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How Close is the 2020 American League Central Race?

by Jordan Lazowski

Entering the fourth season of a rebuild started back in 2016, the White Sox have signaled that it is time to turn the corner towards contention. With the signings of Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnacion, Dallas Keuchel, and Gio Gonzalez, combined with the acquisition of Nomar Mazara, the White Sox will enter the 2020 season as a vastly different – and deeper – team than the ones trotted out from 2017-2019. Yet, a certain AL Central fan base doesn’t seem too concerned about the White Sox yet.

Ignoring the poor assumptions and analysis made in this article about the level of play by both the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox in 2020, the questions that arise from this article are certainly valid: Should the Twins – or Indians, for that matter – be concerned about the White Sox in 2020? Is the AL Central as close of a race as Sox fans think? Let’s examine this question, position by position.

Note: All WAR values shown are fWAR, and these projections come from Fangraphs’ posted Steamer Projections.


Catchers

White Sox: Yasmani Grandal (4.9) and James McCann (0.2)
Indians: Roberto Perez (2.3) and Sandy Leon (0.5)
Twins: Mitch Garver (1.8) and Alex Avila (1.1)

These projections alone show us the danger of assuming – as the Twins article did – that one year of really excellent production is the new norm for a player. Mitch Garver could very well out-perform his projections for the 2020 season. However, he is an incredibly likely candidate for regression after posting a .273/.365/.630 slash line in 2019. James McCann’s second half is proof of this – often times, players tend to regress to historical norms.

While Mitch Garver and Roberto Perez will continue to put up respectable seasons, Yasmani Grandal is no doubt the best catcher out of this bunch. He gives the White Sox a huge advantage in this department heading into 2020 and beyond on both sides of the ball.

First Base

White Sox: Jose Abreu (1.8) and Zack Collins (0.0)
Indians: Carlos Santana (2.6) and Jake Bauers (0.5)
Twins: Marwin Gonzalez (1.3)

Carlos Santana is the best 1B out of this bunch, as Jake Bauers has yet to live up to his prospect hype and Zack Collins’ role on the White Sox is far from a sure thing. Marwin Gonzalez is currently the only 1B shown on the Twins’ depth chart after the departure of C.J. Cron, but it has yet to be determined if he will indeed be the Opening Day 1B.

The Indians have the slight advantage in what looks to be a rather underwhelming crop of 1B in the AL Central. With Royce Lewis, the Twins’ top prospect, rising through the system, it will be interesting to see how the Twins handle their infield situation. They could very well shift Miguel Sano to 1B and stick Marwin Gonzalez at 3B for the time being. Brent Rooker could also become an option here for the Twins after posting a .281/.398/.535 slash line in AAA last season.

Second Base

White Sox: Nick Madrigal (1.6), Leury Garcia (0.3), and Danny Mendick (0.2)
Indians: Cesar Hernandez (2.1) and Mike Freeman (0.0)
Twins: Luis Arraez (2.5)

Cesar Hernandez and Luis Arraez are both very good 2B among what looks to be a very talented bunch in the AL Central. Cesar Hernandez is consistent and reliable, while both Madrigal and Arraez have tremendous upside.

Since Madrigal is not expected to be up until May, Leury Garcia and Danny Mendick – at this moment – will be holding down the fort for the #44 prospect in baseball. The Twins have the slight advantage over the Indians and White Sox currently, but it will be interesting to see how both Arraez and Madrigal play compared to their projections, as both are rather inexperienced players and don’t have a ton of data for Steamer to project them against. If Madrigal lives up to the hype, the White Sox could easily have the advantage here.

Shortstop

White Sox: Tim Anderson (2.0)
Indians: Francisco Lindor (5.9)
Twins: Jorge Polanco (2.8)

The Indians, as expected, have the best SS in the AL Central heading into 2020. However, with the rumors swirling that Lindor could be traded, this could very well change by March, as the conversation will be more determined by who the Indians received in return. Both Tim Anderson and Jorge Polanco’s value is largely determined by their offensive output, and Polanco is projected to outperform the reigning batting champion but overall inconsistent hitter throughout his career. If Anderson can improve his defense and still maintain high offensive production, he might be the best SS in the AL Central after all is said and done. For now, however, Lindor is half of the incredibly solid left side of the infield for the Indians.

Third Base

White Sox: Yoan Moncada (4.0)
Indians: Jose Ramirez (5.2)
Twins: Miguel Sano (3.0)

Once again, the Indians have the advantage here, as Jose Ramirez is one of the top players in baseball to pair with SS Francisco Lindor. He had a dreadful first half of the season in 2019, but followed it up with an incredible second half, posting a 176 wRC+ in the second half to go with a .327/.365/.739 slash line. He likely won’t slug over .700 again anytime soon, but projecting him to be a five-win player is pretty accurate given his recent production.

Much like Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sano’s value is heavily determined by his offense, but he has consistently been a two-win player throughout his career. He had a terrible season back in 2018, but returned to form in 2019 and should be a similar player to the one throughout his career.

The one question mark that remains is Yoan Moncada. After posting close to a .400 BABIP in the 2019 season, he is projected for an almost two-win regression in 2020. Given the stark differences between his 2018 and 2019 seasons, to project him to be somewhere in the middle makes sense. However, if there is one player on the White Sox who could make a leap beyond projections, it is Yoan Moncada, and it will be intriguing to see how he improves in 2020. For now, he is the second-best third basemen in the AL Central with the ceiling of a player who could challenge Ramirez as the best in the division.

Left Field

White Sox: Eloy Jimenez (2.6)
Indians: Jordan Luplow (0.7)
Twins: Eddie Rosario (2.4)

The OF is certainly not the Indians’ strength, with Luplow, Mercado, Naquin, Reyes, and DeShields all projected to get some time out there. Mercado is the best defender of the bunch, while Reyes is the best hitter. Eddie Rosario, much like Eloy Jimenez, is a great offensive player with defensive limitations. Jimenez definitely has the higher offensive ceiling of the two players, and if he can improve his defense in LF, will easily outperform his projections. Heading into 2020 and beyond, Jimenez should be the best LF in the division for quite awhile.

Center Field

White Sox: Luis Robert (2.4) and Adam Engel (0.1)
Indians: Oscar Mercado (0.9) and Tyler Naquin (0.8)
Twins: Byron Buxton (3.2)

Byron Buxton has been one of the more inconsistent hitters for the Twins since his call up in 2015, but he has not failed to amaze in the outfield. He has been a top 5 OF in terms of Outs Above Average (OAA) since 2016, allowing him to maintain his spot in the Twins’ lineup despite his offensive shortcomings.

Robert, on the other hand, is expected to be the complete package in the outfield. While he might only be projected for 2.4 fWAR this season, Robert could easily turn himself into a 4-6 win player by the time he hits his prime. For now, Buxton still holds the edge as the best CF of these three teams and will continue to be a force if he can maintain his 2019 level of production. However, Robert is positioned to become the best CF in the AL Central for years to come.

Right Field

White Sox: Nomar Mazara (1.4)
Indians: Franmil Reyes (1.3)
Twins: Max Kepler (3.5)

In 2019, Max Kepler established himself in the Twins’ lineup, vastly improving both his offense and defense while posting a 121 wRC+ and .355 wOBA. He is far and away the best player of this group, as Franmil Reyes is a bat-first player for the Indians.

Nomar Mazara is the biggest question mark among the bunch. There are those around the league who believe a change of scenery might be what Mazara needs to reach his ceiling as a player.

However, if Mazara cannot reach his ceiling, he will still likely hit about 20 home runs and provide slightly below average defense in RF. If there is one offensive position that is still a question mark for the White Sox heading into 2020, it’s RF.

Designated Hitter

White Sox: Edwin Encarnacion (2.0)
Indians: Delino DeShields (0.2) and Bobby Bradley (0.0)
Twins: Nelson Cruz (2.9)

Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion are the best two of this group, and while Cruz is projected to be worth one more win than Encarnacion currently, it is likely that these two players put out very similar levels of production in 2020. I’m not really sure there’s an advantage here, despite the projections. But, as of now, give the slight edge to the Twins.

Starting Pitching

White Sox: Giolito (3.2), Keuchel (2.4), Lopez (1.5) Cease (1.1), Gonzalez (1.1)
Indians: Bieber (4.6), Clevinger (4.2), Carrasco (3.5), Civale (1.4), Plesac (0.7)
Twins: Berrios (3.0), Odorizzi (2.3), Pineda (1.7), Dobnak (1.3), Thorpe (1.0)

There is a lot left up in the air for the White Sox and Twins, as the Indians have established themselves as the team with the best rotation even after the departure of Corey Kluber. Bieber, Clevinger, and Carrasco are an incredibly solid top three in the rotation that helps to make up for their current offensive shortcomings.

The Twins will be without Michael Pineda while he serves his 80-game suspension for PED use. Until then, there are three open spots in a Twins rotation after striking out thus far in free agency. Look for them to add by signing a player such as Alex Wood, who would fill the same role that Martin Perez did last season. Brusdar Graterol and Devin Smeltzer might also factor into a Twins rotation with more questions than answers currently.

For the White Sox, they will begin the season without Carlos Rodon and Michael Kopech. Kopech is expected back in May, which will create a competition for rotation spots. With Reynaldo Lopez coming off a dismal 2019, this competition is the best thing that could happen for the White Sox. Giolito and Keuchel are an excellent top 2 in the rotation, and if Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech can start to show their top of the rotation potential, the White Sox could match up very well against the Indians in 2020 and beyond. Look for guys like Giolito and Cease to outperform their projections.

Relief Pitching (Top 5)

White Sox: Bummer (0.7), Fry (0.4), Colome (0.3), Herrera (0.3), Marshall (0.2)
Indians: Hand (0.7), Clase (0.5), Allen (0.4), Perez (0.3), Hoyt (0.2)
Twins: Rogers (0.9), Duffey (0.8), Smeltzer (0.7), May (0.5), Graterol (0.4)

Much like with starting pitching, there are a lot of question marks here for all three teams. No one really has a standout bullpen here, but the Indians have the advantage with Brad Hand being the best of this bunch. It really appears that all three teams would do well by adding a few rotation arms where possible. As the Twins fill out their rotation and the White Sox have their rotation competition in May, it will be interesting to see where names like Brusdar Graterol, Devin Smeltzer, Reynaldo Lopez, and Carlos Rodon find themselves mid-season. However, the White Sox are the team that needs to add some lock down bullpen arms the most as they head into the season.

Final Projections

Assuming 47.6 wins is the “league-replacement level” for a team that fields all 0.0 fWAR players:

White Sox: Hitters (23.5) + Pitchers (13.3) + Replacement Level (47.6) = 84.4 Wins
Indians: Hitters (21.2) + Pitchers (17.2) + Replacement Level (47.6) = 86.0 Wins
Twins: Hitters (25.4) + Pitchers (13.7) + Replacement Level (47.6) = 86.7 Wins

These values combine all players are projected to contribute zero or positive fWAR at the major league level for all three teams. So, simply by Steamer projections, the AL Central is shaping up to be a pretty close three team race.

The most important thing to remember is that these projections are just that: projections. They are not meant to serve as the exact value each player/team will post in the 2020 season. Rather, this was an exercise to demonstrate something that has been talked about recently: the AL Central does not have one team that, right now, is capable of running away with the division. The Indians have questions marks in their OF, the Twins have a lot of questions marks in the rotation, and the White Sox are a vastly unproven team that would be looking for immediate value from young prospects.

Any of these three teams could continue to make improvements that either close or widen the gaps between one another. However, it would be foolish to assume that the Twins will be able to repeat their 2019 101-win season. They’ve already had some substantial losses (Schoop, Cron, Perez, Gibson) without making any significant additions.

I’ve said this before in a recent article: the White Sox should not be expected to win the division in 2020. There are still too many questions marks and too much reliance on players to make an immediate impact at the major league level (Robert, Madrigal). However, they should be expected to compete, and if all goes right for the White Sox in 2020, they could easily see themselves in the same position as the 2017 Twins: surprise contenders all the way through the end of the season.

There is still a lot more that can happen this offseason, as it is still only December 26. However, the AL Central, on paper, appears to be much closer than the Indians or Twins might like to assume.

So, I’m not sure if “Twins Fans” should be worried about the White Sox or not. However, what I do know is that Twins Fans should be.


Featured Photo: Chris Tejada/Twitter (@FotoGenocide_)

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Thanks for breaking this down, and nice shot at the end.

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