Going into the season, the Indians are seen as the clear-cut favorites in the AL Central. Many people believe that they have no real competition for the division crown, but that line of thinking may just be incorrect. What team really has the ability to surpass the tribe and challenge for the AL Central title? The Minnesota Twins. Despite only having 78 wins a year ago, the Twins should not be taken lightly. The Twins have the ability to be a serious threat and (dare I say it) they can potentially win this division.
Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are obviously one of a kind players, and they play a major role in the success of the Indians offense. However, outside of those two superstars, the team lacks a lot of depth offensively and the lineup just isn’t that deep. While the Twins don’t boast talents like those two, they are much deeper one through nine.
The Twins carry a viable offensive threat throughout the whole lineup. Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler have proved to be consistent 20-25 home run hitter from the left side of the plate. Minnesota has also added good veteran hitters to supplement the lineup. The biggest and most dangerous name of the bunch is Nelson Cruz, who is a very dangerous power threat at DH. Also, names like C.J. Cron (who had a nice season in Tampa last year) and Marwin Gonzalez have been added to the mix. On top of these nice offensive pieces, the lineup has players who can have bounce back years and get back to an All-Star level. Let’s not forget just two seasons ago, newly-acquired second baseman Jonathan Schoop and Miguel Sano combined for sixty home runs. It is also important to note that shortstop Jorge Polanco missed eighty games a season ago with a PED suspension. He will be back for presumably the entire season at the top of the order. Any offensive progression from Byron Buxton is just a bonus, although he has shown the ability to hit in the past.
On the flip side of the coin, one thing that is a driving force and clear advantage for the Indians is the rotation. However, for the Twins, how the rotation performs will have a large effect on the type of season they have. As it stands right now they have the pieces to have a solid yet unspectacular rotation. Leading the way is Jose Berrios, who has spectacular stuff and has the potential to make huge strides as the clubs ace. The names following Berrios are not going to strike fear into the opponent, but they are quality arms that will give their team a chance to win more often than not. A name that has had nice improvement the past year was Kyle Gibson. Due to an increased strikeout rate and lower HR/FB rate Gibson improved his ERA from 5.07 to 3.62, while his FIP went from 4.85 to 4.13. It may not be likely to expect the same 3.62 ERA but it is reasonable to expect a 3.80-4.20 ERA over 180-200 quality innings.
The real players who can make or break the rotation are Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda. Odorizzi has had a very serviceable career and the only thing standing in his way has been injuries and a lack of durability. If he can give 180 innings without missing any significant time, he will surely bolster the rotation. Speaking of injured pitchers, a huge wild card for the rotation is the return of Pineda, who last year was recovering from Tommy John. He has had big games in which he flat out dominant and a return to form would be big for Minnesota.
Neither the Twins nor the Indians have a particularly strong bullpen. The Indians likely have the stronger group led by the likes of Brad Hand. However, the pitchers behind Hand don’t inspire a lot of confidence going into the season, and some pitchers will have to make major strides in order to make the ‘pen a formidable force. The outlook is quite similar for the Twins with the back end consisting of Blake Parker and Trevor May. Parker has been good with the Angels the last two seasons, posting a 2.54 and 3.26 ERA. However, his FIP increased from 2.71 to 4.40, so it will be interesting to see how Parker fares this season. May put up his best numbers in the majors last season after coming back from Tommy John surgery. He posted a 3.20 ERA, 3.02 FIP and boasted a strong 12.79 strikeouts per nine over 25.1 innings. But he doesn’t have a precedent of this type of Major League success, so it will be interesting to see if the breakout is real.
Besides the rotation, another thing that the Indians hold a significant advantage over the Twins is defense and baserunning. Many of the Twins players (almost all) have poor marks in baserunning. One of the few players with good base running ability and plus speed, Buxton, has a tough time getting on base and may not get the chance to capitalize on that ability. Stolen bases were also low for the Twins, whereas the tribe had Ramirez (35), Lindor (25), and Martin (7) in limited time on the base paths. Defensively, the Tribe only have two players who impress defensively, Buxton out in center and catcher Jason Castro. The Tribe has better defensive marks at every position except center field, however, Martin is no slouch defensively there, either.
Minor league depth is a crucial area that helps teams get through the season and can bring reinforcements. Each club has several players that can make the jump to the big leagues and have major impacts on the club’s season. The Twins lack of quality starting pitching depth may require guys like Stephen Gonslaves and Zack Littell to get major league starts. Quite frankly, both did not fare well during their brief time in the majors last year. It is quite possibly one or even both will need to take some back of the rotation innings this year and a step forward in their progression seems necessary.
Those two are not the only minor league option the Twins can go to as they have another viable option in the farm. Although not quite ready, only having 28.2 innings at Triple-A, Lewis Thorpe has higher potential than either Gonslaves or Littell. Despite a few too many home run balls allowed, Thorpe has strikeout stuff and ability from the left side recording 157 strikeouts in 129.2 innings.
The Indians also have guys who can make major league impact from the farm. First baseman Bobby Bradley lurks as a power threat from the left side, however, it appears he may need to cut down on strikeouts in order to make strides at the next level. Another prospect that has a chance to make an impact especially with the injury to Francisco Lindor is Yu Chang. Like Bradley, Chang does strikeout a lot but he is a viable power option at shortstop. He could potentially fill in as a placeholder in the infield.
With the bullpen being an issue in Cleveland, it is quite possible that last year’s second round pick Nick Sandlin gets a shot. Already reaching Double-A, Sandlin’s three quarter arm slot could add another dimension to the bullpen late in the season. Now with all these players the Indians seemingly have an advantage in minor league depth who can make an impact, but one specific player sets the Indians apart from the Twins. That prospect is Triston McKenzie. The Tribe’s best prospect has ace potential and can seriously impact the conclusion of the Indians season, whether it be as a starter or multi inning reliever. McKenzie can very easy be the piece that puts the team over the top, and push this team towards Word Series contention.
Luckily for the Twins, they can add talent from other organizations via trade. The Twins are set up quite well to add additional impact players from other teams, while the Indians may not have that ability. For starters, financial flexibility is in the Twins favor. With the only players on the books past this year being Kepler, Polanco and Gonzales, the team can afford to get a player with multiple years of control. The Indians finances are more dire and they may not be able to add a whole lot of payroll. The Twins also have advantage in tradeable prospect capital. With both Royce Lewis (number 5) and Alex Kirillof (number 9) being ranked in the top ten prospect list by MLB pipeline and another prospect Brujdar Graterol (number 68) being in the top 100, the Twins certainly have the ammunation for top tier talent, especially with other major league players occupying the positions of Lewis and Kirillof. It is also important to note that while McKenzie is a great trade asset, it may not be a great idea to trade him with Trevor Bauer’s pending free agency in two years.
With all this in mind, it seems as though an awful lot needs to happen in order for the Twins to over take the Indians. Still, it is certainly a plausible scenario. Despite it being unlikely, surprises happen every year and games aren’t won on paper. It’s important to not look towards to the playoffs before the season even begins and to take the Twins as a viable threat to overcome and to hopefully be a top the AL Central once again.