How a Once-Powerful MLB Division Spiraled into an All-Time LaughingstockAugust 6, 2018
"Here Lies the American League Central, Which Just Sort of Withered Away."
This one's a work in progress, but a final epitaph for the AL Central will be needed eventually. After putting a team in the World Series four times in five years between 2012 and 2016, the division is experiencing historic levels of futility in 2018.
Even as early as June 27, Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer marked the AL Central as the worst division of MLB's divisional era (which began in 1969). And it's only gotten worse.
The Cleveland Indians have fortified their squad with trades for Brad Hand, Adam Cimber and Leonys Martin. The Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals, however, shipped out a good deal of talent—e.g., Martin, Eduardo Escobar, Brian Dozier, Joakim Soria, Kelvin Herrera and Mike Moustakas—before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
Although their 61-49 record is the best in the AL Central, the Indians are only MLB's 10th-best team overall. The Twins, Tigers, White Sox and Royals are on track for 85, 94, 102 and 112 losses, respectively. The Tigers (minus-85), White Sox (minus-143) and Royals (minus-200) also own three of MLB's seven worst run differentials.
As far as how this has happened, it must first be understood that no other division has a smaller margin for error.
According to Forbes, the AL Central's five teams combined to pull in $1.3 billion in revenue in 2017. That put it $157 million behind the AL West for the lowest take of MLB's six divisions.
Certainly, it didn't help that the AL Central wasn't the best division in MLB last year either. But this is also a product of its limited returns at the gate and from local television contracts, which contribute to relatively low franchise values:
Still, the AL Central can't be written off as MLB's own deadbeat dad monument. That's merely one plot point in a nuanced tale.
How This Is Cleveland's Fault
The Indians still mostly resemble their 2016 and 2017 selves, which produced 196 regular-season wins (including 22 in a row at one point) and one American League pennant team that won 94 games.
However, the 2017 Indians proved to be mortal in the end. After jetting out to a 2-0 lead over the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series, the squad fell apart and lost it.
That should have been Cleveland's cue to pursue substantial upgrades over the winter. Instead, it lost Carlos Santana and Bryan Shaw to free agency, and its biggest splash was signing Yonder Alonso to a $16 million contract.
In the meantime, the Yankees got even better by adding Giancarlo Stanton, and the Houston Astros (Gerrit Cole) and Boston Red Sox (J.D. Martinez) responded in kind. With winning percentages north of .600, each of the three looks the part of an already elite team that went out of its way to get better.
The Indians, on the other hand, have lived with a top-heavy offense and, up until their deal for Hand and Cimber, a woefully ineffective bullpen. These things have hurt them when they've played teams from the AL East and AL West, who have a 26-20 record against the Indians.
Although Cleveland should have little trouble wrapping up a third straight AL Central title, another swift exit from the postseason appears to be in the cards.
How This Is Minnesota's Fault
Following a largely hopeless stretch from 2011-16, the Twins finally showed signs of life last year.
On the heels of a 103-loss season in 2016, Minnesota rode a mix of veteran (Joe Mauer, Dozier and Ervin Santana) and youthful (Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario) talent to 85 wins and a playoff berth in 2017. Although the Yankees dispatched them in the AL Wild Card Game, the Twins seemed to have turned a corner.
Their response was to lean in to their rebirth with an active offseason. As Cleveland sat idle, Minnesota added Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed.
Alas, these offseason additions have all flopped to one degree or another. Worse, the finger surgery that Santana underwent in February set an early tone on the injury front. Even worse, injuries and extended slumps have raised doubts about Buxton and Sano as franchise cornerstones.
It's hard to fault the Twins for their actions last winter. But with many of their veterans now gone and some of their young talent on thin ice, a trip back to the drawing board may be inevitable.
How This Is Detroit's, Chicago's and Kansas City's Fault
The Tigers, White Sox and Royals all fit the same mold. It's not just that each is rebuilding. Each is also guilty of waiting too long to start rebuilding.
The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 and returned to the postseason in 2008. Then came an eight-year run between 2009-16 in which they rarely strayed far from mediocrity. They preferred to patch holes in their leaking ship as they found them rather than let it sink and build a better one.
It wasn't until the 2016-17 offseason that the White Sox finally pivoted in a new direction. Out went Chris Sale and Adam Eaton that winter and then Jose Quintana in July 2017. In came a wave of prospects headlined by Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Eloy Jimenez, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez.
What the White Sox are learning now is that nothing is guaranteed in a rebuild. They're waiting on Kopech and Jimenez to make their MLB debuts, as well as on Moncada, Giolito and Lopez to live up to their billings. Thus, a return to contention is probably at least two years away.
The Tigers and Royals, meanwhile, aren't even deserving of specific ETAs yet.
The Tigers were the ultimate power in the AL Central between 2011 and 2014. They won the division each year and made it at least as far as the American League Championship Series three times. In 2012, they went all the way to the World Series.
But then in 2015, a rebuild seemed to be upon the franchise. It cut David Price and Yoenis Cespedes from its roster and then-general manager Dave Dombrowski from its front office en route to 87 losses.
Instead, late owner Mike Ilitch doubled down on a roster that was already old and expensive by investing $243 million in Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton the ensuing winter. A modest 86-win season followed in 2016. The Tigers kept the band together for 2017, but Ilitch's death and a subsequent step back to 98 losses made a full-on rebuild unavoidable.
To this end, the good news is that the Tigers have quickly turned their farm system into one of the 10 best in MLB. The bad news is that they don't figure to start harvesting from it until next year. Further bad news is that they owe a broken down Miguel Cabrera $154 million between 2019 and 2023.
That brings us to the Royals and how far they've fallen since they rode a core of Moustakas, Herrera, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis, Greg Holland and Yordano Ventura to an AL pennant in 2014 and a World Series victory in 2015.
Their franchise-record $72 million investment in Gordon has turned into a sunk cost via his offensive decline. Holland missed the entire 2016 season with Tommy John surgery. Ventura was tragically killed in a car accident in January 2017. And on the field, the Royals stayed tethered the .500 mark.
Kansas City had the option of tearing it all down last July, when Moustakas, Hosmer and Cain were just months from free agency. They instead bought into playoff hopes that quickly faded, thereby putting three primo trade chips to waste.
The Royals are now a desolate franchise from top to bottom. They have the second-worst team in the majors, and a minor league system that entered the year at No. 30 has only improved to No. 24. They face a long road back to relevance, much less contention.
All told, the story of how the AL Central found itself at the bottom is one of bad luck, bad timing and bad decisions. Such things can sink even the strongest of divisions. Throw in the AL Central's built-in financial disadvantage, and you get a perfect recipe for a perfect storm.
When this one will clear is anyone's guess.
Data courtesy of Baseball Reference.