X-Cleveland Indians 87-75
Each of the last three years have seen the Cleveland Indians contend for the World Series Title, but entering the 2019 Major League Baseball season you have to wonder if their championship window has closed? After being one victory away from claiming the World Series Championship in 2016, the Tribe rebounded to win the American League Central in each of the last two years, but the divisional round would be their undoing. And after Cleveland was swept in the American League Divisional Series by the Houston Astros last October, what does Indians manager Terry Francona have up his sleeve in order to help his club win the A.L. Central for a fourth consecutive year?
What has carried the Indians to their recent success has been the team’s strong pitching. Last year Cleveland was third in the American League in quality starts with 87, while their team earned run average of 3.77 was fourth. The center piece for Indians pitching in recent years has been starting pitcher Corey Kluber who is one of the best in the game. Over the last three years Kluber has won 56 games which included taking home the American League Cy Young Award in 2017. Kluber is coming off of the first 20-win season of his career, and in spite of the fact that he’ll be 33-years of age next month, as well as that the he has tossed at least 200 innings in each of the last four years, he’ll continue to be one of the more dominant pitchers in baseball due to his ability to work deep into games. Kluber also knows how to pile up the strikeouts as his sixth consecutive 200-plus strikeout campaign should be in the bag in 2019.
The past two years have seen Carlos Carrasco emerge as one of the top pitchers in the American League, but it is just that he’s been overshadowed by Kluber. Carrasco has won 35 games over the last two seasons which has been the result of his ability to strike out batters. Carrasco has struck out at least 200 batters in three of the last four seasons, and don’t expect him to fall off of that plateau this year.
Behind Kluber and Carrasco, the Indians have starting pitcher Mike Clevinger in their rotation. Clevinger has continued to improve in his brief Major League Baseball career. And like Kluber and Carrasco, Clevinger is not a power pitcher that not only knows how to blow batters away, but also can impose his will on an opposing lineup.
In 2018, starting pitcher Trevor Bauer was unable to win 17 games like he did in the previous season, but he was able to reduce his earned run average from 4.19 to 2.21. Bauer has an array of pitches that keep opposing hitters off balance which includes a changeup, curveball, and slider to go along with his fastball. And as soon as you think that you have Bauer figured out, he changes his style as he should be in the running to make the All-Star team for the second consecutive year.
The Tribe lost relief pitcher Cody Allen in free agency after he saved 27 games for them last season, but now the chore of closing out games in the ninth inning will be bestowed on relief pitcher Brad Hand. Last season Cleveland acquired Hand from the San Diego Padres and he would save 8 games for them. But now it is Hand’s job to lose as his ability in the pressure packed ninth inning will be the difference in the Indians starters being able to rack up the victories.
Offensively the Indians may have lost some pieces in recent years, but there is plenty of pop in this lineup. At the age of 25, shortstop Francisco Lindor is just coming into his prime, and he has the making of being an American League MVP candidate. Lindor blasted a career-high 38 homers last season to go along with 25 stolen bases as he combines his ability to be a spark plug atop the Cleveland with some very slick fielding. Lindor already has one Gold Glove Award to his credit, and if he is able to cut down on his errors this season, he will be in the running once more.
Third baseman Jose Ramirez is the main power source in the middle of the Tribe’s lineup, while he himself will also be in the mix to be the American League MVP. Ramirez has a very quick bat through the strike zone, and for a power hitter, he does not strike out a ton which makes him even tougher to deal with. And after Ramirez reached the 30-30 plateau last season, all eyes will be on him here in 2019 to see if he can get to the coveted 40-40 club.
Last year first baseman/designated Carlos Santana sought a big payday in free agency which led to him joining the Philadelphia Phillies on a three-year deal for $60 million. But after one year in Philadelphia, Santana became expendable which led to him being traded to the Seattle Mariners. And before Santana was able to explore the Emerald City, he was catching a flight back to Cleveland. The Indians know what they are getting with Santana as he provides them with another quality bat in the middle of their lineup that can drive in runs, and at the age of 33, he’ll also be ought to prove that he can still get it done.
The gap between Indians and the rest of the American League Central is closing, but they will still be the team to beat in 2019.
Minnesota Twins 84-78
After the Minnesota Twins were able to surprise many observers by securing a playoff berth in 2017, they were never able to rekindle the magic last year. And when it was all said and done in 2018, the Twins decided to part ways with manager Paul Molitor after they finished with a losing record for the second time in the last three years.
After parting with Molitor, Twins general manager Thad Levine decided to go with Rocco Baldelli to be the club’s new manager. Like Molitor, Baldelli is a former Major League Baseball player who will look to bring that on-field experience to his club. Baldelli spent the last four years as a coach with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays organization has been infamous over the past decades in regards to relying on sabermetrics which is now the new wave around MLB and the Twins want a manager such as Baldelli that believes in that message. But sabermetrics aside, Baldelli will have to find a way to get the most out of a Twins squad that underachieved in 2018.
This off-season Levin has put some effort into boosting the Twins chances on offense as they look to be a factor in the American League Central. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz has been one of the power hitters of this era in Major League Baseball. In each of the last five seasons Cruz has blasted at least 37 homers with his thunderous swing. This off-season the Twins and Cruz came to an agreement on a one-year deal for $14.3 million. And although that Cruz is now 38-years of age, he can still do plenty of damage as a DH, while also providing the youngsters on Minnesota’s roster with a wealth of experience.
The expectation was the infielder Jonathan Schoop was going to have a big year in 2018 due to the fact that he was set to enter free agency. But Schoop didn’t have the season that he was expected to have as he wasn’t a big factor for either the Baltimore Orioles or Milwaukee Brewers. This would result in Schoop only getting a one-year deal from the Twins in a move that could be low risk, high reward for them. When Schoop is on top of his game, he can be a Swiss-Army knife for an offense due to his ability to do a little bit of everything. And if Schoop is on top of his game this time around, it should result in a big season for Minnesota.
In 2017, outfielder Marwin Gonzalez was a big part of the Houston Astros being able to win the World Series. However Gonzalez’s production would dip last season which resulted him not getting the big payday that he was initially seeking in free agency. The Twins and Gonzalez agreed to a two-year deal for $21 million this off-season, but like Schoop’s deal, it falls into the category of low-risk, high reward for Minnesota. In Houston, Gonzalez benefited from playing in one of the deepest lineups in baseball, while the Astros home stadium of Minute Maid Park, but now he’ll have to show that he can get it done at an outdoor park as the cold Minneapolis weather in April could result in him getting off to a slow start.
In 2018, first baseman C.J. Cron had the best season of his Major League Baseball career, but that didn’t prevent him from being put on waivers by the Tampa Bay Rays. Cron hit 30 home runs last season for the Rays as he falls into that category of being an underrated player. Cron is never going to be a player that is going to hit for average, while he is also prone to striking out, but the Twins are taking a chance on him due to the thunder in bat that’ll add more depth to their lineup.
The Twins are going to hit in 2019, but one thing that will hold them back is their pitching. Last season Minnesota was ninth in the American League in teamed earned run average at 4.50 as well as quality starts (68). No Twins pitcher was able to win more than 12 games last season and without that standout starting pitcher to lead their rotation, it’ll be difficult for them to hang with the big boys in the A.L.
The Twins could sneak up on some teams in 2019, but it won’t be enough for them to be a playoff squad.
Detroit Tigers 68-94
From 2006-2016, the Detroit Tigers were contenders in the American League which included making two trips to the World Series. But whereas that era of Tigers baseball has come to an end, this franchise in now entrenched in rebuilding mode. The Tigers lost 98 games in each of the last two seasons, but surprisingly they only finished in third place in the A.L. Central last season which gives you an idea as to how bad that this division has become. Ron Gardenhire is set to begin his second season as the Tigers manager, and although that this franchise is full on in regards to rebuilding, he must find a way to get this club to compete in 2019.
In 11 seasons with the Tigers, first baseman Miguel Cabrera has established himself as one of the best sluggers in franchise history which included winning the American League’s Triple Crown in 2012. But the last two years have seen Cabrera plagued by injuries as he has only appeared in 168 games during that stretch. At the age of 35, Cabrera’s body is breaking down, and although that he is no longer the player that he once was, he can still be leader in the clubhouse for this squad.
But even as the Tigers offense has struggled in recent years, one player who is making a name for himself is outfielder Nick Castellanos. Last season Castellanos led Detroit in all major offensive categories which included producing an on-base percentage of .354. And any thoughts of the Tigers sneaking into contention in the American League Central will hinge on Castellanos having another big campaign.
The Tigers pitching staff last season was plagued by injuries which was a big reason why they finished tenth in the American League in team earned run average at a clip of 4.58, while they only produced 65 quality starts. A big reason for the Tigers struggles was the regression of starting pitcher Michael Fulmer. In 2016, Fulmer was the American League’s Rookie of the Year, but injuries limited his effectiveness last season. Fulmer went 3-12 last season with an earned run average of 4.69 as his season was cut short due to a knee injury. Fulmer underwent surgery last September to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, but he still is in the process of recovering as his velocity is not what it was during his dominant rookie campaign. And as Fulmer recently underwent Tommy John surgery, I do not expect this rotation to have that much success in 2019.
In 2016, the Tigers signed starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman to a five-year deal for $110 million, and I am sure that they would love to have themselves a do over. In three seasons with the Tigers, Zimmerman’s record is 24-28 with an earned run average of 5.24 as he has been for from dominant. Zimmerman will be 33-years of age this May, and he is at the point of his career where he can no longer rely on his fastball to get batters out as it will be more about him being able to pitch to contact.
If the Tigers veterans are able to stay healthy, this team will show some signs of improvement, but it will not be enough for them to contend for a playoff berth in the American League.
Kansas City Royals 64-98
The Kansas City Royals meteoric rise to being contenders in Major League Baseball has crashed equally as fast for them. In 2014, the Royals came out of nowhere to win the American League Pennant for the first time in 29 years. And after Kansas City fell one game short of winning it all in 2014, they bounced back to claim the World Series Championship in 2015. But since then the small-market blues that teams such as the Royals are faced with were on display once more as Kansas City was unable to afford any of their key players from that championship team which resulted in the majority of them either being traded, or leaving in free agency. Kansas City went from having the best record in the American League in 2015 when they won 95 games, to losing 104 contests last season which the worst in Major League Baseball. And as the Royals are in the midst of attempting another rebuild, this could be a very long summer in the heartland.
A tough season will be even more difficult for Kansas City as they will not have the services of All-Star catcher Salvador Perez. Last month Perez suffered an elbow injury that led to him needing to undergo Tommy John surgery. And what the Royals are missing in not having Perez is a player who not only knew how to manage their pitching staff from behind the plate, but he was also a leader in the clubhouse.
Last season Kansas City had one of the worst offenses in the American League as they were near the bottom of most statistical categories. However one bright spot for the Royals in 2019 will be second baseman Whit Merrifield. Merrifield made his debut with the Royals in 2016, and he has quickly built a reputation around Major League Baseball as being one of the game’s best base stealers. In each of the last two seasons Merrifield has led the A.L. in stolen bases. Merrifield obviously has a knack to get on base, and his ability on the diamond will definitely give the folks in Kansas City some excitement this year.
Playing “small ball” was a big part in the Royals winning the World Series, and speed will once again be the name of the game for them. Aside from Merrifeld, the Royals have a wealth of speed in their lineup with the likes of outfielders Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore. But speed alone will not do it for the Royals as they must improve their team on-base percentage of .305 last season which was 12th in the American League as Gore and Hamilton cannot help the team if they are not getting on base.
2018 was no better for Kansas City’s pitching staff as their team earned run average of 4.94 was 14th in the American League which included them only being able to generate 61 quality starts. No Royals starting pitcher was able to win at least 10 games last season, and with no standout performers on the horizon, 2019 will once again be an uphill battle for this club.
For Royals general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, they recognize the rebuilding process that this team is in the midst of. And although that the Royals are long shots in regards to being contenders this year, it will be interesting to see which players will be able to stand out in regards to being building blocks for the future.
Chicago White Sox 63-99
The Chicago White Sox find themselves in the midst of a funk with no apparent way of getting out of it. The White Sox have posted six consecutive losing seasons which included losing 100 games last season for the first time since 1970. The Sox have become second-class citizens in their hometown as all of the attention has been garnered by the Chicago Cubs in the Windy City as they’ve become the contender. And as the White Sox are facing another potential losing campaign in 2019, will they be able to defy the odds and show some signs of improvement?
The American League Central will not be a runaway in 2019, but if the Sox are going to hang around in the race they will need a sizable improvement from their pitching staff. Last year the White Sox had four starting pitchers lose at least 10 games, while they also allowed the most walks in the A.L. Chicago was near the bottom of most statistical categories in regards to pitching as they simply do not have the players that are capable of not only consistently going deep into games, but being effective.
Chicago will be going with the youth movement in their lineup as White Sox manager Rick Renteria is going to be relying on veterans such as first baseman Jose Abreu to provide leadership. In Abreu’s five years with the Sox, he has been the lone bright spot on a very bad team, but even that star is beginning to fade. Abreu is coming off of his worst Major League Baseball season as he only hit .265 last season. And as Abreu is now 32-years of age, you have to wonder if his physical skills are beginning to diminish?
Last year the White Sox reached the century mark in losses, and it is not out of the realm of possibilities that they could do it once more in 2019.