The AL Central has several parallels to the NL East in that one dominant team has walked to the division title for several years in a row while the others wait for their prospects to develop. The AL Central has only one buyer, the Cleveland Indians, but this division could turn into one of the most exciting divisions in baseball if all the prospects of the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Minnesota Twins live up to expectations.
That said, as the July 31 deadline approaches, let’s take a look at the AL Central teams and just what their specific approaches will be this season.
1 Cleveland Indians: Buy, and buy a lot
Cleveland has the only winning record in the AL Central, so it needs to make moves to win games in October as opposed to September or August. Since the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Minnesota Twins all have an excellent group of prospects that should arrive in the majors within the next two seasons, the Indians have to win now. For Cleveland, 2018 might be its last and best chance to win a World Series.
The Indians desperately need to add relievers. The Indians have the worst bullpen ERA (5.39) and second worst FIP (4.83) and WAR (-0.9) in the AL, and its bullpen allows more home runs, 1.66 HR/9, than any other bullpen in the majors. Both Andrew Miller and Oliver Perez have both pitched well when available, and Cody Allen has pitched reasonably well, but everybody else has underwhelmed significantly.
Lefty Brad Hand has dominated with a 2.91 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and 2.76 xFIP along with a 35.4 K%. He would fit well into the Indians' bullpen for the playoffs, but the San Diego Padres have other relievers with high strikeout rates that could significantly improve the Indians relief corps. Kirby Yates, who has struck out 35.5% of batters faced since the start of 2017, has solved his home run problem by increasing his groundball rate to nearly 50%. Craig Stammen has improved his 25.8% strikeout rate after significantly changing his slider over the past two seasons by getting more horizontal movement on the pitch. From the Orioles, Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, and Zach Britton all bring dominant strikeout ability would seriously help the Indians in the playoffs. Seung-hwan Oh and Blake Treinen both appeal as highly valued and established relievers, while arms such as Kyle Barraclough, Justin Miller, Adam Conley, and Chaz Roe could join in smaller deals and have smaller, but still vital, roles during the playoffs.
The Indians could also use another bat, and there are plenty of those available. The Indians have already shown an interest in Manny Machado, and if they acquire him, they could move Jose Ramirez back to second base. They could also add to their outfield, so players such as Adam Jones, Shin-Soo Choo, Avisail Garcia, or Adam Duvall could all add value to the Indians outfield for the playoff run.
2 Minnesota Twins: Sell
The Minnesota Twins found themselves in a somewhat similar position last season in mid-July 2017. The team had an outside shot at making the playoffs, so the front office made the smart decision to sell some assets, so they traded the movable ones: Jaime Garcia and Brandon Kintzler. The Twins then started to win games and found themselves in Yankee Stadium for the AL Wild Card Game. Unlike 2017, however, the Twins have a record below .500, and they have a 1.6% chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, instead of a 12.5% chance on July 10, 2017.
The Twins have some movable pieces though none of them will garner a large return. They could move Kyle Gibson, who has rediscovered his 2015 form and recorded a sub-four ERA, FIP, and xFIP while also striking out 23.2% of all hitters faced after never striking out over 17.5% of hitters faced. But the Twins do have him under contract through 2019, and with some 55 valued prospects expected to arrive in the majors this season, the Twins can hold on to Gibson for one more season.
The Twins, fortunately, have one of the most valuable movable pieces possible: a left-handed reliever. Zach Duke, at age 35, has revitalized his career after having an uninspiring stint with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2018, he has recorded a 2.90 ERA, 2.51 FIP, and 3.46 xFIP. He has also gotten his strikeout rate back over 20% while keeping his walk rate below 8% after dropping on the wrong side of those parameters last season. He has massively helped himself by making his primary pitch, his sinker, remarkably more effective. After allowing a .368 xwOBA with it in 2017, his worst since Statcast recorded batted ball data in 2015, he has recorded a .288 xwOBA in 2018. Even though his whiff/swing rate with his sinker/two-seamers has dropped from 21.3% in 2017 to 14.3% in 2018, he has decreased the hard contact rate from 8.9% in 2017 to 7.8% in 2018. He also increased the groundball rate on batted sinkers from 63.9% in 2017 to 71.4% in 2018. He may not have the dominant strikeout ability of Brad Hand or Zach Britton, but contending teams always need an extra lefty reliever.
The Twins also have two infield bats in Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar that could have trade value though they do have flaws. Dozier has had a poor season by his standards, recording a .229/.312/.420 slash line and a 99 wRC+. Worryingly, his hard hit rate has dropped from 34.5% in 2017 to 29.4% in 2018, while his xwOBA has dropped from .347 in 2017 to .300 in 2018, showing that he has lost some of his power, so the Twins should not expect much of a return for him.
Escobar, meanwhile, has a career-best .276/.331/.526 slash line and a 127 wRC+, all career highs, though he has recorded the same xwOBA, .337, in 2018 as he did in 2017 while decreasing his hard-hit rate from 31.1% in 2017 to 28.7% in 2018. Due to questions surrounding the sustainability of his current output, the Twins should also not expect much return for Escobar.
3 Detroit Tigers: Sell
After trading Justin Verlander, JD Martinez, Alex Avila, and Justin Wilson at the trade deadline last season, the Tigers committed to a full rebuild. Considering how they have plunged into this rebuild with an unrelenting pace, the Tigers should consider having a 40-54 record and hovering around contention the top of the division through May as a success, especially since their performance of individual players has bumped their trade value significantly.
The Tigers have several pitchers they could move. Although Detroit need not sell him, the team should at least listen to calls about Michael Fulmer. Teams such as the Yankees and Brewers need help at the front of the rotation, and both have several high-value prospects. Since they do not have to sell, they can be picky and ask for a high prospect return. Jordan Zimmerman has quietly had a resurgent year, recording a 3.51 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and 3.85 xFIP, a significant improvement over his 6.08/5.18/5.41 from 2017. The Tigers, however, have him under contract through 2020 on a player-friendly deal, so if the Tigers want to get any valuable prospects in return, they will have to keep the money on the books. The Tigers can do this, however, because they still have a couple of seasons before they contend again.
The Tigers could also move Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano. Fiers has had a respectable 3.65 ERA, 4.66 FIP, and 4.75 xFIP. Liriano has had a comparatively poor season with a 4.74 ERA, 5.34 FIP, and 4.99 xFIP. But the Tigers could sell him as a relatively cheap lefty bullpen arm to a contender. Neither Fiers nor Liriano will return many high-value minor leaguers, but these pitchers could get some prospects with one or two plus tools to help fill out the rest of their minor league system.
For position players, Detroit has two glove focused players in Jose Iglesias and Leonys Martin they could sell, though they might need to package them with a reliever to get any valuable prospects in return. Iglesias has had yet another year similar where he has provided most of his value with his glove by recording an 11.1 UZR/150, though DRS has much closer to average with only one run saved. Martin has had an unexpectedly good year at the plate, recording a .257/.327/.431 line with a 107 wRC+. Defensively, he has had a similarly valued season to Iglesias. Martin has an excellent 13.0 UZR/150, while DRS also says he has only saved one run defensively. This discrepancy, however, just further shows the imperfections with defensive stats, as both overall have continued to bring value to the Tigers through defense, and they could do that with any other contending team.
4 Chicago White Sox: Sell
The White Sox have grown like a monster in the basement in they have been painfully bad for several years, but they have quietly developed some prospects who could burst through at any moment and completely tear the AL Central structure down. Eloy Jimenez, Michael Kopech, Zack Burdi, Zack Collins, and Dane Dunning could arrive at the majors this season, and they could all make a positive impact. The White Sox might only have to endure one more season of selling at the deadline.
The White Sox do not have many assets that could draw a large prospect return. Jose Abreu was surrounded by speculation about a move away during the offseason and has not had a great 2018. He has recorded a .253/.308/.438 slash line with a 100 wRC+, all career lows, but Abreu's other stats show that Abreu has not declined precipitously. While his barrels rate per plate appearances has dropped to 6.0%, 1.1% lower than in 2017, he has recorded his second-highest ever hard-hit rate, 43.9%, and his highest average exit velocity of 91 miles per hour. He has, however, struggled with plate discipline. He has increased his overall swing rate, 51.4%, and swing rate at pitches outside of the strike zone, 39.0%, almost matching his 2016 discipline numbers of 51.6% and 39.8%. For Abreu, he had his worst season by WAR in 2016, and he has replicated that this year. Since he becomes a free agent at the end of the season, the White Sox could easily trade him, but they should expect very little in return for Jose Abreu.
The White Sox could also move the reliable Joakim Soria at before the deadline. At 34, Soria has pitched one of the best seasons of his career, marking a 2.83 ERA, 2.27 FIP, and 3.35 xFIP. He has recorded the second highest strikeout rate of his career at 28.7% while cutting his walk rate to 6.0%, the second lowest of his career. He also has experience pitching in October, making him a valuable piece for every contending team.
5 Kansas City Royals: Sell, if anyone wants to buy from them
Teams such as the 2018 Kansas City Royals make everyone question their affinity for baseball. Why invest time into a sport, a system, a league where everyone tirelessly works to win a couple extra games, yet somehow, one team makes the 2003 Detroit Tigers look like a competitive team. Since June first, the Royals, as a team, rank last in the entire majors in OBP, SLG, wRC+, ERA, FIP, and xFIP.
For playoff teams, Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas are the only players who could have a positive impact on the team, and a negative impact the creation of worst team ever trivia. Moustakas has turned in another typical Mike Moustakas year, recording a .256/.310/.480 slash line with a 110 wRC+. The Royals might get a couple of prospects with a couple plus tools in a trade for him.
Unsurprisingly, Merrifield has had a completely different year from his 2017. His ISO has dropped nearly 50 points, and he has only hit five home runs after slugging 19 in 2017. But he has kept his speed, having swiped 16 bases in 21 attempts, and he has increased his walk rate to 9.0%. Overall, he has a .302/.373/.430 slash line with a 121 wRC+. Since Merrifield still has three years of team control, the Royals could ask for a higher-rated prospect in return for him. Since they need not move on from him, they can wait patiently for an offer they like.
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