AL Central Rundown: Starting Pitching
Image courtesy of © Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsThe Rundown:
Despite the AL Central being a division of the “haves” and “have nots,” virtually every team has starting pitching in some form or fashion. Cleveland may have some questions on the back end, but they have one of the best arms in baseball. Chicago has gotten better while Minnesota has advanced in recent seasons. Both Kansas City and Detroit are ready to lean on prospects.
Terry Francona has had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to starting pitching in recent years. Unfortunately, his organization is no longer trying to the same extent this season, and Carlos Carrasco has been moved as part of that reality. Trevor Bauer is now also two years departed and there’s much uncertainty behind his traditional ace.
Shane Bieber took home the AL Cy Young in 2020 and will enter the 2021 season looking to validate the performance over a longer haul. He was dominant in virtually every performance, and Cleveland will need that output from him given their projected offensive struggles. Behind Bieber there’s established arms in the form of Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac. Both are solid if not unexciting at this point.
Most teams will drop off following their top three, and that’s true for Cleveland. Triston McKenzie and Logan Allen should be expected to get first crack at turns four and five. They are both heralded prospects and the goal would be for an organization that’s shown success developing arms, to continue it here.
Chicago White Sox
After being acquired as the headliner for Adam Eaton, Lucas Giolito will now be teammates with his trade partner. Despite scuffling his first full season in 2018, it was in 2019 that the White Sox ace put it all together. Giolito earned an All Star bid and finished 6th in Cy Young voting. He was relatively the same last season in the shortened campaign, again earning Cy Young votes and finishing 7th in 2020.
Dallas Keuchel returns as a trusted veteran arm for Chicago, and while he’s not the same pitcher he was for the Astros a handful of years ago, expecting him to take the ball and get the job done is a good bet. Chicago acquired Lance Lynn from the Texas Rangers, and he rounds out what may be the best top-three in the division. Lynn has consistently been a force, outside of his year with the Twins, and putting that level of production into the three-hole is quite the luxury.
Predicting who or how the White Sox will fare in their final two spots is anyone’s guess. Dylan Cease was a former prospect for the Cubs but hasn’t seen much consistent big-league success. Reynaldo Lopez has been all over the map, and Carlos Rodon hasn’t taken the steps forward Chicago would’ve like to have seen at this point.
If the Tigers are going to be bad, it’s their rotation that should be a good deal of fun. Matt Boyd will again be the staff ace. He looked the part of a legit trade piece not too long ago but has since turned back into a pumpkin. A.J. Hinch will be tasked with righting that ship, and likely re-establishing his value before the 2021 trade deadline.
Behind the top spot though is where Detroit gets exciting. Tarik Skubal didn’t have the helium fellow prospect Casey Mize did, but he may end up being equally as impressive on the mound. Both have significant prospect pedigree to this point and seeing them develop at the highest level is where Tigers fans will be pinning their future hopes.
There isn’t a ton of certainty beyond that for the Detroit rotation as Michael Fulmer remains a serious question mark, Spencer Turnbull is a veteran without much of a ceiling, and Jose Urena was acquired as a waiver claim from the Miami Marlins. Detroit still has Matt Manning waiting in the wings as a top 100 prospect as well, and he could force his way into the mix sooner rather than later.
If there’s a team in the division that knows which five arms it will slot in come Opening Day, it’s the Minnesota Twins. Kenta Maeda looked the part of a guy who could be an ace and just needed to escape the shadows of Los Angeles all this time. He was arguably the best pitcher in baseball not named Shane Bieber for 2020 and expecting him to replicate that performance in 2021 isn’t much of a stretch.
Jose Berrios still has to prove he can tap into the potential assumed to be there for him, but a level of consistency was Minnesota’s goal going into 2020. Looking to avoid the late summer swoon, he changed his offseason program and will get to see the impact of that for the first time over a full 162 in 2021.
Michael Pineda may be among the best number three starters in baseball, and the way he’s worked out for the Twins has to have them grinning about the decision to ink him during a rehab year. From there it will be J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker. The former was solid in 2021 and owned a 3.44 ERA from 2016-18. The latter has never been able to stay consistently healthy but has flashed positive signs when on the mound. Depth behind them will be utilized, but that should be the group heading north.
Kansas City Royals
Somewhat similar to the Tigers, this club should struggle but has some equally interesting pieces. Kansas City also took some risks this winter that could pay off well for them. Brad Keller has all but earned the top of the rotation spot here, and club veteran Danny Duffy will follow him.
From there the Royals have two prospects that should continue to be worth watching all year long. Brady Singer was a college standout and will look to cement his place in the big leagues, while Kris Bubic took 10 turns last year and entered 2020 as a top 100 guy.
Kansas City nabbed Mike Minor in free agency, and the veteran should find his way in any one of the three back half positions. He pitched for the Royals back in 2017 and posted a career best 2.55 ERA across 77.2 innings as a reliever. Since going back to starting he owns a 4.07 ERA in 422 innings, but there’s been substantial stretches of even more impressive stuff.
Most outlets love on the Cleveland staff because of what it has been. There’s no denying that Bieber is a legit ace, but I think there’s more substance needed to determine what Plesac and Civale are. On top of that, McKenzie and Allen remain wild cards regardless of their prospect status.
Chicago White Sox B+
It was hard not to give the White Sox an “A” grade of some sorts here. Their top three could be among the best in baseball (not counting the Los Angeles Dodgers obviously). However, the problem is that after Lance Lynn they could also be a complete dumpster fire. What Reynaldo Lopez is may be indicative of how the first half goes for Chicago.
Detroit Tigers C
Not knowing what version of Matt Boyd shows up for 2021 makes this difficult, but Detroit should be looking to get the most from him before using him as a deadline chip. I’m high on Skubal and Mize has gotten plenty of praise on his own. Turnbull doesn’t do much for me, and neither does Fulmer, but Urena is two years removed from being really solid and remains just 29 years old.
Minnesota Twins B
Arguably the most established group of the division, Minnesota has a group that should represent a relatively safe floor. Both Maeda and Berrios are high upside arms while Pineda has emerged as a legit threat. Happ can be what Rich Hill was intended for last season and getting anything out of Shoemaker allows the depth to work itself out.
Kansas City Royals C-
Again, similar to the Tigers, there’s prospect development worth being excited about here. Brad Keller shouldn’t be a top of the rotation arm, and Danny Duffy may have run his course. I think the Minor move was a shrewd one though, and Bubic looked the part a season ago. If Singer can round into a legit starting arm things look better, and both Daniel Lynch and Asa Lacy could be on the way soon.
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