AL Central Preview: Bomba Is Back

(Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

This might sound harsh. Most years, the American League Central is terribly uninteresting, with one team running away with it, and the rest middling in mediocrity or, worse, rebuilding in the basement.

But, for so many reasons, 2020 is different, and the AL Central should provide one of the most interesting division races in baseball this year. It’s a three-headed race at the top of the division, as the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox (yes! The White Sox!) all have legitimate chances of winning the division. The Twins, the reigning division champs (and my favorite baseball story of 2019), bring one of the most powerful lineups in baseball. Cleveland boasts an excellent one-two punch at the top of the rotation and the best smile in baseball, courtesy of Francisco Lindor. And the White Sox will continue to introduce their new, young faces to the baseball world. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are bad. Let’s dive in!

1. Minnesota Twins

Repeat division winners are rarely fun, and frankly lack creativity on the part of the predictor (that’s me!). But these Twins really are fun, and they really are the favorites to win the division in most eyes, so, yeah, let’s go with the Twins. According to The Athletic’s Tim Britton’s metrics, the Twins have the easiest strength of schedule in MLB, as they get to face the Tigers and Royals 10 times each, and play the Pirates four times. That’s nearly half their schedule against teams projected to be some of the worst in baseball. Minnesota won 101 games last year — arguably the quietest 100-win season in recent memory — and promptly got swept by the New York Yankees in the ALDS. So, GM Thad Levine went out and added former MVP Josh Donaldson to 2019 AL Manager of the Year Rocco Baldelli’s lineup, joining Nelson Cruz, Max Kepler, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Mitch Garver, all of whom hit 30-plus home runs along with Donaldson in 2019. The Bomba Squad is locked and loaded. A strong bullpen and the addition of Rich Hill to the rotation makes Minnesota even better. I’m all in on the Twins.

Player to Watch: Josh Donaldson

Oh, how I wish this was Royce Young. Anyway, as mentioned above, Donaldson’s a brand new addition to a lineup that led MLB in home runs in 2019. He may be 34, but he can still mash. Donaldson clubbed 37 home runs and totaled a .377 wOBA, a 132 wRC+ and a 4.9 fWAR to go along with a walk rate that ranked ninth best in baseball. OK, a lot of numbers. But the “Bringer of Rain” isn’t really showing any signs of slowing down. And he makes the Minnesota lineup far more frightening.

Pitcher to Watch: José Berríos

Berríos, a former first round pick, is just 26, and has consistently improved over his first four seasons in the bigs. He sported a 3.68 ERA and a 3.85 FIP, and finally surpassed 200 innings in a successful 2019 campaign that featured his second All-Star Game appearance. His stuff is about as good as it gets, and when he’s on, the movement on his pitches is absolutely knee-buckling. Take a look at some of these clips from pitching expert Rob Friedman.

2. Chicago White Sox

We’ve reached my first “hot take” of the 2020 MLB preview, though it’s reasonable to consider this one lukewarm at best. I’ve been waiting for this White Sox team to break through and finally become a contender. With a 60-game schedule, anything can happen, so this just might be the year the South Side sees a playoff team for the first time since 2008. Like the Twins, the Sox also benefit from an easy schedule — third in Britton’s calculations — as they face the Tigers, Royals and Pirates a total of 24 times. Former top prospect Yoan Moncada finally broke out in 2019, and shortstop Tim Anderson burst onto the season as a budding star, bat flipping and all. Toss in the powerful duo of Eloy Jiménez and José Abreu, plus the trio of offseason additions in Edwin Encarnación, Nomar Mazara and Yasmani Grandal, and you have a pretty potent lineup. Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez signed in the offseason to anchor a young but talented rotation that includes Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. It’s very possible that the White Sox need another year or two to finally come together, but a short season can provide the perfect opportunity for Chicago to make a run.

Player to Watch: Luis Robert

Easiest pick so far. A consensus top-five prospect, Robert has the tools to make scouts, analysts and fans drool. The 22-year-old is about as legit as they come. He’s got the arm, the bat, the power, the speed, the glove. Keuchel called him a “freak.” He compiled a 30–30 season in the minors last season, and led all of MiLB with 314 total bases. He hit 32 home runs and amassed a whopping 1.001 OPS across three different leagues.

“Luis Robert is a special individual, a special talent,” White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing told Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times. “There’s nothing on the field that he can’t do.”

Robert signed a six-year contract extension back in January, with team options for 2026 and 2027, indicating that the Sox plan on him contributing to the big league club this season. Plain and simple, Robert is special. Heck, during Summer Camp, he hit a home run while falling down. He’s my 2020 AL Rookie of the Year pick.

Pitcher to Watch: Lucas Giolito

Full disclosure: this was supposed to be Michael Kopech. He opted out of the 2020 season on July 10.

So, we turn to Giolito. And if the White Sox are going to contend in 2020, Giolito needs to be their go-to starter. Keuchel is an important, veteran addition to the rotation, but if Chicago is playing in a postseason series, Giolito will be on the bump for Game 1. The Harvard-Westlake product put together an impressive 2019 season after struggling in his first full season in 2018. He struck out 11.62 batters per nine innings, the fifth highest mark among all qualified pitchers in 2019, and compiled a 5.1 fWAR, 10th best among pitchers in the bigs. Add in the sixth best K-BB%, and you’ve got an ace. He added velocity to his fastball as well, averaging 92.4 mph in 2018 and improving to 94.3 mph in 2019. His changeup can be devastating, and if he continues to mix in his breaking balls, Giolito could quickly become a Cy Young candidate.

(Also, those uniforms are beautiful.)

3. Cleveland Indians

I’m a little bit lower on Cleveland than others. The window of opportunity is closing in Believeland, and the front office seemingly sensed that in the past year, sending starting pitchers Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber to Cincinnati and Texas, respectively. Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger will be there to pick up the slack, but this is a much different team from that 2016 pennant-winning one. FanGraphs projects Cleveland to win 31 games, one game behind the Twins and one in front of the White Sox, while PECOTA projects 32 wins, three behind Minnesota and one in front of Chicago. They too benefit from playing Detroit, Kansas City and Pittsburgh for more than a third of the season (sensing a theme here?). Playoff races will be tight all season, and Cleveland should be in the thick of the AL Central and AL Wild Card race, but I just see this team falling short of the postseason for the second consecutive year. Though, if anyone can prove doubters wrong, it’s Terry Francona.

Player to Watch: Francisco Lindor

I don’t need to tell you how fantastic Lindor is. His hitting, his fielding, his smile, all wonderful. Frankly (ha), his game really speaks for itself. He hit 32 home runs, stole 22 bases and totaled a .349 wOBA. (Side note: wOBA might be my favorite stat. Quick shoutout to Justin Sweetwood for helping me discover it.) And that was all in a down year. But the main reason I’ll be keeping an eye on Lindor is to see if he’s wearing a different uniform by the end of the year. Lindor becomes a free agent following the 2021 season, and a slow start for the team, thanks to 16 of Cleveland’s first 19 games coming against playoff contenders, and his impending free agency could persuade Cleveland to trade him for a truckload of valuable assets. August 31, 2020’s trade deadline, will be strange, but a Lindor trade will make it memorable.

Pitcher to Watch: Shane Bieber

I’m aware that I just picked Cleveland’s two best players as “players to watch,” but I promise they’re for good reasons. Cleveland’s rotation is undoubtedly its biggest strength entering 2020, and it’s headlined by Bieber and Clevinger. Clevinger has the flare and the velocity, but Bieber is the ace, as MLB.com’s David Adler articulates. First, his walk percentage is absolutely ridiculous. He allowed just 4.7% of batters faced in 2019 to reach first via the base on balls, good for sixth in baseball. A K-BB% of 25.5% in 2019 ranked fifth in the majors, behind bonafide stars Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. This could go on, but we’ll end with another video from Friedman. Bieber is the real deal.

4. Kansas City Royals

This is likely a toss up between KC and Detroit, but let’s go with the Royals to edge the Tigers (can you even “edge” someone for fourth place in a division?). Like their divisional counterparts, the Royals are in the midst of yet another rebuilding phase, selecting near the top of the draft for two consecutive years. The core that led Kansas City to back-to-back World Series appearances is long gone, with Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon as the lone holdovers. For now, Kansas City waits for the future. The next star is shortstop prospect Bobby Witt Jr., but he needs some more seasoning. Pitching aid may come soon, with Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch and Asa Lacy waiting in the wings. 2020, however, will be bleak. I’ll do my best to highlight some potential bright spots.

Player to Watch: Jorge Soler

Did you know that Soler hit 48 home runs in 2019? Forty-eight! I certainly didn’t remember. Soler quietly had a remarkable year (minus the AL-leading 178 strikeouts), leading the AL in homers and finishing fifth in slugging percentage. “Soler Power” likely fits best as a DH, perfect for the American League (and, temporarily, the National League). What intrigues me most, much like Lindor, is his trade potential. Soler, 28, will become eligible for free agency following the 2021 season, and could be an impact bat in a needy contender’s lineup. Expect Soler to regress to the mean a bit in 2020, but the power should stick around.

Pitcher to Watch: Brady Singer

Mentioned above, Singer will likely be the first of the Royals’ top young arms to make his debut at Kauffman Stadium, as he’s flown through Kansas City’s farm system since being drafted in the first round in 2018. The former Florida Gator mixes his sinker and four-seam fastball well, and a sharp slider has been an effective ground-ball pitch. In his last nine starts of 2019, Singer posted a 1.98 ERA and .188 BAA at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Similarly to other top prospects, Singer will likely face some service time manipulation, so don’t expect to see him make the Opening Day roster. But if things go south in Kansas City quickly, look for Dayton Moore & co. to give him a shot.

5. Detroit Tigers

While the Baltimore Orioles were taking all the scrutiny from the tanking haters, the Tigers sat quietly in the corner with the worst record in baseball in 2019. Maybe they’re just tanking in a less obvious manner. Detroit scored the fewest runs and allowed the third most, a textbook definition of how to lose. Hope arrived in June with first overall pick Spencer Torkelson, the powerful corner infielder from Arizona State, but he probably won’t see big league pitching until 2021, at the earliest. Baseball could be tough to watch for Detroit sports fans. Maybe watch the Pistons in the NBA bubble? Oh, no, wait. How about the Red Wings in the NHL tournament? No? Shoot. Well, football is right around the corner. Goodness, someone help these poor Detroit sports fans.

Player to Watch: Jonathan Schoop

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait to watch Tork. Until then, the lineup is what will undoubtedly hold this team back. But the Tigers did try to shore up some deficiencies, adding slugger C.J. Cron and Schoop, among other additions. Schoop hit 23 home runs and totaled an OPS+ of 102, just over league average, but has never quite returned to his All-Star form from his days in Baltimore. In fact, Schoop finished 12th in AL MVP voting in 2017. Still just 28, the second baseman could very well regain some of that form and play his way onto a brand new team come the August 31 trade deadline. That’s as much as one can hope for on a one-year contract with a bad team.

Pitcher to Watch: Casey Mize

I’ll be honest, I have absolutely zero idea if the Detroit front office will let Mize, Matt Manning or Tarik Skubal pitch in 2020 and begin their individual MLB service time clocks. Manager Ron Gardenhire certainly hopes so. For all we know, they won’t, and Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer would be the guys to follow in the hopes of bounce back seasons. But if they do, Mize is the guy to watch. The first overall pick in the 2018 draft has the pedigree and the pitch arsenal to live up to the hype. MLB Pipeline grades his fastball and slider as 60 (out of 80), but his splitter (grade 70) is what will make him special. Mize absolutely dominated hitters in High-A before being promoted to Double-A, where he finished with a 3.20 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. The 23-year-old righty is Detroit’s future ace, and is ready to prove himself at the big league level. It’s only a matter of whether he gets the chance in 2020.

That’s a wrap. Two posts in two days. How about that? Let’s try to keep it going tomorrow.

P.S. Major League Baseball should drop local blackouts so everyone can watch his, her or their favorite team in 2020.

Stats and information courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com.

Ethan Fore is a diehard Dodgers fan who just wants to see his team win. Once. Please. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Ethan Fore

Ethan Fore

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Northwestern Medill Class of ’21. Creator of Fore The Record.