Spring training games are about to start and real baseball is just around the corner, so it’s that time where we take a look and proudly declare who won or lost the offseason before actual baseball does its thing and makes us all realize how naive and foolish we once were. For teams that appear to be attempting to contend, we’ll be looking at whether the moves they made should help them do so. For rebuilding teams, we’ll be looking at whether they are getting enough for the players they are trading away. And then there are the teams that don’t seem to know what they’re doing or otherwise don’t fit into either of those categories, but don’t worry, we’ll address them, too. Today we’re covering the AL Central, but, in case you missed it: here are the articles on the NL West, the AL West and the NL Central.
After coming so, so, so very close to a World Series victory with an extra innings Game 7 for the ages, the Indians entered the offseason with a little more money to spend than normal and the urgency that comes with being so close to victory and just barely falling short. The core is still there and their biggest losses to free agency (Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis) were veterans whose contributions to Cleveland’s cause last season could reasonably be replaced, even in a down year for free agents, assuming the Indians were smart about how they spent their money.
The biggest signing the Tribe made this offseason, and the biggest signing they have made in a while, was clearly the one that secured the services of Edwin Encarnacion for the next three years at $60 million (with a team option for a fourth year at an additional $20 million). While it’s rare to see a small market team make this level of commitment, it was clearly a smart move on the part of Cleveland at this particularly juncture.
Encarnacion may have been a late bloomer, but he has been one of the best hitters in baseball over the last five years. His .272.367/.544 slash line has earned him a 146 OPS+ and his 150 wRC+ over that time period is the 7th best in baseball. The fact that he’s averaged 39 home runs a season obviously helps. While he just turned 34 years old and will be 36 (or 37, if his option is exercised) at the end of the deal, Encarnacion still grades out as acceptable defensively at first base and will be able to spend as much or as little time at DH after this season, depending on what Cleveland decides to do about Carlos Santana when his contract ends after this season.
The fact that Cleveland was able to sign him on a three year contract with a fourth-year option (as opposed to the last truly big free agent contracts they handed out to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn), was clearly by design, and the amount they paid is perfectly reasonable for a hitter of Encarnacion’s quality, largely due to the fact that pure hitters haven’t been in demand this offseason as in years past. While Cleveland will give up their first draft pick (the 25th pick at the time of the signing) thanks to Toronto’s qualifying offer, the goal is to win now and Encarnacion certainly helps them do that.
The only other move of note that Cleveland made was signing lefty specialist reliever Boone Logan to a $6.5 million, one-year deal with a $7 million team option for 2018. Logan is coming off a year where he struck out 11.07 per 9 innings, held lefties to a .139/.222/.225 slash line and put up a 3.69 ERA/3.23 FIP, all while pitching in the gateway to hell that is Coors Field. While he’s not particularly effective against righties, that’s not what the Indians will be paying him for.
Manager Terry Francona already rewrote the rules for the postseason last year, and he did with only one effective southpaw reliever, even if it was the best in the game in the form of Andrew Miller. Logan will give Francona more options to play with and give him the flexibility not to ride Miller too hard in the early goings. Getting a player like Logan on a one-year deal at that price point looks like an unqualified win for Cleveland.
While those two moves were the only big ones that CM Mike Chernoff and company got up to, it’s not clear that there were other areas where they really needed lots of help. Honestly, the only area where there is any uncertainty would be in the outfield. Of course, the available options at Cleveland’s price point probably aren’t that appealing, and obviously the plan is simply to pray for rain and hope for Michael Brantley to get healthy and be effective. While Davis was effective for Cleveland last year, Brantley would clearly be an upgrade if he’s playing and playing well.
The Indians didn’t do a lot this offseason, but the couple of moves that they made strengthened areas where they were weaker before and it’s not clear that they really needed to do that much to ensure another victory in the AL Central. They also spent their money wisely, which is an important consideration for team like Cleveland. At this point, the only thing that matters is winning a World Series next year and the moves they made clearly improve an already strong team and make them prohibitive favorites in the division and arguably the league. If they make it to October healthier this year than they did last year, look out.
The fact that the Indians look to have improved this offseason when they won 94 games and the division handily doesn’t bode well for the other teams in the AL Central. It’s worth remembering that the Tigers, with 86 wins, just barely missed a Wild Card spot last year. That being said, it seems Detroit, whose roster isn’t exactly getting any younger, needs to figure out what their plan of attack is and commit, whatever that plan may be. When we discussed the NL Central, we talked about how the Pirates and Cardinals are facing a similar conundrum in terms of teams who are in a similar situation in figuring out how to make the playoffs when the division winner looks pretty set before the season even starts. Those teams at least looked to improve in areas where they could and take aim for the dreaded play-in game. The Tigers, on the other hand, didn’t really do much of anything.
The most notable deal to go down in Detroit was the trade that sent Cameron Maybin to the Angels for pitching prospect Victor Alcantara. While the deal may have been savaged by some folks, it’s not as bad as it might appear at first glance. Maybin did his best extended hitting on a season by far this year, as he hit .315/.383/.418 en route to 1.9 bWAR/2.0 fWAR in 94 games. Maybin has suffered through numerous injuries over his career and he’ll be turning 30 right when the season starts, so the Tigers might have been right to sell high on him. The problem with that theory is that other teams knew about the injury history and Detroit was only able to net Alcantara, who probably projects as a middle reliever. This sort of move would be fine if the Tigers were clear on what they were doing in center field. They are not and it makes the decision to get rid of Maybin curious, to say the least.
Other than that trade, let’s see, GM Al Avila signed his son, catcher Alex Avila, to a one-year $2 million deal. The younger Avila had one lone excellent season in 2011, where an inflated .366 BABIP on the year helped him hit .295/.389/.506 on his way to 5.1 bWAR, 4.6 fWAR and MVP votes. Otherwise, he has been a perfectly acceptable catcher, when healthy, but the last part is a big caveat. Avila has been dealing with concussion problems and missed time last year with a pair of hamstring injuries, and it’s been a couple of years since he broke 70 games. Then again, we’re talking about signing him as a backup catcher, so it’s not as if it’s that huge of a deal, rather it’s the fact that this is the only other major league sign or trade of Detroit’s hot stove season.
The fact that the biggest news of the Tigers’ offseason has probably been the passing of owner Mike Ilitch earlier this month gives you an idea of how inactive they have been. It’s not clear whether their aging roster has a trip to the World Series in them, but they could certainly stand to retool a little bit if that’s the plan. If they’re not going to continue to go for it, then they should probably start working on thinking about the future.
Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera are still raking. Last year’s Verlanderenaissance was a welcome development, as was Michael Fulmer’s Rookie of the Year campaign. While they can (and very certainly might) make the playoffs as currently constructed, they didn’t do really do much of anything this offseason except trade away a 2.0 WAR player without a clear backup plan to replace him and sign the GM’s son as a backup catcher. That’s not much of an offseason.
Kansas City Royals
Like the Tigers, the Royals are also facing some tough questions about their future, as some key players hit the market this year (Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez) and next year is going to be even worse (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and some other folks who are no longer in KC that we will be getting to shortly). It was already going to be a tough offseason to navigate and there was before they received terrible news about the death of Yordano Ventura, who was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic in January. There are times when writing about sports seems patently ridiculous in the face of the real world, and having to mention the tragic passing of a 25-year old in an article where you’re assigning letter grades to teams for their roster construction moves is one of those times.
Since there’s not really anywhere to go from there except return to the patently ridiculous, we’ll just get started on the starters. The Royals signed pitcher Jason Hammel to a two-year, $16 million guaranteed deal with a mutual option for the 2019 season. Regardless of the reason for the Royal’s need, it seems remarkable that they were able to get Hammel on that sort of deal, as Hammel has been remarkably consistent as a league-average starter over his eleven years in MLB. His 97 ERA+ and ability to eat innings is the kind of thing that a lot of teams throughout the league could use. Then again, he’s been dealing with some shoulder injuries and will turn 34 in September, so you could understand why there was some hesitation on the part of some GMs. Regardless, though, the Royals were smart to sign him at that price given their situation.
The other move to shore up the rotation earlier in the offseason was a little more iffy. Another new body in the anticipated rotation is Nate Karns, who the Royals received in exchange for Jarrod Dyson in a trade with the Mariners. As we went over when the trade went down, there were obviously contract considerations at play here, as Dyson only has a year left on his and Karns is around for four more years. Still, Karns has yet to find extended success at the major league level and this a curious move for a team that has a reasonable chance of making the playoffs next year, considering that Dyson was the Royals’ fWAR leader in 2016, even if it was mainly due to his defensive and baserunning prowess.
Of course, one of the reasons they could afford to trade Dyson was the fact that they had already traded Wade Davis to Chicago in exchange for Jorge Soler. As with the Dyson-Karns trade, this move seems clearly to be about contract status, as it mirrors that trade in the players’ status: Davis would have been a free agent after next season and Soler is under team control for another four. While Soler certainly has more of that prized prospect pedigree than Karns, one of the most dominant relievers in baseball changed hands in Davis.
Depending on how seriously you worry about Davis’s health concerns and Soler’s ability to develop into a better-than-league-average hitter (he’s still only 24, after all), your mileage may vary on who won the trade, but this move is at least easier to argue for in a vacuum than the trade with Seattle. Even if dominant relievers are the flavor du jour, all that team control over a position player with Soler’s floor and ceiling shouldn’t be disregarded. Of course, this move did not happen in a vacuum and the Royals bullpen will likely not be as good as it was last year with Davis in it.
They made another move on the pitching front recently, when they signed Travis Wood to a two-year, $12 million deal, but we’re not yet sure whether he’ll be pitching out of the rotation or the bullpen. He’ll reportedly be given the opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation, but, as Dave Cameron pointed out, that might not be wise in light of his ability to get right-handed batters out. If he does end up back in the bullpen, he will certainly help to deal with the lack of depth in the bullpen brought on by the Davis trade.
The biggest free agent signing on KC’s part was a two-year, $12 million guaranteed contract (plus incentives and a mutual option for 2019) to first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss, who will likely primarily take over the DH spot on the post-Morales Royals. Moss, who went deep 28 times last season in only 464 PAs, should fill in ably for Morales in the dinger department. The Royals will certainly hope that Moss can regain some of his ability to hit left handed pitching (his wRC+ in 2016 was 78 vs. a career line of 96). Whether or not Moss is able to do so will likely determine whether the contract is a bust or a success.
Figuring out how to assign a grade to the Royals is tough, given the extenuating circumstances of their offseason needs and the nature of trying to retool a bit ahead of the roster exodus that will happen when this season ends. Still, they look like they’re probably worse off to contend this year than they were last year or at the start of this offseason and we’re likely to see more Royals headed elsewhere come the trade deadline.
While the Royals front office is trying to sort out the coming contract culling, the Twins are trying to sort out, well, being the Twins. While they managed to finish over .500 and 2nd in the division in 2015, they came back with yet another 5th place finish last year, lost 103 games and managed the third worst season record in franchise history, no small feat for a team that’s been around since 1901. Minnesota has long had a reputation for eschewing the analytical aspect of the game, and the biggest move that they made this offseason was changes to the management. They brought in Derek Falvey as chief baseball officer and Thad Levine as general manager in attempt to inject some fresh (and younger) blood into the front office.
The biggest move the new guys made was signing Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million deal to replace Kurt Suzuki as the primary backstop. While Castro (lifetime 93 OPS+) doesn’t immediately seem to be much of an upgrade over Suzuki (lifetime 87 OPS+), other than his being four years younger and having one ridiculous, BABIP-fueled season (2013, 130 OPS+, .351 BABIP) under his belt, there’s a bit more to it than that. Castro is one of the best pitch framers in MLB and that’s an area where the Twins have been the worst. While this kind of move isn’t going to move the needle for the Twins and get them back in contention, it’s certainly the kind of move that bodes well for the team going forward, as it won’t do anything but help their rotation, all of whom struggled last year with the exception of Ervin Santana.
That pitching staff also now includes Ryan Vogelsong, who was signed to a minor-league deal, which shouldn’t be news at all, except that we’re going to run out of moves to talk about very quickly. Vogelsong was one of the best stories in baseball earlier this decade, when he came out of nowhere (well, Japan and a couple of years roaming the minors, to be precise) to make the All Star team at age 33. While his 2016 was undoubtedly affected by the horrific wild pitch that he took to the face back in May, he hasn’t been effective on the mound since 2012. That being said, he doesn’t fare much worse than some of the current pitchers in the Twins rotation, which speaks for itself.
The only other move of interest was the signing of Matt Belisle to a one-year, $2 million deal. The right-hander is coming off of back-to-back solid seasons pitching out of the pen for St. Louis and Washington. Last season was particularly impressive, as he posted a 1.76 ERA over 46 innings, although that came on the back of a career-low BABIP.
The big question right now is what the new front office is going to do with Brian Dozier. Despite rumor after rumor after rumor about Dozier going to the Dodgers, a deal didn’t go down and Los Angeles went with Logan Forsythe in his stead. Dozier is only under team control for two more seasons, and, at this rate, it’s unlikely that the Twins are going to have the other pieces to field a competitive team by that point.
If you’re excited about the Twins offseason right now, it’s just because the new guys didn’t screw anything up yet. Excitement level aside, you probably want to grade the new management on a curve, given the hand they were dealt. There are certainly some high-upside young players (Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios and Max Kepler), but that isn’t going to cut it and we’ll have to wait and see what the new front office does to get the Twins back in the mix for a postseason spot, because they haven’t done much yet.
Chicago White Sox
Where the Twins’ new management seems to be surveying the landscape, White Sox GM Rick Hahn has been ripping the trees out of the ground and shipping them out for seedlings. After four straight seasons of failing to break .500 or achieve better than 4th place, the Sox have finally decided to go full rebuild.
The first to go was Chris Sale. While the rumors had him going to the Nationals in a deal that would feature top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito, Boston swooped in and claimed Sale with a package headlined by top prospect (#1 by Baseball America in July and currently #2 but formerly #1 at MLB.com) Yoan Moncada. While the deal was already covered by own Andrew Perna here, we’ll rehash and expand on what they got a bit. If you’re going to give up one of the best pitchers in baseball, as Sale clearly is, who has three years of team control left at a reasonable price, $38 million total, you had better make sure you’re getting back a serious prospect package, which Hahn clearly did.
Getting one of the top prospects in baseball, a 21-year old, switch-hitting Cuban defector who has tools for days and has been destroying the minors is a good start. Then throw in Michael Kopech, currently MLB.com’s 16th overall and Chicago’s #3 prospect. Don’t stop there, though, as the other prospects to move around in the deal were Luis Alexander Basabe, a 20-year old outfielder who is now Chicago’s #9 prospect at MLB.com, and Victor Diaz, a 22 year-old lower-minors reliever who is the only a throw-in/lottery ticket in the deal. While prospects are neither death nor taxes, if the White Sox were going to trade Sale, they needed to get back some serious building blocks in the process, which they did.
Stopping with Sale would have been senseless, so the very next day Adam Eaton hit the chopping block. We covered this previously, but to rehash/expand: the Sox were able to get Giolito from the Nationals after all. While Giolito struggled in his first callup last year, he is still has plenty of potential. In addition to Giolito, the White Sox also secured pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, who (like Giolito) is an upper level prospect that struggled in his first go-around with MLB hitters, and pitcher Dane Dunning, the Nationals’ first round pick from 2016. Eaton has been very, very good on the South Side, but the White Sox haven’t figured out how to win with him and he almost certainly wouldn’t be around for the next time Chicago is contending. While we know that TINSTAAPP, and there are certainly questions with the pitchers headlining the deal, the package as a whole looks pretty solid.
Now we just have to wait and see where Hahn goes from here and what he does with the rest of the roster. In terms of what he’s done so far though, if you’re going to get rid of your best players, you best make sure the returns reflect that. Hahn certainly did this offseason, as most of Chicago’s top prospects weren’t here before this offseason. Whether the rebuild works out in the long term is a question we won’t be able to answer for a while and the product on the field is going to pretty terrible in the meantime, but, if you’re gonna break it down and start all over again, this is a pretty good start.