Our 3 Remaining Needs series skips over to the Cleveland-dominated American League Central, home to three of MLB’s least successful franchises in 2018. The Tribe still figure to have a stranglehold on the division, though the upstart Twins have kicked off the winter with a flurry of moves, and prospect-rich White Sox are shooting well beyond their typical free-agent moon. Here’s a look at the three most pressing needs for each team in the division (listed in order of 2018 finish) . . .
- Find an outfielder (or three). The Tribe probably don’t need to do anything this winter if their aim is simply to lock down a fourth straight division crown, but surely the title-starved club, rife with franchise icons on the infield and in the rotation, has set its sights a good deal higher. If so, they’ll need to fix their desolate outfield situation, which currently features some haphazard mix of Jordan Luplow, Jake Bauers, Leonys Martin, Greg Allen, and Tyler Naquin. Jason Kipnis could be an option as well, though the club has already swapped penciled-in third baseman Yandy Diaz for Bauers, which should force Jose Ramirez back to the hot corner and Kipnis – who suffered through a second consecutive subpar season in ’18 – back to second. The Indians saved about $18MM by dealing Yonder Alonso and Edwin Encarnacion, so this should be their first priority.
- Address the pen. Behind star-level closer Brad Hand, the Tribe pen is surprisingly thin. Tyler Olson, essentially a LOOGY at this point in his career, is otherwise the club’s highest-producing returner, with a 2.94 xFIP in just 29 IP. Stunningly, not a single other returning Indian reliever posted higher than 0.1 fWAR in 2018, with heralded midseason acquisition Adam Cimber posting a dreadful 3.15 K/9 over an identical 3.15 BB/9 in his stint with the club. Cleveland has long treasured bargain pickups in this area, and may again be left shuffling through the bin in search of help.
- Acquire a catcher. Recent deals have stripped the club of star prospect Francisco Mejia and the up-and-down Yan Gomes, leaving just a combination of Roberto Perez and Eric Haase behind the dish, each of whom project around replacement level. An upper-minors savior isn’t in the wings, so the club will likely be forced to look elsewhere for an upgrade.
- Solidify the back end of the rotation. The Twins have gone all-in on righty power (Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop) this winter, but have still yet to address a number of staff holes. A top end of Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, and Kyle Gibson – plus a returning Michael Pineda – is a nice start, but three of the four are free agents after the season, and the club has little in the way of track record after that. Youngsters Stephen Gonsalves, Lewis Thorpe, and Fernando Romero could fill in eventually, but none appear poised to immediately lock down a role.
- Shore up the pen. Taylor Rogers quietly had one of MLB’s best relief seasons in 2018 (a dominant 54 FIP-) and Trevor May is a quality arm, but the Twins lack anything in the way of cohesion beyond that. Figureheads Addison Reed and Trevor Hildenberger struggled mightily with the long ball last year and, with the fickle nature of even longtime bullpen success stories, can hardly be counted on in the season to come. Lefty Andrew Vasquez deserves at least an early-season look after sporting minor league numbers that nearly defy belief, but the club would do well to hunt down two or three more proven performers in the back end.
- Don’t mess with Kepler. German-born Max Kepler has accrued nearly three full seasons’ worth of MLB at-bats in his young career and has yet to produce even a league-average line, but a closer look suggests there may be much more to come. Indeed, the 25-year-old quietly accumulated a solid 2.6 fWAR last season despite a balls-in-play average of just .236, and his plate-discipline profile (11.6 BB%/15.7 K%) stood as one of the AL’s best. Kepler earns plus defensive marks wherever he plays, and could be a breakout center-field candidate if Byron Buxton again sputters early in the season. Kepler is an apparently a sought-after commodity on the trade market this winter, but the man who Steamer projects to produce a 110 wRC+ (Brandon Nimmo, by comparison, is at 112) should have a long-term home in Minneapolis.
- Find a taker for Nick Castellanos. Castellanos, 26, had his best offensive season last year, slashing .298/.354/.500 (130 wRC+) with a celestial 48% hard-hit rate. He’s entering the last year of team control, though, and would seem to have to have little on-field value for a rebuilding Tiger club; numerous teams are said to have had interest, but the price (somewhat oddly, given his defensive ineptitude) remains exorbitant.
- Continue to hunt for flip candidates. Thus far in the offseason, Detroit has signed Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, and Jordy Mercer, all of whom (but especially the former two) could have legitimate mid-season trade value if they unexpectedly return to form. Pickups of this ilk seem ideal for a Tiger team in flux; a few more, perhaps at multiple spots in the outfield and in the bullpen, could be an excellent jumpstart for the nascent rebuild.
- Add prospect depth. It’s been years – decades, maybe – since the Tiger farm churned out multiple big leaguers at a time, with the team instead preferring to assemble their best clubs through shrewd trades and lavish free-agent signings. Now, though, seems the perfect time to amass a burgeoning juggernaut on the farm; the club is off to a great start, with three of the league’s top-50 prospects in place, but strength in numbers will be the order of the next few seasons in Motown.
Chicago White Sox
- Sign one of (or both) Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. This remains a long shot, to be sure, but the talk in Chicagoland seems to be intensifying around each superstar. Whether the White Sox, who’ve never handed out a free-agent contract north of $70MM in club history, are willing to meet the respective enormous demands is unclear, but a seat at the table may be sufficient for the long-suffering fans on the Southside.
- Find guys who put the ball in play. The White Sox led baseball with a hard-to-believe 26.3 K% last year, and received meager ancillary benefit, with a mid-pack team ISO of just .160. Among regulars, only Jose Abreu had a strikeout percentage under 20%, which may well be a first in major-league history. A power-driven lineup makes sense in the homer-happy Guaranteed Rate Field, but it won’t mean much if the club continues to strike out at a historic collective pace.
- Find guys who keep the ball in play. Chicago’s 115 xFIP- was dead-last in MLB last year, aided in no small part by a league-worst 4.09 BB/9 and the tendency of its starters to deliver up the gopher ball. Head culprit James Shields is gone, but the club needs, urgently, to be on the scent of pitchers with a track record of limiting the home run. Perhaps no pitcher would be a better fit than Marcus Stroman (0.81 career HR/9), but others, like Gio Gonzalez, Mike Leake, Sonny Gray, and even perhaps Martin Perez, who was homer-allergic in his previous few seasons prior to last, would be excellent choices as well.
Kansas City Royals
- Scour the depths for pitching help. Kansas City’s pitching staff was, by any account, an unmitigated disaster last season, as the team’s hurlers struck out a mere 7.27 men per nine on the way to near-league-worst output. The team, oddly, has poured so much of its resources into finding high-contact offensive players, but seems thoroughly disinterested in identifying their inverse on the pitching staff. The 2018 Royals featured nine regular contributors who struck out seven or fewer men last season, none of whom received much help from the unit’s highest-priced contingent of Ian Kennedy and Danny Duffy. Put simply, the Royals need mound help wherever they can find it.
- Cash in peak-value assets. 30-year-old Whit Merrifield’s value will likely never be higher – fresh off a 5.2 fWAR season, the versatile IF/OF has already piqued the interest of a number of a clubs, all of whom have been informed that he likely is not available. Such a strategy seems unsound – Merrifield, after all, projects around league-average next season, would seem to have hit his zenith, and doesn’t figure to be a key cog in the next contending Royals club. Plus, there’s the troubling track record – it took Whit three tries to progress beyond Double-A, and another three to get past AAA. If a crater is on the horizon, Kansas City will certainly be kicking themselves in the seasons to come.
- Find regular at-bats for Brett Phillips and Jorge Soler. The two former top-50 prospects have seen their value slide precipitously over the last two seasons, but it’s certainly not time to give up on either yet. Alex Gordon and the newly-signed Billy Hamilton figure to take up two-thirds of the outfield slots, and team favorite Jorge Bonifacio is likely to contend at the other, but the non-contending Royals must find a way to get both of these players at least 400 plate appearances in 2019.