The Royals fell short of repeating as division title champions, and now face a pivotal off-season if they want to return to the top of the Central Division. The division has now produced four of the last five pennant winners, and each of the teams face interesting decisions this winter. The division hierarchy could be shaking up with traditional contenders shifting directions.
Here is a look at what the Central Division rivals face going into this off-season.
Chicago White Sox
Notable free agents: P Matt Albers, C Alex Avila, OF Austin Jackson, 1B Justin Morneau
The White Sox really seemed to want to make a run at contention this year, acquiring Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, and James Shields, only to fall flat with a 78-win season, their fourth straight losing season. Manager Robin Ventura was the scapegoat for the disappointing season, losing his job, with former bench coach Rick Renteria taking over to lead the club in 2017.
General Manager Rick Hahn has not ruled out a complete rebuild, and there were rumors that the team had talks about dealing ace starter Chris Sale back in July. Sale is under club control for the next three seasons, and lefty Jose Quintana is under control for four more seasons, but the Sox could decide to re-stock the organization by trading one in a blockbuster deal.
Closer David Robertson could also be an appealing trade chip, especially with relievers coming at a premium now. The Sox will also have to determine if Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier still fit, especially now that rookie shortstop Tim Anderson came on last year and infielder Tyler Saladino seems to be an organizational favorite. They will have holes to fill at catcher, centerfield, designated hitter, and the bullpen, and they would probably love to get out from under the James Shields deal, even if they are only paying some of his salary.
The White Sox have eight players making $75 million under contract for next year with around $25-30 million in expected arbitration-eligible salaries to deal with. Last year’s Opening Day payroll was $116 million, so even if the Sox keep payroll where it is, they won’t have much room to pursue free agents.
“My thinking is that Hahn will gather best offers for Sale and Quintana at the GM Meetings, and will pull trigger on any of them prior to the Winter Meetings. If they are not good enough, they'll start dumpster diving in the free agency pool or try to use [Carson] Fulmer or [Spencer] Adams to make a trade a la Todd Frazier last offseason.”
-Josh Nelson, South Side Sox
Notable free agents: OF Rajai Davis, 1B Mike Napoli
The reigning American League champs don’t have too many moves to make this winter. They already exercised an option on Carlos Santana. They have two starters as free agents - Davis and Napoli - but will certainly retain much of the nucleus that won 94 games and the pennant last year. If anything, the Indians might be better if they are healthier, getting back outfielder Michael Brantley, pitcher Danny Salazar, and pitcher Carlos Carrasco, all of who were either out or limited in this year’s post-season.
The Indians had the eighth-lowest payroll in baseball last year, so an infusion of post-season revenue may allow them to not only retain their free agents, but perhaps add to the club as well. Santana is the only current player projected to make more than $10 million next season and the team projects to have about $90 million in salary obligations if you include their arbitration-eligible players. The farm sytem remains strong with outfielder Bradley Zimmer, brother of Royals prospect Kyle Zimmer, a possibility to join the club next year.
There have been rumors the Indians could make reliever phenom Andrew Miller available in a trade to reap a huge trade package, but the possibility of a deal seems remote. Most likely, the Indians stay pat much as the Royals did following their first pennant in 2014, and try to build off their existing pieces to make another run.
I don't expect the Indians to make any huge moves this offseason. They are a team that just came off a World Series appearance with some of the biggest parts of their team on the disabled list (Carrasco, Brantley, and a bum-armed Salazar). Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis were both great, cost-effective additions last season and I would expect them to go for the same kind of signing -- veterans coming off down years that can fill a certain role.
Jon Jay and Matt Holiday should be two enticing options, with Dexter Fowler also being on the board if they want to bump the budget. Even if it's not a Fowler, something has to be done about Tyler Naquin in center field. Opposing pitchers figured him out in the second-half of the season and he has no business being at the plate against lefties.
-Matt Lyons, Lets Go Tribe
Notable free agents: IF Erick Aybar, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
The Tigers bounced back from a disastrous 2015 season to make a run at a playoff spot, but ultimately fell short with an 86-75 season. The team that won four consecutive division titles from 2011-2014 now stands at a crossroads with several large contracts on the books. New General Manager Al Avila says he wants the club to get “younger and leaner”, although it remains to be seen if he wants to do a full rebuild of the organization.
The Tigers have eleven players signed to over $175 million next season, and have already traded away outfielder Cameron Maybin to save a bit of money. Avila has said payroll will not go up from last year’s near-$200 million Opening Day payroll, so speculation has begun that some of the higher priced players could be moved. It has already been reported that outfielder J.D. Martinez will not receive a contract extension, making him a likely candidate to be traded with San Francisco already rumored to be interested. Outfielder Justin Upton and second baseman Ian Kinsler also could be trade bait to reduce payroll.
The Tigers are pretty thin in the minors, so they may have to be creative if they want to continue to contend while cutting payroll. They are fortunate in that they do have some cheap, young arms to fill the rotation in Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Matt Boyd. They still have some very talented players, so it is not hard to see them trading one big contract, improving the bullpen, and still staying competitive. But it also wouldn’t be surprising to see Avila go in a completely different direction to put his own mark on the team.
“If the Tigers are looking to deal this offseason, they will likely be listening on all of their big-money players. Cutting down payroll to a more sustainable level could be a long process, and Avila said that this work may not be finished in one offseason. Since the Tigers are very tight lipped about their finances, we have no way of knowing where exactly their spending threshold lies. One can reasonably assume it’s below the luxury tax threshold, and likely much lower still than that. Anyone could be traded should the right deal come along, even franchise cornerstones like Justin Verlander or Miguel Cabrera.”
-Peter Kwasniak, Bless You Boys
Notable free agents: C Kurt Suzuki
The Twins have a brand new General Manager, Derek Falvey, so it is difficult to tell which direction they will go this winter. It is hard to see how they could be much worse than their disastrous 59-103 season last year. It is also not difficult to see where the Twins need to spend most of their energy improving, as they finished dead last in runs allowed.
The organization has been awful at developing starting pitchers lately, requiring them to shell out big bucks for mediocre free agent pitchers like Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, and Ricky Nolasco. Improving the rotation will be a high priority, as top prospect Jose Berrios seemed overwhelmed in his 14 big league starts.
Infielder Trevor Plouffe may be the odd man out this winter, as he will be pricey in his last year of arbitration-eligibility, and he had an injury-plagued season. The Twins are looking for a position for immobile slugger Miguel Sano, and he showed some promise at third base last year, where Plouffe typically plays. The Twins would like a veteran catcher to pair with young J.R. Murphy behind the plate and may look to have a stopgap at shortstop if they feel top prospect Jorge Polanco is not ready yet. They have some boppers to use as trade bait, and second baseman Brian Dozier would be very attractive if they made him available.
The Twins spent over $100 million last year to lose 100 games, and the Pohlad family is not known for being lavish spenders. Owner Jim Pohlad recently suggested there is no correlation between spending and winning, perhaps signalling he would like the team to cut costs and yet still improve on the field. Falvey is a bright executive from the Indians organization who likely recognizes the Twins still have a long way to go, so don’t expect the club to make a big splash in free agency, instead relying on their promising young players for the future.
The Twins have excess DH/1B types. Kennys Vargas is probably on the trading block more so than Miguel Sano, Byung Ho Park, or Joe Mauer. Twins have a lot of outfielder/DH types too with Adam Brett Walker III and Daniel Palka in AAA.
The Twins have a lot of young bullpen arms and might be able to get by with just them, but pitching in general is the biggest need.
-Maija Liisa Varda, Twinkie Town