Twins, Guardians, White Sox Poised For Tight AL Central Race

For the rest of March, I’ll be taking a look at the Opening Day true-talent rankings of the 30 MLB clubs on a division-by-division basis. While the rankings are based on actual 2022 batted-ball data, off-season player movement and potential impact of 2023 rookies will be addressed. Last week, we started it off with the AL East and NL East; today, we move to the AL Central.

1 – Minnesota Twins – “Tru” Talent Record = 90-72; Offensive Rating = 111.3 (5th), Pitching Rating = 100.1 (16th), Defensive Rating = 99.6 (15th); IN: LF Joey Gallo, RHP Pablo Lopez, C Christian Vazquez, CF Michael A. Taylor; UT Kyle Farmer, UT Donovan Solano; OUT: 1B Luis Arraez, 3B Gio Urshela, RHP Michael Fulmer

There was a whopping 12-game difference between the Twins actual 78-84 record and their “Tru” Talent mark listed above. The club was wrecked by injuries last year, especially on the pitching side and appears to be even better on paper this time around.

The largest transaction of the offseason isn’t even listed above – it was the apparent loss in free agency of SS Carlos Correa, first to the Giants and then to the Mets. When the carousel finally came to a halt, a succession of failed physicals landed him back in the Twin Cities. Who knows how the back end of his deal will turn out, but in the short term it is a big win for the Twins.

When Byron Buxton’s healthy, this club’s offense is plenty good enough, and the addition of versatile pieces like Farmer and Solano makes their Plans B and C a bit more palatable. Joe Ryan is a burgeoning ace, and the club now will finally get a look at the Ryan-Lopez-Sonny Gray-Tyler Mahle-Kenta Maeda rotation that looks like one of the AL’s deepest.

The Twins also have help on the way from the farm. 1B Alex Kirilloff is no longer rookie eligible, but retains the promise that once made him one of the game’s premier offensive prospects. He’ll likely be in the Opening Day lineup. SS Royce Lewis is currently sidelined with a knee injury, but by midseason could be on track to help the big club. His speed was once a key asset – hopefully there won’t be any lasting effects from his injury. OF Emmanuel Rodriguez is a pure bat that’s a pretty safe bet to hit for average in the majors, though the extent of his power remains to be seen. RHP Simeon Woods Richardson could be a rotation factor by the end of the season. He’s always been very young for his level, though he did have some growing pains when he first reached Double-A last season.

2 – Cleveland Guardians – “Tru” Talent Record = 83-79 – Offensive Rating = 90.4 (26th), Pitching Rating = 99.0 (14th), Defensive Rating = 89.3 (1st); IN: 1B Josh Bell, C Mike Zunino; OUT: UT Owen Miller, C Austin Hedges

The Guardians looked like an early 1970s playoff team last fall – the 1973 Mets sprang to mind. Prevent runs, put the ball in play, but man, you kept waiting for the big extra-base hit that never came. The club is largely running it back, but the two additions to their starting lineup are pivotal ones. 1B/DH Bell and C Zunino can hit the ball out of any ballpark; the former likely will slot right into the cleanup spot in their order protecting Jose Ramirez, while the latter will bring all-or-nothing thump to the bottom of the order. Zunino is a comparable defender to the departed Hedges but a big offensive upgrade despite the near certainty that he’ll bat below .200.

Their team defense and closer Emmanuel Clase are superb, and the rotation’s top three of Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill are rock solid. McKenzie in particular is capable of taking another significant step forward.

The Indians’ minor league prospect quantity as usual remains among the game’s best, but their highest-ceiling prospects are currently battling injuries. RHP Daniel Espino’s latest setback is a shoulder strain. When healthy, his stuff has been electric. OF George Valera is currently sidelined with a wrist injury. C Bo Naylor and RHP Gavin Williams might be closest to helping the big club. Naylor’s older brother Josh is a Guardian – Bo is a rare lefthanded-hitting catcher with bat potential. Williams is a typical Cleveland pitching prospect, a polished strikethrower who doesn’t beat himself.

3 – Chicago White Sox – “Tru’ Talent Record = 83-79 – Offensive Rating = 98.9 (16th), Pitching Rating = 95.1 (10th), Defensive Rating = 102.0 (23rd); IN: RHP Mike Clevinger, LF Andrew Benintendi; OUT: 1B Jose Abreu, LF AJ Pollock, RHP Johnny Cueto, UT Josh Harrison, RHP Vince Velasquez

2022 was an extremely disappointing campaign on the South Side, with Tony LaRussa’s crew never really finding their stride. Pedro Grifol is in the manager’s chair now, and there hasn’t been a massive overhaul in on-field personnel. Abreu is the biggest loss, with Andrew Vaughn being moved in from the outfield to take his spot. In addition to the reliably vanilla Benintendi, RF Oscar Colas is the biggest new face in the everyday lineup. Colas is anything but vanilla – he has loud tools featuring big power, but some holes in his offensive game. He has boom-or-bust potential, and my gut is that he’s going to need some time to reach his upside.

The strength of this club is its starting rotation – Dylan Cease is a legit #1, and Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito have shown flashes of brilliance in the recent past. Mike Clevinger and Michael Kopech also have considerable upside but carry risk at the back end of the rotation.

There really isn’t much immediate minor league help beyond Colas on the horizon. Their best prospect is likely SS Colson Montgomery, but he’s a couple of years away. He’s got big tools and could outgrow his position eventually, but he’ll combine the size, athleticism and power potential of an ideal 3B prospect if he does. As usual, the Sox have the look of a win-now club.

4 – Kansas City Royals – “Tru” Talent Record = 67-95 – Offensive Rating = 99.1 (15th), Pitching Rating = 118.0 (30th), Defensive Rating = 99.9 (16th); IN: LHP Ryan Yarbrough, RHP Jordan Lyles, LHP Aroldis Chapman; OUT: SS Adalberto Mondesi

Very quietly, the Royals have built themselves a very impressive young position player nucleus. Bobby Witt Jr. is a budding superstar, and while MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino aren’t on his level, it might not be pushing it to call them potential star-level offensive talents. Along with C Salvador Perez, that’s not too shabby a top four hitter sequence in their everyday lineup. On top of that, Michael Massey moves in at 2B, slotting Nicky Lopez into the utility role for which he is better suited.

All of that said, there’s not much else good to say about these Royals. There are still gaping holes in the outfield, and they have been unable to develop anything resembling a starting pitcher that can throw the ball past anyone.

And with their youngest, best prospects now fixtures in their lineup, the minor league system has been picked pretty clean.

The Royals do have a pair of minor league lefthanded pitchers worth monitoring. Frank Mozzicato has a bit of a prospect pedigree, and his fastball/curve ball combination could someday make him worthy of a mid-rotation MLB slot. Noah Cameron is a bit more of a dark horse. He dazzled in limited usage coming off of Tommy John surgery last season, with the results transcending his relatively ordinary stuff. Hurlers who perform will move fast in this system.

5. Detroit Tigers – “Tru” Talent Record = 65-97 -Offensive Rating = 87.2 (28th), Pitching Rating = 110.1 (25th), Defensive Rating = 96.7 (7th); IN: LHP Matthew Boyd, RHP Michael Lorenzen, UT Matt Vierling, UT Nick Maton; OUT: RHP Joe Jimenez, C Tucker Barnhart, LHP Gregory Soto, LHP Andrew Chafin

Tiger fans, I feel that I can say with some degree of confidence that your club has bottomed out and has started out on the long road back to respectability. Is the club going to be materially better this year? Hell no. But under new GM Scott Harris it appears that there is an actual plan in place. His first order of business was to let relievers making real money walk, either via free agency or trade. The deal that sent closer Gregory Soto to Philadelphia brought back two very useful pieces in Matt Vierling and Nick Maton that provide layers of depth at multiple positions.

Re-acquired former Tiger ace Boyd has looked exceptional this spring, and sits atop the rotation with fellow new acquisition Lorenzen. The club has made a concerted effort to get more athletic all over the field in an attempt to use their pitcher-friendly home park to their advantage. CF Riley Greene and LF Kerry Carpenter appear set to claim full-time jobs, as is 1B Eric Torkelson, who has hit the ball very hard this spring as he has attempted to regain his one-time can’t-miss status.

The farm has been picked pretty clean of high-end offensive talent, with 3B Colt Keith likely the next man up. On the mound, there is an interesting group of righty starter prospects including Wilmer Flores, Ty Madden, Jackson Jobe and Reese Olson making some noise. Jobe has the best raw stuff, and Olson needs the most refinement, while Flores and Madden might be the best bets to first reach Detroit.