By Dave Skretta/AP Sports Writer
Guardians ace Shane Bieber was musing about Cleveland manager Terry Francona’s importance to the club earlier this spring when he made a somewhat surprising acknowledgement of what baseball’s youngest team had done a year ago.
“We kind of maximized our input,” Bieber said, “and our output.”
Indeed, that young bunch of Guardians rolled to the AL Central title by a whopping 11 games last season. They did it by relying on one of the best bullpens in baseball, crafty hitting and speed on the basepaths, and some wisdom from their 63-year-old manager, who heads into a new year feeling good after a series of serious health concerns.
“Just him being in the clubhouse, it breeds confidence,” Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan said.
The Guardians return largely intact, poised to defend their title in an otherwise down division, though with some extra pop in the lineup with the arrival of switch-hitter Josh Bell and catcher Mike Zunino. Bieber again tops the rotation, while Jose Ramirez should finally be at his best for Cleveland after dealing with a thumb injury much of last season.
“The way we played last year, we had to play a pretty clean game,” Francona said. “If that’s the way it is, I’m OK with that. Just know that if someone hits a three-run homer every once in a while, it makes it easier.
“Sometimes you can outslug some mistakes,” added Francona, who is beginning his 11th season in Cleveland. “We didn’t have that ability last year and I didn’t mind it because it’s a fun way to play, but it’s a demanding way to play.”
HOW THEY PROJECT
1. Cleveland Guardians. Their dream season a year ago, which included a wild-card win over Tampa Bay, ended with a loss to the Yankees in the divisional round. But the arrival of Bell and Zunino, and help from top prospects Bo Naylor and George Valera at some point this season, could have Cleveland in the mix for its first World Series title since 1948.
2. Minnesota Twins. The return of Carlos Correa on a club-record $200 million contract signals the Twins, who led the division for 108 days before fading badly, aren’t planning to give up easily. It would help their cause if lineup mainstays Byron Buxton, Jose Miranda and Jorge Polanco can stay healthy.
3. Chicago White Sox. After one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, Tony La Russa headed off into retirement and the White Sox hired longtime Royals assistant coach Pedro Grifol as their new manager. He has work ahead of him after Jose Abreu, their biggest star, signed a three-year deal with Houston last November.
4. Detroit Tigers. The last go-around for Miguel Cabrera could be a bumpy one. AJ Hinch is back as the manager with new GM Scott Harris calling the shots in the front office, but the club hasn’t had a winning season since 2016 and are a longshot to end that streak. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson at least provide hope for the future.
5. Kansas City Royals. The Royals fired GM Dayton Moore late last season, giving the job to his longtime understudy JJ Picollo, and hired Matt Quatraro from the Rays to replace fired manage Mike Matheny. But when it comes to the roster, little has changed from a team that went 65-97 and finished last a year ago.
Cabrera is coming off the worst year of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, hitting just .254 with five homers and 43 RBIs in 112 games for Detroit. But while Cabrera, who turns 40 in April, no doubt hopes to have a big final year, the truth is no matter how much he struggles, fans are going to head to the ballpark to see the two-time MVP one last time.
“I’m going to go out there and be me,” Cabrera said earlier this spring. “If I can hit, I want to be in the lineup.”
Naylor and Valera are two of the division’s top prospects, but the Guardians’ duo are hardly the only ones that could make a splash this season. The White Sox have high expectations for 24-year-old Cuban outfielder Oscar Colas; the Twins are hopeful that second baseman Edouard Julien can build off a dominant performance at Double-A and shortstop Royce Lewis can return from a torn ACL at some point this season; and the Royals could see the midseason arrival of outfielder Tyler Gentry.
Perhaps a couple of those hot prospects can follow in the footsteps of Kwan, who finished third in voting for AL rookie of the year, and Royals infielder Bobby Witt Jr., who finished right behind him in fourth last season.
American League Central Preview Capsules
A team-by-team look at the American League Central, including key players each club acquired and lost, top hitters and projected rotations, and outlooks for the 2023 season.
Capsules of American League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:
2022: 92-70, first place, lost to New York Yankees in Division Series.
Manager: Terry Francona (11th season).
Opening Day: March 30 at Seattle.
He’s Here: 1B/DH Josh Bell, C Mike Zunino.
He’s Outta Here: C Austin Hedges, OF/DH Franmil Reyes, RHP Bryan Shaw, C Luke Maile, 1B Bobby Bradley, INF Yu Chang, OF Nolan Jones, C Sandy Leon.
Top Hitters: 3B José Ramírez (.280, 29 HRs, 126 RBIs, .869 OPS, AL-high 44 doubles), 2B Andrés Giménez (.297, 16, 69, .837 OPS, AL-high 25 HBP), LF Steven Kwan (.298, 6, 52, .373 OBP, 9.4 AB per K, 3rd in AL Rookie of Year voting), SS Amed Rosario (.283, 11, 71, AL-high 9 triples), 1B/DH Josh Bell (.266, 17, 71, .784 OPS with Nationals and Padres).
Projected Rotation: RH Shane Bieber (13-8, 2.88 ERA, 198 Ks in 200 innings), RH Triston McKenzie (11-11, 2.96, 190 Ks), RH Cal Quantrill (15-5, 3.38; 9-0 at home in 19 starts), RH Zach Plesac (3-12, 4.31), RH Aaron Civale (5-6, 4.92).
Key Relievers: RH Emmanuel Clase (3-4, 1.36 ERA, MLB-leading 42 saves), RH Eli Morgan (5-3, 3.38, 13 walks in 66 1/3 innings), RH James Karinchak (2-0, 2.03, 3 saves, 62 Ks in 39 innings), LH Sam Hentges (3-2, 2.32, 57 appearances), RH Enyel De Los Santos (5-0, 3.04 in 50 games).
Outlook: In their first year as the Guardians, baseball’s youngest team rolled to a surprising division title, winning the AL Central by 11 games. They did it without a proven power hitter in a lineup that relied on patience at the plate, speed on the bases and timely hits. The club hopes signing the switch-hitting Bell will give the Guardians an infusion of extra-base pop. Bieber bounced back nicely following an injury-slowed season. Cleveland’s strong bullpen is a major weapon for Francona, who has finally recovered from some major health concerns. Expectations are to go farther in the postseason for a franchise that hasn’t won the World Series since 1948.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
2022: 81-81, second place.
Manager: Pedro Grifol (first season).
Opening Day: March 30 at Houston.
He’s Here: RHP Mike Clevinger, OF Andrew Benintendi.
He’s Outta Here: Manager Tony La Russa, 1B Jose Abreu, RHP Johnny Cueto, OF AJ Pollock, OF Adam Engel, INF Danny Mendick.
Top Hitters: SS Tim Anderson (.301, 6 HRs, 25 RBIs in 79 games), OF Eloy Jiménez (.295, 16, 54, .858 OPS in 84 games), OF Luis Robert (.284, 12, 56 in 98 games), 3B Yoán Moncada (.212, 12, 51), 1B Andrew Vaughn (.271, 17, 76), OF Andrew Benintendi (.304, 5, 51 with Royals and Yankees).
Projected Rotation: RH Dylan Cease (14-8, 2.20 ERA, 227 Ks), RH Lance Lynn (8-7, 3.99), RH Lucas Giolito (11-9, 4.90), RH Michael Kopech (5-9, 3.54), RH Mike Clevinger (7-7, 4.33 with San Diego).
Key Relievers: RH Liam Hendriks (4-4, 2.81 ERA, 37/41 saves), RH Reynaldo López (6-4, 2.76), RH Joe Kelly (1-3, 6.08), LHP Aaron Bummer (2-1, 2.36), LH Jake Diekman (5-4, 4.99 for Red Sox and White Sox), RH Kendall Graveman (3-4, 3.18), RH Jimmy Lambert (1-2, 3.26), RH José Ruiz (1-0, 4.60).
Outlook: The White Sox had their sights set on a deep playoff run this time last year after back-to-back early exits, only to deliver their most disappointing season in recent memory. Hall of Fame manager La Russa is gone after two seasons, and so is Abreu, the 2020 AL MVP. The White Sox hope better health and a change on the bench, not to mention the few additions they made, give them the lift they need to bounce back. One big question is when Hendriks will pitch. The three-time All-Star announced in January he has non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Clevinger was investigated by MLB after the mother of his daughter revealed allegations of domestic abuse in an Instagram post in January, about seven weeks after he signed with Chicago. MLB ultimately opted not to discipline him.
2022: 78-84, third place.
Manager: Rocco Baldelli (fifth season).
Opening Day: March 30 at Kansas City.
He’s Here: RHP Pablo López, OF Joey Gallo, C Christian Vázquez, OF Michael Taylor, INF Kyle Farmer, INF Donovan Solano.
He’s Outta Here: 1B/2B Luis Arraez, 3B Gio Urshela, C Gary Sánchez, RHP Dylan Bundy, RHP Chris Archer, RHP Michael Fulmer, LHP Devin Smeltzer, 1B Miguel Sanó, OF Jake Cave.
Top Hitters: SS Carlos Correa (.291, 22 HRs, 64 RBIs, .834 OPS), CF Byron Buxton (.224, 28, 51, .833 OPS in 92 games), 3B Jose Miranda (.268, 15, 66, .751 OPS), 2B Jorge Polanco (.235, 16, 56, .751 OPS).
Projected Rotation: RH Sonny Gray (8-5, 3.08 ERA), RH Pablo López (10-10, 3.75 for Miami), RH Tyler Mahle (6-8, 4.40 for Cincinnati and Minnesota), RH Kenta Maeda (missed 2022 season recovering from elbow surgery), RH Joe Ryan (13-8, 3.55).
Key Relievers: RH Jhoan Duran (2-4, 1.86 ERA, 8 saves, 89 Ks in 67 2/3 IP), RH Jorge López (4-7, 2.54, 23 saves for Baltimore and Minnesota), RH Griffin Jax (7-4, 3.36, 1 save).
Outlook: Bringing back Correa on a franchise-record $200 million contract after his agreed-to deals with the Giants and Mets fell through was a game-changer on and off the field for the Twins, who led the AL Central for 108 days last season before a hard fade triggered by a rash of injuries to important players. Buxton was again limited by injury, this time patellar tendinitis in his right knee and a related hip strain that popped up. Polanco is also coming off a bothersome knee injury that might keep him from being ready for opening day. Alex Kirilloff, in line to take over at first base, is yet another key hitter who’s been brought along slowly in spring training. If those four and Miranda can stay healthy, the Twins ought to have a productive lineup. If not, they’ll miss AL batting champion Arraez — who was traded to the Marlins for López — all the more. While the Twins still don’t have a true ace, their rotation is as deep as they’ve assembled lately. That’s good, because they had multiple starting pitchers hurt at all times last season. Maeda is back from Tommy John surgery.
2022: 66-96, fourth place.
Manager: A.J. Hinch (third season).
Opening Day: March 30 at Philadelphia.
He’s Here: RHP Michael Lorenzen, LHP Matthew Boyd, INF Nick Maton, INF Andy Ibanez, OF Matt Vierling.
He’s Outta Here: LHP Gregory Soto, RHP Joe Jimenez, LHP Andrew Chafin, INF Harold Castro, OF Willi Castro, INF Jeimer Candelario, C Tucker Barnhart, utility player Kody Clemens.
Top Hitters: SS Javier Baez (.238, 16 HRs, 67 RBIs, 147 Ks in 555 ABs), DH Miguel Cabrera (.254, 5, 43), CF Riley Greene (.253, 5, 42), 1B Spencer Torkelson (.203, 8, 28 in 110 games), C Eric Haase (.254, 14, 44, .748 OPS).
Projected Rotation: LH Eduardo Rodriguez (5-5, 4.05 ERA), LH Matthew Boyd (2-0, 1.35 in 10 games with Seattle), RH Michael Lorenzen (8-6, 4.24 in 18 games for Angels), RH Spencer Turnbull (4-2, 2.88 in 9 games), RH Matt Manning (2-3, 3.43 in 12 games).
Key Relievers: RH Alex Lange (7-4, 3.41 ERA in 71 games), RH Jose Cisnero (1-0, 1.08 in 28 games), LH Tyler Alexander (4-11, 4.81).
Outlook: Hopes are not high in the Motor City, where the Tigers are rebuilding as they enter the first full season under general manager Scott Harris. Detroit hasn’t had a winning season since 2016, a fact that cost former GM Al Avila his job last August, and the team hasn’t been in the playoffs in nearly a decade. The franchise desperately needs Rodriguez to bounce back after a shaky season on and off the field. The rest of the rotation includes pitchers coming off injury-shortened seasons, potentially another source of concern. Like Rodriguez, Baez is being counted on to provide a better return on the club’s investment in him than he delivered last year. Cabrera, who turns 40 on April 18, said this will be the last season of his career and fans will come to Comerica Park to watch him add to his 507 homers, 3,088 hits and 607 doubles. Greene and Torkelson are potentially young players the franchise can build around.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
2022: 65-97, fifth place.
Manager: Matt Quatraro (first season).
Opening Day: March 30 vs Minnesota.
He’s Here: RHP Jordan Lyles, LHP Ryan Yarbrough, LHP Aroldis Chapman.
He’s Outta Here: Manager Mike Matheny, CF Michael A. Taylor, SS Adalberto Mondesi.
Top Hitters: C Salvador Perez (.254, 23 HRs, 76 RBIs), SS Bobby Witt (.254, 20, 80, 30 SBs), C/OF MJ Melendez (.217, 18, 62), 1B/DH Vinnie Pasquantino (.295, 10, 26).
Projected Rotation: RH Zack Greinke (4-9, 3.68 ERA), RH Jordan Lyles (12-11, 4.42 with Baltimore), RH Brady Singer (10-5, 3.23), LH Ryan Yarbrough (3-8, 4.50 with Tampa Bay), RH Brad Keller (6-14, 5.09).
Key Relievers: RH Scott Barlow (7-4, 2.18 ERA, 24 saves), LH Aroldis Chapman (4-4, 4.46, 9 saves with Yankees), RH Dylan Coleman (5-2, 2.78), RH Taylor Clarke (3-1, 4.04), RH Josh Staumont (3-3, 6.45), LH Amir Garrett (3-1, 4.96).
Outlook: Rather than invest in free agents to improve on last year’s dismal record, the Royals hope a change in leadership from Matheny to Quatraro, coupled with some growth in their young core, will help them take a big step forward. Witt emerged as one of the game’s bright young stars and Singer had a breakout year, but the Royals need to surround both with more help. That is especially true when it comes to pitching, where Kansas City was among the worst in baseball last season.