The AL Central was one of the weakest divisions in baseball in 2022. The Cleveland Guardians were not just the only team to represent the division in the expanded playoff format, but they also were the only Central club to have an above. 500 record as well.
The White Sox and the Twins were expected to compete for the division crown in 2022, and yet, they finished 81-81 and 78-84, respectively. As for the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, expectations were slightly more optimistic for both clubs in 2022, especially after both won 77 and 74 games, respectively in 2021. Unfortunately, both regressed big time, as Detroit only won 66 games, and Kansas City won 65.
After taking steps back in the win column last year, both the Tigers and Royals made major changes, as Detroit replaced GM Al Avila with Scott Harris from the Giants, and the Royals not only let go of president Dayton Moore but also replaced manager Mike Matheny with Matt Quatraro from the Tampa Bay Rays. The White Sox also made a change in the managing position in response to their disappointing season, as they replaced Hall of Famer Tony La Russa with former Royals bench coach Pedro Grifol.
The Central has long lagged behind its American League eastern and western division counterparts in terms of payroll, and that certainly was the case again this Winter. According to Cot’s Contracts, the White Sox are projected to have the biggest payroll in the division, and they only rank 13th. As for the rest of the division, the Tigers rank 18th, the Twins rank 20th, the Guardians rank 23rd, and the Royals rank 26th.
Safe to say, when it comes to “hot stove” action in the American League’s “Midwest” division, it’s been pretty lukewarm, if not learning more on the “colder” side, sans a couple of deals here and there.
With roughly 47 days until Spring Training begins, MLB is hitting the homestretch of the “hot stove” season. And thus, it is a good idea to see how the clubs in the Central division are faring this winter, and what questions are still looming that may need to be answered by the time pitchers and catchers report to camp.
In this post, I take a look at one looming question regarding each AL Central team (including the Royals) at this point of the offseason.
White Sox: Can Pedro Grifol Get The Sox Their Mojo Back?
The White Sox came in with big expectations after winning 93 games and cruising to a Central division crown. Unfortunately, 2022 for the South Siders was a perfect storm of injuries, regression from key players, and questionable chemistry in the clubhouse that eventually led to a disappointing 81-81 campaign.
As a result, the White Sox predictably made a change at the manager position after La Russa, who stepped down due to health reasons at the end of the year, elected not to return (who knows if it was really his choice or the White Sox front office’s). In La Russa’s place is former Royals bench coach Grifol, who has brought a bit of swagger to the White Sox clubhouse already, as evidenced by his first few days in the role.
Grifol, who is Latino and Spanish-speaking, is a remarkable breath of fresh air in comparison to La Russa, who seemed to have lost the clubhouse and South Side fanbase during his final season as White Sox manager in 2022.
Not only did Grifol say and do all the right things in his introductory press conference and opening week as manager, but he has also populated his staff with many Latino coaches who could connect with many of the White Sox’s key stars who happen to be Latino as well.
In order for the White Sox to improve, they are going to need to see bounce-back seasons from players like Grandal and Moncada, who regressed heavily in 2022, especially at the plate. It will also be important for Grifol to connect with Jimenez, who now steps in as the White Sox’s primary slugger in the wake of Jose Abreu electing to sign in free agency with the Houston Astros.
The White Sox haven’t done a whole lot in free agency, with their recent signing of Andrew Benintendi being the only major acquisition of note. Ironically, the former Royals left fielder earned the biggest free agent deal in White Sox history after signing a five-year, $70-million deal.
The White Sox are banking on “chemistry” changes rather than wholesale roster changes to foster improvement in 2023. Grifol seems to be the right guy on paper. But can he transition that goodwill to results on the field and in the division next season?
Safe to say, the South Side will be expecting results immediately from Grifol, especially considering they’re only one year removed from back-to-back playoff appearances and with the amount of talent on this roster.
Twins: Will They Actually See Carlos Correa Return?
The Twins have had a pretty tame offseason as well, with catcher Christian Vazquez and outfielder Joey Gallo being the only major moves of note. Minnesota saw a lot of players hit free agency, but other than signing Danny Coulombe to a minor league deal, they have pretty much been okay with letting them all walk. This includes Chris Archer, Dylan Bundy, Michael Fulmer, Gary Sanchez, and Miguel Sano just to name a few.
Then again…it’s been a different story for Carlos Correa.
The Correa drama this offseason has primarily focused on the Giants and Mets, as both teams have offered big, multi-year contracts, only to pause on the deals after medical concerns came up in the physical process.
After the Giants re-considered their agreement (hours before his Opening presser nonetheless), the Mets swooped in for Correa’s services with a similar “mega-deal”. However, that process on the Mets’ end has also stalled, as even Mets owner Steve Cohen, who hasn’t been shy about throwing money around this offseason, is concerned about Correa’s health outlook over the course of a possible deal.
And that’s where the Twins enter into the equation again.
According to reports, Minnesota was aggressive in their pursuit of Correa this offseason, even despite him opting out of the contract he signed last offseason. The Twins were willing to offer him the 10-year deal he was looking for, but they could only offer him a deal in the $280 million range. Correa was looking for a deal in the $300 million range, and once he saw that possibility with San Francisco and New York, he and the Twins seemed to part ways.
Flash forward to January, and Correa remains unsigned, and now the Twins have re-entered the picture. This time, they are saying that they will not only keep their commitment to the 10-year deal, but they will also agree to a deal without the necessary physical process which has delayed his previous agreements with the Giants and Mets.
According to Roster Resource, Kyle Farmer is currently projected to be the Twins’ Opening Day shortstop. Farmer hit .255 with 14 home runs with the Reds last year. While he was a fan favorite in Cincinnati, he certainly is no Correa in terms of impact. As the roster is currently situated now (without Correa), I’m not sure if the Twins will be much better than their 78-84 record a year ago (one could argue that they may be worse).
However, Correa changes the dynamic quite considerably, and at the very least could make Minnesota a possible Wild Card team, as long as they stay healthy, which has been a difficult endeavor for manager Rocco Baldelli over the past few seasons (especially with franchise star Byron Buxton).
Guardians: Will The Same Core Produce Again in 2023?
The Guardians were one of the youngest teams in baseball, as they had the youngest batter average age (25.3) and pitcher’s average age (26.3) in the American League last year, according to Baseball Reference. That youth didn’t seem to affect them too much, as they won 92 games, swept Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card round, and took the Yankees to a full five games in the Divisional Series.
For the most part, the Guardians are banking on that same group to lead them again to a division crown, with the hope that another year of experience can help them go a bit further in the postseason.
The only major deal of note was the acquisition of first baseman Josh Bell, who struggled in San Diego after being traded from the Nationals but showcased good production in DC and previously in Pittsburgh.
The Guardians pitching should continue to carry this squad again, especially with Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill leading the rotation, and Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, and Trevor Stephan carrying the late innings out of the bullpen. Bieber’s age will be a concern of course, and McKenzie had a good second half but struggled a bit with control in the first couple of months, which was kind of the same story in 2021. Nonetheless, they are a good 1-2 punch, and Quantrill will continue to be effective as long as the defense continues to be stellar behind him.
On an offensive end, the acquisition of Bell allows them to move Josh Naylor around a bit, which gives the Guardians more offensive depth than they had a year ago. The Guardians ranked 29th in home runs hit and 16th in OPS last year, so to have a hitter with power potential like Bell certainly makes Cleveland a more dangerous offensive team in 2023 than a year ago.
Of course, it’ll be interesting to see how rookie Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez adjust in their sophomore years, though Kwan seems like a more “sure thing” offensively than the free-swinging Gonzalez.
There’s a lot to be excited about if one is a Guardians fan, as this team has the potential to be a sleeper AL Pennant winner, as long as they can stay healthy and effective in 2023.
Of course, that is something that is always easier said than done, especially in January.
Tigers: Will Scott Harris Continue to Make His Mark On The Roster This Winter?
I talked a bit about the Soto deal in my post yesterday, but make no mistake: Harris is making his imprint on this Tigers roster and what will be expected in terms of the personnel they will acquire and develop at the MLB level.
Previous GM Al Avila seemed to prefer high-upside talent that came with loud tools but considerable risk. Unfortunately for him, that talent often did not live up to their potential, and as a result of those disappointments in development, the Tigers eventually parted ways with him at the tail end of the 2022 season.
In comes Harris from San Francisco, and this winter, he immediately has made it quite clear that relying on those kinds of players won’t be a strategy, at least not in the short-term anyway.
Willi Castro, Harold Castro, Victor Reyes, and Jeimer Candelario were major parts of the Tigers’ lineup in various capacities over the past couple of seasons. Now, they are all gone, with Will Castro a Twin, Reyes with the White Sox, and Candelario with the Nationals (Harold Castro is still a free agent).
Furthermore, Harris traded fan favorite, but volatile closer Gregory Soto to the Phillies for a package that gives them more positional depth, and more polished toolsets from what the Tigers roster was used to having over the last few years of Avila’s regime.
In addition to the Soto trade, Harris also acquired Michael Lorenzen and Matthew Boyd to give the Tigers short-term stability in the rotation until Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal fully recover from surgery. Both are very “San Francisco-like” acquisitions, as they are sensible pickups, but still give the Tigers flexibility should Mize and Skubal re-join the rotation sooner than expected (i.e. they can easily flip them at the Deadline).
The Tigers under Avila seemed to fall in a rut: they tried to “rebuild” this roster through scouting and player development, but they often fell flat in the latter category, especially as top prospects matriculated to the MLB level. That’s a big reason why those four position players aren’t around, and it will be interesting to see how Harris handles Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene as well after underwhelming rookie campaigns (and Akil Baddoo after an underwhelming sophomore season).
I am not saying Harris has transformed Detroit into a “Giants 2.0” just yet…
But one can see the seeds being sewn for such as process this winter.
Royals: Is a Full Season of Youth and New Coaching The Answer?
To be honest, I think this has been a “better-than-expected” offseason for the Royals, even if it’s lacked splash, which is frustrating to Kansas City sports fans who are used to seeing that from the Chiefs’ perspective (sorry baseball is not the same).
JJ Picollo and the Royals front office were upfront that they weren’t going to make any major moves in free agency, and they’ve been true to their word. The only major deals they’ve done are the acquisitions of Ryan Yarbrough from Tampa Bay and Jordan Lyles from the Orioles, with both coming to Kansas City on team-friendly AAV contracts.
Is either pitcher the next James Shields? Of course not, but they do add stability to a rotation and bullpen that struggled in 2022.
What the Royals have done though is continue to keep things open for their young players to earn starting spots and regular playing time in 2023, which is crucial for a small market club that needs to win with their system-developed players.
Picollo traded away Ryan O’Hearn, which opens up a bench spot that can be given to a utility player like Nate Eaton or even Nick Pratto, should Pratto have a strong Spring Training. The Royals also have flexibility in the rotation, as Yarbrough has the ability to move to a swing position, should Kris Bubic, Jon Heasley, or Brad Keller show this Spring that they are worthy of a return to the rotation in 2023 after rough campaigns a season ago.
The Royals have an identity at least going into 2023, which is centered on their young position player and pitching core led by Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Drew Waters, Michael Massey, and Brady Singer (and maybe Daniel Lynch).
The social media team’s hype video for this upcoming season featured a lot of these young players and less-established veterans like Salvador Perez, Nicky Lopez, and Hunter Dozier.
And while the Royals haven’t done as much on a roster end, they certainly have been busy changing up the coaching personnel this offseason, with the hope that this new group can help the Royals be a more “data-driven” organization.
While there are some familiar names on the 2023 Royals coaching staff, there is a lot of Tampa and Cleveland influence on this year’s coaching staff, which is a promising development for Royals fans who have been harping for years that Kansas City should look to emulate those successful small-market organizations in order to find success.
It’s not going to be a big splash year for the Royals, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Over the past couple of years, the Royals burned money and prospects for big names like Mike Minor and Carlos Santana, and Benintendi, and unfortunately, it didn’t do much in terms of turning things around in the Central standings.
Perhaps a focus on the young Royals position players and pitchers, and a new “analytically-inclined” coaching staff can help produce those “incremental” results that Royals fans have been starved for since the conclusion of the 2017 season.
After all, look at what that focus on those two areas did for Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks did in 2022. A focus on playing the younger players and making the right changes in the coaching staff turned around two clubs that both lost 100+ games in 2021.
I’m guessing Picollo and the Royals’ front office are building something similar in Kansas City in 2023.
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