While there are no guarantees in the current environment, if all goes according to plan, there will once again be regular season MLB games in this country in just over one week. The shortened schedule figures to make the 2020 season more of a sprint than a marathon, with each game taking on a higher importance than in normal circumstances, and nearly every team could be capable of a remarkable 60-game run.
With that in mind, 110 Sports is getting you set for the action by previewing each division with three key questions for each team in the shortened season. We continue our series with the American League Central.
Chicago White Sox
Is this team now ready to contend?
In the midst of an 11-year playoff drought, the White Sox may finally have the necessary pieces to contend as soon as this season. The team’s young core is as exciting as it gets, with starter Lucas Giolito, infielders Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, and outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, baseball’s No. 3 prospect, among others. The White Sox themselves clearly thought their window was opening this season, signing veteran slugger Edwin Encarnacion to a one-year deal and catcher Yasmani Grandal and starter Dallas Keuchel to multi-year (but not extremely lengthy) contracts. With the wealth of talent on the roster, expectations and pressure are starting to increase. The White Sox seem capable of making an incredible 60-game run in the shortened season, but even if they miss the playoffs, a solid step in the right direction would be encouraging.
Can Lucas Giolito back up his breakout campaign?
In 2018, a 23-year-old Giolito pitched to a 6.13 ERA and allowed 118 earned runs, the most in the majors. Then he flipped the switch last season, transforming into one of the top pitchers in the American League with a 3.41 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and absolutely sensational 228/57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 176 ⅔ frames. Giolito did struggle with consistency at times, though, and faded a bit down the stretch before suffering a lat strain. Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez should provide some consistency and a veteran presence, but only Giolito has the upside of an ace at this point in his career. He’ll attempt to prove his 2019 breakout was no fluke and improve his consistency in the shortened season. That rotation only has a chance to be a strength if Giolito is performing like an ace.
How high is the ceiling for the team’s young outfielders?
Eloy Jimenez showed exactly why he was considered one of the best power-hitting prospects in baseball in 2019, smacking 31 homers in 122 games and finishing fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Most impressive about his season was its finish: Jimenez hit nine home runs and tallied 25 RBI with a 1.093 OPS in September. It seems probable that Jimenez could be amongst MLB’s home run leaders for years to come, but we’ll get a chance to see in 2020 if the abilities he showed down the stretch will carry over. Joining Jimenez in the White Sox outfield will be Robert, who has five-tool skills and is just 22 years old. Last season, Robert, who signed a six-year, $50 million contract with the team in January, slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 homers and 36 steals in 122 games at AAA. The sky seems to be the limit for both of these young outfielders, but how quickly they’ll reach their full potential remains to be seen.
How will things shake out in the outfield?
With 10 outfielders on their 40-man roster entering training camp, there was, and remains, little certainty in the Tribe’s outfield. Oscar Mercado seems set to man center field after a promising 15-homer, 15-steal 2019 campaign, but aside from that there are a lot of questions. Tyler Naquin was having a strong season last year before tearing his ACL. Domingo Santana is just three years removed from a 30-homer, 15-steal season with Milwaukee but has struggled since. Then there’s former Pirates outfielder Jordan Luplow, who posted a nearly 1.200 OPS against lefties last year, and Jake Bauers, who transitioned from first base to the outfield last year and struggled offensively. Rounding out the group is former first round pick Bradley Zimmer, who has struggled to remain healthy in recent years. It’s a group with decent upside, but very little certainty.
What does the future hold for Francisco Lindor?
The face of the franchise, who is set to enter free agency after next season, drew interest from several teams this past offseason, but nothing materialized. The Indians don’t appear likely to dish out the cash required to sign Lindor to a long-term deal, leaving them in an interesting position. For the highest potential return, the team could deal Lindor at this year’s trade deadline, though that comes with two complications. First, it may be challenging to tell whether or not the team has a chance at a playoff spot approximately 30 games into the season. Second, teams are only able to deal players on their 60-man player pool during the season, limiting the potential players the team would receive in return. If Lindor is not dealt, the team could deal him over the winter, minimizing their chances of competing in 2021. Or they could deal him at next year’s deadline for a decreased return or let him walk after 2021 for a mere compensation draft pick. It will be interesting to see whether Lindor ends 2020 with Cleveland or not.
Will the team regret not adding to its strong core over the offseason?
Regardless of how the Indians approach the Lindor situation, they likely have no more than two additional seasons (including a shortened 2020) with their star shortstop. And as the team looks to get back to where they were in 2016, they spent much more time this offseason fielding offers for Lindor than adding to a roster that does have a great foundation. In addition to Lindor, the Indians feature star infielder Jose Ramirez and up-and-coming stud starters in Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. But as the outfield situation illustrates, there are still significant holes on their roster. You can’t help but wonder if the team will regret not spending on a piece or two to help elevate them to another level in a division that’s becoming increasingly competitive at the top.
What does Miguel Cabrera have left in the tank?
Cabrera’s run as one of the top hitters in baseball is now several years in the rearview mirror, but the Tigers certainly hope he has something left in the tank, as the 37-year-old future Hall-of-Famer is still under contract at $30+ million annual salaries through at least 2023. Cabrera impressed during Spring Training after losing more than 20 pounds in the offseason, and Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press recently wrote that he’s in better shape than he’s been in years and “feeling really good about himself.” Injuries have limited Cabrera significantly in recent years, so the 60-game schedule could be especially beneficial in the two-time MVP hopefully rebounding to some degree and remaining healthy in 2020.
Will the team’s young pitching prospects get an opportunity in the shortened season?
Even in a highly-reduced schedule, the Tigers don’t stand nearly any chance of competing in 2020. Yes, stranger things have happened, but let’s not forget that this is a team that finished the 2019 season with the worst 140-game in-season stretch (35-105) of any MLB team this century. What the Tigers do have is a number of exciting pitching prospects, including two of MLB.com’s top 10 right-handed pitching prospects: Casey Mize and Matt Manning. Mize was the first overall pick in the 2018 draft and pitched 109 ⅓ innings with a 2.55 ERA at two minor league levels last year. Manning posted a 2.56 ERA with 10 strikeouts/nine innings at AA last year and was the ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft. Tigers’ management has left open the possibility that some of the organization’s young pitchers like these two could make their big league debut at some point this season.
Can Matthew Boyd take another step forward?
The 29-year-old leader of the team’s rotation took a major step forward in 2019 despite some of the surface statistics not revealing that. Boyd gave up an AL-leading 39 homers last season, but struck out a career-high 11.6 batters per nine innings while reducing his walk rate to a career low. The lefty is one of baseball analyst’s top picks to break out among starting pitchers in 2020, and is under team control through 2022. Assuming he doesn’t get traded, Boyd could be a key piece of the Tigers’ return to contention.
Kansas City Royals
Will Jorge Soler’s plate discipline improvements from the second half of 2019 carry over?
The outfielder led the AL with a franchise-record 48 home runs last season in a breakout year, and after dealing with frequent injuries in his career to date, Soler played in all 162 games in 2019. What’s most interesting about his 2019 performance, though, is the improvements he made throughout the season. The first half of the year, Soler hit 23 homers, but with a .240 average and poor .307 on-base percentage. He improved his plate discipline significantly in the second half, walking more, striking out less and hitting for a better average. Soler’s second half numbers: .299 average, .411 OBP, 25 longballs. If he’s able to sustain those gains — and remain healthy — Soler could rise from an elite power hitter to an all-around elite hitter.
How will Mike Matheny handle another opportunity?
Following the retirement of Ned Yost, the winningest manager in franchise history, the Royals brought in the former Cardinals manager to take his place. Matheny went 591-474 in his six-plus seasons with St. Louis, reaching the playoffs in each of his first four seasons. But he also faced questions about his tactical decision-making and handling of the clubhouse as Cardinals manager. Since being hired by the Royals, first as a special advisor for player development, Matheny has hired a media consultant and studied leadership and analytics. In short, he’s said all the right things about learning from past experiences. Now he just has to walk the walk with a team in the midst of a complete rebuild. There are reasons for optimism, but now’s the time for the actions to support that or not.
Will Salvador Perez be his typical self?
Just Tuesday, the Royals activated the veteran catcher from the injured list after he cleared COVID-19 protocols a little over a week after testing positive for coronavirus. Perez missed all of the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and was somewhat limited in physical activity this past offseason. Matheny told reporters in late June that Perez was “in better shape” than in spring training. The six-time All-Star has hit between 20 and 27 homers in each of his last four big league seasons. It stands to reason he could be quite rusty given his return from injury and limited time in training camp before the start of the regular season schedule.
How will the team’s offense follow up a historic campaign?
The Twins hit an MLB record 307 home runs last season … and then added a player who hit 37 longballs in 2019. The addition of Josh Donaldson makes an extremely formidable lineup that much better. Kepler, Polanco, Cruz, Donaldson, Rosario, Sano. That’s the projected top six bats in the Twins lineup, perhaps the strongest 1-6 anywhere in the game. Oh yeah, and that group is expected to be followed in the lineup by a catcher who posted a nearly 1.000 OPS last year and baseball’s projected leader in batting average. The Twins may be unlikely to repeat their rate of offensive success in 2020, but with the best top-to-bottom lineup in the game, they won’t have to.
Can their deeper rotation help take the team to the next level?
In addition to their history-making offense, the Twins also boasted baseball’s ninth-best pitching staff in terms of ERA. And they’ve made some significant updates to their starting rotation. Behind Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi, the team added to the mix Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill (as well as Homer Bailey). And behind that group are pitchers like Jhoulys Chacin and Devin Smeltzer, as well as Michael Pineda when he’s eligible to return from suspension in September. That increased depth, as well as increased high-end talent in the rotation, could be just what the Twins need as they look to snap a streak of 16 consecutive losses in playoff games.
Can Byron Buxton remain healthy?
The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft has struggled to stay on the field in his professional career, playing in more than 90 Major League games just once thus far. Just last season, the center fielder was limited to 87 games due to wrist and shoulder injuries as well as a concussion. And then on Monday night, Buxton was carted off the field after suffering a left foot injury during an intrasquad game. Fortunately, he seems to have escaped serious injury, as he was diagnosed with a sprained foot and is day-to-day. If Buxton is able to get and remain healthy in 2020, he could finally put his five-tool abilities together for a fantastic run. But for Buxton, that’s a big if.
Click here to see our other 2020 division previews.
Photo by Andy Witchger / Flickr