In about a week, 2020 will finally come to a close, much to everyone’s relief. For MLB fans, it has been a “frigid” Hot Stove season, as virtual MLB Winter Meetings, owners financial concerns, and the hazy state of when Spring Training will actually begin have kept the transactions to a minimum this off-season. Cespedes Family BBQ posted this graphic on their Twitter account recently to show how tame this Winter has been for free agents:
However, even though there hasn’t been a lot of move, per se, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t a lot of storylines going on in Major League Baseball, especially among clubs in the American League Central. The Central division may be one of the more interesting ones to follow in the American League, as some teams appear ready to take the next step (White Sox and Royals), while others are shedding pieces to either rebuild or re-tool their roster for beyond 2021 (Indians and Twins). Hence, I wanted to bring up and examine one roster question still looming for each AL Central club as we finish 2020, and begin 2021 in less than a week.
Chicago White Sox: Who will be the White Sox closer in 2021?
The White Sox have been one of the most active teams this off-season, as they acquired pitcher Lance Lynn via a trade with Texas and signed free agent outfielder Adam Eaton to shore up their outfield. Furthermore, they also hired Tony La Russa as manager, hoping that his veteran leadership and experience can help this White Sox take the next step and not only capture a Central division crown, but an AL Pennant and perhaps even World Series title as well.
The White Sox lineup and rotation look pretty solid, especially with the latter possibly welcoming back Michael Kopech, who opted out in 2020. Also, the addition of Eaton may move slugger Eloy Jimenez to DH, an addition by subtraction since Jimenez was such an adventure with his glove in left field. That being said, the bullpen is still a question mark, for according to Roster Resource’s White Sox Depth Chart, the projected White Sox bullpen only saved 1 game combined in 2020.
Granted, the White Sox closer last year was Alex Colome, who saved 12 games and posted a 0.81 ERA in 21 appearances in 2020. However, he will be 32 next season, and it seems unlikely that the White Sox will bring him back, unless it comes on a “cheaper than expected” deal. As of now, it seems like the White Sox closer battle will be between lefty Aaron Bummer, who posted a 0.96 ERA in 9.1 IP; Evan Marshall, who posted a 2.38 ERA in 22.2 IP; and Codi Heuer, who posted a 1.52 ERA in 23.2 IP.
La Russa is a traditionalist when it comes to bullpen usage, as he rode regular closers in the ninth inning during his tenure as manager of the Athletics and Cardinals. Hence, it will be interesting to see if White Sox GM Rick Hahn and La Russa will settle on one of these young, internal options to assume the ninth-inning role, or if they will perhaps acquire a veteran this Winter to give La Russa the “veteran closer” he may prefer for next season.
Cleveland Indians: Will they trade Francisco Lindor before Spring Training?
We are near the end of 2020 and still shortstop Francisco Lindor is in Cleveland, which seemed to be unthinkable a couple of months ago. The Dolan family, who owns the Indians, seem to have a lot more to worry about with their franchise, especially with a pending name change about to occur over the next year. However, the lack of movement on their “star” asset is a curious one, especially since Lindor is only 27-years-old, and may be one of the best two-way shortstops in all of baseball.
As of now, it seems like the Indians are preparing for a rebuild, especially as they let Carlos Santana and Brad Hand walk in free agency (Santana signed with the Royals), and they haven’t really added to the roster in any significant way either, according to their Roster Resource Depth Chart. The Indians pitching staff may be the best in the Central and perhaps in the American League, as they return reigning Cy Young award winner Shane Bieber; young guns Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Triston McKenzine; and veteran Carlos Carrasco. However, the bullpen is thin with Hand gone, and the rest of the lineup around Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Franmil Reyes also looks lean as well, though Josh Naylor did provide some hope after coming over from San Diego via trade last Summer.
This off-season, it seems like clubs are less willing to take on money, and with free agent shortstop options such as Didi Gregorious, Marcus Semien, and Andrelton Simmons available (and probably for less than expected), it seems unlikely that the Indians will get fair value for Lindor in a trade this Winter. Thus, it will be interesting to see if the Indians do trade Lindor this off-season as expected, or perhaps they hold onto him, and maybe try to make one more run, with the aim to perhaps trade him at the deadline in July, with the hope that teams may be more willing to offer more in return around that time (especially once fans return to the stands).
Detroit Tigers: What do they do with Miguel Cabrera?
The Tigers have been in a pure rebuild the last couple of seasons and it seems like they are ready to do that again for 2021. They pretty much tendered everyone arbitration eligible a contract, and they haven’t really made any big moves, with the exception of acquiring former Marlins pitcher Jose Urena on a modest, one-year deal. According to payroll information from Roster Resource, the Tigers are estimated to have a payroll of about $70 million, which is $36 million less than their “pro-rated” payroll in 2020. This budget is a prime example of owner Chris Illitch and the Tigers’ organization’s desire to rebuild the club with young talent developed within the system rather than relying on free agency and trades for expensive veterans, which was the preference of former owner Mike (Chris’ father) and general manager Dave Dombrowski.
However, one remnant that still hampers the Tigers’ ability to completely rebuild is the presence of Miguel Cabrera, who is still owed $94 million from 2021-2023 and has vesting $30 million options in 2024 and 2025. Cabrera improved slightly in 2020, as he hit 10 home runs, posted a wRC+ of 103 and a WAR of 0.3 in 57 games, which was better than his 12 home run, 96 wRC+, and -0.3 WAR marks in 2019 in 136 games. However, with him commanding nearly $100 million over the next three years; a liability defensively who really can’t be anything but a DH; and a far cry from his former All Star and MVP self at the dish; Cabrera is a sunk cost for this Tigers club who offers no trade value, much like Albert Pujols with the Angels.
At this point, the Tigers will probably keep Cabrera around due to his cost and his ability to mentor the younger Tigers players during a rough rebuilding campaign. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see what Cabrera and the Tigers will accept in 2021, especially if Cabrera regresses back to those paltry 2019 metrics. While the expectations are low, and Cabrera is a future Tigers Hall of Famer, it will be tough for GM Al Avila to keep him on for much longer if he’s proving to be such a burden on their lineup as well as payroll. Furthermore, it will also be interesting to see how he meshes with new manager AJ Hinch, who has a World Series title under his belt recently, and wants to help the Tigers get to that level at some point, even if it will take a few seasons. Will Hinch be okay with Cabrera being a drain on the lineup? Or will he keep Cabrera out of the lineup more than usual, and how will Cabrera respond to such a move?
Kansas City Royals: Will they move Whit Merrifield back to second?
Manager Mike Matheny seems to be a fan of second baseman Nicky Lopez and his defensive prowess, but he has mentioned that Lopez needs to show something at the plate in 2021. Lopez has posted a career .258 wOBA and -0.4 WAR in 159 games, which is not an impressive number for a starting MLB second baseman. And thus, while he probably will have at least a couple of more months to show Matheny and the Royals brass what he can do at the plate, the pressure will be on him to improve offensively if he wants to continue to be the starting second baseman in Kansas City.
Especially with Whit Merrifield on the Royals roster.
While Lopez is better than Whit defensively at second, Whit is still serviceable, and it seems like the Royals are eager to add another left-handed bat to the lineup. The Royals have been connected to players like Jurickson Profar and other similar utility outfielder types who could play multiple positions in the outfield, which would add some defensive flexibility as well as much needed production in the bottom of the lineup. While it may be unlikely that Moore will ink a deal before the new year, the Royals have been aggressive this off-season, and it seems likely that the Royals have at least one more major move left in them to make before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.
And thus, with that being the case, it seems probable that a.) the Royals would pursue another outfielder and b.) the acquisition would move Whit back to second and push Nicky into a utility infielder role off the bench. The Royals have already pushed Hunter Dozier back to third after acquiring Santana, and thus, it seems like they wouldn’t shy away from bringing Whit back to second either, if they signed the right outfielder.
I still have some hope for Nicky, and as of now, according to RR’s Depth Charts, he slated in the nine hole and as the starting second baseman for 2021. But a big free agent move by Moore could change that situation for Lopez really quickly.
Minnesota Twins: Will Nelson Cruz be back? (And for how long?)
The Twins have made some big moves this off-season by letting outfielder Eddie Rosario and pitcher Jake Odorizzi walk this Winter. Odorizzi was expected, especially since he was hitting free agency and struggled with injury last year. However, the decision to non-tender Rosario was a surprise, especially since he’s been one of the Twins’ most productive hitters the past few seasons. However, it seems like Rosario’s defense limited his long-term value, and the Twins’ willingness to give him around $10 million in the arbitration process. Furthermore, the Twins front office seems confident that top prospect Alex Kirilloff will be able to step into Rosario’s left field spot in 2021 and provide similar production at a fraction of the cost.
However, the Twins lineup, according to their RR Depth Chart, seems even more thin, not just without Rosario but also Nelson Cruz, who has been the Twins’ best power hitter the past two seasons. Not only has Cruz hit 57 home runs in 173 games the past two seasons with the Twins, but he has also averaged a 164 wRC+ and accumulated 6.3 WAR as well. Without a doubt, Cruz is arguably one of the best designated hitters available on the free agent market (only Marcell Ozuna has a case).
That being said, Cruz won’t come back on a discount, as he is expected to command a two-year deal with an AAV of $15 million. While Rosario was a defensive liability, he is younger than Cruz (Cruz is currently 40) and he can at least PLAY the outfield, unlike Cruz who is a DH-only hitter at this point in his career. While the Twins want to be more fiscally responsible, they also want to still win and make a run at not only another Central division title, but get another chance to exercise some demons in the postseason as well. Will the Twins undergo the financial hit and give Cruz the two-year, $30 million dollar deal that he is expecting? Or will the Twins stay firm, like they were with Rosario, and try to find a younger, more long-term option in the DH spot in 2021?
It seems likely that Cruz will be back in the Twin Cities in 2021, especially considering how much he has meant to the franchise on the field and in the clubhouse the past two years. That being said, I thought the same of Rosario as well, and look how quickly that narrative changed this off-season.