Checking in on the American League Central as Spring Training nears

Happy New Year, baseball fans.

We’re 40 days away until pitchers and catchers report to spring training. While we’re still a ways away until game action, it doesn’t hurt to look ahead. Here are the thought processes and feelings of the five American League Central clubs in 2018.

Detroit Tigers

After ring-chasing for nearly a decade, the mood has since changed in the Motor City. A belly-up 2017 campaign marked three straight seasons since their last postseason appearance, and the combination of an aging roster and heavy payroll prompted general manager Al Avila to launch a full-fledged rebuild.

The upcoming season will be uncharted territory for the Tigers. The inaugural campaign of the expected three-to-five-year rebuild will feature a lot of fresh faces, mirroring a 25-man roster carousel that fans got a glimpse of in the second half of ’17.

After Brad Ausmus was relieved of his duties after four seasons and a 314-332 record, Ron Gardenhire was hired for his first managerial job since 2014 and Ian Kinsler was traded in mid-December to the Los Angeles Angels.

Miguel Cabrera and Michael Fulmer are now the poster boys of a Tigers club undergoing some serious renovations. Big years out of Jose Iglesias, Nicholas Castellanos, Mikie Mahtook, and James McCann could provide a sense of relief that maybe this project won’t take as long as expected.

Watching Jeimer Candelario, JaCoby Jones, and Dixon Machado play nearly every day will be fun, despite some growing pains that will surely follow.

The Tigers are expected to be the basement dwellers out of the Central for the next few seasons and should become quite familiar with a top-three draft pick. But, hey, you have to start somewhere.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians built off a breakout 2016 with an even more impressive 2017 that saw their second straight AL Central title en route to a 102-60 finish, at one point winning 22-consecutive games. They were ousted by the New York Yankees in five games in the Division Series.

They’ve already lost two key pieces this offseason, as reliever Bryan Shaw signed a three-year deal to join the Colorado Rockies and slugger Carlos Santana signed for $60 million over three years with the Philadelphia Phillies. Both were instrumental in turning around a rebuilding club and reaching the World Series in 2016.

Despite the departures from a few fan favorites, the Indians are still poised to make it a third straight first place finish in the division. Corey Kluber nabbed his second Cy Young Award this past summer, and Trevor Bauer won a career-high 17 games. Andrew Miller and Cody Allen form one of the best late-inning duos in the game, and Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez might just duke it out for the AL Most Valuable Player honors.

Terry Francona and Co. will head to spring camp in Goodyear, Arizona, easily favorited out of the cakewalk that is the American League Central, anxious to snap a 69-year championship drought.

Kansas City Royals

General manager Dayton Moore elected to keep the band together for one final run, deciding against a July 31 fire sale that would result in trading eventual free agents like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Jason Vargas, and Alcides Escobar.

Instead, the Royals stumbled to an 80-82 finish and third place in the Central.

Moore’s decision to keep a handful of guys who brought Kansas City its 2015 World Series title doesn’t sit well now with the current state of the club. They’ve seemingly been forced into a rebuild with the idea that they’d be lucky to retain even one of their star free agents.

Despite the inevitable departures, this is a clubhouse that features a trio of stars in Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and Danny Duffy, with Whit Merrifield and Raul Mondesi expected to form a young but promising double play tandem. Duffy is at the forefront of the rotation after compiling a 9-10 record and 3.81 ERA.

The 2018 Royals could be a prime example of a team that is stuck. Not yet in full rebuild mode but still possessing a good amount of talented guys. They’ll compete in a weak division, but surely not enough to replicate the magical seasons that were ’14 and ’15.

Chicago White Sox

Like the Tigers, the 2018 Chicago White Sox are going to be very fresh. Unlike the Tigers, however, the White Sox farm system is overstocked with talent that’s nearly major-league ready.

General manager Rick Hahn bit the bullet and traded guys like Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Jose Quintana for prospects who polished and revamped a minor-league system in desperate need of some help.

The 2018 season will feature guys like Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Carson Fulmer coming into their own in the bigs. Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia, and Tim Anderson appear to be the guys Hahn is trying to build around after blowing it all up in previous seasons. The addition of Welington Castillo will provide some pop at the plate and guidance behind it with plenty of young arms on the 25-man roster.

The rebuild is in full-swing in the Windy City, but very promising nonetheless. The White Sox are really only a few years away from October baseball, and 2018 will be a telltale sign of what the club must do next in order to get there.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins won 26 more games in 2017 than they did the previous summer en route to a 85-77 finish that saw them snag the second Wild Card spot. Though they lost to the Yankees, you have to believe to Twins are in good position to replicate that success in the new year.

They boast a sneaky talented outfield with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler flashing signs of promise in ’17. Ervin Santana pitched like a Cy Young candidate and Jose Berrios used a 14-8 campaign as his coming-out party to the baseball world.

Miguel Sano, Brian Dozier, and Joe Mauer are consistent threats at the plate, and the signing of Fernando Rodney to close out ballgames could be just what this team needs in order to reach a second consecutive postseason appearance for the first time since 2009-10.

Rodney, 40, saved 39 games in 45 opportunities last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

With Paul Molitor at the helm, the Twins could benefit from a rebuilding Central and rival the Indians as the division’s top dog.

The world is a better place with you in it, Major League Baseball. The countdown until Opening Day is now at 84 days, but, really, who’s counting?

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