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Vaughan: Previewing the American League Central

| Thursday, March 23, 2023

With Spring Training games underway and the World Baseball Classic just finishing, the 2023 Major League Baseball (MLB) season is quickly approaching, with opening day set to occur in about a week. With players ramping up, it’s time to look ahead to the upcoming season and the expectations for each club. Over the next few weeks, I’ll dive into previews for all 30 teams, division by division, helping get fans ready for the 154th season of professional baseball. Up this week, the American League (AL) Central.

Division Overview: Over the past decade, the AL Central has seen the rise and fall of its members, with all five teams winning the division at least once while also finishing at best fourth in another season. In 2022, the Cleveland Guardians recaptured the AL Central crown, winning the division for the first time since taking home three consecutive titles from 2016 to 2018.

Chicago White Sox (2022: 81-81, .500)

After winning their first division title since 2008 in 2021, the Chicago White Sox failed to live up to expectations in 2022, finishing a mediocre 81-81, a distant second to the Cleveland Guardians.

The outfield is loaded with options, featuring the return of young stars Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert Jr. Not to mention a key free agent pickup in All-Star Andrew Benintendi and Oscar Colas, the 85th-ranked prospect in baseball. The infield, too, is full of hitters capable of doing damage, even with the loss of José Abreu in free agency.

Tim Anderson and Yoán Moncada both return to short and third. Andrew Vaughn will shift from the outfield back to his familiar position of first base. Behind the dish, Yasmani Grandal looks to regain his All-Star form. Meanwhile, the starting rotation looks strong as well, led by Cy Young Finalist Dylan Cease. Behind him, Lance Lynn looks to continue his success from last season while Lucas Giolito looks to bounce back.

The bullpen should receive a boost with the return of lefty Garrett Crochet to go along with Reynaldo López and Kendall Graveman. Though the uncertain status of dominant closer Liam Hendriks (currently dealing with non-Hodgkins lymphoma) will play a huge role throughout the season. Despite that, though, the White Sox remain a team filled with young talent on both sides of the ball, fully capable of not only reaching October, but making a run deep into the playoffs as well.

Cleveland Guardians (2022: 92-70, .568)

After missing out on the postseason in 2021, the Cleveland Guardians got back to October in 2022, winning the division despite fielding the youngest roster in baseball with an average age around 26. Heading into 2023, the Guardians hope their youthful exuberance can shine through again.

Cleveland looks to be led by a pitching staff that was dominant in 2022, finishing top five in ERA, WHIP and walks allowed. The rotation will be anchored by the one-two punch of Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie. Meanwhile, bullpen features lockdown closer Emmanuel Clase and some quality setup men behind him.

On the other side of the ball, Cleveland is led by perennial MVP candidate in third basemen José Ramírez. He is joined by a loaded cast featuring Silver Slugger Josh Bell at first, Gold Glover Andrés Giménez at second and the much-improved Amed Rosario at short. Free agent Mike Zunino will start the season behind the dish for the Guardians. But highly touted prospect Bo Naylor is knocking on the door.

The outfield is headlined by Gold Glovers Myles Straw and Steven Kwan, with the third spot up for grabs. And, yes, just like every other position group mentioned thus far, Cleveland has another top 100 prospect in the mix in George Valera. Slugger Josh Naylor looks to provide some power out of the DH spot, helping lengthen the Guardian lineup. After making the postseason as the youngest team in baseball, the Cleveland Guardians look not just to reach the postseason but progress further into October.

Detroit Tigers (2022: 66-96, .407)

Another year, another quiet October for the Detroit Tigers, who extended their postseason drought to eight seasons, tied with the LA Angels for the longest active streak in MLB. With no major offseason additions, the organization is banking on internal improvements to help the Tigers break through.

One of those players Detroit has big expectations for is former first-overall pick, Spencer Torkelson. Joining him with a lackluster 2022 campaign was big free agent signing shortstop Javier Báez, who finished with an OPS under .700 while earning $20 million. The rest of the infield consists of veterans and unproven youngsters.

Behind the dish, Eric Haase appears to be the frontrunner, although there are other options. The outfield will be anchored by the highly touted Riley Greene and former All-Star Austin Meadows. Former Irish star Matt Vierling should play a role as well. Future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera returns to the Tigers in what will be the final year of a legendary career. At 39 years old, the aging slugger will be confined to a DH role, hoping for an Albert Pujols-esque finale.

On the pitching side, veterans Eduardo Rodriguez and Matthew Boyd look to help stabilize a young rotation. The Tigers bullpen will feature some new faces to go along with workhorses Tyler Alexander, Jason Foley and Alex Lange. This year looks to be another rebuilding season, full of opportunity for growth and development as Detroit hopes to contend in the years ahead.

Kansas City Royals (2022: 65-97, .401)

Since winning the World Series in 2015, the Kansas City Royals have yet to come close to sniffing the playoffs, finishing no better than third in the division over that time.

Though nobody projects this club as a playoff team in 2023, the Royals feature many intriguing young talents to watch. Star shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. showed flashes of brilliance all over the diamond in his rookie season. Around him, Michael Massey and Nicky Lopez look set to man second and third, respectively. First base is a log jam with lots of potential. Behind the dish, the Royals will employ the talented duo of Salvador Perez and MJ Melendez.

In the outfield, Kansas City has a variety of options such Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares and former Braves farmhand Drew Waters. As for the rotation, the Royals are led by 26-year-old Brady Singer, who enjoyed his best season in the Majors last year, going 10-5 with a 3.23 ERA. Behind him, 39-year-old Zack Greinke returns for his 20th MLB season.

The bullpen is hoping Scott Barlow and Dylan Coleman hoping to repeat after the lockdown 2022 seasons. 2023 looks to be another year in this Royal rebuild, but with it comes the chance for young stars to shine as Kansas City hopes to establish its next winning core.

Minnesota Twins (2022: 78-84, .481)

Despite entering 2022 with a talented roster, the Minnesota Twins were unable to reach the playoffs, finishing third in a mediocre central division. However, the Twins were busy this offseason. One of the biggest of those aquations Minnesota made was in the re-signing of shortstop Carlos Correa to a six-year, $200 million deal after deals with both the Giants and Mets fell through due to failed physicals.

He is surrounded by ample infield depth. Versatile Alex Kirilloff looks to man first, while a mix of Jorge Polanco, Donovan Solano, Kyle Farmer and Jose Miranda fill a crowded infield. Top Royce Lewis should return mid-season once he recovers from an ACL tear.

The outfield is led by All-Star Byron Buxton, who is a top player in the game when healthy. Plenty of depth, including young talents in Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach, are competing for playing time as well. Behind the dish, free agent signing Christian Vázquez aims to bring a calming presence behind the dish while providing power when at the plate. In terms of pitching, the Twins possess a solid rotation led by veteran Sonny Gray and newly acquired Pablo López, who was dealt from the Marlins in a deal involving MLB’s batting average leader, Luis Arráez.

The bullpen is led by the electric arm of Jhoan Duran, who deployed the first 100 mph off-speed pitch last season. Joining him to help lockdown games will be righties Emilio Pagán and Griffin Jax, as well as southpaw Caleb Thielbar. After a subpar 2022, the Twins look to rebound this year, hoping to make some noise this October.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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