The 2017 MLB season is shaping up to be a significant one in the Midwest, with all five teams of the American League Central facing the chance to shape the direction of their franchises for years to come. The Cleveland Indians, so very close to a title last October, are finally gunning for the top with abandon. The Kansas City Royals, at the tail end of an era of success and in the wake of an unimaginable loss, are hot on their heels. The Detroit Tigers, freed of the imperative to win right now for the first time in decades, are just beginning to chart a new course. And at the very bottom of the division, the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox are betting big on youth.
For years, the Indians have quietly made smart move after smart move, developing professionals on and off the field whose innovations are still transforming the game. (For fun, take a look at how many current GMs have come through the Cleveland organization.) But the franchise's prudence and restraint has, at times, held it back from making the big play for the present. Life has happened, championships have been won and lost, and the team has been busy making other plans. That changed this off-season: the Indians went all in on Edwin Encarnacion in free agency, just a few months after they nearly stole the World Series. It's finally go time in Cleveland, and for the first time in decades the team is letting us see just how much they want it.
As hard as it is to bounce back from a loss as devastating as the one they suffered last fall, the Indians have probably done just that this winter. Encarnacion will improve what was already a potent lineup. The Indians just need to sit back and let their players play. Francisco Lindor is young and brilliant, and he's only getting better; Jose Ramirez, the quietest star of the 2016 season, shows no signs of slowing down at age 24. This is a balanced offense from top to bottom, with depth and enough room to fail without losing much of its stride. In the AL, only the Boston Red Sox have a group to match.
And the pitching! Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar are a formidable top three, and back-end guys Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer are no pushovers, either. Sure, you'd like to see a little more depth than, say, Mike Clevinger behind the starting five, but more than a few other teams are running out Clevingers of their own in the rotation proper, so it's hard to fault the Indians for that. Besides, the bullpen—led by the dominant Andrew Miller, but with power and balance behind him to spare—can paper over a great many flaws. Cleveland isn't a perfect baseball team, but it's pretty darn close.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals, so hated by the standard projection systems that "PECOTA Hates The Royals" has become an annual column over at Baseball Prospectus, have gone out and won 86, 89, 95, and 81 regular-season games over the last four seasons. Just one other AL team (the Indians, as it happens) has averaged more wins per season over that period, and even that's by only a quarter of a game. And so it is again: The Royals are projected as a losing team in 2017, but with the same still-talented core, they're ready to take a hammer to the computers for the umpteenth time—if their pitching is up to the job.
It might not be. The tragic death of ace Yordano Ventura this winter means more pressure on teammates Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, and Jason Vargas to step in the rotation. It's hard to see that happening, unless someone takes a major step forward (of the three, Duffy is the best bet). The bullpen, meanwhile, has lost a lot of the depth and top-end talent that made it such a big part of the Royals' pennant runs in 2014 and 2015. Wade Davis, the star closer, was traded to the Cubs, leaving Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria just about the only persons of interest there.
Outfielder Jorge Soler, the return for Davis in KC's trade with Chicago, and utility man Brandon Moss are the key additions to the lineup this season. They join a championship core in what will probably be their last year together; Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain will all be free agents in 2018, which means that this is likely the Royals' last chance to make a run at a title with their current group. That would have been a difficult task even before Ventura's passing, but it's not impossible. These Royals never, ever quit.
The death of Tigers owner Mike Ilitch this off-season, at age 87 ensures that the meaning of the 2017 season is still up for grabs. Detroit hasn't allowed itself much self-reflection in recent decades, and Ilitch's single-minded focus on a title—both admirable and rare in sports ownership—meant his team has avoided rebuilds of the type that have recently been en vogue. Money was sent chasing after money, and big star joined big star on the Motor City roster. The stars are still there, to some extent, but it's reasonable to wonder what the future holds for the Tigers as they consider, for the first time, life beyond a one-year horizon.
The major draws, for the moment, are two fading but still formidable superstars: Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Cabrera is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and still a major threat at age 34; he joins Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, and J.D. Martinez in what should be a pretty decent lineup for Detroit. Alex Avila, acquired this off-season to fill in at catcher, will shore up what had been the biggest area of positional weakness for the Tigers. (Avila is, notably, the son of Detroit GM Al Avila, which presumably makes for some complicated dynamics in the clubhouse.) The problem for the Tigers this year will be the pitching, where the staff is led by Verlander.
For all his former greatness, Verlander in 2017 is probably more of a very solid No. 2 these days than a top-of-the-rotation great. Young Michael Fulmer and aging Jordan Zimmerman are also dependable options, but neither is likely to explode with a huge season, and the options behind them are worth a cringe or two. The bullpen is just bad. Detroit's offense will keep them in more games than they deserve to win this year, and it's always fun to watch superstars, even aging ones, ply their craft, but the team's lack of impact pitching will almost certainly keep them from threatening for the division title.
Chicago White Sox
The South Siders' transition is already well underway, as they spent much of the off-season trading away their biggest stars: Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals. It's hard to fault them for that—each had significant value in the present and was unlikely to be a part of the next winning White Sox team—but less clear is how much room Rick Hahn and the rest of the Sox front office have to play with on this whole teardown thing. The dynamics that allowed the Cubs to strip their team down to the studs a half-decade ago are now very much of the past: international spending is capped at around $7 million, regardless of on-field results, and the number of teams now competing for the No. 1 draft pick makes losing less worth it.
And the Sox, unlike the Cubs, don't have the luxury of a classic stadium or semi-permanent tourist fan base to tide them through truly terrible, unwatchable years; they are somewhat more dependent on a decent on-field product to keep the money flowing in and the paychecks flowing out. So the team held on to Jose Quintana and Todd Frazier this winter, and through them some semblance of respectability, and appear to be hoping the king-sized hauls they got for Sale and Eaton will turn them into a real winner sooner rather than later.
There's reason for optimism. Outfielder Yoan Moncada and pitchers Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech are the kind of talents organizations dream about, and if developed carefully—the Sox have always been good with bringing pitching along, and Moncada is nearly finished already—could be stars on the South Side for a long time. Quintana, the rotation holdover, is already a star, and so is Jose Abreu at first base. It could work, if everything breaks right. The bones are clearly there for the next great White Sox team. It just (probably) won't arrive in 2017.
The next great Twins team, meanwhile, is an awful long way away. Outfielder Byron Buxton, once touted as the next Mike Trout (but with more speed), spent last year learning on the job, and despite some late-season improvements still is a work in progress. Minnesota's inability to trade second baseman Brian Dozier to the Los Angeles Dodgers this winter squandered another opportunity to bring in long-term lineup support for Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano, the other once-savior of the Twins franchise.
Asking players that young—Buxton is 23, Sano turns 24 in May—to carry bad teams almost never works, no matter how talented they are, and it's unlikely to do much for Minnesota this time, either. That's a shame, because in the right environment, these two could be superstars. Perhaps they still will be, if some of the pressure that's being placed on them is lifted, by trade or development free-agent import. There's a reason they were so well thought of so recently, and the tools are very much there. And the rest of the Twins? Well, it's going to be a cold summer in Minnesota.
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