Are the White Sox the favorite?
Who will win the AL Central in 2021? Since the White Sox traded for Lance Lynn, added Adam Eaton to address a need in the OF and then spent big to add Liam Hendriks to their bullpen, the White Sox have been the favorite to win the division. ESPN recently posted their projected All-Stars for 2021. Let's just say it was much kinder to the White Sox:
They projected 6 White Sox and didn't include Abreu. The Twins had a few mentions (Garver, Donaldson and Buxton) but mostly because of injury questions. Cruz was the only Twin on the list. While it does appear that the Sox may have more star power, let's analyze how the teams stack up.
Let's start with the rotations, where the top 5 for the Twins are likely Maeda, Berrios, Pineda, Happ and Dobnak. The White Sox projected top 5 are Giolito, Keuchel, Lynn, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodon/Reynaldo Lopez. The Twins had a team ERA of 3.58 and the White Sox were at 3.81. I would agree that adding Lynn (as much as it pains me) improves the Sox slightly more that Happ does the Twins. Keuchel is due for some significant regression, but Giolito should make up for some of that. Maeda isn't likely to repeat a #2 in the Cy young race season, but some continued improvement by Berrios and a full year of Pineda can make up for some of his regression. While the starters can be slotted in multiple orders, I feel confident in saying the Twins win two of the matchups and the White Sox 2 with the #5 spot being a push. Overall, I think these rotations are very comparable.
The Hendriks signing for the White Sox clearly helps their bullpen, but the subtraction of Colome should not be dismissed. The White Sox rely on a younger group of relievers behind Hendriks that do have promise. Whether the Twins will have an improved bullpen this year is up for debate. Adding Colome, Robles and Anderson while removing May, Romo and Clippard would suggest a downgrade. The Twins front office and coaching staff have shown the ability to build a very solid bullpen with what sometimes looks like questionable parts. I do like the upside of Jorge Alcala and hope he can fill a role similar to Trevor May from last season. I like the top three of the Twins (Colome, Rogers and Duffey) over the Sox, but I think I would give the Sox a slight edge at this point. It does still feel like the Twins might have a Clippard-like signing to finish off their offseason.
Thus far, I would give the White Sox an ever so slight advantage. Now let's analyze each position. At catcher, the White Sox may have the more complete player in Grandal, but if Garver can find some of his 2019 form I feel like the Twins have a slight edge due to their depth with Jeffers. At first it's Abreu vs Sano. It's hard to argue against last year's AL MVP, but the White Sox edge at 1B may not be as great as it appears. The 34 year old definitely benefited from the short season as he put up an OPS 150 pts higher than either of the previous two seasons. It was encouraging to see Sano play 53/60 games for the Twins this past year and it's not unreasonable to think Sano could match Abreu's output this season, although I still give Abreu the edge. The Simmons signing for the Twins helps them in multiple ways. Moving Jorge Polanco to 2B gives the Twins the edge at 2B over Nick Madrigal, although Arraez may have already had that edge. Polanco provides much more pop than Madrigal. Moving Arraez to Util also give the Twins an edge over fielding-first Danny Mendick. The White Sox have the edge at SS with the back-to-back .300 seasons from Tim Anderson over Andrelton Simmons. To round out the infield, we have the interesting case of Josh Donaldson versus Yoan Moncada. We have a pretty good idea of what Donaldson brings when healthy, but of course that is the kicker. Can he play 140 games? Moncada had a breakout season in 2019 with a .915 OPS, but struggled mightily last season, possibly due to the lingering effects of contracting coronavirus prior to the season. I'd give the edge to Moncada, but this could easily go either way. The scorecard in the infield goes 3-2 for the Sox if you include Util, but this is a close race.
The outfield has some intriguing comparisons as well. Eloy Jimenez gets the edge in LF over whoever the Twins put out there. He has an all-star level bat but by all accounts should probably be a DH. Max Kepler struggled a bit in 2020 but should be able to out-produce Adam Eaton. At CF we get to compare two former #1 overall prospects in baseball. Luis Robert was on a tear to start 2020 but struggled the second half. Byron Buxton has two years in a row with a .800+ OPS, but continues to have difficulty staying on the field. Robert probably gets the edge here until Buxton proves he can stay on the field, but Robert does need to show that he can make adjustments to what the league did to him in the second half. Jake Cave is better than anything the White Sox currently have for a fourth outfielder. Let's call the OF a push leaning the Twins' way.
What else is left to discuss? Don't worry, I didn't forget the Twins' biggest advantage, which is at DH. The Twins do have a significant advantage with Nelson Cruz over whoever the Sox put at DH, at least until Father Time finally catches up to Cruz. The Twins have a solid backup who will need AB, in Brent Rooker, that they can use to spell Cruz and keep him fresh. The last debate comes with team defense. This is where the Simmons signing really makes a difference. In looking at several metrics on Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, the White Sox had the edge in 2019, although the Twins were closer than you think. As a composite, it appears as though both teams were in the top 10 in MLB with the Sox being a few spots ahead of the Twins. The Twins have definitely closed that gap and possible passed up the Sox.
The fact that 6 players given All-Star nods for the White Sox in the ESPN article (Giolito, Hendriks, Grandal, Anderson, Jimenez and Robert), tends to make one feel they are way ahead of the Twins. One could argue that the Twins have a near comparable player to each one of those and greater team depth. I completely understand where the national pundits are coming from, but I think the race will be neck and neck all season. If the Twins get 140 games out of Donaldson, Sano and Buxton I feel like they win the AL Central, possibly quite comfortably. Clearly the issue will be if that is possible. We will all find out in October.