As promised in the last edition of the “Reporter Jottings”, I wanted to take a stab at “predicting” the AL Central division for the upcoming season. While I am not an “expert” by any means, I feel like I have a pretty good feel on the Central division, and am pretty comfortable in terms of projecting the outlook for each team for 2022.
As a baseline for my own predictions, I decided to use Fangraphs’ Depth Charts projected standings, which typically are based on Fangraphs and ZiPS projection data. I prefer these over say “Vegas over/under” win totals, though to be honest, I’m pretty sure those over/under numbers aren’t all that far off from what Fangraphs is publishing.
When it comes to the format of these posts, I am going to list each team by projected order of finish, with a “predicted” record on my end, and reasoning for why I think they will finish with that record by the season’s end in 2022. I highly doubt I will finish on the nose record-wise, but it will be interesting to see how close I will be with these predictions come October.
Thus, here are my predicted 2022 standings for the AL Central.
1. Chicago White Sox (85-77)
The White Sox are the Central division favorites, and it makes sense, considering they won 93 games a year ago and cruised to the division crown.
What was interesting about the White Sox’s 2021 performance wasn that they pretty much feasted on what ended up being a lackluster Central division a season ago. They were the only club to finish with a winning record in the division a year ago, and it is highly likely that they could be the only ones to finish in the winning column in 2022 as well.
However, this team seems a lot more vulnerable than the 2021 squad, even if the White Sox return most of their core from a season ago.
Now, the White Sox did lose some contributors from last year.
Carlos Rodon is now a San Francisco Giant after resurrecting his career in 2021. Cesar Hernandez and Ryan Tepera, both acquired during the season, are now playing for the Nationals and Angels, respectively. And former Royal Billy Hamilton is now with the Mariners, albeit as a defensive-oriented outfielder off the bench.
On paper, the White Sox look the same as last year. They will be relying offensively on their core of Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, and Eloy Jimenez, who all seem to be healthy to begin the year. AJ Pollock was a shrewd acquisition from the Dodgers (they traded away Craig Kimbrel, who underwhelmed in his brief tenure in the White Sox pen).
On a pitching-end, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease should continue to be solid at the top of the rotation, and Michael Kopech is expected to replace Rodon’s spot in the rotation after mostly pitching in relief in 2021.
However, the White Sox though already have gotten hit by the injury bug this Spring, and that could be damaging to their chances to “run away” with the division as easily as a year ago. Garret Crochet, a 2020 first round pick, is expected to miss the season due to Tommy John. Furthermore, Lance Lynn is expected to miss at least six weeks due to a torn tendon.
That puts a lot of pressure on Giolito, Cease, and Kopech to perform, especially with Dallas Keuchel struggling immensely a year ago and the fifth spot going to either Vince Velasquez or Reynaldo Lopez, both pitchers who may be better in long relief than a starting role.
It just seems like these injuries happen way too often for the White Sox, especially over the past few seasons. Whether it’s just bad luck or bad training or a bad medical staff, this much is true: Chicago isn’t maximizing what they have on their roster, and that is going to shrink their window to compete for an AL Pennant sooner rather than later.
The White Sox talent-wise are still head and shoulders above most teams in the Central, which is why I still pick them to win the Central.
However, most teams in the Central are better than a year ago, and I think the White Sox’s history of injuries besetting key players will catch up to them this season. I doubt Lynn and Crochet will be the only major contributors to lose games in 2022 for the South Siders. Jimenez and Robert struggled with injuries a year ago, and if Jimenez has to play extended innings in the outfield, he could eventually land on the IL, much to the chagrin of White Sox fans.
It will be a more trying season on the South Side. Chicago will eventually win the division, but the number, 85 wins, will be a whole lot less impressive than what they did a season ago.
And safe to say, many baseball and White Sox fans will be questioning Tony La Russa (and maybe Rick Hahn’s) future after an eventual early exit in the postseason, much like the past two years.
2. Minnesota Twins (81-81)
The Twins went from the class of the division to Central cellar dwellar quickly. Minnesota finished in last place with a record of 73-89 and many baseball fans going into 2022 were curious:
Would the Twins try to rebuild quickly, crediting 2021 as a fluke year? Or would they begin the rebuilding process, and start focusing on playing and developing their prospects at the Major League level?
It’s been a wonky offseason for the Twinkies, as they were probably the most active of any club in the Central division post-lockout.
And yet, I’m not really sure what the Twins are doing, and that could be a reason why they finish behind the White Sox and just miss the postseason for a second-straight season.
In some ways, it looks like the Twins are trying to compete in 2022.
They acquired Sonny Gray from Cincinnati, which gives them a solid arm at the top of the rotation who should also benefit from NOT playing his home games in the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark. They also acquired Carlos Correa in free agency, as well as Gio Urshela via trade, which should make the right side of their infield better defensively at the very least.
And lastly, the signed the oft-injured Byron Buxton to an extension. This shows that the Twins believe their window to compete is now, especially since Buxton is already 28-years-old.
That being said, they are still keeping an eye toward the future, which was demonstrated by them calling up Jhoan Duran, who has been a top prospect for the Twins for a while, but has struggled immensely (like many Twins) with injuries.
On paper, the Twins should be good, maybe a dark horse to pass the White Sox in the Central Division if things fall in their favor.
But this is Minnesota after all…
Getting snake bit with injuries is part of the legacy, especially over the past few seasons.
When he’s on the field, Buxton is one of the best outfielders in the Central division, maybe the American League in general. However, that has been few and far between due to his injury history, and I’m not sure the Twins have done enough as an organization internally to suddenly turn around that trend in 2022.
Granted, the Royals have their own injury-plagued multi-tool star in Adalberto Mondesi.
That being said, the Royals seem to be expecting Mondesi to play about 90-110 games this year, not 130-150, as the Twins are expecting with Buxton.
And they don’t really have a backup plan in CF, should he go down either. The Royals at least have Whit Merrifield and Nicky Lopez to fill in at second and shortstop, respectively.
Furthermore, I am not sure the pitching is all that impressive beyond Gray and Joe Ryan. Bailey Ober is getting a lot of hype, but he was a home-run machine last year (16.8 percent). And while Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer are big names, this isn’t 2017, and it’s hard to see them pitching a few months fully healthy, let alone a full season.
As for the bullpen? Taylor Rogers is a nice setup man, but can he handle the closer’s role full-time? That is a huge question mark, and there aren’t a lot of other promising candidates who could fill that spot, should Rogers flounder.
The Twins have the chance to be good. They are set up with a lot of big names who will undoubtedly complement the current talent on this roster, especially on an offensive end.
That being said, I can’t help but think that this Twins team will underwhelm…
Which makes a .500 season pretty sensible for them in 2022.
3. Kansas City Royals (79-83)
Sure, this is a Royals blog. And other Central division fans will say that I’m being a homer.
But I really think this Royals team will finish third in the standings, which would be their best mark in the AL Central division since 2017 (when they also finished third as well).
My reasoning for an improvement in the standings and a five-win improvement is based on a couple of factors:
1.) The gap between the Royals and the other teams in the division has certainly closed a bit.
2.) The Royals are built not for the short-term, but, more importantly, the long-term, perhaps more so than any other team in the Central.
In terms of the gap, the biggest change for this Royals team is the presence of Zack Greinke, who signed with the Royals in free agency this offseason. Greinke gives the Royals a veteran pitcher they haven’t had since an “effective” Ian Kennedy back in 2016. While people are down on Greinke after a “bad for his standards” season, he was the Astros’ Opening Day starter in 2021, and it’s likely that he still could be one for half the teams in Major League Baseball.
Greinke will be a 4.00 ERA or below pitcher, something they haven’t had in quite some time. That alone will be worth a couple of wins in 2022, at the very least.
While Greinke, and new reliever Amir Garrett, will be much-needed veterans on the pitching staff who should immediately boost the rotation and bullpen in 2022, this Royals team will go as far as their young talent takes them. Will Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar take the next step after going through some growing pains? Will Kris Bubic and Carlos Hernandez build on their strong finishes? Will Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez get opportunities at some point this season, especially after strong Spring Training campaigns.
And most importantly, will Bobby Witt, Jr. live up to the Rookie of the Year hype he has generated over the past two Spring Training campaigns?
Making the Opening Day roster is a good start…
The Royals are the rare club this year that’s “younger” but may be “better” because of it. Witt will be an immense upgrade offensively and defensively over Hunter Dozier at third base, the Royals’ 2021 Opening Day third baseman (though Dozier could find a bounce back as a first baseman/DH in 2022). And lastly, Royals fans shouldn’t sleep on Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares, who both had solid Spring Training campaigns and showed flashes at the plate and in the field in brief stints with the Royals in 2021.
The starting pitching will be the key, and it could be the reason why this team will probably fall just short of .500.
However, a couple of tweaks and “adjustments” this season by those young arms could make them not just a .500 team, but perhaps one that could challenge the White Sox for the division.
4. Detroit Tigers (77-85)
The Tigers were the surprise of 2021, as they finished third in the Central with a 77-85 record. They parlayed that strong finish to the 2021 season with an active offseason prior to the lockout, as they inked pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and shortstop Javy Baez to impressive deals (and they were also linked early to Carlos Correa).
Furthermore, the Tigers were aggressive in adding top prospect Spencer Torkelson to the Opening Day roster (and they likely would have added Riley Greene as well, had he not got hurt in Spring Training).
Unfortunately for Tigers fans, after the lockout, the deals suddenly stopped for Detroit. The Tigers pretty much stayed pat, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not like this roster is brimming with youth and promise beyond Torkelson and Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal in the rotation.
Miguel Cabrera is running of fumes in the twilight of his career, and the Tigers have to play him BECAUSE they are paying him so much each year. Jonathan Schoop was solid, but how many years does he have left like 2021 (and where is his best fit defensively)? Jeimer Candelario is a classic “tweener” in the sense that he’s not a superstar, but he’s not really bad either.
As for the pitching staff, Skubal has a lot of promise, but he had his fair share of long ball problems, as did Rodriguez, though the latter will benefit from pitching home games in the the more pitcher-friendly Comerica (rather than Fenway Park). And while Mize had a solid first full season, projections seem to be down on him, mostly due to his lack of consistent swing and miss stuff.
And after that? Well, it gets ugly rotation wise, and the bullpen, beyond Gregory Soto and Michael Fulmer, isn’t anything to shout about either (and Fulmer has to prove he can do it two seasons in a row).
I want to like the Tigers, and they will certainly get better once Greene is healthy and makes his MLB debut. They made a lot of gains in 2021, and it would be cool to see Detroit and Kansas City duking it out at the top of the Central again, much like they did in 2014 and 2015.
However, I see the Tigers plateauing a bit in 2022, as their refusal to go “all-in” after the lockout being the key reason why they don’t take another step in the win column.
5. Cleveland Guardians (74-88)
The Guardians have long got away with being cheap due to their core of young positional talent, as well as their success in terms of pitching development. It helps when a club has guys like Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez in the field, and Shane Bieber in the rotation, all homegrown guys.
Furthermore, the Guardians have been shrewd at cashing out at the right time on the right guys. Many baseball fans questioned trades like the Lindor and Mike Clevinger ones at the time. But in the end, it proved to be the right move for Cleveland, as it not just saved money, but opened the door for some key youngsters who possessed much more long-term value.
Cleveland is the new “Oakland” and they’re testing the limits of “Moneyball tactics”, as evidenced by their low payroll this season:
While Cleveland fans are optimistic that the newly named Guardians can continue to flirt with Wild Card contention in 2022 despite a decreasing payroll (much like 2020 and 2021), as a non-Cleveland fan, it’s hard to think the Guardians will do much this season.
Yes, the rotation is stacked with Bieber, Zach Plesac, Cal Quantrill, Aaron Civale, and Trison McKenzie, all pitchers who have showed flashes or stretches of dominance at times either in 2020 or 2021 (or both). In addition, the Guardians have one of the more underrated closers in the league in Emmanuel Clase, whom they recently signed to an extension.
But the lineup?
Well, just take a look…
Yikes. Beyond Ramirez and Reyes, there are a whole lot of question marks in the lineup.
Sure, Straw has speed, but will he prove to be more than just a slightly better Michael A. Taylor? Will Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez put full seasons together and not just halves? Will Bobby Bradley solve his swing and miss issues? And can Bradley Zimmer hit enough to stay in the lineup?
The Guardians have always done a good job of outperforming their projections. However, even in this case, with this lineup, the odds seem too great. And the injury issues of their rotation, which came in droves last year to nearly everyone in their starting five, should also depress the Guardians’ outlook for 2022.
Cleveland has constantly rolled the dice when it comes to winning “on the cheap”.
Unfortunately for baseball fans in Northeast Ohio, that catches up with them this season.
Photo Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports