Should the AL Central’s lackluster showing in the postseason give hope to (or worry) Royals fans?

The American League Central appeared to be one of the stronger divisions in the American League in 2020, as they had three teams represented in the new expanded postseason format: the division champion Minnesota Twins (36-24); the Cleveland Indians (35-25); and the Chicago White Sox (35-25), who were appearing in their first postseason since 2008. While this was tough to stomach for Kansas City Royals fans, who saw three teams ahead of them in their division make the postseason, it did give credence to the idea that the Royals played in one of the better divisions in not just the American League, but all of baseball in general.

However, as of Thursday night, the AL Central will not have any representation in the next round of the American League playoffs. The Twins and the Indians were both swept by the Astros and Yankees, respectively, and after winning the first game of the three-game series on the road in Oakland, the White Sox were eliminated on Thursday after dropping two games in a row, mostly due to lackluster pitching and lack of timely hitting during the Wild Card series against the A’s.

And thus, with baseball done for the remainder of 2020 in the AL Central, Royals fans have to ask this question: is this a sign that the Royals may be on the cusp of somehow surpassing one of these top 3 teams in the next 2-3 years? Or is this a sign that the Royals were actually worse than their 26-34 record in 2020? (Mostly because the division wasn’t that good, or at least that what pundits would say.)

Let’s take a look at this rough postseason for the AL Central, and what this could mean for the Central in 2021 and beyond, and how the Royals fit into the Central race as well.

The sweeps of the Twins and Indians were especially painful to fans of those organizations not just because they were the higher seeds, but also because the window has started to close for both organizations when it comes to competing. The Twins have a good core of hitters, but they will have some decisions to make this off-season regarding the future of Nelson Cruz and Jake Odorizzi, who will both be free agents. The Twins have never been a “big spending” team by any stretch of the imagination (they nearly contracted in the early 2000’s after all), but they are a team that will “flex” payroll when they feel like they can compete, and they should have some key returners coming back such as Polanco, Rosario, Berrios, Sano, and Buxton, who all made strides last year in one way or the other. However, Cruz will be the most intriguing decision, as he has been the heart and soul of the Twins’ lineup the past couple of years, but he isn’t exactly young, as he will be 41 years-old next season.

As for the Indians, they seem set up for the future when it comes to pitching, especially with a rotation of Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Triston McKenzie, and Zach Plesac leading the way. Furthermore, the Indians will have Ramirez on contract for at least one more season. However, the biggest question that could make or break the Indians in 2021 and beyond is this: what the Indians will do with Francisco Lindor? Lindor will be entering his final year of arbitration and after a multiple-year stretch where he has proven to be one of the most dependable shortstops in the American League, it still seems like the Indians are preparing to move on without him whether it’s 2021 or 2022 (when he becomes a free agent).

That was only amplified when Lindor seemed to “gaslight” the Indians organization by making frequent references to “how much the Indians made” and hinted that they could perhaps afford his contract, but may simply not want to pay him, as evidenced by the tweet below:

And thus, the Indians are a bit at a crossroads, with Lindor being the transaction that pushes them in one way or the other. If they re-sign Lindor it’s possible that the Royals will have another formidable foe for a good while (especially with the Indians’ pitching). However, if they do part ways and trade him for prospects, it’s possible that Cleveland could be beginning their own rebuild, with Lindor only the first of many transactions this off-season.

The Twins and the Indians are both teams that the Royals could surpass in the next couple of years. The Twins are an older team who already saw signs of regression after a stellar 2019, and it seems likely that regression will continue in 2021, especially if Odorizzi and Cruz leave (especially so in the latter’s case). As for the Indians, they have an incredible pitching staff that should be the envy of everyone in the AL Central. That being said, if Lindor does leave, the Indians will be putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Ramirez, and the Indians lack a lot of players in their farm systems who could come up and make a legitimate impact anytime soon. And thus, if Lindor does get traded, it would make more sense for the Indians to embrace a full rebuild (i.e. look to trade Ramirez and one of their pitchers) rather than still try to compete.

All those factors in regard to those clubs could make things advantageous for the Royals as soon as next year. The Royals are a young team that is growing to become more competitive in the AL Central, as they showed with a strong finish to 2021. Furthermore, with some young talent both at the Major League level as well as on the farm, the Royals are a team that is trending up instead of down, which seems to be the opposite case for the Twins and Indians.

Yes, the Royals’ pitching staff will have to fare better against Twins hitting, especially against Cruz, should he come back. And yes, the Royals have to swing and miss a whole lot less against Indians starting pitching. That being said, the Royals have an opportunity to overcome one, if not both, of these teams in the next coupe of years, though the Royals will need to address a couple of key areas this off-season for that fantasy to become reality by next season.

While the Indians and Twins are trending downward for 2021 and beyond, it’s the opposite for the White Sox. The young South Siders fell short against the Athletics in Oakland, as they lost two straight after winning the initial game at the Coliseum. However, the White Sox have a tremendous young lineup, and they gained valuable experience during this playoff run. Remember, the White Sox really only had Dallas Keuchel and Jarrod Dyson to lean on when it came to postseason experience. The White Sox’s playoff unfamiliarity certainly showed this series, and the Athletics, hungry to earn a series victory after so many disappointments over the past decade, finally exercised some playoff demons, which was fully on display in Games 2 and 3.

It may be easy to be optimistic as Royals fans when it comes to how Kansas City fares against Minnesota and Cleveland. Both are small-market clubs with aging rosters who will have some tough roster decisions to make this Winter and next. Unfortunately, that is not the case against the White Sox. The White Sox are a young team with payroll flexibility (Jerry Reinsdorf will spend when he needs to) and so much promising star power, especially on the offensive end. Furthermore, they also owned the Royals in 2020. They won 9 out of the total 10 contests against the Royals this year, which by far was the Royals’ worst record against a single opponent this season. Considering the White Sox are due to play their best baseball in 2021 and beyond, it may be possible that the White Sox could enhance that winning percentage against the Royals not just next year, but perhaps for years to come as well.

It wouldn’t be fun to see the Royals get “owned” by the White Sox day after day as well as night after night. But unfortunately, considering the Royals’ struggles against this club as of late, as well as the White Sox’s young hitting corps that’s the envy of nearly every team int the MLB, it seems likely that the White Sox may have the upper hand on this Royals team in 2021.

While all three AL Central teams lost in the postseason in 2020, Royals fans should not look at all three teams the same in terms of expectations for 2021 and beyond. The Indians and Twins will look at this postseason as a missed opportunity, as it once again was an example of both clubs failing to capitalize in a crucial year which could dictate what kind of moves the club could make in the next year or so. It’s possible that the Twins and Indians could be good next year, but it’s hard to imagine them being much better beyond 2021. That should make Royals fans optimistic: there could be a serious chance to surpass Cleveland and Minnesota, as long as the chips fall right and the Royals make the proper adjustments on the roster.

That being said, it seems less likely that the Royals can surpass Chicago. Yes, the White Sox lost in the first round against the A’s, but this was a valuable learning experience, as the young Sox will learn a lot from this devestating series loss. The Sox’s young talent will use it as motivation this off-season, and in all likelihood, they will be back in the postseason, looking to make a playoff and perhaps World Series run in the process. In all honesty, it’s hard to imagine the Royals doing enough to get by the South Siders at any time within the next five years, and that is a bit sobering for Royals fans who may have been feeling confident earlier in the post.

Nothing is guaranteed. It’s possible that all three teams could improve dramatically, which in turn will make things tougher for the Royals to break through as soon as next year. However, this playoff season was encouraging for the Royals. Sure, it may dampen their perspective on their record a little bit. (After all, how can people say the Royals had a tough schedule when no team in the Central advanced beyond the Wild Card round?) That being said, the Royals have an opportunity to compete sooner rather than later in the division and it will be interesting to see what Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny do in order to address their massive struggles against the White Sox this off-season.

A playoff berth may not happen for the Royals in 2021. It will be tougher to compete over a full 162 game season next year, even with expected regression from the Twins and Indians. That being said, if Moore and the Royals stay the course, and look to build on their recent success in the farm system, it is possible that the Royals could indeed compete for a playoff berth in 2022 or 2023. The Royals have made an extraordinary commitment to building their Minor League system in the last few seasons (after failing to do so and whiffing on the draft during their “competitive” years from 2014-2017), and after some promising debuts in 2018 (Brady Singer and Kris Bubic). Thus, it seems like the benefits of that development may be coming to fruition soon at the Major League level. If Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, or Asa Lacy can make an impact in 2021, and if the Royals can maybe find success with one more free agent next year like Maikel Franco in 2020, then the Royals may be taking the baby steps necessary to make progress in the Central.

The lackluster playoff showing from the AL Central sucked for sure. It would have been nice to see the Twins snap their postseason streak (now at 18 straight losses); the Indians make one last run at that elusive World Series title (they haven’t won since 1948); or the White Sox continue to build on their mojo this year. But it is what it is, and the Central will have to go into 2021 with a lot to prove as a division from every team involved.

It will be interesting to see how the Royals will make their statement in 2021.

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