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2019 Preview: American League Central

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The AL Central is arguably baseball’s weakest division. The Indians were the only team in the division to finish above .500 in 2018, going 91-71. The Twins finished in second place at 78-84, followed by the Tigers at 64-98, the White Sox at 62-100, and the Royals at 58-104. It’s hard to imagine the AL Central being that bad again, but none of the other four teams aside from the Indians are looking all that threatening. This should be another cakewalk for the Indians, even though they are an arguably worse team than they were last year.

Let’s talk about the teams.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians feature one of baseball’s best young duos in shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman José Ramírez. The two each posted 7.9 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference, an elite total. Ramírez finished third in AL MVP voting while Lindor finished sixth. The Indians are in good shape as long as these two have stellar campaigns as expected.

Aside from Lindor and Ramírez, the starting rotation will be a source of strength for the Indians. The top four includes Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger. The No. 5 is likely to be Shane Bieber, a pitching prospect who flashed greatness at times last year despite a 4.55 ERA in 114 2/3 innings. Bauer and Kluber were both AL Cy Young contenders last year, finishing third and sixth, respectively.

The club’s biggest weakness is the outfield. As presently constructed, the Indians plan to roll with Leonys Martín and Tyler Naquin as starters while Jake Bauers, Matt Joyce, Brandon Barnes, and Jordan Luplow will all contend for playing time. Not exactly a group inspiring confidence. It is, frankly, surprising that the Indians didn’t do more to address the outfield in the offseason.

Minnesota Twins

Unlike the Indians, the Twins did take strides to improve the roster during the offseason. The club signed Marwin González, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Pérez, and Blake Parker. The Twins should hit for markedly more power after finishing 10th in the league in slugging percentage and 12th in home runs last year.

The Twins’ fortune will have a lot to do with Byron Buxton staying healthy and productive. Once a consensus No. 1 prospect across baseball, Buxton owns a disappointing .672 OPS across four seasons. He has played in 100-plus games only once. If he reaches his potential, Buxton is a dynamic five-tool player who will vie for the AL MVP Award with an 8- or 9-WAR season. That kind of season would put the Twins right in the thick of things for the AL Central title.

24-year-old pitcher José Berríos will also have a lot of sway depending on the kind of season he has. The right-hander has had solid campaigns in each of the last two seasons, finishing with ERAs slightly under 4.00, but he has the potential to be much, much better. No one would bat an eye if he finished the year with an ERA below 3.00.

Third baseman Miguel Sanó will miss at least the first few weeks of the regular season due to an Achilles injury. He is indicative of the Twins’ biggest weakness: the injury bug. Sanó, Buxton, Michael Pineda, Jorge Polanco, Trevor May, Jason Castro, and quite a few others have all been slowed by injuries in recent years.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox were in headlines throughout the offseason, viewed as the favorite to land free agent superstar infielder Manny Machado. Machado eventually got an offer he liked better from the Padres. Otherwise, the White Sox had a quiet offseason, only signing Kelvin Herrera, Jon Jay, and James McCann to major league contracts.

As presently constructed, the White Sox don’t seem like much of a threat in the AL Central. But the club has a lot of intriguing young players, staking claim to five top-50 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. Those players are Eloy Jiménez, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Luis Robert, and Nick Madrigal. Dane Dunning and Blake Rutherford can also be found in the top-100. Prospects are always a gamble, so it’s nice to have quantity along with quality. Hitting on just a couple of these prospects puts the White Sox in good shape to be competitive a few years from now.

First baseman José Abreu can become a free agent after the season, so it will be interesting to see if the White Sox let him walk or work towards signing him to a contract extension. From 2014-17, Abreu hit at least 25 home runs and knocked in at least 100 runs with a batting average of at least .290. He was slowed a bit by injuries last year, batting .265 with 22 dingers and 78 ribbies, ending the streak. Abreu is 32 years old, so he isn’t a long-term bet for the White Sox.

The major league White Sox team isn’t going to be terribly interesting to watch likely until rosters expand in September (the final year before September rosters expand to only 28 players). They are definitely a team to watch in 2020 and beyond, however.

Kansas City Royals

Woof. The rebuilding Royals could plausibly be baseball’s worst team in 2019. The club wasn’t terribly active in the offseasons, only adding free agents Billy Hamilton, Chris Owings, Jake Diekman, and Brad Boxberger.

Many of the Royals’ top prospects are still a year or two away from the majors, so this is just another development season in Kansas City. As much as I’d like to write more than a couple of brief paragraphs, there’s just not that much to write about. It will be interesting to see how many bases Whit Merrifield and Hamilton combine to swipe.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers will continue their rebuilding process while first baseman Miguel Cabrera plays out the back nine of his career. The veteran turns 36 years old in April, having played in just 38 games last season. When he’s healthy, he is always an offensive dynamo, but he won’t have as many RBI opportunities as he’s used to, given the quality of the Tigers’ lineup. Cabrera is only 35 home runs shy of 500 for his career, and he hit 35-plus as recently as 2016 (38), so it’s possible we see some history in Detroit this season.

Aside from Cabrera, the Tigers’ roster is pretty uninspiring. The club brought in the former Pirates middle infield duo of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer, but neither are the kind of players who can carry a team even with big years. Outfielder Nick Castellanos is arguably the Tigers’ best position player at the moment, but he was worth only 2.9 WAR in a career year last year, bashing 23 home runs with 89 RBI.

The starting rotation is highly volatile, featuring an array of oft-injured veteran pitchers. Michael Fulmer has the highest upside of the bunch, as he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016 with a 3.06 ERA across 26 starts. The likely outcome for this rotation, however, is an aggregate 4.50 ERA or worse with players going on and off the injured list throughout the year. If the injuries and underperformance add up, the Tigers could conceivably be worse than the Royals.

The upshot: The Indians have won the division title in each of the past three years. 2019 is looking like their easiest path to date. It would truly be surprising if anything else happened in baseball’s worst and least interesting division. The Twins will easily take second place, while the 3-4-5 slots will be fought over by teams that should feel lucky to reach 70 wins.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Giants 7, Blue Jays 6: Kevin Pillar made his first return to Toronto after being traded away a couple of weeks ago, got a warm welcome from his former hometown crowd ad then knocked in a run in the second inning. I feel like that’s the baseball equivalent of coming back home during Thanksgiving break during your freshman year in college, seeing “old friends” that you were JUST hanging out with in early August and having them buy you shots. I mean, it’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but let’s not pretend this is some long-in-coming reunion or whatever. To extend this tortured analogy, Pillar’s Giants teammates were like the guys from his dorm who nonetheless came back with him and who were kinda rude to all his old high school buddies. Pablo Sandoval, Joe Panik, Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt all homered, which is the equivalent of them drinking too much, hitting on the old high school friends’ sisters and just not knowing how things are done back home, man. “You’ve changed, Kevin” they said. “Why don’t you go back to college. You seem to like those guys more anyway.”

Padres 6, Mariners 3: For the second time in three days someone ally-ooped a would-be fly out into a homer. Here it was Mallex Smith, who did the honors for Austin Hedges:

It didn’t matter that much — the Padres had already established what would be their winning margin — but guys should really stop doing that. Franmil Reyes homered twice for the Friars. He required no assists in doing so.

Astros 10, Twins 4: Minnesota jumped out to a 3-0 lead and then was outscored 10-1 the rest of the way. José Altuve hit a three-run homer. Alex Bregman drove in three. Michael Brantley had an RBI single.

In related news, ten years ago today Michael Brantley went 0-for-4 with a strikeout for the Columbus Clippers in a 9-7 win over the Indianapolis Indians. I know this because, as Facebook reminds me this morning, that was the first baseball game I ever took my kids to. That game also featured Andrew McCutchen leading off, Neil Walker at third base, Luis Cruz at second, Garrett Jones in right and Erik Kratz catching for Indy. For Columbus, in addition to Brantley, David Delucci was in left, Luis Valbuena (RIP) at short, and Chris Gimenez at DH. Matt LaPorta played in that game too. He’s the guy the Brewers sent to Cleveland the year before in the CC Sabathia trade. I thought he’d be a good one, but alas. Torey Lovullo was the manager for the Clippers. My son, not yet four, got kinda sick to his stomach on cotton candy that evening. My daughter, then five, wore all pink, which would mortify her today (she can blame her mom for that). They’re gonna kill me for posting photos too, but I don’t care. Ah, memories.

Tigers 7, Red Sox 4; Tigers 4, Red Sox 2: Chris Sale was a lot more Chris Sale-like in game one of yesterday’s doubleheader, striking out ten guys in five innings and looking much sharper than he’s been. The Red Sox bullpen has continued to be a tire fire, though, coughing up five runs in four innings of work. Josh Harrison hit a tiebreaking, two-run double in the eighth. Ronny Rodriguez had three hits, including a homer. Xander Bogaerts homered twice in a losing cause. Detroit took the nightcap too, with Brandon Dixon hitting a three-run double and Ron Gardenhire using eight pitchers in a nine inning game. This when his starter went five. Dear God, his feet must be tired from walking out the mound so much. But hey, results are results. The Tigers have won four of five.

Marlins 3, Indians 1: Carlos Carrasco was cruising until he injured his knee and had to leave. That sucked for this game but sucks worse long term if he has to miss a lot of time. As soon as he left, Jorge Alfaro homered on the first pitch from reliever Neil Ramírez, giving the Fish a 1-0 lead. They’d never trail in the game thanks to solid starting work from Pablo López, who allowed only one run, unearned, while pitching into the seventh.

Mets 9, Phillies 0: Zack Wheeler struck out 11 dudes in seven shutout innings doubled in two and hit a homer and scored a run on another play. What a night. Todd Frazier hit a grand slam. Late in the game Mets reliever Jacob Rhame sent a couple of fastballs over Rhys Hoskins‘ head, apparently in retaliation for a plunking in Monday’s game. The benches halfheartedly cleared but nothing came of it. Anyway, the Phillies look terrible lately. They’ve lost five of six.

Diamondbacks 2, Pirates 1: Luke Weaver outdueled Trevor Williams, allowing one run to Williams’ two while scattering six hits over six and a third. The winning run came on a diving slide by Jarrod Dyson, who was on third but dashed home on a hot shot to second base with the corners drawn in. He was originally called out but was ruled safe on replay:

Wheels, man.

Reds 7, Braves 6: Yasiel Puig is heating up. He was 2-for-3 with a homer and three driven in. The Reds blew an early 3-0 lead, though, and found themselves trailing by the sixth before battling back and then holding on to thwart a second Braves rally. Reds batters drew nine walks off of Atlanta pitching. Woof. In related news, I’ll be at tonight’s Braves-Reds game, sitting behind home plate. I’ll be the guy in the Braves cap wondering how he’s gonna drive home two hours after the game and get enough sleep to wake up to do tomorrow’s recaps. If the game is anything less than crisp I may just put up a list of scores tomorrow. We’re all allowed to mail one in, right?

Orioles 9, White Sox 1: Dwight Smith Jr. hit a three-run homer and teammates Renato Núñez, Chris Davis and Joey Rickard all went deep as well, all off of Ivan Nova. Andrew Cashner gave up one run over seven innings to win his fourth straight start. It’d own if the O’s lost 100+ games but Cashner somehow won 20. He’s currently in a five-way tie for the AL lead in that department and is on pace for 26 right now.

Rays 5, Royals 2: Jalen Beeks — who came in in the second inning following an opener — struck out seven in four and two-thirds shutout innings and Mike Zunino homered for the second straight game to break the Rays’ losing streak. The Royals, however, have dropped five in a row.

Cardinals 4, Brewers 3Paul DeJong hit a tie-breaking, leadoff homer in the eighth and Yadier Molina had three hits and two RBI. All three of the Brewers’ runs came on solo homers. All Milwaukee’s runs came on home runs in Monday’s big loss too. If they were the Yankees three columnists would be writing “do they hit too many homers” columns today. Thank god they’re not the Yankees. The Cardinals have won four in a row. The Brewers have lost five of six.

Cubs 7, Dodgers 2: Chicago built up a 6-0 lead after the second inning and skated from there. Willson Contreras‘ bases-loaded double in the first was the biggest hit, Anthony Rizzo‘s two-run homer in the second the next biggest. Javier Báez homered for the Cubbies as well. Báez also did this:

Which was somehow not called as running out of the baseline but since he got stranded at first base and since it didn’t matter in the game’s outcome who cares? It was fun.

Nationals 6, Rockies 3: Patrick Corbin pitched six pretty strong innings and singled and scored a run when Víctor Robles hit a three-run double. Not a bad night for a pitcher at Coors Field.

Yankees 7, Angels 5: Luke Voit hit two solo homers as the walking wounded Yankees won again. Mike Ford, who is a person I’ve totally heard of before today, yes sir, also homered. The Yankees have won five straight and seven of their last eight despite having 13 players on the injured list. A dead cat bounce? Maybe. Playing a bunch of games against the Royals and Angels helps too.

Athletics 11, Rangers 5: Seems like every Rangers game features someone scoring 10-12 runs every night, be it them or the opposition. Last night it was the opposition as Matt Chapman homered and walked three times, Marcus Semien had a two-run double and Stephen Piscotty banged out four hits and scored three times. The A’s put up a six-run fourth inning. Game over.