Moves are happening in the Central…but does it mean the Royals will compete in 2022?

Of the current AL Central teams, the Minnesota Twins have been the first division foe to demonstrate that they will be “sellers” in the trade market as MLB approaches the July 30th Trade Deadline. On Thursday, the Twins traded designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who has been an offensive force for the Twins the past few seasons:

The trade is definitely the result of Twins underperforming in 2021. Going into the season, they were projected to compete with the Chicago White Sox for the division crown. However, injuries and lackluster performances from some key players put the Twins in a hole, and at 41-56, they pretty much are competing with the Royals for fourth place in the Central division at this point in the year.

Thus, it’s not surprising that the Twins have already got started with the “rebuilding for 2022” process by trading away their veteran assets, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this is the first of many moves by the Twinkies in the coming week. (A big question will be what they will do with Byron Buxton who’s talented, but has failed to stay healthy in his tenure in Minnesota.)

At this time of the season, the AL Central is starting to look like the White Sox’s division, and not just for the remainder of 2021, but perhaps even for 2022 and maybe the year after that. The South Siders sit at 58-38 and are nine games ahead of the second place Cleveland Indians (soon-to-be “Guardians” as they announced today), who are respectively 48-46, a pretty unimpressive mark. After Cleveland, no other team in the AL Central has a .500 or better record, though the Detroit Tigers have been pretty hot since the All-Star break, as evidenced below:

Thus, what is the status of the teams in the AL Central, and how does it affect the Royals and perhaps competing in the division next year? While most realistic (as well as pessimistic) Royals fans believe that the Royals may be a couple of years away from getting back into the “postseason discussion” (especially after a deflating 2021), it still seems like the Royals front office believes that they could be in the thick of things in the division next year.

Let’s take a look at the other teams in Central, categorize them, and what this should mean for the Royals not only at the trade deadline, but for the remainder of the 2021 season as well.

The “Juggernaut”: Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are currently 20 games over .500 and are projected, according to Fangraphs’ Depth Charts, to finish 94-68 this year. Considering that nearly every club in the Central is sinking in the standings quickly, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the White Sox make a push for 100 wins, especially since this is a team that hasn’t been 100 percent roster-wise since the season began.

The White Sox have pretty much played the whole year without outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, two key players for the squad in 2020 who hold All-Star potential. They lost second baseman Nick Madrigal in the middle of the year to a season-ending injury. Off-season acquisition Adam Eaton didn’t really pan out, and was eventually released. And Tony La Russa went through some early growing pains in his first year as White Sox manager, especially with his chastising of Yermin Mercedes, who hit a home run on a 3-0 count in a blowout game (against a position player nonetheless).

And yet, despite all these obstacles, the White Sox still lead the Central division, and comfortably so.

The White Sox rotation has been absolutely dynamite, as they rank 5th in ERA as a collective in baseball, and they also rank 2nd overall in K/9 as well. Carlos Rodon, who struggled with injuries the past few seasons, has been a revelation for the Sox as he is not only posting a 2.14 ERA in 96.2 IP, but he has also struck out an eye-popping 140 batters as well. It is likely that the White Sox will offer him an extension this off-season (he’ll be a free agent), especially since he was originally drafted by the Sox back in 2014. That being said, even if they aren’t able to come up to an agreement, the White Sox rotation is still loaded with established arms Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, and Lance Lynn, and younger, finally-maturing pitchers in Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech.

Offensively, the White Sox will only get better once Jimenez and Robert return to Chicago, as both of them have already begun rehab assignments in the Minor League, and should be set to return to the South Side sometime in August:

Right now, the White Sox are at just a different level than everyone else in the Central, and to make matters worse, they are set up even better for 2022. They will get a healthy Madrigal back. Jimenez and Robert will also be fully healthy as well. They have long-term control of everyone except Rodon, which includes shortstop Tim Anderson, who’s become the face of the South Side, with his dynamic play and personality. And they are actually spending less money this year payroll-wise ($134 million) in comparison to last year ($136 million on a pro-rated end). Furthermore, Central baseball fans shouldn’t forget about Jose Abreu and Yoan Moncada, who have carried this Sox lineup as of late, especially in the absence of Jimenez, Robert, and Madrigal.

Yep, I don’t think anyone, let alone the Royals, will be competing with the White Sox anytime, especially this year or next.

The “Riser”: Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are on a tear, which could be a good or bad thing for the Royals this weekend. So far this year, the better team has gotten beat when the Royals and Tigers have met this season, so let’s hope that the Royals will be the ones that spoil the Tigers’ good fortunes after the All-Star break.

That being said, the Tigers are in a good place roster-wise, and not just for the remainder of the season, but also leading up to 2022 as well.

The strength of this Tigers squad has been in the pitching, especially starting rotation. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal have been a great 1-2 combo in their first “full” year in the Tigers rotation, as they are posting 3.44 and 4.18 ERAs in 99.1 and 94.2 IP, respectively. Skubal has been a better strikeout pitcher than Mize this year, while Mize has been much better at limiting walks and the long ball. While neither pitcher is a “polished” product just yet, their development and growth in 2021 should be a promising sign for Tigers fans, who have been patiently going through this most recent rebuild.

In addition to Skubal and Mize, the Tigers have also seen some strong play on the mound recently from Matt Manning, another top prospect in the Detroit system. Though Manning struggled early out of the gate at the MLB level (5.79 ERA overall in six starts), he is coming off a a solid outing against the Rangers in his first start after being recalled after the All-Star break:

The strength of this Tigers team is definitely in its pitching (Gregory Soto and Michael Fulmer have also been stellar in relief roles), but the hitting should not be slept on by any means. Top prospect Spencer Torkelson is posting a 147 wRC+ in Double-A Erie, and even though he is not hitting for high average (.242 batting average going into this weekend), he is still showing prodigious power, as evidenced below:

That being said, it will be interesting to see, beyond Torkelson, who will be part of this Tigers lineup going forward. Miguel Cabrera will be, simply because he’s being paid (he’s under contract until at least 2024, where his vesting option kicks in). Akil Baddoo is an interesting talent who is tearing it up (121 wRC+ in 77 games) and is under team control (he was a Rule 5 pick). However, will he fall back to earth in 2022? And if so, how will the Tigers mitigate his regression? The struggles of Willi Castro this year have demonstrated that the Tigers have some young, but very volatile, talent on the position player end, which can make competing consistently difficult, especially in the near future.

Nonetheless, the Tigers have a strong mix of young pitching, and high-risk, high-upside position player talent that will not only be competitive down the stretch, but could be in the hunt in 2022, especially if everything clicks, or they add another position player who puts everything together. The Tigers will probably not be an active player on the trade market at the deadline, but with where they are at as an organization, they really do not need to be either.

The “Regressing”: Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins

Even though Cleveland and Minnesota have dramatically different records, they are in similar situations as organizations as we hit this stretch of the 2021 season. At this point, they are not playoff teams, and both their rosters have an overwhelming mix of veterans, who likely do not fit into the clubs’ plans long-term. Thus, this makes them interesting teams to follow as we head into the Trade Deadline, as they could be active players in the market, which in turn could make their chances of being competitive for the remainder of 2021 and perhaps even 2022 unlikely (which benefits the Royals).

Cleveland has, like most clubs, been really beset by injury. The Indians’ strength as a club was exepcted to be their pitching, and yet, reigning Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and no. 2 starter Aaron Civale have missed significant time due to injury. Triston McKenzie has showed flashes of brilliance, as he has struck out 71 batters in 53.1 IP this year. That being said, he has walked 41 batters, and is posting a 5.91 ERA, not exactly promising metrics for someone who is pegged to be the future of the Indians’ rotation.

Hitting-wise, there hasn’t been a whole lot to celebrate outside of Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes, who basically have carried this offense in the wake of Francisco Lindor’s departure to Queens this off-season. Bobby Bradley hits bombs (10), but he also strikes out a whole lot and is only hitting .208 as well. And other than that…well, there’s not a whole lot to like at the plate, which honestly should worry Cleveland fans. If the Indians do trade Ramirez, either at the deadline (unlikely) or in the off-season (likely, as he will be a free agent after 2023), then this Cleveland lineup could go through a period of growing pains, which in turn could affect their overall record both down the stretch and in 2022. They still will have that pitching, and the bullpen, lead by James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase, is as good as advertised. But, to compete in the American League, a team needs pitching AND hitting, and right now, it’s hard to project the future of the latter for Cleveland (especially as they rank 23rd in team OPS currently).

As for the Twins, I have already mentioned that they most likely will be starting their rebuild sooner rather than later. The Twins have some interesting pieces: Jose Berrios may be one of the five best starters in the AL Central, and when healthy, Buxton is one of the division’s most dynamic players. However, the Twins seem intent on extending Buxton at a certain price, and if Buxton refuses, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Twins part ways with the former No. 1 prospect within the next week. It would be difficult to part ways with such a dynamic player, but considering his health issues, one can understand the Twins taking a hard stance on their offer (which is reported to be around $70 million).

The Twins right now probably are in a period as a club where more purging could come soon. With Cruz now gone, it doesn’t really make sense to keep guys like third baseman Josh Donaldson and pitcher Kenta Maeda. The same goes for pitchers JA Happ, Michael Pineda, Taylor Rogers, and Hansel Robles, who are all in their 30’s.

Hence, the big question being asked among other teams in the division is this: how many of those guys will the Twins part ways with around the deadline? If they are willing to part ways with their best hitter, it is likely that multiple of those guys will be traded as well, since they wouldn’t fit with a “rebuilding” plan.

And a mass exodus of veterans from the Twin Cities could open things up in the division not just over the remainder of the 2021 season, but also in 2022 as well.

So can the Royals genuinely compete in 2022, based on how the division is looking?

The signs of the Twins’ rebuild is a good sign for the Royals for the remainder of 2021 and perhaps even 2022. Even though the Twins have a good farm system and some good talent with potential who have been beset by injury (Alex Kirilloff is another one, in addition to Buxton), I think the Twins will at least go though a rebuilding process for the next couple of years where they will experience losing records. The Twins do lose for long periods of time (especially in the Target Field era), but as a mid-market team, they will go through their lumps after roster purges, and turnover of some capacity has already started and could get even larger in the wake of Cruz’s trade, which will ultimately have an effect on their W-L record over the next year or two.

Furthermore, the Indians also look to be on the decline, even though they are keeping their head above water for now. Yes, they have a winning record, but a trade, especially to a key position player like Ramirez, could sink this club real fast, and not just for the remainder of this year, but even 2022 as well. Yes, Nolan Jones is going to be good in the long-term, but will he be productive next year? That will be hard to tell especially since he will have a lot of pressure put on him, further amplified by how thin the Indians’ hitting has been this year beyond Ramirez and Reyes. If Ramirez is traded, Reyes will be asked to lead this young lineup, and I’m not sure if that’s enough offense for this club to be successful consistently, even if the starting pitching returns to form in the next couple of months as well as in 2022.

Unfortunately, for Royals fans, while Cleveland and Minnesota may be on the decline, Detroit is on the rise, and Chicago may be untouchable for a while. And that should make Dayton Moore and the Royals front office re-think their plans for “competing” in 2022. Now, does that mean I think the Royals shouldn’t “try” to compete at all down the stretch and in 2022? Of course not. The Royals have some talent there, and if the young pitching staff can find the right tutelage and make the right adjustments (which I’m not sure if Cal Eldred is up for), then this Royals team could surprise over a longer period of time next season. Furthermore, the strong Minor League seasons of Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nick Pratto should also be encouraging for what is possible for the Royals next year, though it is to be expected that Witt and Pratto will need some time to adjust to MLB pitching, much like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, two similarly “hyped” prospects who came before them nearly a decade ago.

The chances will be better for the Royals to compete in 2022 than in 2021, and I can see why Moore and the Royals may be hesitant to trade some of their top players, Whit Merrifield especially, at this moment. That being said, it is still an uphill climb for Kansas City in the division, even if it is less steep than 2021. The Royals need to continue to build for the future, build their young assets in the system, and look to 2023 and beyond for that turning point, especially once Witt and Pratto have a year under their belt at the Major League level.

Because by then, the Royals should be set to really compete not just in 2023, but beyond as well…

And hopefully, it will be for a longer period of time in comparison to the “2014-2017” era.

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

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