The American League Central Division has become one of the worst divisions in baseball recently. Last year, only the Chicago White Sox finished with a winning record. The Minnesota Twins were unable to defend their division title in 2021, but there is some optimism that they can get back in the race next season.
Chicago will enter next season as favorites, but the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals showed signs of life and finished ahead of Minnesota in the standings. In order to determine if the Twins should have a “hard reset” or try and compete for a playoff spot, we first have to look at how they stack up in the division.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals have been one of the most confusing teams in baseball ever since winning the World Series in 2015. They lost some key pieces of that championship team almost immediately, including Eric Hosmer. Because their decline was so sudden, they refused to sell off and rebuild, which has resulted in six straight uncompetitive seasons.
Kansas City has some core pieces in Nicky Lopez, Salvador Perez, and Whit Merrifield, but they apparently can’t decide whether they want to win now or start rebuilding. For example, last year they traded for Andrew Benintendi, who is set to become a free agent after 2022. However, they have used their losing seasons to acquire top prospects, headlined by MLB.com’s No. 3 prospect, Bobby Witt Jr. As a result, they have a top-five ranked farm system.
For now, the Royals are struggling to find the kind of momentum that propelled them to success in 2014 and 2015. Last year, their offense ranked 24th in runs per game and 21st in team ERA with a minus-102 run differential. There is some potential but don’t expect the Royals to be competing for the Central anytime soon.
Cleveland is another team that feels caught in the middle, constantly staving off a rebuild after making it to a World Series five years ago.
After years of anticipation, the team traded away Fransisco Lindor. Once he left, so did any hope of contending last year. The team still got great offensive production from Jose Ramirez, who had a career year and accumulated 6.3 fWAR. However, the rest of the lineup didn’t support him, ranking 18th in runs per game. Additionally, an organization that built a strong reputation for developing pitchers struggled in that department, with a 18th-ranked 4.34 team ERA.
The real question here is how committed ownership is to winning. After trading Lindor a year ago, it would be safe to assume that they aren’t signing anyone to a big-money deal anytime soon. And because they haven’t bottomed out, either, they have a middle of the pack farm system, and all of their top 100 prospects sit in the bottom half of that list. At some point, they’ll have to pick a direction. And given their budget restraints, they’re more likely to tank than go all-in.
Another big question for Cleveland is the future of manager Terry Francona. The man who has righted the ship in Northeastern Ohio missed most of the season due to health issues. While he’s expected to come back for next season, losing Francona again would cause the team to lose someone who has kept them competitive despite their payroll.
The Tigers showed some promise in Year 1 under AJ Hinch. They got a boost from a handful of former Twins, including Akill Badoo (1.9 fWAR), Jonathan Schoop (1.5 fWAR), and Robbie Grossman (2.7 fWAR). Detroit also got contributions from the top prospects in their seventh-best farm system, including former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize (1.3 fWAR).
But Detroit could end up being be a paper tiger. They finished with a -59 run differential last year. To build on thier momentum, the Tigers are reportedly looking to spend on some big-time talent. Jon Heyman has already reported that the team is planning to pursue Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and reunite him with Hinch. Even though that signing appears unlikely, they still have more young talent on the way including two top-10 prospects in Spencer Torkelson (No. 4) and Riley Greene (No. 7) according to MLB.com.
The Twins played well against Detroit last year, finishing with a 11-8 against them. That also includes their ability to get the best of Mize so far in his young career. Mize racked up seven runs in just 14 innings pitched against Minnesota despite finishing the season with a 3.71 ERA to finish 2021. The Tigers are likely still a year or two away from truly competing for the AL Central. But they seem committed to getting into the race, and they have a good young core to build upon.
Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox won the Central for the first time since 2008 and did so handily. Chicago looked like a contender with a lineup headlined by Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson and a stellar rotation featuring Carlos Rodon and Lucas Giolito.
However, the ease in which they won the division might have hurt the Sox. They faced no competition in the Central, but were 35-31 against the rest of the American League. Their season ended with a 3-1 series loss to the Houston Astros, but they show no signs of letting up with their window open. Expect the White Sox brass to be busy trying to build a roster that could win a World Series for the first time in 15 years. That could mean trading closer Craig Kimbrel, who they acquired from the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline. They’re likely going to stockpile flamethrowers to bolster manager Tony LaRussa’s already impressive arsenal.
Don’t expect much of that talent to come from the farm system. After graduating some of their top prospects, the White Sox now own the worst farm system in baseball according to MLB.com and don’t have any top-100 prospects. Minnesota will need to improve upon their 6-13 record against the White Sox to have any hope of retaking the Central title. That will start with keeping Chicago’s bats in check because the Twins allowed 6.5 runs in games on the the South Side last year.
In a season where the Twins were expected to compete for their third AL Central title in a row, the 2021 campaign was a missed opportunity. The White Sox were believed to be World Series favorites and only won 93 games. Nobody expected Minnesota to have as bad as an offseason as they did, but division is going to be more competitive than it was this season. The Twins will have to be aggressive in the offseason to compete for the Central title next year.