By: Chris Larson
Continuing our Off-Season To-Do List series, this installment focuses on the American League Central. Over the past couple of seasons, the American League Central has been a division that was top-heavy with the Cleveland Indians coming out on top, but all of that shifted last season when the Minnesota Twins pulled off an upset and found themselves being crowned as division champs at the end of the season.
When you look at the division as it stands right now, both the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins are equally on the same level in regard to the talent that both teams possess. The Indians have been trying to continue to be competitive, while trading away some assets and the Twins are bringing back the same powerful offensive core from last season, but still have a few things to address. Outside of both of those teams are the Chicago White Sox, a team that should be up-and-coming as early as 2020, followed by two rebuilding teams in the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers. Both the Royals and Tigers were 100-loss teams last year - Kansas City lost 103 games, while the Tigers lost 114 contests.
With that being said, here are three things for every American League Central team to focus on this offseason.
1. Minnesota Twins (101-61 Record in 2019)
Heading into this offseason, the Minnesota Twins are one of the teams around baseball facing a lot of pressure. A lot of pressure in terms of addressing their starting rotation with impact names and adding to the bullpen to ensure that they don't have another first-round playoff exit should they make the postseason again in 2020. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, if the season started today, the Twins would have a projected Opening Day payroll for the 2020 season of ($94.5) million dollars. The good news is that dating back to the 2000 regular season, the highest the Twins payroll went was ($128.7) million dollars during the 2018 regular season and looking ahead to 2021, Minnesota only has ($10.4) million dollars committed to the books. So their future financial outlook is really good and that should be a huge motivating factor for them to do something big this offseason. Minnesota might be a small market team, but with some of the talented arms available in free agency this winter, it might be a wise investment and could allow the Twins to have a competitive window for the next handful of seasons.
With all of that being said, the very first thing the Twins need to focus on this offseason is bolstering that starting rotation with at least two impactful starting pitchers. Ideally, Minnesota should sign two free agent starting pitchers, but the more likely route is that they will sign one in free agency and then turn to the trade market to acquire the other. Unfortunately for the Twins, there are a lot of other teams in need of starting pitching this offseason and depending on the preferences of some free agents, that could pose a problem trying to get those guys to sign with Minnesota. Of all of the available free agent starting pitchers, the two that would make the most sense are lefties Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler. Bumgarner has stated that he would prefer to pitch for a team closer to home (North Carolina) so that could pose a hurdle, but he would give their rotation some real credibility and Wheeler would be a great addition. Once the Twins have addressed the starting rotation, their attention should turn back to the bullpen where they need to focus on finding another back end of the bullpen guy. A potential idea here, depending on what happens in free agency, is for the Twins to try to acquire someone like right-hander Dylan Bundy from the Baltimore Orioles and then one of left-handed reliever, Richard Bleier, or right-handed reliever, Mychal Givens. If the Twins were to do that, they would be buying low on the two arms that they acquire meaning that it would cost less prospect capital, but it would give them another option for the starting rotation and another bullpen arm. Lastly, another thing the Twins should try to bolster this offseason is their middle infield depth. There are a couple of different routes Minnesota could go here. One is they could shift shortstop, Jorge Polanco, to second base and sign free agent shortstop, Didi Gregorious or Jose Iglesias. Another route Minnesota could go is through the trade market. If they do this, they could use the situation above with the Baltimore Orioles and try to acquire either Bundy or one of Bleier/Givens along with current Orioles second baseman, Jonathan Villar.
2. Cleveland Indians (93-69 Record in 2019)
The Cleveland Indians are still in a period where they can be competitive, but that window is going to be coming to a close soon. Last offseason, Cleveland's ownership group started to demand that the front office look at payroll cutting measures and try to trim it where possible. As a result, the team made a couple of different trades (Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals, Edwin Encarnacion to the Seattle Mariners, Yonder Alonso to the Chicago White Sox, and eventually Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds last July) and achieved their goal of saving money while still fielding a competitive team. Looking ahead to the 2020 season, Cleveland currently has a projected Opening Day payroll of ($100.4) million dollars which is down from ($119.5) million dollars last season and ($134.8) million dollars during the 2018 regular season. The players who will earn the most for the Indians this coming season include: Carlos Santana ($20.8) million, Corey Kluber ($17.5) million, and Francisco Lindor who is slated to make a projected ($17) million dollars in arbitration. Therefore, it is definitely a top-heavy payroll which means that something likely needs to be done to address that should Cleveland want to cut more payroll.
The very first thing that the Indians should look to accomplish this offseason is a trade of shortstop, Francisco Lindor. Lindor has two-years remaining on his current deal which means that now is the time to cash him in and get a significant haul in return. Cleveland could always elect to hold onto him this offseason and see what interest there would be come July, but if that happens they run the risk of Lindor injuring himself potentially during the first half of the season and not getting a lot of interest. After all, most of the time, only contending teams are looking to make blockbuster type trades come July so why not trade him during the offseason when all of the other 29 teams in baseball will express interest? If the Indians do elect to trade Lindor, they could get a significant haul in return to help replenish the farm system and then pivot and sign free agent aforementioned shortstops, Didi Gregorious or Jose Iglesias in free agency. Either option, would work because it would keep the Indians competitive window open and Cleveland would basically be in a win-win situation. Following that need, the Indians need to look at increasing the amount of offense in their everyday lineup. A potential reunion with current free agent second baseman, Jason Kipnis, is certainly possible because both parties know each other well. Kipnis reportedly loves playing and living in Cleveland and there's no reason to end that marriage now. In regard to the outfield, the Indians could look to sign someone in free agency like Kole Calhoun, Avisail Garcia, or even a reunion with Yasiel Puig who was with the team during the second half of the season last year.
3. Chicago White Sox (72-89 Record in 2019)
Of all of the teams in the division, the Chicago White Sox might have the brightest future and the most exciting farm system. Sure, the Minnesota Twins have a great farm system and will likely remain competitive for the next few years, but it feels like an extended window of winning is getting ready to start happening on the Southside of Chicago. As things look right now, the Chicago White Sox would have a projected Opening Day payroll of ($73.3) million dollars for the 2020 season, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. Last offseason, the team was in heavy pursuit of free agent shortstop/third baseman, Manny Machado and was willing to offer him the type of contract that he was looking for (according to some reports upwards of $250 million dollars), but ultimately fell short and decided to not make the significant investment at that time. With some of the talent on the current 26-man roster for the White Sox and the talent coming up the pipeline, it seems like this could be the perfect offseason to make a big splash or two and really catapult things in the right direction.
In order to get things heading in the right direction, it would probably be a good idea to start by addressing the starting rotation. One challenge is going to be the great demand for it in free agency and the limited option available via the trade market. Therefore, the White Sox might need to get creative and look for options at the lower-end of free agency or arms on the trade market that might provide some stability when healthy, but have risk attached to them. In regard to potential trade targets, Jon Gray of the Colorado Rockies and Matthew Boyd of the Detroit Tigers could make sense as could Trevor Williams or Joe Musgrove of the Pittsburgh Pirates, depending on what the Pirates end up doing. However, the goal here is to try to get an arm that provides stability in the rotation and someone that can be a pillar for the next few seasons to come. After that, the Chicago White Sox should turn their attention to making an offensive upgrade at either third base or in the outfield. Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox would be a really good addition, but he is going to cost a premium in terms of prospect capital and only has one-year of control remaining so that is likely to be a no-go for the White Sox. Therefore, the White Sox have a couple of different options in the free agent market like Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, or the aforementioned, Yasiel Puig that they could target. Another potential route is to see if the Pittsburgh Pirates would be willing to part with Starling Marte and potentially build a trade package with Marte and one of Trevor Williams or Joe Musgrove as mentioned above. If the White Sox elect to make an upgrade at third base, then they will probably focus on the free agent market where there are quite a few different options with Anthony Rendon the big fish at the top, Josh Donaldson, or Mike Moustakas. Finally, after those needs have been addressed, the White Sox should do everything in their power to reach a short-term extension with Jose Abreu. Chicago could add two or three-years onto his current deal for 2020 and keep him in the plans for the foreseeable future.
4. Kansas City Royals (59-103 Record in 2019)
Looking ahead to the 2020 regular season, the Kansas City Royals are going to be in yet another rebuilding season. The Royals are going to need to continue to build for the future which means that this could be another pivotal offseason for the organization. Given the state of the organization and the fact that there is a new ownership group in place, led by John Sherman, the Royals probably won't be spending much money this offseason and more focus will be put on cutting the current payroll instead of trying to add on money. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Royals currently have a projected Opening Day payroll of ($76.7) million dollars for the 2020 season, but the future is looking bright financially. As things look right now, Kansas City has ($36.4) million dollars committed for 2021, ($2.75) million dollars for 2022, and ($750,000) dollars for the 2023 regular season. As a result, this will probably be the last offseason where the Royals look to cut payroll instead of invest in their current core of players for the future.
With that being said, the primary goal for the Royals this winter should be to continue to stockpile prospects and attempt to slash payroll in any deal that teams might be interested in doing. Obviously, the Royals aren't going to entertain trade offers for their core group of players including: second baseman Nicky Lopez, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, third baseman Hunter Dozier, or leftfielder Jorge Soler, but they should be more than willing to listen to trade offers for practically anyone including Whit Merrifield. Merrifield is a guy that the Royals have been hesitant to trade last year and Royals General Manager, Dayton Moore, has stated that the team doesn't want to trade Merrifield this offseason either. However, given where the Royals are from a competitive standpoint and the fact that Merrifield is 30-years old, now is the time to move him and attempt to get something substantial in return to help out the farm system. Last offseason and this past July, there was plenty of interest in Merrifield from teams including the: Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, and Los Angeles Angels. All four of those teams could still fit for Merrifield, but an intriguing team to watch in the derby are the Tampa Bay Rays who want to add an established hitter at second base. Tampa Bay has the farm system to make a deal and put together a package that catches the attention of Kansas City. Besides trading Whit Merrifield, the Royals would also be wise to gauge trade interest for left-handed starting pitcher, Danny Duffy as well. With the amount of demand for starting pitching this offseason and the fact that there won't be enough supply to meet the demand, teams will likely call interested in Duffy and it could be a good time to move the 30-year old.
5. Detroit Tigers (47-114 Record in 2019)
The Detroit Tigers have a ways to go before they are a relevant organization again, but the good news for Detroit Tigers fans that are reading this is that there are some promising arms coming up the pipeline. Those arms might not necessarily make a significant impact come 2020, but towards the end of next season and heading into 2021, some of them could starting playing a factor in the team's overall success. Heading into 2020, the Tigers have a much different payroll picture compared to in season's past as illustrated by the data collected by Cot's Baseball Contracts. Just three years ago, the Tigers had an Opening Day payroll of ($199.7) million dollars, but heading into 2020 the payroll is projected to come out to be ($86.9) million dollars. Granted, that is because of some of the moves the organization has made over the last year or two and because of the rebuilding state of the team, but it's still a significant amount of money that has come off the books. There will likely be a few more cost cutting moves that the Tigers make this offseason and one of those moves could start with one pitcher in particular.
That pitcher is left-hander Matthew Boyd who garnered plenty of trade interest at the July 31st Trade Deadline this year. Several contending teams expressed interest in Matthew Boyd including the: Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, and Philadelphia Phillies and there should be plenty of interest again this offseason. Of those five teams, the Houston Astros are probably the best fit given the organization's reliance on analytics and the idea that often times, pitchers who have gone to Houston end up taking a 180-degree turn and becoming an old version of themselves in a recharged, competitive environment. With Matthew Boyd, he could slot in nicely behind right-handers Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke or even between both righties and help to lengthen out Houston's starting rotation. Another major goal this offseason for the Tigers should be to provide some more veteran presence on the 26-man roster and to give the young players guys to look up to. Ultimately, those veterans could end up becoming useful trade chips once the July 31st Trade Deadline rolls around, but you can never go wrong with have plenty of veteran leadership on and off the field as last year's Washington Nationals team illustrated. Therefore, Detroit should focus on signing a veteran position player or two and continue by adding some veteran stability to the bullpen as well. Second baseman, Howie Kendrick, could be a terrific option for a team like the Tigers, if Kendrick is interested in signing with the team, as could outfielders Kole Calhoun and Melky Cabrera. When it comes to the bullpen, the good news for the Tigers is that there are a number of veteran relievers on the free agent market including left-hander Derek Holland or right-handers Anthony Swarzak, Joe Smith, Steve Cishek, or Pedro Strop.