AL Central Rundown: Designated Hitters
Image courtesy of Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsThe Rundown
The Designated Hitter was arguably the hottest topic in the baseball world during the 2020-21 offseason. Coming off a shortened season with the position represented in both leagues, there was speculation that 2021 could pioneer the age of the universal DH.
Yet for a variety of reasons, that won’t be the case. We won’t get into that, but it’s tough to deny that the decision is the biggest reason that ageless wonder Nelson Cruz will be returning to Target Field this spring.
The renewal of Cruz and the Twins isn’t the only big news at the position in the Central. Will Franmil Reyes be able to step up to cover ground lost at the plate in Cleveland? Will a young prospect get a chance to fill the role for the Southsiders despite only having experience in Class-A ball? And what are the chances that future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera will put up solid numbers in the final stages of his career?
Here’s how things will stack up.
Kansas City Royals
With the acquisition of Andrew Benitendi from Boston, Royals slugger Jorge Soler will almost certainly continue to fill the full-time DH role for the Royals. The 28-year old Cuban was electric for Kansas City in 2019, slashing .265/.354/.569 with a league-leading 48 HR.
Like many players, 2020 was a down year for Soler. In addition to a variety of injuries, Soler posted a meager .228 AVG with only eight HR.
It’s unlikely that Soler will be able to put up numbers that rival those of 2019, a year where he played in all 162 games. Yet it is reasonable to expect a bounce-back from the strikeout-prone slugger IF he can stay healthy.
At the end of the day, health will determine Soler’s fate in 2021. Injuries have plagued him since the start of his career with the Cubs in 2012. In fact, he’s only played over 100 games in two of his six major league seasons (we won’t count 2020 on this one). Yet with health comes production, which Soler proved in 2019 and in 2015 (101 games played) with the Cubs. Expect Soler to produce if he can stay on the field.
Chicago White Sox
There’s no doubt that the White Sox were huge winners over the offseason. Holes were filled in the outfield and pitching rotation with the additions of Adam Eaton and Lance Lynn. Perhaps the biggest question remaining surrounds filling the DH role that Eloy Jimenez (who will now play LF) occupied last year.
Some clarity surfaced on the question when skipper Tony La Russa listed a few players that could potentially fill the role in a Zoom press conference on Tuesday. The most notable? Andrew Vaughn, the organization’s top prospect and first-round draft pick in 2019.
Vaughn made it to Class A Advanced ball in 2019 but had little chance to prove himself in the bust of a 2020 minor league season. The lack of experience hasn’t stopped Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America from ranking the Cal Golden Bear as the #14 prospect in the country.
Making the jump from any level of minor league baseball to the bigs is tough, let alone just 55 games in A-ball. Yet if Vaughn has something going for him, it’s that he doesn’t have to be ‘the guy’ at the plate for the Sox. There are benefits to having one of the game’s most electric offenses and the plethora of power and contact will certainly ease some of the pressure for Vaughn when he makes the transition.
Cleveland Baseball Team
Franmil Reyes is young, can hit the ball very far, and has also been able to hit for contact. Reyes also strikes out a lot, has been inconsistent in recent years, and hasn’t produced the HR power that we saw from him in San Diego.
It’s clear that Reyes has the potential to be very good. In fact, Reyes had a very solid 2020 season, slashing .275/.344/.450. Those numbers would have been even better if Reyes didn’t start the first dozen games of the season with a .163/.182/.256 line.
2020 was a small sample size and one bad skid had the ability to tarnish end of the year numbers. That’s not to say that Reyes will have an electric 2021, but the young power hitter has an upside that has yet to be tapped in the AL Central.
Miguel Cabrera enters his 19th season in the MLB under his fourth manager in Detroit. And while Miggy is far from the player he used to be, there will be an essence of beauty in the air as the future Hall of Famer chasings various milestones in 2021.
With 2,866 career hits, Cabrera is on the cusp of surpassing names like Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Barry Bonds on the all-time leaderboard. 134 hits will tie him with the great Roberto Clemente at the magical number of 3,000.
New manager A.J. Hinch says that he’ll still play Cabrera at first base a few times a week to retain his “kid spirit” and to free up availability at the DH spot. Cabrera will likely put up 15-20 HR and 60-80 RBI in 2021 if he can stay healthy. Yet perhaps his biggest role at this point in his career is mentoring young players like Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, and Isaac Parades as the organization opens a new chapter.
In contrast to fellow division grandfather Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz has performed much better in the second half of his career than in his younger days. Truly an ageless wonder!
Perhaps one of Cruz’s strongest feats was his total offensive value to the Twins in 2020. Cruz posted an incredible .411 wOBA (Weighted On Base Average) in 2020, only second at the position to Marcell Ozuna.
What’s special about this statistic is that wOBA measures the value of a player’s offensive production in relation to projected runs scored. To put it simply? Cruz gets the job done in the right place at the right time.
Following back-to-back seasons about the .300 AVG mark, it’s unlikely that the 40-year-old will post numbers that high again. But then again, if there’s anyone to do it, it’s Nelson Cruz.
White Sox: C-
Andrew Vaughn has as much potential as any prospect in baseball. Yet seeing is believing, and the 22-year old with little pro ball experience will have to prove himself early on to stay up.
Detroit Tigers: C+
Miguel Cabrera is one of the greatest players of this generation but it’s okay to recognize that he isn’t the massive threat that he was 5-10 years ago. Miggy’s contributions will be valuable, but not significant enough to move the Tigers out of the division cellar.
Kansas City Royals: B-
Jorge Soler has a high ceiling but a low floor. A stellar year at the plate bumps him up to an A, but another injury-plagued season puts him at a C-. It won’t be 2019, but Soler will have a solid season for the up-and-coming Royals
Cleveland Baseball Team: B
2021 could be the make or break year for Franmil Reyes. The organization has lost key pieces Reyes is one of the few offensive components remaining. Don’t expect Reyes to put up 40 HR, but don’t be surprised if he posts a ~.265 AVG with 20 HR.
Minnesota Twins: A-
Nelson Cruz is the perfect fit for the Twins on and off the field. There’s no doubt that he’ll continue to lead the team in the clubhouse and it’s likely that Cruz will have another solid year at the plate.
FanGraphs put out their annual projections (Steamer) for DH production in 2021. Take a look.
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