The AL Central in Review: Where Does Everyone Stand Currently (And How Do the Royals Compare)?

Safe to say, it was a season to forget for the Kansas City Royals.

While the Royals went 74-88 in 2021, there was some hope that the Royals would see some improvement and challenge .500 in 2022. The return of Zack Greinke, and the anticipated debuts of Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Vinnie Pasquantino, were the primary reasons for such optimism in the offseason.

Kansas City still seemed a year or two away from challenging for a spot in the postseason. That being said, with the proper breaks, the Royals appeared to have the potential to be a 78-82 win team last season.

Unfortunately, not much went right, even though Witt, Melendez, and Pasquantino had solid debuts (in addition to Nate Eaton, Michael Massey, and Drew Waters). The Royals ended up going 65-97, good for last place in the AL Central. Furthermore, the Royals finished with the fifth-worst run differential in baseball at -170, which was better than only the Rockies, Athletics, Pirates, and Nationals (only the Rockies finished with a better record at 68-94).

As a result, Kansas City experienced a purge in the organization in nearly every aspect.

Veteran players such as Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi, and Carlos Santana were traded away. Manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred were relieved of their duties at the conclusion of the season. And Dayton Moore, one of the longest-tenured executives in baseball, and responsible for the second World Series title in Kansas City history, was also let go and replaced internally by JJ Picollo.

Owner John Sherman, who bought the club in November of 2019 right before the COVID pandemic, has made it clear that a last-place ballclub in Kansas City is unacceptable, even in an environment where the chips are stacked up against small market ballclub.

However, how do the Royals stack in the AL Central division, which is widely regarded as one of the weakest divisions in all of baseball?

In this post, I will look at each opposing club in the Central, what their outlook this offseason will be in 2023, and how the Royals compare.

But First…the Royals

Before we look at other clubs, we need to examine the Royals, and how they are looking going into this offseason.

The Royals are an interesting boat this winter as the only free agent they lose is Greinke, whose career is a bit in flux.

While his return to Kansas City wasn’t as good as his first stint with the Royals, he did post a 3.68 ERA and 1.9 fWAR over 26 starts and 137 IP, according to Fangraphs. Minor injuries limited his innings, but surprisingly, his fWAR last year was higher than his 2021 season in Houston (1.3 fWAR), even though Greinke’s record in 2021 with the Astros (11-6) was considerably better.

On the other hand, Greinke is 39 years old, and last season was the fewest innings he pitched in a non-COVID-affected season since 2007. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility to think that Greinke will want to hang it up, especially after what has been a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

If Greinke does want to come back for one more year, it seems like Kansas City would be his preference, at least according to reports from Royals insiders.

If Greinke does come back, it is likely that it will be on a deal that will cost less than the $13 million he made last season. If Greinke doesn’t come back, then his spot in the rotation will need to be filled with a veteran starting pitcher, as the roster lacks that as of now. The Royals only have a projected payroll of $77 million now, according to Roster Resource, so they should have the flexibility to sign a veteran pitcher or two, depending on how the market shakes out this winter.

Roster moves though are the least of the Royals’ worries right now, as they are still looking for a manager and pitching coach to lead this squad in 2023 and beyond. Many names have been leaked in regard to candidates, but one name has been eliminated recently from contention: Dusty Wathan, who signed an extension to remain as the Phillies’ third-base coach.

Tampa Bay bench coach Matt Quatraro and Dodgers first-base coach Clayton McCullough appear to be the favorites, though Boston bench coach Will Venable has suddenly emerged as a serious candidate after being interviewed by the Royals this week.

Once the Royals hire a manager and pitching coach, the Royals’ offseason plan should be much clearer.

But for now, everything seems to be a bit hazy, though it’s likely that 2023 will be a bit of a rebuilding season that could see the Royals finish around the same win-loss mark that they had in 2022.

Cleveland Remains the Favorite

Every year I am ready to write off the Guardians and think they will start a “rebuild”. And yet, year after year, they remain competitive and seem even better set for the long term as well.

The Guardians won the division with a 92-70 record, even though I predicted them to finish last in the Central division back in Spring Training. In the postseason, not only did they sweep the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card round, but they nearly upset the Yankees as well, as they held a 2-1 series lead at one point.

Cleveland not only saw a bounce-back campaign from Shane Bieber and a breakout season from Triston McKenzie in the rotation, but they also featured one of the best bullpens in the league, headlined by Emmanuel Clase, who may be the best closer in baseball.

On the offensive end, Cleveland changed their approach and seemed to rely on contact-heavy hitters who put the ball in play. The change in philosophy worked, as strikeout machines such as Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, and Bobby Bradley were all shipped out, and in their place, the Guardians added Steven Kwan, Owen Miller, and Oscar Gonzalez. The Guardians ranked 29th in home runs, but they ranked 7th in batting average and 15th in runs scored, which was good enough with their pitching.

The Guardians were one of the youngest teams in baseball in 2022, and they seem set for the short and long-term especially after they signed MVP-candidate Jose Ramirez to a long-term extension last offseason. The rotation is a bit questionable beyond Bieber and McKenzie (and maybe Cal Quantrill), but the Guardians have done a good job of cultivating arms in their system, and it wouldn’t be surprising if another arm in their system emerges this Spring.

In fact, when it came to models of pitching development that the Royals should look to emulate, Sherman made sure to mention Cleveland during his press conference at the end of the year.

The Guardians fell short in the postseason to the Yankees, but they have enough pieces to win the division again in 2023.

And honestly, it’s hard to see any other team coming close unless they make major moves.

Minnesota and Chicago Are in Difficult Situations

The Twins and White Sox were expected to be the favorites in 2022, and they both underwhelmed as they finished 81-81 and 78-84, respectively.

Minnesota is in a tough spot as it may be time for them to bite the bullet and finally embrace a rebuilding period. Even though they were able to sign Carlos Correa in free agency last year, the structure of the deal allowed him to opt out after 2022, which he ended up doing at the conclusion of the 2022 season.

The Twins also have tough decisions to make with Miguel Sano, Sonny Gray, and Dylan Bundy, who all have club options. While Minnesota holds more leverage in these situations than it did with Correa, the loss of Correa could prompt the Twins to also part with these three and save money as they go through a rebuilding period.

There still are some talented pieces in Minnesota, and if everything goes right, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Twins back at the top of the division, regardless of Correa returning. Luis Arraez emerged as a solid option at the top of the lineup, and Joe Ryan, Tyler Mahle, and Bailey Ober could headline a solid rotation in 2023, especially if Kenta Maeda comes back fully healthy (he’s expected to).

But this roster has struggled to stay healthy year after year, and Byron Buxton, who inked an extension last offseason, is a prime example of that. There’s no question about Buxton’s talent…but his ability to stay in the lineup has been a whole different story altogether. The same is already becoming true for Royce Lewis, the Twins’ top prospect who missed most of last year due to a knee injury.

Speaking of injuries, the White Sox also were hammered by them, which has been a common theme for the past couple of seasons. The White Sox have the most high-end talent of any club in the AL Central, but consistency has been a different story, and that inconsistency seemed to really hamper this club in 2022.

Lucas Giolito saw some serious regression on the mound, and Yasmani Grandal and Yoan Moncada also saw similar dropoffs at the plate. Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert have proven to be productive when healthy, but much like Buxton and Lewis in Minnesota, that just hasn’t happened enough. And while Dylan Cease emerged as the ace of the rotation, the futures of not just Giolito, but Lance Lynn and Michael Kopech seem hazy, which is not good for a club that should be in “win now” mode.

To make matters worse, the White Sox seem to be all over the place in their managerial search. After early reports that Joe Espada was expected to replace the recently-retired Tony La Russa as manager, new reports came out that the news was “misguided” and now it seems like Ozzie Guillen is a serious candidate to be the White Sox’s next manager.

Unfortunately for White Sox fans, owner Jerry Reinsdorf is unable to keep his fingerprints off this organization, as his loyalty and bias toward certain figures in this organization continue to affect the major decisions being made. And that not only will shorten the White Sox’s competitive window but could hinder them in the long-term as well.

Which Royals fans are totally fine with.

Another Rebuild Coming in Detroit?

After a 66-96 season, the Tigers decided to push the restart button, as they ended up firing GM Al Avila before the conclusion of the 2022 season. In his place, they hired San Francisco Giants GM Scott Harris, who worked under Giants president Farhan Zaidi since 2019.

Harris brings a combo of analytical and scouting background to the Tigers organization, which is what this org needs after the scouting-heavy focus of Avila didn’t really produce results in his tenure. The Tigers benefited from high draft picks over the past half-decade. Despite having a lot of premium talent in their organization though, they have failed to see progress at the Major League level.

It seems like Harris is looking to fully gut this front office at both the Major and Minor League levels and that was recently demonstrated by the hiring of Mark Connor as scouting director from the Padres organization.

Avila tried bringing in veteran talent to help the Tigers take the next step in 2022, as Eduardo Rodriguez, Javy Baez, and Austin Meadows were expected to help the Tigers move into the positive win percentage mark this past season. However, Rodriguez missed considerable time due to personal issues, Meadows struggled to stay healthy, and Baez regressed, as his free-swinging approach didn’t produce a lot of results in his first season in Motown.

The young players didn’t fare much better, even though they came with considerable hype.

Pitchers Matt Manning and Casey Mize missed most of the year due to injuries, and Tarik Skubal was eventually shut down as well after a decent start. And Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson were expected to carry this team, and yet, they failed to have much of an impact in their rookie campaigns, though one has to wonder what Greene could do with a fully healthy offseason.

The Tigers are in a very similar spot to the Royals: There is pressure to compete, especially considering the fanbase is tired of all the losing. And manager AJ Hinch didn’t come to Detroit to “rebuild”.

That said, the Tigers need a new jolt of talent and player development in their system, and that could take some time and resources to build up. Sure, the Illitch family has the capital to spend more on free agents, but that didn’t produce a whole lot of results in 2022 and isn’t likely to move the needle much more in 2023 either.

Detroit could plant seeds this year that could help them be competitive again, much like they were during the Dave Dombrowski era. But will Illitch and the Tigers fanbase allow them to go through that process, especially after a down year financially for most clubs in Major League Baseball?

The Royals and Tigers may be in similar spots going into this offseason…

But I have a feeling they will approach this winter much differently.

Whether that’s a good or bad thing for the Royals is yet to be determined.

Photo Credit: Ryan Garza / USA TODAY NETWORK

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