MLB 2023 Season Preview: American League Central – By Joshua Hertz

As we get closer to the season starting, the impact of new rule changes have started to show in spring training games. The new pitch clock has already seemed to have worked in limited action so far, cutting down games on average from 20-30 minutes. It can’t be said however, that the new addition is not controversial, and many fans are holding their breaths waiting to see when the other shoe will drop, whether due to injuries, an unfair imbalance towards either side, or a bad call costing a team a game. While not to the same degree, another shift coming this season is, well, the ban of the infield shift. While this change seems to favor pull hitters, shifting outfielders, as well as the experimental five-man infield, are not banned, leading to some players who struggle, such as one we will touch upon today, to stay trapped in a shift purgatory. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the mess that is the AL Central.


Chicago White Sox

Speaking of purgatory, the White Sox hope to escape their own purgatory in the middle to the AL Central table after parting ways with manager Tony LaRussa. Despite being the most talented team on paper in the division at the start of last season, the Sox went 81-81, just one year after cruising to a division title, although injuries have plagued many of their key hitters in the past few seasons. Despite making the playoffs two of the last three seasons, the White Sox have not won a playoff series since their win in the 2005 World Series, a trend that is strangely similar to some of their AL Central opponents. The team should be in a good position to compete for the division title this season, with most of their talent from last season still under contract. While they lost former MVP first baseman Jose Abreu in free agency, the White Sox hitting core of Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez, Yasmani Grandal and Tim Anderson, all of who unfortunately hit the injury list for parts of last season, are back and ready to make an impact. The White Sox made a single splash move, adding outfielder Andrew Benintendi to their team. While he also dealt with injury late last season, Benintendi had a breakout year, and the Sox are hopeful he can provide a spark to this offense that it has been missing the past few years. The Sox were hindered by injuries last season, but if this core can stay healthy, they should be competitive in both the wildcard and division races.

The team hopes that younger guys such as Romy González and Andrew Vaughn can help support their veteran teammates, and that third baseman Yoán Moncada can bounce back after a down year in 2022. On the pitching side, their rotation remains elite, with Cy Young finalist Dylan Cease and veterans Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito providing a strong trio supported by an equally strong bullpen. Bolstering veteran arms such as Joe Kelley and Kendall Graveman, the bullpen will miss the presence of Australian closer Liam Hendriks, who unfortunately will be out indefinitely as he battles with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Hopefully Hendriks can make a full recovery, and even though he likely won’t play any time soon, his presence with the team as a veteran leader at spring training has helped keep his bullpen stay focused on their task at hand. In what will be a mostly weak AL Central, expect the White Sox to stay in the hunt for both a wild card spot and a league title, but only if they stay healthy.

Predicted Finish: 2nd Place(No Playoffs)


Cleveland Guardians

In year one under their new name, the Guardians were a surprise team last season, winning the AL Central crown and making it past Tampa in the Wild Card before falling to a loaded Yankees squad. With skipper Terry Francona at the helm, it has been a fruitful era in Cleveland, who have posted a winning season all but one season since Francona took over in 2013, with an AL Championship in 2016 serving as the highlight. While the Guardians have proven that they are once again a playoff team, whether or not they can snap the longest streak without a World Series title(or any title in major sports, having not won since 1948) still remains to be seen. 

The team opted to build around the edges this offseason, adding former All-Stars Mike Zunino and Josh Bell to a young lineup led by superstar José Ramirez. The Guardians lineup will also look for further development from their youth movement, led by 2022 All Star Andres Gimenez and Rookie of the Year finalist Steven Kwan. On the flipside, the Guardians still boast a strong rotation led by Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie, with their late innings being pitched by one of the stronger bullpens in the MLB. The team boasts arguably the scariest closer in all of baseball, the young flamethrower Emmanuel Clase, who comes off an impressive season that culminated in winning the AL Reliever of the Year award. Cleveland remains the team to beat in the AL Central, and whether they can be challenged by their division rivals or if they can make a deep run in the playoffs remains to be seen.

Predicted Finish: 1st Place(Playoff Berth as Division Champs)


Detroit Tigers

Over in the Motor City, the Tigers remain in rebuild mode. Having last made the playoffs in 2014, and had their most recent winning season in 2016, last season was a step back from the improvements they made in 2021, with the only celebrations being the 3,000 hit and 500 home run milestones for Miguel Cabrera, who is entering his final year as a player for Detroit this season at the age of 39. Cabrera won back to back MVPs in 2012 and 2013 amidst the Tigers dominance of the AL Central from 2011-2014, in which they won an AL Championship and 4 straight AL Central titles. Unfortunately, only Cabrera remains as a reminder for Detroit, who likely will remain basement dwellers this season.

Where it stands, Detroit has a mixed bag of a roster going into this season. Looking towards the future, Riley Greene is set to take over in center field as a rookie this year, and the top prospect projects to be a potential future star. Other young talents on the roster include first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the former top pick in 2020 who struggled in his first big league season last year, outfielder Akil Baddoo and younger starting pitchers Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, and Casey Mize, although Mize will a sizable portion of the season as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. In terms of offseason moves, the Tigers were much more conservative than they were before the 2022 season, bringing veteran lefty Matthew Boyd back to Detroit. As for their big splash moves from the previous offseason, shortstop Javier Báez was disappointing, hitting slightly below average, while both outfielder Austin Meadows and lefty pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez missed significant time with injuries. While the Tigers have some young developing prospects and a few good pieces for now, 2023 will likely not be the year Detroit surges into contention.

Predicted Finish: 4th Place(No Playoffs)


Kansas City Royals

Over at Kauffman Stadium, the home of some really cool fountains and this team, it is likely another year at the bottom of the AL Central. While the Royals still have catcher Salvador Pérez from their 2015 title team, the roster is currently a mix of veterans past their primes and young exciting prospects. Since that 2015 title, the Royals have not posted a winning record, and finally pulled the plug the last few seasons by trading veterans such as Jorge Soler and Whit Merrifield at trade deadlines. Pérez and third baseman Hunter Dozier could be names that will be on the move soon enough, as the team tries to bolster its farm system further. On the youth side, rookies Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey and Drew Waters will likely get a lot of playing time, with Pasquantino and young rising star Bobby Witt Jr. being players that the Royals hope to develop a core around. On the pitching side, the Royals brought back 39-year old Zach Greinke to put fans in the seats for what may be the final season for the crafty right-handed pitcher. The team made a few interesting under the radar moves in the offseason, bringing in pitcher Ryan Yarbrough, formerly of the Rays, as well as extending a minor league contract to power hitting outfielder Franmil Reyes. One strange move they made is signing former elite lefty closer Aroldis Chapman to a one year deal, and the injury-prone Chapman has already gotten injured falling down stairs before the season has begun. Whether or not Chapman, who holds the major-league record for fastest pitch thrown, will be able to perform well in a bullpen anchored by closer Scott Barlow, and if the Royals trade Chapman should he return to some semblance of form. Expect a weird year in Kansas City, where the development of young stars for the future takes priority over the number in the win column.

Expected Finish: 5th Place(No Playoffs)


Minnesota Twins

Who is it, then, who is still trapped into seeing a shift seemingly every at-bat? It’s none other than one of the Twins offseason acquisitions, hard-hitting lefty hitting outfielder Joey Gallo. Gallo had a nightmare season last year between the Yankees and Dodgers, and the Twins hope that escaping the high pressure of such big market teams, combined with the ban of the traditional shift, will allow him to return to All Star level form. Gallo has already seen a five-man infield utilized to once again place a fielder in the gap between first and second base, which unfortunately may prevent Gallo from escaping another low batting average. Minnesota mainly focused on patching up holes in the team, notably adding catcher Christian Vásquez, infielder Donovan Solano, and trading for backup shortstop Kyle Farmer and backup outfielder Michael A. Taylor. As for the Twins biggest offseason move, they ended up watching shortstop Carlos Correa fail to ink megadeals with two different teams due to failing physicals, and instead slink his way back to Minnesota to rejoin the hitting core led by oft-injured star center fielder Byron Buxton. On the pitching side, Minnesota flipped super-utility man Luis Arraez to South Beach, acquiring Miami Marlins starting pitcher Pablo López to add to a solid rotation featuring Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda. In the bullpen, the Twins are one of the deeper teams, with former Oriole Jorge López a favorite to serve as a late inning reliever.

Continuing the trend of playoff struggles for the AL Central, the Twins have not won a playoff game since 2004, having lost 18 straight games, with their last series win coming against the moneyball A’s in 2002. To put things in perspective, there are no active players left from the 2002 MLB season, and I, a junior in college, was just 7 months old. On paper, the Twins look like a league average team, who if healthy could stay in contention and be buyers at the deadline, but could also fall apart and sell at the deadline should injuries pile up or players start slumping like last season. Unfortunately, 2023 will likely not be the end of the Twins streak.

Predicted Finish: 3rd Place (No Playoffs)

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