AL Central 2021 preview: What can the White Sox expect?

Last year's division race went down to the last day. What about this year?

AL Central 2021 preview: What can the White Sox expect?

Don't mind me, I'm  just asking questions about the AL Central opponents of Your Chicago White Sox™.

Who is the best team in the division if not the Sox?

Definitely the Twins. Call them the Twinkies if it makes you feel better. Or the Piranhas. But they're not like the tiny river carnivores of the Ozzie Guillen Era; they won't pick-pick-pick at you with Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett anymore. A more appropriate animal might be the Slug, as in they can slug, or swing, the bat. Nelson Cruz, even at 40 years old, might be the best hitter in MLB not named Mike Trout. He hit 16 homers and compiled a .992 OPS in 2020. Miguel Sanó slugs .496 for his career, topping out at .576 with 34 homers in 2019, and could do better. Max Kepler fell off a bit in 2020 (like many did amid the pandemic) but he also hit 36 homers and slugged .519 in 2019. That's probably more like how he'll do in 2021. Josh Donaldson at third base is one of the biggest pains in the tush against the Sox. His career Sox slash line of .311/.435/.633 with 16 homers in 52 games is, more or less, his best mark against anyone. Minnesota still plays strong defense, especially up the middle with Andrelton Simmons added at shortstop, Byron Buxton in center field and former shortstop Jorge Polanco at second base. Donaldson remains a strong presence on defense at third, too, just as good with the glove as he is with the bat.

Sigh. Yes. It's not sexy, but their starting rotation is deep. Maeda came from the Dodgers to the Twins and dominated in the shortened 2020 season. It's unlikely that Maeda will post 2.70 ERA again with an 8-to-1 K/BB ratio over 30-plus starts, but it does seem clear the Twins unlocked something in him the Dodgers couldn't. It is fair to say that righty Jose Berríos hasn't consistently dominated as it was hoped, but he's still been consistently good over 115 career starts. He can be counted on for a 3.80 ERA in 32 starts. But as he turns 27, Berríos also could be ready for a couple of career seasons. If he can transform into a Cy Young contender, the Twins have a great chance to win the Central. Michael Pineda, the third starter, is kind of like Buxton. He figures to be due to stay healthy for a full season. If he doesn't, left-hander J.A. Happ and Randy Dobnak give the Twins depth at the end of the rotation the White Sox might wish they added. (Attention, other teams like the Sox: Jake Odorizzi is still a free agent as of March 4!)

Aren't you tired of talking about the Twins?

You have NO IDEA. But they do have a bullpen worth talking about, and it includes former Sox closer Alex Colomé! Manager Rocco Baldelli says he wants the bullpen to rely on just one closer, preferring the flexibility to use Colomé and lefty Taylor Rogers at any point. Kid right-hander Jorge Alcala might have the best stuff of anybody on the roster. The Twins have depth here too, including Hansel Robles, Caleb Thielbar, Shaun Anderson, and at least one Tyler, as always: Tyler Duffey.

You make these guys sound like Justice Leaguers with no weaknesses. There must be some way to take 'em down.

Twins, Piranhas, Slugs; they're mortals like you and me. Cruz is 40, and you 40-year-olds know what happens when you reach that age. Bones start to creak, muscles start to ache, limbs start to hang limp. The mind wanders. You never know when your back is going to go out. It will happen to Cruz, too. Someday. Sanó never stays healthy all season. Simmons has missed a lot of games the past two seasons, though in 2020 he opted out because of COVID-19. Buxton certainly is due to stay healthy over 162, but it hasn't happened yet. Donaldson, bless him, sacrifices his body like Buxton does, and typically lands on the DL once or twice a season. He did play in 155 games as recently as 2019, though.

So they can be defeated?!

Possibly. But we didn't even talk about the Twins' depth, which is definitely deeper than the Sox's depth, to coin a phrase. Infielder Luis Arraez hits like a Slug but right now he's behind Polanco on the depth chart. Rookie outfielder Alex Kiriloff might not start the season in the majors so the Twins can save some money down the line, but he promises to be a big pain in the hind quarters when the time is right. Think: Andre Ethier in his prime. The Twins could use Jake Cave until Kiriloff is "ready," and he's a capable fill-in for Buxton if he has more bad luck with injuries. Two years ago, catcher Mitch Garver broke through with 31 homers and a .630 slugging percentage. He fell off the table in 2020 but rookie Ryan Jeffers hit great in his place. The Twins' depth has depth.

What does PECOTA think?

Why does PECOTA hate the Sox?

This guy don't like the Sox

No, not that guy. The PECOTA projection system was named for Bill Pecota, but it has nothing to do with him otherwise.

PECOTA pegged the Sox for 83 wins before the Eloy Jiménez injury, which also cut their chances of winning more than in half, from 13 percent down to 6. Oy. But don't worry excessively. PECOTA said the White Sox would win 80 games in 2005, and everybody (except for ESPN) knows what happened to the Sox in 2005.

Rather than raging at PECOTA for hating your team, instead consider it a way to humble your expectations. Another way to look at is would be: It's a medium-case scenario instead of a best- or worst-case scenario. PECOTA could be saying the Sox are due for 88 wins, which is much closer to likely in my book. As for the rest of the AL Central, PECOTA seems a little light on the Twins, who look like a 94-95 win club. Cleveland winning 86 is possible, but they look more like a .500 team without Francisco Lindor, Brad Hand and Carlos Santana. Hey, I think we found the White Sox's missing five wins! Kansas City is going to be better than 71-91, too.

So if it’s not the Sox or Twins in the AL Central, it’s Cleveland?

Probably. Cleveland would be better if they spent more than $40 million on players, which puts them at the bottom of the entire league. Even lower than the Pirates. No matter, PECOTA projects Cleveland to finish second in the AL Central, giving them a 24 percent chance to win it. They have right-hander Shane Bieber, who is the best pitcher in the division if you don’t think Lucas Giolito can reach those heights. Zach Plesac had an incredible breakthrough in 2020, but it was only eight starts, and his fastball command still isn’t what scouts prefer to see. The rest of the rotation, including Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie and Logan Allen adds up to solid for now with upside for more. Cleveland’s bullpen has at least two premium ams, with James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase being their best bets for high-leverage situations. Overall the bullpen probably isn’t better than Minnesota’s or the White Sox, but it’s not a weakness.

Is Terry Francona back as manager?

He is, after sitting out 2020 because of health problems (that could have been made worse by COVID-19). Cleveland seemed to do OK without Francona but they certainly stand to benefit from him being around all of the time again. It’s hard to say what a good manager is worth, but in Francona, Cleveland does about as well as a team can.

What doesn’t Cleveland have?

They still don’t have a good outfield, even if Josh Naylor breaks out, Oscar Mercado bounces back and free-agent Eddie Rosario gives them a lift. Franmil Reyes, who will DH, is a very good hitter, if not quite Nelson Cruz. Jose Ramirez might win AL MVP if Cleveland can compete for the playoffs, and Cesar Hernandez is back at second base. Roberto Perez does workmanlike work behind the plate. Former Mets Andrés Giménez and Amed Rosario will play shortstop (not at the same time), but why do you think the Mets were so hot for Lindor? Jake Bauers or Bobby Bradley will play first, although Naylor also might.

There’s not a lot of depth ready to be promoted, though Cleveland’s minor league system gets a lot of raves. Is this going to hurt the White Sox now? Not as much as it will in 2022 and 2023! But let’s burn that bridge when we come to it. The Sox went 2-8 against Cleveland in 2020. If that percentage repeats itself, Cleveland will make good on the PECOTA confidence.

Can anyone else hurt the Sox?

The Royals could. Don’t expect the Sox to win 90 percent of their games against Kansas City like they did in 2020. Expect the Royals to be pains (Royal pains, if you will), like in seasons before. The Royals added Andrew Benintendi in the outfield, Carlos Santana at first base and Mike Minor to the rotation, and prospect Brady Singer figures to get 30 starts in 2021. Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi can be one of the great young players in the league if he continues to improve like he did in the final weeks of 2020. The likes of Asa Lacy, Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch are likely to help Royals pitching a little later rather than right off the bat. But they are coming. It’ll make things harder for the Sox.

The Tigers finish last, right?

Certainly. Everybody knows that bears have a reputation for hibernating come winter time. Somebody wrote a famous song about how the lion sleeps tonight. What about the tiger? How do we address that animal’s slumber? The eye of the tiger, in this case, is closed. Actually, ever since former owner Mike Illitch died in 2017, the Detroit Tigers have been in a coma. They’ve shed payroll, though much of what’s left needs to go to Miguel Cabrera, who hasn’t been a dangerous hitter since, well, before Illitch passed. He turns 38 soon and he’s still under contract — for a total of $94 million — through at least 2023.

Say, who's managing the Tigers this year?

None other than A.J. Hinch. He could have managed the Sox but instead we got the Tony La Russa reunion.

Is there anything for the Tigers to look forward to?

Someday! Spencer Torkelson, the top pick in the 2020 draft who recently hurt his finger opening a can, hasn't gotten to play in the minors yet because of the COVID-19 cancellation, but he figures to be up sometime next season to play third base or first base. Detroit's big offseason free-agents were outfielder Robbie Grossman, catcher Wilson Ramos and second baseman Jonathan Schoop — all of whom are actually good supplemental additions by general manager Al Avila. Except, the Tigers lack impact players everywhere else. First baseman Jeimer Candelario might click finally. Right-hander Casey Mize had a 6.99 ERA in his 2020 debut, but could develop into a top-end starter. Left-hander Tarik Skubal shows promise. But the Sox should clean up against the Motor City again.

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