Grading the off-season activity of each AL Central team

Pitchers and catchers are expected to report to Spring Training sites in Arizona and Florida on February 17th, which means that the start of the MLB season will begin in less than 10 days. And thus, while there is still some time for clubs to make some deals before Spring Training and eventually, Opening Day, it seems like the baseball world is pretty much done with the “Hot Stove” season this Winter. Most of the major free agents have been signed, and it’s likely that no MLB clubs will make any major trades leading up to the start of Spring Training as well.

Thus, with the “Hot Stove” season coming to a close, I wanted to look back on these past couple of months and see how the AL Central fared when it came to making transactions and building their clubs this off-season. In this post, I analyze every AL Central team, what they did in free agency, and whether or not those moves helped them improve, or perhaps take a step back, in preparation for the upcoming 2021 season. Of course, as a Royals fan, I am coming at these grades from a “Royals fan” perspective, not necessarily as a “MLB Insider” who has deep knowledge of every club in Major League Baseball.

(Nonetheless, I hope I’m at least more accurate than Bob Nightengale).

So let’s take a look at each team in the AL Central, what their “off-season” grade are, and what this could mean for the division in the upcoming season.

Chicago White Sox

  • Key Additions: Liam Hendriks (FA), Adam Eaton (FA), Lance Lynn (Trade), and Carlos Rodon (FA).
  • Key Losses: James McCann (FA, Mets), Alex Colome (FA, Twins), Ross Detwiler (FA, Marlins), Dane Dunning (Trade, Rangers), and Edwin Encarnacion (FA, unsigned).

The White Sox had an aggressive offseason, as they are preparing to take a step in the AL Central standings after earning a Wild Card spot in the expanded playoffs last year. The White Sox lineup is a juggernaut with a combination of budding young stars such as Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, and Luis Robert, to go along with veteran sluggers such as Yasmani Grandal and reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu. Their pitching also saw some gains last year from 2019, as Lucas Giolito got some help in the rotation from playoff veteran Dallas Keuchel, and though he showed some command issues, Dylan Cease also displayed some gains in 2020 as well. However, the addition of Lance Lynn via a trade from Texas and the return of Michael Kopech, who opted out in 2020, could make this budding White Sox rotation even better in 2021.

That being said, while the White Sox were early leaders in the off-season, they may not have as much of a stranglehold over the division as initially thought. While the White Sox didn’t need to do much offensively, they did let designated hitter Encarnacion walk and replaced him essentially with Eaton, who isn’t exactly young (32) and is coming off a rough season as well (.226/.285/.384 in 176 plate appearances). Furthermore, they also paid serious dough for Hendriks, who has been good the past couple of years, but ultimately, is still a closer in an era where paying top dollar for closers isn’t ideal. And lastly, the White Sox hired Tony La Russa as manager, who didn’t do himself or the Sox any favors this off-season with his drunk-driving issues.

The White Sox didn’t have a bad off-season. Just kind of meh. Is Lynn going to be that much better than Dunning? Will Rodon stay healthy? Granted, their roster didn’t need much improvement, especially offensively. That being said, they didn’t give themselves much insurance either, which may be needed as baseball re-adjusts to a 162-game season.

Grade: C+ (mostly hurt due to the La Russa hiring).

Cleveland Indians

  • Key Additions: Eddie Rosario (FA), Andres Gimenez (Trade), Amed Rosario (Trade), and Cesar Hernandez (FA, re-sign).
  • Key Losses: Francisco Lindor (Trade, Mets), Carlos Carrasco (Trade, Mets), Carlos Santana (FA, Royals), and Brad Hand (FA, Nationals).

At first, I thought the Indians were going “full rebuild”, with the main prizes in the Lindor trade being two “glove-first” middle infield prospects. Furthermore, letting go of Santana and Hand this off-season with little fight seemed to indicate that Cleveland was looking to a future beyond 2021, even it came at an expense to the W-L record next year.

However, the Indians have made a lot of shrewd moves in the wake of the Lindor trade that may make them a sneaky competitor in the Central. They re-signed Hernandez, the reigning Gold Glove winner at second (he beat out Nicky Lopez), which could give them flexibility to trade Amed Rosario for some more prospects during the season. They also added Eddie Rosario on a pretty reasonable one-year, $7 million deal. Yes, Rosario’s defense leaves a lot to be desired, but the Indians have struggled to find production in the outfield the past couple of seasons, and Rosario gives the Tribe a solid middle-of-the order bat who should succeed while hitting in between Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes, as Roster Resource projects. And while they lost Carrasco, the Indians’ pitching corps possess tremendous depth both at the Major and Minor League level, and they also have the reigning Cy Young winner in Shane Bieber as well. Lastly, while Cleveland lost Hand to the Nationals, they do have James Karinchak, who could become one of the best relievers in the AL Central in 2021.

Thus, the Indians may be getting the best of both worlds in 2021: still able to compete, but also building properly for the future. They get downgraded a little for how they handled Lindor trade rumors (didn’t do their star or fanbase any favors), but I think the Indians set themselves up well for both the short and long term.

Grade: B- (losing Lindor hurts, but the club looks to be in good shape for the long-term).

Detroit Tigers

  • Key Additions: Robbie Grossman (FA), Wilson Ramos (FA), Akil Baddoo (R5), Jose Urena (FA), Derek Holland (FA), and Jonathan Schoop (FA, re-sign).
  • Key Losses: C.J. Cron (FA, unsigned), Ivan Nova (FA, Phillies), Austin Romine (FA, Cubs), and Jorge Bonifacio (FA, unsigned).

This Tigers off-season has been one of the quieter ones in the division. Much like the White Sox, the Tigers hired a new manager who had championship experience. However, unlike La Russa, A.J. Hinch seems to be a fit for this club, as he had experience in rebuilding situations in Arizona (where he wasn’t successful) and Houston (where he was). On a talent-end, GM Al Avila played it safe: he didn’t really non-tender anyone of note at the non-tender deadline, and he added proven, but cheap veterans to boost their lineup and pitching staff. Avila also brought back Schoop, who may have been one of the best hitting second-basemen in the AL Central a year ago.

The Tigers didn’t do anything sexy, and it’s hard to imagine them not being in fourth or fifth in the division by the end of 2021. They still are playing for the long-term, especially with top prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal expecting to fight for rotation spots this Spring, according to Roster Resource. That being said, the club slightly boosted their present without jeopardizing their long-term flexibility, which isn’t easy for a team with a contract as bloated as Miguel Cabrera’s on the payroll.

Grade: C+ (they kept it safe and didn’t do much…but they could be setting themselves up for a more active 2022).

Kansas City Royals

  • Key Additions: Mike Minor (FA), Carlos Santana (FA), Michael A. Taylor (FA), Wade Davis (FA), Ervin Santana (FA), Hanser Alberto (FA), and Greg Holland (FA, re-sign).
  • Key Losses: Maikel Franco (FA, unsigned), Ian Kennedy (FA, unsigned), Mike Montgomery (FA, unsigned), and Kevin McCarthy (FA, Red Sox).

It seemed like it would be a different off-season for the Royals after signing Minor and Santana. However, after some early expenditures on the former Texas/Oakland pitcher and Cleveland first baseman, Dayton Moore kind of stayed to his typical off-season script: cheap contracts to guys looking for a bounce back or Minor League deals to players looking for redemption in Kansas City. Taylor, Davis, Santana (Ervin not Carlos), and Alberto could all return to form in 2021 with the Royals. That being said, they could all burn out as well. If they do, at least they will not cost the Royals a whole lot of cash to part ways.

The Royals didn’t have a BAD off-season by any means. They really didn’t lose anyone of note, and they are a better club than they were a year ago. But how much better? After all, on a pro-rated basis, they were a 70-win team a year ago. What are they now? A 75-win team? An 80-win team? Is that good enough to escape fourth place in the Central? And is it enough to generate serious interest in the Royals in the time of the “Chiefs Juggernaut”?

It was a more exciting off-season than what Royals fans were used to the past couple of years. Nonetheless, it still feels a little disappointing, especially after the early Minor and Santana signings generated hope that the Royals could’ve gotten another big free agent this Winter. The Royals are still playing for 2022 and 2023, but it’s been a tough past three years. Royals fans want to see a significant winner at Kauffman Stadium sooner rather than later.

Grade: B- (Santana and Minor were nice, but it felt like the Royals missed on some opportunities in free agency where they could’ve gotten a productive free agent cheaper than most seasons).

Minnesota Twins

  • Key Additions: Andrelton Simmons (FA), J.A. Happ (FA), Alex Colome (FA), Hansel Robles (FA), and Nelson Cruz (FA, re-sign).
  • Key Losses: Eddie Rosario (FA, Indians), Matt Wisler (FA, Giants), Trevor May (FA, Mets), Alex Avila (FA, Nationals), Ehire Adrianza (FA, Braves), Tyler Clippard (FA, unsigned), Sergio Romo (FA, unsigned), Jake Odorizzi (FA, unsigned), Marwin Gonzalez (FA, unsigned), and Homer Bailey (FA, unsigned).

The Twins let a lot of guys go, and at first, it looked like the Twins were doing a “Cleveland-lite” style of off-season. However, while the Twins were slow-moving, they made some really solid deals that may give them the advantage in the Central over the White Sox. They added a defensive wizard in Simmons, which moves Jorge Polanco to second, which may be a better fit for the latter infielder. They also added J.A. Happ to the rotation, who may benefit from not having to pitch in Yankee Stadium as his home park. Robles and Colome could be solid relievers to the pen, especially Colome, who could be a productive closer, but at a much cheaper cost than say, Hendriks for example. And lastly, they brought back Cruz, who has been the life-force of their offense the past couple of seasons.

It’s interesting to see the Twins shed so many players this past off-season, but actually IMPROVE in the process. The Twins have always tried to balance free agents with home-grown talent, and they have some good ones knocking on the door in Alex Kirilloff, Ryan Jeffers, and Royce Lewis, who all could possibly compete for roster spots this Spring (and maybe starting positions on Opening Day if they have good Springs). Their rotation seems set at the top with Jose Berrios and Kenta Maeda, and Happ and Michael Pineda could provide sneaky value if they are fully healthy in the Twin Cities. And lastly, in addition to Colome, the Twins also have Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey, who both could step into the ninth inning, should Colome struggle.

This wasn’t an eye-popping off-season for the Twins. However, Minnesota did what they needed to strengthen their roster overall and keep them at pace with the White Sox. While Chicago will get a majority of the “preseason favorite” votes among baseball writers for Central division champion, the Twins may be the more complete team roster and experience-wise in 2021.

Grade: B+ (The Twins shed a lot of bad money, cleared the way for their young prospects to play at the MLB level, and boosted areas to help them stay near the top of the Central).

(Photo Credit: Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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