How have the American League Central teams fared this offseason, what is left for each to do in the roughly eight weeks before spring training, and what way-too-early prognostications can we make about the 2023 season?
We asked our writers — James Fegan (White Sox), Zack Meisel (Guardians), Dan Hayes (Twins), Cody Stavenhagen (Tigers) and Jayson Jenks (Royals) — to answer five questions about the division midway through the offseason.
Is your team better or worse than it was two months ago?
Fegan: Answering this question would have been a lot easier if you’d said three months, since it would include the manager stepping down at the end of the season. A lot of the White Sox plan for improvement this coming year involves playing less like a team designed in a lab to be disemboweled by the Guardians.
Assessing the roster moves of the past two months comes down to two gambits. The White Sox are hoping that offloading defensive responsibilities from Eloy Jiménez and Andrew Vaughn, and adding Andrew Benintendi in left field, will offset losing one of the best hitters in franchise history, José Abreu. Johnny Cueto’s 2022 excellence was a bit of a surprise and it’s natural to question whether the free-agent righty can pull it off again. But the Sox are banking on Lance Lynn and Michael Kopech being healthy, and bounce-back years from Lucas Giolito and Mike Clevinger, to cancel out Cueto’s departure.
It could definitely work. It is eminently understandable why they did what they did. But it’s not a clear upgrade of last season’s roster, which was certainly seen as strong on paper in April.
Meisel: On paper, better, because Josh Bell is a great fit and Mike Zunino can’t really be a downgrade behind the plate. But, that’s not how any of this works. So much of the Guardians’ 2023 outlook hinges on young players either duplicating their first bit of major-league success or other young players stepping in to cover for anyone who regresses. Those in the organization regularly point out “development isn’t linear,” so although the roster is in good shape and the Guardians possess a ton of depth across the board, there remains a wide range of potential individual outcomes.
Hayes: I will say better off, but only on the technicality that they’re healthier today and have more active bodies than they did at the end of the season. But in no way are the Twins better after losing Carlos Correa.
There are no players left in free agency the Twins could acquire who would have made them a better team than if they were able to bring back Correa. Yes, they tried hard to re-sign Correa, but that doesn’t mean squat. They came up short. There are no points for finishing second, and now they have to be even more creative to find ways to win.
From a health standpoint, anything would be better than how it was when the season ended. The Twins were so banged up I was asked about my availability during that mid-September doubleheader in Cleveland. Sure, it was only to help with the laundry because one of the clubbies had broken his hand, but it was an honor to be asked.
The Twins need more than just to be healthy to compete. What the rest of the offseason holds will determine whether or not they can compete.
Stavenhagen: About the same? The Tigers haven’t made any meaningful upgrades to their lineup. Mostly, they’ve done some house cleaning. Players such as Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro and Harold Castro have been non-tendered. That leaves a bunch of holes in the infield the Tigers have yet to plug. The plan, it seems, will be to replace those players with more consistent performers who can draw walks and display bat-to-ball skills. Problem is the Tigers have yet to add any hitters, and the free-agent market is thinning quickly.
As for the pitching, Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen have been signed to fill out the rotation. Both pitchers have upside but come with risk. The Tigers traded Joe Jiménez to the Braves and got an intriguing player (third baseman Justyn-Henry Malloy, as well as reliever Jake Higginbotham) in return. That move hurts the bullpen a bit but could be a win in the long term.
But who’s going to play third base? Catcher? Left field? Second? First? It’s clear new top executive Scott Harris is banking on bounce-back performances and shrewd, small moves more than any big signings. It’ll be hard for the Tigers to be any worse than they were in 2022, but it’s also difficult to be optimistic about this lineup. They’re essentially trying to become a lite version of the 2022 Guardians at the plate.
Jenks: The smart answer would be that the Royals should be better because they’re a young team and young teams tend to get better. There’s probably truth to that. But in terms of what the Royals did this offseason to this point? Well.
They’re expected to re-sign Zack Greinke, but they haven’t actually done that yet. Their lone free-agent signing: swingman pitcher Ryan Yarbrough, whom the Rays designated for assignment in November. They have not made a trade, nor did they add anyone in the Rule 5 draft. This offseason has basically been crickets.
The Royals were always likely to shop at the bottom of the bargain barrel in free agency, which meant they were likely going to sign players later in the process. But the question was whether they are better than they were two months ago, and the answer, right now, has to be no.
How angsty is your fan base?
Fegan: The White Sox just brought Billy Hamilton back on a minor-league deal, so I think everything is actually fixed with the fan base. And while it wasn’t an electrifying move by any means, the club just reversed course and defied a lot of their public messaging by outbidding the Yankees to add a righty-masher with an average or better glove in left field.
There are a lot of jokes being made about Andrew Benintendi being the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history. The fan base still views ownership as an impediment to championship contention, the long-tenured front office seems to have the approval rating of the average big city mayor — disapproval other than begrudging acceptance when they do something. There’s a lack of faith in the ability of this team to do more than compete for division titles, and that won’t really change this offseason.
But I think the fans are feeling less murder-y right now. I would offer the caveat that a lot of fans aren’t online, which tends to be a less, uh, pitched environment.
Meisel: The Browns won on Saturday. That cures everything in this town.
Really, though, Cleveland hasn’t won the World Series since 1948. If the club falls short again in 2023, that’ll be three-quarters of a century. The only Clevelanders old enough to remember Lou Boudreau’s player/manager masterclass in that ’48 season also remember the Truman administration. I’m not sure anyone would describe any 80-somethings as “angsty,” but the drought has persisted long enough for those with Northeast Ohio roots to be justifiably impatient, and the honeymoon phase the club experienced during its September/October run last season is over. There will be real, lofty (and deserved) expectations this time.
Hayes: I’m very excited that our former fellow AL Central writer Alec Lewis got to pen this story on Saturday. The Vikings being good has made things much easier in the Twin Cities this winter, their epic comeback the highlight of the season to date.
But people are ornery. They wanted Correa. Everyone wanted Correa to stay, writers included. It’s disappointing. Aside from landing Correa the first time around, the Twins always seem to be the team that puts in lots of effort on their top target only to come up short. I can only imagine how frustrating that is for a fan base, especially one that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2004.
I remember how thrilling it was in December 1992 when ESPN’s ticker flashed the news that the Giants, who’d spent all season telling fans they were going to move to Florida, had signed Barry Bonds to a $43.75 million contract. My dad and I were beside ourselves. Seeing Correa leave was just another blow for Twins fans. It’s understandable they’re angry.
Stavenhagen: Patience is a virtue … but you can’t be patient forever. The Tigers fans who stayed onboard through former general manager Al Avila’s mostly failed rebuild were thrilled to see Scott Harris take over baseball operations and preach buzzwords like “calculated risk.”
But the honeymoon with the fans might not last long. In his first free-agent signing, Harris gave Boyd $10 million to rejoin the franchise as a starter. That move might work out just fine. But let’s just say the optics did not play well with the public.
Tigers fans are rightfully tired of being told to be patient. Harris deserves some time to execute his vision. But nobody wants to see this team lose 95 to 100 games again.
Jenks: I could be wrong about this — and I’m sure our loyal readers will let me know in the comments — but I get the sense Royals fans are more apathetic than angsty. To be fair, Royals fans registered a 10 on the angst scale when the team announced the return of first baseman/DH Ryan O’Hearn.
But the Royals did the big-picture things much of the fan base was calling for: They fired president of baseball operations Dayton Moore, manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred. That seems to have eased some of the angst.
But mostly, fans seem resigned to the fact that the Royals aren’t going to spend much money in free agency or compete for the playoffs next season.
How panicked is your front office?
Fegan: GM Rick Hahn has been clearly chilling ever since he got to pick his preferred replacement for Tony La Russa. Confident that manager Pedro Grifol can pull something out of the core he built that’s closer to his expectations, and fairly comfortable with the idea that the White Sox would just be supplementing it with small moves, Hahn and the White Sox brass never seemed bothered to be watching an electrifying Winter Meetings from the sideline. Now, they have their two biggest needs addressed. Second base remains a hole, but a hole with the most fallback options.
Meisel: Team president Chris Antonetti flew with the Blue Angels a few years ago, so he’s adept at keeping his heart rate in line. This isn’t a front office (or manager) that acts on emotion, but if it’s July and Antonetti still can’t pinpoint a prudent trade that allows him to package a few prospects, he ought to feel stressed. As it stands, the Guardians are a few stages away from the panicky part of a contention window.
Hayes: It’s hard to see president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and GM Thad Levine being panicked because they’re almost always playing from this position. They had to know it was more probable than not that they’d lose Correa, and they always have contingencies in place. But if there’s a time to at least get a little flustered, this should be it. The Twins are coming off two straight losing seasons and a major collapse in September/October. Nobody should feel comfortable. They need their pitching development program to start kicking in next season or they’ll always be in this position.
Stavenhagen: It’s been tough to gauge what exactly Harris and company aim to accomplish this offseason. But so far the Tigers’ wunderkind executive seems cool and calculated, like he has a plan in place that only he and manager A.J. Hinch truly understand. The infrastructure of the organization is in a way better spot. The Tigers have a staff of talented coaches. The fans don’t want to wait a few years to see all this translate into winning. But the organization’s leaders seem confident in their vision. At the very least, you can’t sense any panic like you often could with Avila.
Jenks: This is an interesting question in regard to GM J.J. Picollo, Moore’s longtime No. 2 who took over as the head of baseball operations at the end of last season. On the one hand, Picollo is in the first year of his tenure, which normally would mean he’d be afforded a long runway. But in some ways the Picollo promotion seemed like a signal the Royals didn’t feel they were that far away from contention. Otherwise, they likely would have cleaned house and completely started over. If Picollo and the Royals finish below .500 in 2023 and 2024, his seat could become pretty hot, pretty quickly.
What is your team’s potential for ruining your holidays with news and roster movement?
Fegan: Surely, at some point, the White Sox will make one of the trades they promised to pull off, and with the biggest free agents off the board, the trade market should open eventually. Their 2023 payroll is now tilting above this year’s amount, and peeling away from that could be a motivation. But after a week of Benintendi Watch, I won’t turn down any relatives passing me a cup of eggnog. The White Sox need to keep adding non-roster invitee depth, even if they don’t add significantly more at second base. But we’re looking at a team that wouldn’t view bringing this current group to camp as a disaster.
Meisel: Pretty low, says the founder of the notorious Meisel Jinx. The bulk of Cleveland’s offseason work is complete; Antonetti even admitted as much, saying they crossed off the top two priorities on their winter checklist. The Guardians’ roster isn’t perfect. They have room for another right-handed stick. The rotation still has some questions. Antonetti said he wouldn’t rule out looking to acquire a backup catcher. They haven’t yet added their annual non-roster reliever who undoubtedly becomes a key member of the bullpen.
But this won’t be like 2016, when Cleveland emerged from its World Series haze to sign Edwin Encarnación to a deal a couple of nights before Christmas — as Antonetti was taking in a local performance of “The Little Mermaid.” That required team employees to rush to the ticket office to earn an impromptu holiday bonus.
Hayes: It feels inevitable moves are coming. The whole seven-left-handed-hitting-outfielders-on-the-40-man-roster thing needs to be remedied. Other moves are coming to avoid running back the same group again. I expect a few nights to be ruined over the next two months.
Stavenhagen: I’m taking PTO until the new year, which means a signing is inevitable. The Lorenzen deal should become official soon. There are going to be several more moves, but it sounds like the Tigers could be patient in filling out the rest of their roster. It’ll be most interesting to see if the trade market begins to pick up. I think the Tigers will deal another reliever — perhaps Gregory Soto? — before all is said and done.
Jenks: The Royals have made it clear they want to add a starter (probably Greinke) and a veteran right-handed bat. But Picollo even said at the Winter Meetings that the Royals’ offseason was going to be “fairly quiet overall,” so don’t expect much.
How ready to win this division is your club?
Fegan: There’s not really a switch in personnel to point to explain why the White Sox will be able to stop the rest of the division from running all over them again. They’re dependent on a lot of guys who haven’t been healthy or sharp defensively recently to be those things, after overhauling the coaching staff and enhancing the training staff. This roster was good enough to be the division favorite last season, but then the White Sox wildly underperformed. If they don’t wildly underperform again, they should have a shot.
Meisel: More ready than at least three-fifths of their AL Central counterparts. The Guardians didn’t anticipate their next contention window opening last season, but reality doesn’t always follow your finest blueprint. They’re still incredibly young, but they’re now equipped with the experience of charging to a division title and making a little noise in October. That might not matter on, say, a Tuesday night at Target Field in May, but it certainly can’t hurt overall.
Hayes: Everything to do with the Twins’ chances in 2023 will depend on how healthy they can be. They were so well-positioned to win the division if Correa had rejoined them. They have starting pitching depth and a solid one through five for the first time in a few seasons, even if it depends on Kenta Maeda coming back healthy from Tommy John surgery. They like how their bullpen looks and expect Jorge López will be much more settled in this time around.
With Correa and team health, they would have had a formidable lineup. They still could. Right now they don’t have all the pieces. But let’s see what they do the rest of the offseason. They still have work to do, and time to do it.
Stavenhagen: Not ready at all. But if you want to be optimistic for a change, keep in mind the Tigers won 77 games in 2021 and were considered dark-horse contenders last season before that train went off the tracks and over a cliff.
The Tigers’ best hope is that their quiet moves somehow pay off and the rest of the division continues to be terrible. In reality, they’re going to have to find ways to score runs before we can even entertain such a thought. Getting back to 2021 territory is a nice goal for now.
Jenks: Not ready.
The optimistic view: Bobby Witt Jr. improves defensively at shortstop, Vinnie Pasquantino and Brady Singer pick up where they left off last season, MJ Melendez takes another jump forward with his power, Michael Massey locks down second base, and a couple of the Royals’ struggling young pitchers become viable starters in the rotation. If all that happens, the Royals could jump from 65 wins in 2022 to, I don’t know, 73 to 78 wins in 2023.
The more realistic view (or at least my view): Some of the above-stated things will happen, and some of them will not. Royals fans know as well as anyone that the development of young players is rarely linear. (To varying degrees, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are all case studies in that.) There are way too many questions and unproven players on this roster to expect much more than marginal improvement next season.
In fact, Picollo basically said as much at the Winter Meetings: “If we can just get incrementally better … and buy time for the younger guys to keep playing and get at-bats, we’ll know better a year from now where we’re headed.”
(Top photo of Andrew Benintendi: Joe Nicholson / USA Today)