilding teams to work with. Renteria, because of his coaching style that his players enjoy, seems up to the task in perhaps his most pressure-packed role to date. He’s always been considered the type of manager who could take his team from Point A to Point B thanks to his teaching abilities and patience; however, as highlighted by the Cubs’ willingness to fire him in favor of Joe Maddon, he’s been perceived as a manager who isn’t suited for taking a squad from Point B to Point C. While Renteria’s willingness to bunt has been well publicized, it will be extremely interesting to see how he manages a team with such a unique combination of youngsters and seasoned veterans. If he somehow steers this team to a divisional title he could easily be Manager of the Year. If the team struggles to even attain .500, however, questions will only increase regarding his ability to make a good team better.

The White Sox also may be willing to strike a trade to improve their team during their trade deadline by swapping minor leaguers, but there’s a catch. Three of their top four prospects (Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and Michael Kopech) will likely be key contributors in the majors by the deadline, which means that all the White Sox will be able to offer are Andrew Vaughn, Jonathan Stiever, players who struggled in Double-A last year, and players who missed much time due to significant injuries in 2019. If most of these players rebound and post great starts to 2020, the White Sox would indeed have the talent to offer in a megadeal to improve the team at the major league level.

One more caveat: it’s certainly possible that the team doesn’t relinquish much prospect capital at the trade deadline, for the reason being that the White Sox window of contention really doesn’t fly open until 2021. It certainly would be interesting to see what this team would do if dealt the “dilemma” of division title contention one year early!