As former Rockies General Manager and current MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd said during the 2020 MLB Draft telecast, “Baseball is a hard game to predict the future.”
He’s correct. But I’m going to try and do it anyway.
This is part one of a six part series where I take a look into my crystal ball (or shiny sphere for a play on words with my last name) and try to predict the next time each team will be ready to contend for the postseason. (This is not necessarily when each team will make the postseason, because there could be more teams that are contenders than playoff spots, whatever that number is going to be going forward.) It’s going to be when can I look at a roster and say, “that team can make the playoffs.” This is obviously a complete shot in the dark because new players will be drafted and trades and free agent signings will happen over the years, but I’m looking at this mainly with the personnel currently in each organization.
We will start with the American League Central, since this is the division where my favorite team resides.
Kansas City Royals
As a die-hard Royals fan, I’m going to start here because I have the most to say about this team. Overall, the team was not fun to watch in 2020. It was honestly miserable up until a late 12-6 run that was preceded by a seven game losing streak. Not to say I expected them to be a contender, but the offense took a massive step backwards, which raises a lot of questions moving forward.
Who on the current roster can be a long-term answer? I honestly think nobody is out of the everyday players except maybe Adalberto Mondesi, who had a miserable year at the plate before getting hot late, but I need to see a lot more consistent success to think he’s an everyday player on a postseason caliber team. I think the only other player who has a shot is Edward Olivares, acquired from the Padres for Trevor Rosenthal. He’s got the tools you look for in a center fielder and the arm to play right, but he comes with concerns at the plate and, given the lack of recent success with young offensive players at both the minor and major league level, I can’t say I trust the Royals to maximize the hitting potential of anybody. But he’s certainly at least worth a look.
I don’t look at Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier, Ryan O’Hearn, Ryan McBroom, etc. as long term answers. (I love Whit, of course. But he’s rotting away the prime of his career on a bad team and I feel bad for him. He needs to be traded now and I think the potential return could be one of the most important decisions of the next decade. It would be that big of a trade to get multiple pieces back that fit the next window. Not trading him at all, which is the path they’re likely to take, would be a colossal mistake.) Soler should have been traded last winter while his value was high. (Easier said than done now, but I never viewed him as an answer anyway.) Perez will never be traded and that’s fine, but you have to capitalize on these other guys. Both Perez and Soler are free agents after next season. I expect them to re-sign Perez and look to move Soler between now and next year’s trade deadline because they’re not extending both.
In the minors, I see three every day players: Bobby Witt Jr., Kyle Isbel and Erick Pena. That’s it. Maybe Nick Loftin at second base, but we obviously didn’t get a look at this year’s draftees and I have to see a lot more from the Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, and Seuly Matias group. The lack of bats in the organization is concerning and at some point, Dayton Moore is going to need to either trade some of players mentioned above (my preference) or some of the surplus of pitching (mentioned below) for some bats because most answers are not in-house right now.
On the mound is where this club shines. There’s a chance that an entire rotation can be homegrown in Asa Lacy, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic with Brad Keller looking every bit like a long term answer and more arms to come. Not to mention Carlos Hernandez, Jonathan Bowlan, Austin Cox, Alec Marsh, Zach Haake, Jon Heasley, Yefri Del Rosario, Yohanse Morel, Ben Hernandez, etc. The organization is truly loaded with pitching prospects.
Thing is, ten years ago I lived through Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Jake Odorizzi, and Noel Arguelles and the Royals got one starter out of that group. You can truly never have enough pitching and that’s why I think it’s a pipe dream to have an entirely homegrown rotation. Remember the Mets great homegrown rotation? That didn’t last long. Pitching is so volatile and I’d rather keep the surplus than trade it away so I think Moore is going to have to dismantle the current lineup and trade Merrifield and Dozier especially, probably your two best trade chips right now, and get some bats back that fit the window with the college pitching in place.
In 2011, I said the Royals would win the 2014 World Series. I was darn close. Now I’m going to say 2024 is when Kansas City will return to October, but I don’t feel as confident because I think Dayton believes the offensive core is in place and he’s trying to accelerate the college pitching to fit in with an offensive core that doesn’t exist. Still, a lot can happen in four years, and I’ll stick with 2024 as the year the Royals are back in the postseason because I’ll be kicking myself if I change it and I’m wrong. For this exercise however, I think 2023 will be the year where you will be able to look at that roster and say the majority of pieces are in place, so I’ll go with that.
Projected playoff contenders: 2023
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox have been a fascinating case the past few years. It was clear they were going all-in on a rebuild, and we saw the beginning of what is going to be a special team for quite some time in 2020. The offense is loaded, young and locked up for years. Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, and Nick Madrigal with Andrew Vaughn coming soon is horrifying.
The pitching is what needs to take a step forward. Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel are a nice 1-2, but they need some of their young arms (Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning, Reynaldo Lopez) to take the next step. Getting Micahel Kopech back and having Garrett Crochet after some development time in the minors is only going to help. Like I said before the 2020 season: I knew the White Sox were coming. Now I know they have arrived.
Projected playoff contenders: 2021
The Indians are always going to be an intriguing team because they can develop pitching. Trade Corey Kluber and Mike Clevenger? Insert Aaron Civale and Triston McKenzie. They have more coming, albeit years away, in Daniel Espino, Ethan Hankins, Lenny Torres, and Tanner Burns, and they added Logan Allen, Cal Quantrill and Joey Cantillo in recent trades. Not to mention the real life Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn in the back of the bullpen in James Karinchak. How cool is that?
As good as the pitching is and will continue to be, everyone knows the big question the Indians have to answer, and the answer is yes. They have to trade Francisco Lindor. Give me an example of a small market team that has remained competitive with one player making $200+ million. You can’t. There are none. (As much as I love Yelich, the Brewers are going to regret that contract.) He needs to go this winter. He needed to go last winter, but that’s behind us now. The good news is they are loaded with in-house replacement options. Tyler Freeman should get the first crack at it. Then they have Gabriel Arias, Brayan Rocchio, Gabriel Rodriguez, Carson Tucker, and Milan Tolentino. Nobody is going to be Francisco Lindor, but that’s okay. Somebody is going to be an everyday shortstop.
That said, they still have holes on offense, and have for a number of years. Other than Freeman, Nolan Jones is the only other potential impact position player close to the majors. Moving Lindor could fill some of those, but yes, it would create a bigger one as well until they figure out who their guy will be. I think the Indians will still be in the mix for the postseason in 2021 as the pitching will keep them competitive. But I do think their days as a World Series contender with this core group are over.
Projected playoff contenders: 2021
The Tigers are a complete mess. If there’s any team that people should be upset about intentional tanking with, it’s the Tigers. They have had top five picks in each of the past three drafts and will do so again next year (No. 1 in 2018, No. 5 in 2019, No. 1 in 2020, No. 3 in 2021). That’s FOUR STRAIGHT YEARS with top five picks.
That aside, this is what happens when you keep a core of players together for too long and you have bad contracts for aging players on top of a desolate farm system. They selected Casey Mize No. 1 overall in 2018 and, while he didn’t look great in a cup of coffee this year, he’s going to be a staple in their rotation for years to come. They have high-end pitching prospects Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal along with some solid depth in Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo, Franklin Perez, and Beau Burrows.
Pitching was the strength of this system coming into 2020, with 2019’s No. 5 overall pick Riley Greene the top offensive prospect. That changed in a big way thanks to the 2020 Draft, headlined by top pick Spencer Torkelson. I think Detroit also landed their future catcher in Dillon Dingler and a corner outfielder in Daniel Cabrera. Gage Workman and Colt Kieth could also be players. The pieces are starting to fit the puzzle for Detroit and they will add another with the third pick in 2021, but they are still a few years away from contending. Oh yeah, they also hired AJ Hinch, who is absolutely the right person to oversee this organization as it looks to get back to its winning ways. Fantastic hire.
Projected playoff contenders: 2024
The “bomba squad” have emerged in recent years as one of the sports’ top offensive teams. Nelson Cruz looks like he’s going to be socking dingers when he’s 80 and Mitch Garver, Miguel Sano, Josh Donaldson, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, and Byron Buxton form an offensive core locked up for the next few years. They have more coming in Royce Lewis, Trevor Larnach, Aaron Sabato, Alex Kirilloff, who debuted in the postseason, and Ryan Jeffers, who saw some time in Minnesota this year.
Their pitching improved this year, with Kenta Maeda having a big year, but that is overall still a question mark going forward. We’re still looking for Jose Berrios to take the next step and Jake Odorizzi had three stints on the injured list this year. Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran could help soon, but there is not much pitching depth in this system. As long as they are hitting like we know they can, this will be a playoff contending team but 18 consecutive losses in the postseason is obviously concerning. Getting over that hurdle has to be their top priority before it can think about making a World Series run.
Projected playoff contenders: 2021
(Cover Photo: Quinn Harris/Getty Images)