The Twins are thinking big after winning 101 games last season. But first, they have to repeat as AL Central champions.
And winning it might not be as easy as it was a year ago. That’s because Cleveland is more than a capable team, coming off a 93-win season. And Chicago has assembled a number of young players with high ceilings, making the White Sox potential pests.
But when you set a major league record with 307 home runs, then add Josh Donaldson during the offseason, you’re going to like your chances.
“I don’t think we have to be concerned about what they do,” designated hitter Nelson Cruz said when asked about Chicago and Cleveland. “I think we have to be aware of us. We have to take care of us first, and then we are going to be good. Because we know we can compete against anyone.”
The Twins are the favorites to win the division, but it could be a drag-out race where anything is possible. Over the course of a 162-game season, a team can separate from the pack. It’s much more difficult over 60 games.
FanGraphs, in fact, projects the Twins to go 32-28 with Cleveland at 31-29 and Chicago 30-30. Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins with 35 wins compared with 32 for Cleveland and 31 for Chicago.
That would lead to some entertaining and thrilling games as the Indians look to unseat the Twins and the White Sox look to make a statement.
Cleveland traded Trevor Bauer last season, then did the same with staff ace Corey Kluber during the offseason, but that didn’t gut the rotation, far from it. All-Star Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger look ready to assume top spots in the rotation, with Carlos Carrasco, victorious in his battle with leukemia last season, a more-than-capable No. 3 starter.
Brilliant shortstop Francisco Lindor, third baseman Jose Ramirez and first baseman Carlos Santana anchor the offense. Chaska’s Brad Hand heads the bullpen.
But it’s the rotation that will carry the team. And remember that Cleveland was 10-9 against the Twins last season.
“They are great competitors,” second baseman Luis Arraez said. “They gave us a great battle last year. We had to think a lot about them last year, competing against them in the division. But obviously I’m here and I’m betting on my team.”
The Twins went 13-6 against the White Sox last season with Cruz hitting .433 with eight home runs, 24 RBI and a 1.438 OPS against them in 16 games. White Sox pitchers walked him 11 times, three times intentionally, and twice in one game.
Amid the lopsidedness of the series were signs that Chicago could be a threat sooner than later. Righthander Lucas Giolito has stretches of dominance against the Twins; shortstop Tim Anderson won the American League batting championship; third baseman Yoan Moncada began to tap into his offensive potential; and first baseman Jose Abreu remains a pro’s pro at driving in runs. Young outfielder Eloy Jimenez is a little stiff in the field but has big power potential.
Chicago added designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion — no stranger to the left field seats at Target Field — former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and top catcher Yasmani Grandal.
And if the White Sox didn’t have enough young guns already, center fielder Luis Robert will make his debut this season. His 30-homer, 30-stolen base potential encouraged the club to sign him to a six-year, $50 million deal before he played an inning in the majors. And former first-round pick Nick Madrigal, a strikeout-adverse second baseman, is set to make the team.
The White Sox might not be ready to dominate this season, but they will be more difficult for the Twins to dominate.
The division could be determined by who does the best against the two confirmed rebuilders, the Royals and Tigers.
Mike Matheny takes over for retired Ned Yost as manager in Kansas City, catcher Salvador Perez has recovered from Tommy John surgery, and Jorge Soler led the AL with 48 home runs last season. The pitching staff could be overmatched.
Ron Gardenhire’s Tigers are dealing with an aging Miguel Cabrera while waiting for young pitching prospects to reach the majors. Righthander Michael Fulmer has returned from Tommy John surgery to pitch for the first time in 22 months.
The Central Division is not loaded, but it could present a few challenges to the Twins as they look to repeat as champions.
“The whole division is filled with talent,” Cruz said, “so it is not going to be easy.”