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The AL Central looks especially vulnerable

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I’m pretty sure the Royals won’t be making the playoffs in 2019 but, someone from the Central has to.

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The PECOTA projections for the Kansas City Royals show some significant improvement from 2018. The Royals figure to be a much more competitive team in 2019 than they were in 2018, when they were the second-worst team in all of baseball. However, improvement from being the second-worst team in baseball still means a projection of just 71 wins and a third-place finish in the AL Central.

The AL Central figures to be pretty awful in 2019. If you add up the projected wins of all five teams in all six divisions, here’s how they would rank:

  1. NL Central - 417
  2. NL East - 415
  3. NL West - 410
  4. AL East - 405
  5. AL West - 401
  6. AL Central - 388

The gap between the AL West (5th) and the AL Central (6th) is bigger than the gap between the NL Central (1st) and the AL East (4th). The AL Central is going to be awfully non-competitive in 2019, and if the Cleveland Indians falter at all (I’d run to the bank to bet they don’t win their projected 97 games), the AL Central could get interesting. The Royals don’t figure to be world beaters in 2019, but given that they’ll play 76 of their 162 games against AL Central opponents, their record could be better than people think.

The big question for the Kansas City Royals will be this: “If the Cleveland Indians struggle, can we win enough games to make it interesting?” I think we would almost unanimously agree that the answer is no, but I think it could get closer than we think. Let’s take a quick look at a roster comparison so I can show you what I mean.

Catcher

This is easy, right? Salvador Perez, his five Gold Glove awards and two Silver Slugger awards, versus Roberto Perez, who was worth -0.7 fWAR in 2018, and Kevin Plawecki, who was worth 0.6 fWAR in 2018.

Steamer Projections:

  • Perez/Gallagher - 3.5 fWAR
  • Perez/Plawecki - 1.7 fWAR

Edge: Royals

First Base

First base is a bit tricky to predict here. If Ryan O’Hearn is even a shell of his 2018 self in 2019, the Royals have a significant advantage here. Assuming he regresses a bit, I’m a fan of Carlos Santana’s. I’m going to be safe and assume the combination of Santana and Bauers is more productive than O’Hearn, but would you be at all surprised if O’Hearn was almost equally as productive at season’s end?

Steamer Projections:

  • O’Hearn - 0.3 fWAR
  • Santana/Bauers - 3 fWAR

Edge: Indians

Second Base

It looks increasingly likely that Jose Ramirez will play third base for Cleveland while Jason Kipnis mans second base, but any significant time Jose Ramirez sees at second base quickly ends this discussion. Based on the depth chart at Roster Resource, however, we’re going to compare Whit Merrifield and Jason Kipnis.

Whit Merrifield is the AL’s reigning hit and stolen base king coming off of a 5.2 fWAR season. Jason Kipnis hasn’t posted a wRC+ over 90 since 2016. Like the catching position, this is pretty easy.

Steamer Projections:

  • Merrifield - 2.8 fWAR
  • Kipnis - 1.4 fWAR

Edge: Royals

Shortstop

This is where our conversation begins to take a STEEP turn North East. Cleveland has arguably the best SS in all of baseball in Francisco Lindor. He’s one of my favorite players in the sport and he’s coming off of a 7.6 fWAR season. I don’t expect Lindor to miss much time with his calf strain, meaning his production shouldn’t be affected much.

The question for Kansas City will lie in the development of Adalberto Mondesi. Mondesi posted 2.8 fWAR in his half-season’s worth of PA in 2018, meaning he was on pace for a 5.6 fWAR season. That would be an incredible season, and still not close to Lindor. If Mondesi can keep the gap close, then the Royals are in business. If Mondesi regresses, which I expect he will a bit, this is a massive gap between Kansas City and Cleveland.

Steamer Projections:

  • Mondesi - 2.9 fWAR
  • Lindor - 6.5 fWAR

Edge: Indians

Third Base

This is by far the biggest positional gap between Cleveland and Kansas City. Cleveland has an annual MVP candidate, Kansas City has Hunter Dozier. I’m not going to waste your time here.

Steamer Projections:

  • Dozier - 0.1 fWAR
  • Ramirez - 6 fWAR

Edge: Indians

Outfield

The outfield gets a bit dicey. Cleveland’s outfield, with all due respect, looks like it will be pretty bad in 2019. The Royals doesn’t figure to be much better, but at least they’ll be elite defensively. The Indians figure to run out Jordan Luplow and his career -0.3 fWAR, Leonys Martin, who is coming off of his best season since 2014, Greg Allen and his career 74 wRC+, and Tyler Naquin, who I actually like a bit, despite the fact that he hasn’t been good since 2016.

The Royals, while not much better, at least offer the prospect of being the best defensive outfield in baseball. Alex Gordon rebounded a bit in 2018 after a horrid 2017, Billy Hamilton and Leonys Martin offer something of a wash in CF, and Brett Phillips was actually worth more fWAR than Naquin in 2018 in similar PA despite Phillips’ 49 wRC+. Plus, the Royals have Jorge Soler coming back to them as well.

There’s a pretty fair chance that the Royals outfield outclasses Cleveland pound-for-pound until July, which represents something of an issue for Kansas City. Cleveland will theoretically be in a position to improve at the deadline, while Kansas City might be selling. We can’t very well predict that, but it will almost certainly play a factor.

Steamer Projections:

  • Gordon/Soler/Hamilton/Goodwin/Phillips - 3.4 fWAR
  • Luplow/Martin/Naquin/Allen/Zimmer - 2.6 fWAR

Edge: Royals

Total Position Player fWAR per Steamer Projections:

Despite a three-three tie in positional battles, Lindor and Ramirez clearly separate Cleveland from Kansas City in terms of cumulative value. However, 0.4 combined fWAR for Dozier and O’Hearn feels low, and I have a feeling the Royals could make some ground up if those two outperform their Steamer Projections.

  • Kansas City - 13 fWAR
  • Cleveland - 21.2 fWAR

Edge: Indians

*Warning: The next section could get ugly.*

Starting Rotation

The Cleveland Indians have one of the best rotations in baseball. The Kansas City Royals do not. To be clear, I think the Royals rotation has a chance to be much better than expected, maybe even league average. But the rotation that the Indians project to run out there could be a top five rotation in all of baseball. This one won’t be close, unless the Indians trade one of their starters, which has actually been rumored some this off-season (I have no idea why).

Steamer Projections:

  • Duffy/Junis/Keller/Kennedy/Lopez: 6.5 fWAR
  • Kluber/Bauer/Carrasco/Clevinger/Bieber: 19.7 fWAR

Edge: Indians

Bullpen

The bullpen is another place where I think KC could potentially edge out Cleveland. Cleveland’s bullpen doesn’t figure to be awful, but it’s a far cry from what it used to be. The Royals bullpen was awful in 2018, but the removal of three of baseball’s worst relievers should create addition by subtraction. If Richard Lovelady, Josh Staumont, and Kyle Zimmer all see significant big league time in 2019, the Royals bullpen has a chance to be above average.

Steamer Projections:

  • McWilliams/Ellis/McCarthy/Hill/Zimmer/Peralta/Flynn/Boxberger: 1.2 RA9-WAR
  • Hand/Cimber/Edwards/Goody/Olson/Otero/Ramirez/Perez: 2.9 RA9-WAR

*Disclaimer: WAR is a terrible way to judge a reliever. It should not be used on it’s own.*

Edge: Tie

Conclusion

What was the point of all this? 1,200 words later and the Royals still aren’t going to compete for the playoffs in 2019. Here’s the thing. I firmly believe the Royals could be competitive with Cleveland if they wanted to. Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, and Mike Moustakas are all available via free agency. I think the Royals could easily afford to pay two of those players and drastically improve at two positions.

The Cleveland Indians are going to win the AL Central as it stands right now, but much of that is due to the fact that the AL Central figures to be downright awful in 2019. The Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers are both rebuilding. The Twins figure to begin turning the corner but they’re also rebuilding. The Royals are obviously rebuilding. Only the Cleveland Indians are going to even pretend to compete, and because the rest of the division is so bad, they’ve even thought about SELLING.

I left the Twins out of this for a reason. If the Royals are to be any kind of competitive in the division, they’re gonna have to be better than the Twinkies. Are the Royals as good as Cleveland? No. Is Cleveland a super team that can’t be contended with? Absolutely not. If the Royals want us to believe they can “win now,” and that this isn’t a rebuild, now would be the perfect time for them to put their money where their mouth is. Dallas Keuchel and Marwin Gonzalez playing in Kauffman Stadium would be awfully intriguing.