2017 Recap: AL Central

This is the fourth installment in a six-part series in which I will go division by division and recap the biggest storylines of each team’s season. To find the recaps for other divisions, follow the links below.

NL East
AL East
NL Central
NL West
AL West

All WAR metrics are fWAR unless otherwise stated.

Cleveland Indians (102-60, .630)

The Indians were the story of the regular season. They then went on to lose in a heartbreaking (or amazing, if you’re a Yankees fan) game 5 of the ALDS, but that doesn’t mean the season was all for naught. Indians fans may think it was because the team didn’t finish the business they started last season, they didn’t even make it out of the first round of the playoffs, but they were, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Third Order Win%, the best team in baseball this year. The most notable of their many achievements this season was that the team broke the single-season record for consecutive games won by snapping off a 22-game winning streak during August and September. Technically, they don’t have the record for consecutive games without a loss, that belongs to the 1916 New York Giants, who had winnings streaks of 12 and 16 games split up by a tie, but they have the record for most consecutive games won. And that was only the first item on their laundry list of accomplishments in 2017.

They started the year by adding DH Edwin Encarnacion to an already-stacked lineup that produced the second-highest fWAR total in the AL in 2016. They also made a splash just before the season kicked off by signing then-24-year-old infielder Jose Ramirez to a five-year, $28MM contract. That deal already looks like it will pay off in spades; Ramirez contributed 6.6 fWAR in 2017 and triple-slashed a career-best .318/.374/.583. Assuming he compiles 0.0 fWAR for the remainder of his contract, the money will have already been worth it. The Indians are fortunate enough that they inked Ramirez to an extension before his breakout season, because now they have their answer at 3B (or 2B, should they choose to move Ramirez there after the contract of incumbent 2B Jason Kipnis expires) for the next half-decade.

The Indians regular season was best remembered by their insane second half, but they weren’t bad in the first half either. They finished the first half at 47-40, with their pitchers leading the AL in ERA and fWAR, and their hitters ranking in the top third of the AL in nearly every major offensive category.  The second half, however, was even better.

The team went a ridiculous 53-28 in the second half, thanks to a combined 45-13 (.776) in August, September, and October. After the All-Star Break, the Tribe paced the AL in HR and BB%, while their pitchers led the AL by nearly five fWAR (for reference, six AL teams didn’t even compile five fWAR in the entire second half of the season), and led the league in all the following categories: K%, BB%, ERA, WHIP, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and HR/9. This was thanks to the great second-half performances of Corey Kluber (1.78 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 11.58 K/9 in 110.1 IP), Carlos Carrasco (3.12 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.57 K/9 in 95.1 IP), and Danny Salazar (3.20 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 13.00 K/9 in 45.0 IP).

The Indians starting rotation led all of baseball in second-half ERA by almost three quarters of a run; the difference in second-half ERA between the Indians starting rotation and the starters on the second place team (Cubs) was greater than the difference between the Cubs starters and the Red Sox starters, who finished seventh. This is mostly because of the win streak; over the 22 games the Indians went without a loss, they allowed only 36 runs. That’s a little more than 1.6 runs per game. They scored 6.36 runs per game over those 22 games. That brings me to their second-half offense.

The team overall wasn’t ranked at the top of baseball in fWAR or wRC+ in the second half, but that doesn’t do justice to the performances of SS Francisco Lindor (.298/.366/.563, 19 HR, 11 SB in 337 PA), 1B/DH Carlos Santana (.287/.392/.514, 13 HR, identical 13.2% K and BB rates, both quite good, in 296 PA), and 2B/3B/MVP candidate Jose Ramirez (.300/.356/.560, 12 HR, 7 SB, 9.5% K% in 284 PA). During the win streak, the team triple-slashed .299/.374/.529, which is crazy when you consider that this is the combined triple-slash among all players, not just a few, and this is producing at an all-star level. They hit 44 HR, good for two long balls per game, and led the league in K:BB ratio over their winning streak. The Indians, in my opinion, were the best team in the AL during the regular season, and their 22-game winning streak was the cherry on top of a great season that unfortunately ended in disappointment.

American League hitter ranks: 818 Runs scored (3rd), 212 HR (8th), 88 SB (t-9th), .263/.339/.449 triple-slash (2nd/t-2nd/2nd), 27.3 WAR (3rd)
American League pitcher ranks: 3.30 ERA (1st), 27.5% K% (1st), 1.16 WHIP (1st), 31.7 WAR (1st)

Minnesota Twins (85-77, .525)

The Twins finished 59-103 in 2016. They were not good. In fact, they were the worst team in baseball. This year, they shocked everybody by capturing the second wild card spot in the American League. They finished a very respectable 85-77, a 16.1% improvement on their winning percentage from past year. They became the first team ever to make it to the postseason following a 100-loss season, thanks to some good-to-great performances by veterans, such as 2B Brian Dozier and right-hander Ervin Santana, and youngsters, like CF Byron Buxton and 3B/DH Miguel Sano.

Dozier became the third 2B since WWII to hit at least 20 HR and swipe 10 bags in four straight seasons, joining Alfonso Soriano (he did it seven straight times, but only four of those were as a 2B), and Ryne Sandberg. Santana enjoyed a career renaissance, posting a 3.28 ERA with league-leading three complete-game shutouts over 211.1 innings. Buxton captured the AL Gold Glove and posted career-bests in nearly every offensive category, which includes his torrid second half triple-slash of .300/.347/.546. Okay, maybe not that torrid, but considering that many regarded Buxton as a bust offensively prior to this year, it’s pretty good. Sano hit a career-best 27 HR in only 114 games, showcasing his game-changing power for the third straight season. And to add to all of that, manager Paul Molitor took home the AL Manager of the Year Award.

In terms of in-season play, the team, as far as playoff teams go, was relatively unexciting. They didn’t hit particularly many homers, their pitchers, save for Santana in April and May, weren’t anything special, and the team didn’t have any crazy winning streaks. That’s not to say it wasn’t a remarkable season for the Twins, it was probably the most remarkable single-season turnaround in franchise history, and possibly all of baseball in recent memory, but the team didn’t really have anything that helped them stand out. That may just be because they’re a small-market team without a player that gets a lot of attention (think Stanton, Judge, Harper, Kershaw, etc.), but that’s how I saw the Twins this past year.

With all that being said, this is a franchise that is set up for playoff contention for the foreseeable future. They didn’t lose any of their major pieces from this past season and they figure to have two of their top three prospects in MI Nick Gordon and left-hander Stephen Gonsalves join the big league club at some point in 2018. They will need to restock on bullpen arms prior to the beginning of 2018, but given that this free agent class is one rife with solid relief pitchers, that shouldn’t be an issue. Look for the Twins to remain in the Wild Card hunt in 2018, especially in a weak AL Central.

American League hitter ranks: 815 Runs scored (4th), 206 HR (9th), 95 SB (5th), .260/.334/.434 triple-slash (t-4th/4th/6th), 24.2 WAR (4th)
American League pitcher ranks: 4.60 ERA (8th), 18.8% K% (14th), 1.37 WHIP (t-9th), 9.9 WAR (11th)

Kansas City Royals (80-82, .494)

Oh how the mighty have fallen. The Royals, after going to back-to-back fall classics in 2014 and 2015 (they beat my beloved Mets in 2015), have finished the past two seasons at or below .500. This past season was really their last shot at a deep playoff run, but seeing as they didn’t make the playoffs and didn’t manage to trade any of their impending free agents for future assets, I’d say this was a failed season for the Royals.

The Royals begun their season by shipping established closer Wade Davis off to the Chicago Cubs for the oft-injured Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, who hasn’t topped 101 games played in a single season to this point. Soler only appeared in 35 games for the Royals in 2017, triple-slashed an incredibly disappointing .144/.245/.258, and was demoted to AAA in early June. They dealt speedy centerfielder Jarrod Dyson to the Mariners in exchange for Nate Karns, who was a pleasant surprise for the Royals in 2017, posting a 10.1 K/9, 3.92 K/BB, and 4.17 ERA in 45.1 innings pitched (8 starts). Easily the most significant event of the Royals offseason, though was the tragic death of star Dominican pitcher Yordano Ventura. Ventura was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic at age 25. In 547.2 major league innings, he compiled a 3.89 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 2.23 K:BB ratio.

The Royals tried to replace Ventura’s innings by signing pitchers Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, but neither signing did the trick; Wood pitched to a 6.91 ERA before getting injured, and Hammel, though he led the team in innings pitched, did so with a 5.29 ERA. The Royals’ pitching this past season was not a strong point at all, as a matter of fact. The top three pitchers on their team by innings pitched (the aforementioned, Hammel, Jason Vargas, and Ian Kennedy) combined for a 4.98 ERA in 514 innings. Danny Duffy, who was widely regarded as their staff ace, only made 24 starts in 2017 thanks to an oblique strain and elbow impingement that sent him to the disabled list for several weeks during the season, though he did post a pretty solid 3.81 ERA. Duffy was the only pitcher for the Royals who made at least one start and had an ERA under 4, which speaks volumes to how not good the pitching was in Kansas City.

The offense, on the other hand had some standout contributors. 3B Mike Moustakas, who is now a free agent, mashed a career-high and Royals franchise record 38 HR in a contract year while also triple-slashing .272/.314/.521. Moustakas is only 29 years old, so he should command a contract of at least five seasons in this upcoming free agency period. 1B Eric Hosmer set career highs in batting average (.318) and OPS (.882), and tied his career high in HR (25), and he’ll look to join Moustakas with a lucrative deal in this upcoming signing period.

The surprise of the season was 28-year-old second baseman Whit Merrifield. Merrifield triple-slashed a promising, yet uninspiring .283/.323/.392 in half a season in 2016. He then, seemingly out of nowhere, produced a .288/.324/.460 triple-slash in 2017, and led the American League with 34 stolen bases. He also added 19 HR in his 145 PA, and it seems that the Royals have found their everyday second baseman for the next half-decade.

The team’s bullpen also housed two key contributors in Mike Minor and Scott Alexander. Those two led the Royals’ bullpen in innings pitched in 2017, and delivered ERAs of 2.55 and 2.48 respectively. Minor was signed on a one-year deal and has boosted his stock enough to potentially cash in on a multi-year contract in this upcoming offseason. Alexander, on the other hand, is under team control until 2023, and should be a force in the Royals bullpen for the next few seasons.

After a disappointing 2017, the Royals are going to have to go through a couple of seasons of overhaul, seeing as their farm system is pretty bad (Baseball America ranked the Royals system 29th in this August 3rd, 2017 article that is behind a paywall). They have now lost also a few franchise cornerstones in Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer, as well as key contributors like the aforementioned Vargas and Minor, SS Alcides Escobar, who started for the Royals during their 2015 World Series run, and reliever Peter Moylan, who pitched to a 3.49 ERA while appearing in a major-league leading 79 games this past season. All in all, the future is not looking particularly bright in Kansas City.

American League hitter ranks: 702 Runs scored (13th), 193 HR (11th), 91 SB (6th), .259/.311/.420 triple-slash (t-6th/last/11th), 13.7 WAR (12th)
American League pitcher ranks: 4.63 ERA (10th), 19.6% K% (10th), 1.39 WHIP (11th), 12.3 WAR (7th)

Chicago White Sox (67-95, .414)

The White Sox and the Royals are opposites in a handful of ways. They both play in the AL Central and were both not good this past season (the White Sox were actually awful…not good is an understatement) but, at least in my view, that’s where the similarities stop. The White Sox were not expected to do anything this past year, and they sent that message loud and clear to fans by trading away star starting pitcher Chris Sale for a package of four prospects, two of whom were blue-chippers Yoan Moncada, and Michael Kopech. They then traded starting outfielder Adam Eaton to the Nats for some more prospects. During the season, they traded virtually all the relevant pieces on their roster for prospects; starters Jose Quintana and Miguel Gonzalez, relievers David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak, and Tyler Clippard, and 3B Todd Frazier all were moved for prospects, PTBNL, cash, or a combination of the three.

As a result of all this, the White Sox had the fifth-youngest average age of any team in the bigs this year. There weren’t many highlights for the team, save for April 13th, when they trotted out an outfield of three Garcias. I suppose that’s not entirely true; 24-year-old utility man Nicky Delmonico posted an OPS nearly 100 points higher than his minor league OPS while also knocking 9 long balls in only 43 games. Lucas Giolito, one of the prospects they received in the Eaton trade, seemed to right the ship by posting a 2.38 ERA in 45.1 innings after a disappointing major league debut in 2016. 22-year-old infielder Yoan Moncada even got in on the action, improving on a pretty brutal July and August by triple-slashing .276/.349/.469 with 5 HR in September (he hit 3 HR in July and August combined). He also cut his strikeout rate down from 36% in July in August to 27.5% in September, so, after a disappointing debut in 2016 for Moncada and Giolito, it seems that they are righting the ship.

The main question for the White Sox going forward is how their prospects will pan out. They are in the conversation with the Atlanta Braves for the best farm system in the majors, and should be strong contenders in a few years. The team has engaged in an Astros-style rebuild, and it seems to be working so far, so we’ll see how the White Sox approach this upcoming offseason with its relatively weak free agent class and a lack of trade-able assets.

American League hitter ranks: 706 Runs scored (12th), 186 HR (t-13th), 71 SB (11th), .256/.314/.417 triple-slash (10th/12th/12th), 13.4 WAR (13th)
American League pitcher ranks: 4.78 ERA (13th), 19.2% K% (12th), 1.42 WHIP (13th), 4.5 WAR (last)

Detroit Tigers (64-98, .395)

The Tigers, much like the other cellar dweller in their division, had a rather uninspiring season. The only difference is that the White Sox, according to FiveThirtyEight were projected to finish the season as the worst team in the American League. The Tigers, on the other hand, were projected to finish in the middle of the pack at 82-80. Needless to say, it didn’t turn out that way. The Tigers finished with the worst record in baseball and traded away nearly all of their assets during the season, sending a clear message to fans that this is now a franchise in rebuild mode.

April and May started off pretty plainly for the Tigers. They finished April at 12-12 and their team record was 13-16 in May. After a 10-15 June and a disappointing start to July (they finished the first half 39-48), the Tigers finally decided that they would start to sell off their assets, and the fire sale began.

In the next month and a half, the Tigers traded starting RF J.D. Martinez, team ace Justin Verlander, reliever Justin Wilson, catcher Alex Avila, and LF Justin Upton, all for prospects, players to be named, or cash. They then proceeded to go 25-50 in the second half, including an absolutely putrid 6-24 in September and October, all of which helped them secure the #1 pick in this upcoming draft.

The Tigers don’t have a farm system as stacked as the White Sox, but they’re not stuck like the Royals are in terms of having a lack of both MLB-level talent and talent in the minors. Four of the prospects they acquired this season now sit in their organizational top 10 according to MLB Pipeline, and they still have Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, and Victor Martinez to deal if they so choose. Michael Fulmer is going to lead the way for this Tigers team for the next few seasons, but they have a ways to go before they contend for anything.

American League hitter ranks: 735 Runs scored (10th), 187 HR (12th), 65 SB (12th), .258/.324/.424 triple-slash (t-8th/7th/t-8th), 14.8 WAR (11th)
American League pitcher ranks: 5.36 ERA (last), 19.1% K% (13th), 1.50 WHIP (last), 10.5 WAR (9th)

Up Next: NL West

(Image Credit: David Richard/David Richard Photo)

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