Leading Off: AL Central previews

The offseason ins and outs and what to expect in 2017 for the White Sox and the rest of the American League Central.
Chicago White Sox

2016: 78-84, fourth place.

Manager: Rick Renteria (first season).

He’s Here: RHP Lucas Giolito, INF Yoan Moncada, LHP Derek Holland, RHP Reynaldo Lopez, C Geovany Soto, OF Peter Bourjos.

He’s Outta Here: Manager Robin Ventura, LHP Chris Sale, OF Adam Eaton, OF Austin Jackson, DH Justin Morneau, C Alex Avila, RHP Matt Albers.

Projected Lineup: CF Leury Garcia (.229, 1, 5 in 18 games, 48 ABs; .313, 6, 35, 18 SBs in 84 games at Triple-A Charlotte) or Jacob May (.266, 1, 24, 19 SBs in 83 games at Triple-A Charlotte), SS Tim Anderson (.283, 9, 30), LF Melky Cabrera (.296, 14, 86), 1B Jose Abreu (.293, 25, 100), 3B Todd Frazier (.225, 40, 98), RF Avisail Garcia (.245, 12, 51), DH Matt Davidson (missed much of last season with broken right foot), C Omar Narvaez (.267, 1, 10), 2B Tyler Saladino (.282, 8, 38).

Rotation: LH Jose Quintana (13-12, 3.20 ERA), RH Miguel Gonzalez (5-8, 3.73), LH Derek Holland (7-9, 4.95 ERA in 22 games with Texas), RH James Shields (6-19, 5.85 in 33 starts with Padres and White Sox), LH Carlos Rodon (9-10, 4.04).

Key Relievers: RH David Robertson (5-3, 3.47, 37/44 saves), RH Nate Jones (5-3, 2.29, 3 saves), LH Dan Jennings (4-3, 2.08), RH Zach Putnam (1-0, 2.30), RH Michael Ynoa (1-0, 3.00).

Hot Spot: Triple-A Charlotte. With Giolito, Lopez and Moncada likely to begin the season in Triple-A, many White Sox fans might keep a closer watch on the Knights than the big league club. The development of the franchise’s suddenly rich minor league system will help determine the trajectory of Chicago’s new rebuilding project.

Outlook: Lots of losses and trades. Quintana and Frazier likely will be shipped out at some point this season, and Robertson also could be on the move in the right deal. The White Sox seem fully committed to a major overhaul, and they added several prospects when they traded away Sale and Eaton over the winter. But it could be a rough couple of years while general manager Rick Hahn tries to establish a more reliable pipeline of talent throughout the organization. In the meantime, the White Sox still have Anderson, who was impressive in his first major league stint last year. Abreu is going for his fourth straight season of at least 25 homers and 100 RBIs.


Cleveland Indians

2016: 94-67, first place, AL champions, lost to Chicago Cubs in World Series.

Manager: Terry Francona (fifth season).

He’s Here: 1B-DH Edwin Encarnacion, OF Austin Jackson, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Carlos Frias, OF Wily Mo Pena, CF Bradley Zimmer, SS Eric Stamets.

He’s Outta Here: 1B-DH Mike Napoli, OF Coco Crisp, OF Rajai Davis, C Chris Gimenez, 1B Jesus Aguilar, OF Marlon Byrd, RHP Jeff Manship.

Projected Lineup: SS Francisco Lindor (.301, 15 HRs, 78 RBIs, Gold Glove, league-leading 15 sac flies in first full MLB season), 2B Jason Kipnis (.275, 23, 82, career-high 156 games), LF Michael Brantley (.231, 0, 7 in 11 games following shoulder surgery; .310, 15, 84, MLB-best 45 doubles, 15 SBs in 2015), DH Edwin Encarnacion (.263, 42, AL-high 142 RBIs for Toronto), 1B Carlos Santana (.259, 34, 87, 99 BBs, 99 Ks), 3B Jose Ramirez (.312, 11, 76, played 4 positions) or Giovanny Urshela (.225, 6, 21 in 81 games for Cleveland), RF Brandon Guyer (.333, 2, 14 in 38 games with Indians; .241, 7, 18 in 63 games with Rays; led majors with 31 HBP) or Lonnie Chisenhall (.286, 8, 57), C Yan Gomes (.167, 9, 34 in 74 games due to shoulder injury), CF Tyler Naquin (.296, 14, 43) or Austin Jackson (.254, 0, 18 in 54 games with White Sox before left knee surgery).

Rotation: RH Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14 ERA, 227 Ks, third in Cy Young voting), RH Carlos Carrasco (11-8, 3.32, 25 starts due to injuries), RH Danny Salazar (11-6, 3.87, 25 starts, limited in postseason by injury), RH Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26, 28 starts, began season in bullpen), RH Josh Tomlin (13-9, 4.40, 5.90 strikeout-to-walk ratio).

Key Relievers: LH Andrew Miller (10-1, 1.45, 12 saves, 70 appearances with Yankees and Indians), RH Cody Allen (3-5, 2.51, 32/35 saves), RH Bryan Shaw (2-5, 3.24 in league-high 75 games; 70 games in each of past four seasons), RH Dan Otero (5-1, 1.53, 70 2/3 innings), LH Boone Logan (2-5, 3.69, 66 games with Rockies).

Hot Spot: Brantley’s Right Shoulder. An All-Star in 2014, Brantley missed out on the fun last season as the Indians won the pennant without him. His return is vital for Cleveland as it tries to make another deep run because he can help provide lineup protection for Encarnacion and stabilize an outfield that was under constant change in 2016. Brantley may not hit for the same extra-base power he had in the past, but he could still offer a high average and excellent defense.

Outlook: With perhaps the league’s deepest pitching staff, the Indians are an AL favorite and appear poised to return to the World Series. Last year, they exceeded expectations and built a 3-1 Series lead against the Cubs before losing three straight — including a dramatic Game 7 at home. One elusive win from the franchise’s first championship since 1948. This season, the Indians will try to finish the job. There are injury concerns with Brantley and Kipnis, who won’t be ready for the start of the season because of shoulder inflammation. Ramirez could slide over to help fill in at second base. But the addition of Encarnacion finally gives Cleveland the intimidating, middle-of-the-order slugger the club has coveted since the glory days of Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle. Cleveland is a baseball town again as Indians fans spent on tickets this winter and are rallying around the club the way they did back in the mid-1990s. Lindor is on the cusp of superstardom, and one of the Indians’ top priorities should be signing him to a long-term deal while he’s still affordable.


Detroit Tigers

2016: 86-75, second place.

Manager: Brad Ausmus (fourth season).

He’s Here: C Alex Avila, OF Mikie Mahtook.

He’s Outta Here: OF Cameron Maybin, SS Erick Aybar, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 3B Casey McGehee.

Projected Lineup: 2B Ian Kinsler (.288, 28 HRs, 83 RBIs), 3B Nicholas Castellanos (.285, 18, 58 in 110 games), 1B Miguel Cabrera (.316, 38, 108), DH Victor Martinez (.289, 27, 86), RF J.D. Martinez (.307, 22, 68 in 120 games), LF Justin Upton (.246, 31, 87), C James McCann (.221, 12, 48) or Alex Avila (.213, 7, 11 with White Sox), CF Mikie Mahtook (.195, 3, 11 with Tampa Bay) or Tyler Collins (.235, 4, 15), SS Jose Iglesias (.255, 4, 32).

Rotation: RH Justin Verlander (16-9, 3.04 ERA, 254 Ks), RH Michael Fulmer (11-7, 3.06), RH Jordan Zimmermann (9-7, 4.87), LH Daniel Norris (4-2, 3.38), LH Matt Boyd (6-5, 4.53).

Key Relievers: RH Francisco Rodriguez (3-4, 3.24, 44/49 saves), RH Bruce Rondon (5-2, 2.97), LH Justin Wilson (4-5, 4.14, 1 save), RH Alex Wilson (4-0, 2.96), RH Anibal Sanchez (7-13, 5.87 in 35 games, 26 starts).

Hot Spot: Back of Starting Rotation. Zimmermann and Norris could be major contributors if healthy, but the No. 5 spot in the rotation is much more uncertain. Sanchez has a big contract and some impressive career accomplishments, but he’s 33 and coming off two straight disappointing seasons. Boyd was merely serviceable a season ago.

Outlook: The Tigers have made no secret of the fact that they’ll need to cut costs soon, but they’ve generally put off doing so. Verlander, Cabrera and Kinsler are back, and Detroit is ready to make another bid for a postseason spot. The Tigers fell just short of a wild card last season, and the team’s top players aren’t getting any younger, so this could be the last shot for Detroit to win big before a significant overhaul. Verlander and Cabrera are still producing like stars, and Fulmer won Rookie of the Year honors last year. If the Tigers are going to take another step forward, they’ll probably need Zimmermann and Norris to perform well after both dealt with injury problems a season ago. Speaking of injuries: J.D. Martinez sprained his right foot March 18 and is expected to miss the start of the season. The Tigers finished eight games behind Cleveland in 2016. Closing that gap won’t be easy, and a lot might depend on whether Detroit can stay healthy.


Kansas City Royals

2016: 81-81, third place.

Manager: Ned Yost (eighth season).

He’s Here: OF Jorge Soler, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Nathan Karns, DH Brandon Moss, LHP Travis Wood.

He’s Outta Here: RHP Wade Davis, DH Kendrys Morales, OF Jarrod Dyson, RHP Luke Hochevar, RHP Edinson Volquez.

Projected Lineup: SS Alcides Escobar (.261, 7 HRs, 55 RBIs), LF Alex Gordon (.220, 17, 40), CF Lorenzo Cain (.287, 9, 56), 1B Eric Hosmer (.266, 25, 104), DH Brandon Moss (.255, 28, 67), RF Jorge Soler (.238, 12, 31 with Cubs; likely to start season on DL with strained oblique), 3B Mike Moustakas (.240, 7, 13), C Salvador Perez (.247, 22, 64), Raul Mondesi (.185, 2, 13).

Rotation: LH Danny Duffy (12-3, 3.51 ERA, 188 Ks), RH Ian Kennedy (11-11, 3.68, 184 Ks), RH Jason Hammel (11-11, 3.83 with Cubs), LH Jason Vargas (0-0, 2.25 in 3 starts after returning from Tommy John surgery), RH Nathan Karns (6-2, 5.15 with Mariners).

Key Relievers: RH Kelvin Herrera (2-6, 2.75, 12 saves), RH Joakim Soria (5-8, 4.05), LH Matt Strahm (2-2, 1.23), LH Travis Wood (4-0, 2.95), LH Scott Alexander (0-0, 3.32), RH Chris Young (3-9, 6.19).

Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. Duffy showed signs of blossoming into an ace late last year, but is yet to put it all together for a full season. Hammel was signed after the tragic death of RHP Yordano Ventura in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Vargas barely pitched last season after coming back from elbow surgery. Karns has intriguing potential, but might end up in the bullpen unless he lives up to it quickly.

Outlook: Royals GM Dayton Moore thinks his starting rotation is the best it has been during his tenure, even if just about every spot is tenuous. He also thinks Kansas City has more power at the plate this year thanks to Moustakas’ return from a torn ACL and the signing of Moss. Paulo Orlando (.302, 5, 43, 14 SBs) will replace Soler in right field at the start of the season. But there are plenty of question marks up and down the lineup, not to mention on the pitching staff, and several things must break right for Kansas City to make noise in the AL Central and take a run at its third World Series appearance in four years.


Minnesota Twins

2016: 59-103, fifth place.

Manager: Paul Molitor (third season).

He’s Here: C Jason Castro, RHP Matt Belisle, SS Ehire Adrianza, LHP Craig Breslow.

He’s Outta Here: 3B Trevor Plouffe, C Kurt Suzuki, LHP Tommy Milone, RHP Pat Light.

Projected Lineup: 2B Brian Dozier (.268, 42, 99, 18/20 SBs), RF Max Kepler (.235, 17, 63), CF Byron Buxton (.225, 10 HRs, 38 RBIs, 118 Ks in 298 ABs), 1B Joe Mauer (.261, 11, 49), 3B Miguel Sano (.236, 25, 66, 178 Ks in 437 ABs), DH Kennys Vargas (.230, 10, 20 in 152 ABs), LF Eddie Rosario (.269, 10, 32), C Jason Castro (.210, 11, 32 with Houston), SS Jorge Polanco (.282, 4, 27 in 245 ABs).

Rotation: RH Ervin Santana (7-11, 3.38 ERA, 149 Ks), RH Phil Hughes (1-7, 5.95, 11 HRs, 11 starts), LH Hector Santiago (3-6, 5.58, 13 HRs, 11 starts after trade with Angels), RH Kyle Gibson (6-11, 5.07, 1.561 WHIP), LH Adalberto Mejia (rookie).

Key Relievers: RH Brandon Kintzler (0-2, 3.15, 17/20 saves), RH Matt Belisle (0-0, 1.76 in 40 games for Nationals), RH Ryan Pressly (6-7, 3.70, 1 save in 72 games), LH Taylor Rogers (3-1, 3.96, 64 Ks in 57 games), LH Craig Breslow (0-2, 4.50 in 15 games for Marlins).

Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. The resuscitation of a team with the worst record in the majors last season must begin with starting pitching that ranked 30th out of 30 in wins (37), ERA (5.39) and strikeouts (655). Hughes, Santiago, Gibson and Berrios will all be counted on to make 2016 the aberration and not the standard. Adding Castro, who has a strong reputation for game calling and pitch framing, probably can’t hurt. There’s enough depth in the group at least to give the Twins a chance to return to respectability as new baseball chief Derek Falvey continues to try to revamp organizational philosophy and process for the long term. The bullpen appears more vulnerable than the rotation, despite being bolstered by the addition of the veteran Belisle. Three-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins is still working his way back from surgery last year to repair a torn labrum and will likely land on the disabled list to start the season. Kintzler fared well in his place, but doesn’t have a track record.

Outlook: The Twins ranked a respectable sixth in the American League in total bases and eighth in OPS despite their abysmal record last year. Buxton’s sparkling September, following a second straight frustrating summer, restored his and the club’s confidence in the 2012 second overall draft pick. Dozier probably hit his power ceiling in 2016, but if Buxton and Sano can strike out less and get on base more there’s the potential in place for a productive offense. Vargas hit his way back into contention for the DH spot with a decent finish to 2016, but the pressure is on him to prove he’s worth a spot in the lineup with a strong performance this spring by Park, who struggled badly to adjust to major league pitching in his arrival from South Korea last year.

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