It’s often difficult to feel positive about a team when it is finishing out a season that won’t end in meaningful games, let alone postseason play. Still, there are silver linings to be found in even the worst campaigns. We’ll tick through every division in the coming days to identify the brightest spots for the non-competitive organizations.
First up is the division most in need of a pick-me-up: the American League Central. With the Indians cruising to a title, the four remaining clubs are all looking ahead to next year. Here’s each of those organizations’ most promising development from the ’18 campaign (with link to current depth chart):
Royals: The Middle Infield
Entering the year, the K.C. organization had a middling outlook up the middle on the dirt. Whit Merrifield had turned in a late-twenties breakout, sure, but could he keep it up? Meanwhile veteran Alcides Escobar was brought back to keep things patched up at short.
As it turns out, though, Merrifield has more than doubled down on his 2017 effort. Entering play today, he was — *checks* — **double-checks** — 25th (!) among all position-players by measure of fWAR. With ample cheap control remaining, he’s a heck of an asset, even if he is already 29 years of age.
Shortstop, though, remained an evident conundrum for much of the year. Enter (okay, re-enter) Adalberto Mondesi. The 23-year-old, whose first MLB action improbably came in the 2015 World Series, is presently carrying a .284/.311/.467 slash with nine home runs and 25 steals in 241 plate appearances. He’s grading as an elite baserunner and high-quality defender at short, making him a potential core piece.
White Sox: Eloy On The Cusp
With apologies to Daniel Palka, Omar Narvaez, and Matt Davidson — nice seasons, all — the most notable development this year for the South Siders has occurred in their minor-league system. Many fans would like to see Eloy Jimenez in the majors right now, finishing off his spectacular campaign in style. Instead, they’ll have to wait until early 2019, though that also means their favorite club will control him for one more precious season.
Jimenez, 21, made good on his top-prospect billing, turning in a monster .337/.384/.577 campaign in 456 plate appearances split evenly between the organization’s top two affiliates. That makes him one of the truly elite prospects in baseball and, quite possibly, the much-needed superstar of the future.
Of course, there was a real shot that this nod would have gone to the pitching staff, but the hurlers just came up short. Michael Kopech’s otherwise promising campaign ended in agony, with Tommy John surgery. Reynaldo Lopez has settled in as a solid, but hardly dominant starter. And while Carlos Rodon’s return has been excellent in terms of results, his peripherals tell quite a different story.
Tigers: Landing Mize
No kidding, having the first pick the draft is a good thing. But it’s not every year — far from it — that a player like Casey Mize is there to be taken. Not only was Mize considered the top talent, he was also likely the most advanced player on the board.
Shades of Stephen Strasburg? The Tigers have reason to hope. He’s already sitting at the #20 spot on MLB.com’s ranking of the top prospects in baseball, to cite but one account of the impact to a Tigers system that has had its share of questions in recent years. Of course, Mize is also now but one of several intriguing young hurlers percolating up toward the majors through Detroit’s minor league ranks.
In a way, though, this is not quite the news you’d hope for. The Tigers’ MLB roster has obviously had its share of good news, including a strong year from Matt Boyd; continued success from Nicholas Castellanos (though he’s just one year from free agency); and the emergence of Niko Goodrum as a useful MLB asset. However, there hasn’t been much else to write home about otherwise at the major-league level. And a concerning season from Michael Fulmer and tepid output from Jeimer Candelario leave some cause for pessimism.
Twins: Encouraging Arms
In numerous ways, 2018 was quite a disappointment for a Minnesota organization that had designs on contention. Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton not only failed to improve, but ended up on optional assignment. The team’s slate of short-term veteran signing fell way shy of delivering the anticipated value. Its leading hitter, Eduardo Escobar, was traded away months ago.
But there was one area where things went just about as well as might have been hoped: the team’s group of controllable MLB rotation pieces. Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, and Jake Odorizzi have all been worth at least 2.5 fWAR and look to be quality values heading into 2019. Michael Pineda fully rehabbed from Tommy John surgery before being felled by a meniscus tear, so there’s good reason to think he’ll be at full health. And though well-regarded prospect Stephen Gonsalves struggled badly in brief MLB action, he just turned in a strong outing today and was rather dominant at Triple-A, working to a 2.76 ERA with 9.0 K/9 against 4.8 BB/9 (but only 5.7 hits per nine) in 120 2/3 innings. 23-year-old Fernando Romero, a highly regarded young right-hander, gave the team some reason for optimism as well, though his overall numbers are dragged down by one particularly catastrophic start (eight runs in 1 2/3 innings).
It wasn’t all roses in the forward-looking portion of the pitching staff. Ervin Santana’s option doesn’t seem desirable. More worryingly, Adalberto Mejia was cut short due to injury in an otherwise promising season. And it’s not as if the showing from the above-noted hurlers was particularly exciting. More might have been hoped for from Berrios and Odorizzi.
That said, it’s perhaps too easy to dismiss this kind of affordable productivity. Setting a sturdy baseline from the rotation is a notable development, particularly for an organization that must operate within spending limitations.
Of course, finding star-level players is still of greater importance. And there were notable developments there for Minny. While the outlook on Sano and Buxton is nowhere near as promising as it once was, both still have future value. And there’s now a pair of elite prospects rising through the system. Both Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff both landed among the twenty top minor-league performers in 2018 and are graded among the top twenty prospects in the game (see, e.g., “The Board” at Fangraphs). They’d have represented a worthy recipient of my “silver lining” label, to be sure, but neither is expected to be ready until 2020, so I’m taking the immediate value in the staff.