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AL Central Preview: Tigers, Royals try to end years of losing after offseason moves

The AL Central doesn't appear to be a great place to find baseball's best teams.

Instead, it might be home to some of the most improved.

The division had a tough 2023, with the Twins running away with the title despite an 87-win season that wouldn't have been good enough to win any other division in MLB. One year later, it's still hard to look at the rosters and find an obvious 90-win squad in the bunch.

Minnesota once again appears to be the class of the division despite losing a pair of front-line starting pitchers in Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda.

But the real interest lies with teams like the Tigers and Royals, who are hoping for a big step forward. The Tigers haven't had a winning season since 2016 and the pressure is on fourth-year manager A.J. Hinch to end that stretch.

The Royals won the World Series in 2015 and haven't had a winning season since, but they made moves in the offseason to try and end that streak.

HOW THEY PROJECT

1. Minnesota Twins. After stopping their 18-game postseason losing streak that was the longest in the history of the major North American professional sports and winning a series for the first time in 21 years, the Twins have largely the same look in their quest to defend their division title. The notable exception is in the rotation, where losing Gray and Maeda could represent a setback. Pablo López remains the ace after an excellent debut season with the Twins and Joe Ryan has the potential to be a dominant sidekick. The wild card is Chris Paddack, who missed the 2023 regular season recovering from Tommy John surgery and chipped in from the bullpen for the playoffs. Health will likely be the pivotal factor for success at the plate this year, too, after shortstop Carlos Correa played through plantar fasciitis in his left foot and had the worst offensive season of his career and Byron Buxton’s right knee trouble limited him to designated hitter duty. Buxton has returned to center field and been thriving in spring training, as promising of a sign the Twins could hope for in camp.

2. Cleveland Guardians. Two years after a controversial name change, another new era begins in Cleveland as Stephen Vogt takes over for Terry Francona, the winningest manager in franchise history. A journeyman catcher, Vogt has never managed at any level and will break in with a Guardians team that has enough good pieces to contend for a division title. Shane Bieber looks to be recovered from arm issues that limited him in 2023 and he’ll be expected to anchor a rotation featuring Tanner Bibee and Gavin Williams, who both showed major promise as rookies. Although Cleveland’s lineup lacks power, José Ramírez and Josh Naylor are each capable of hitting 30 homers and don’t be surprised if slugging prospect Kyle Manzardo arrives early to provide some needed pop. Closer Emmanuel Clase has to be more consistent after leading the majors with 12 blown saves.

3. Detroit Tigers. The franchise is more hopeful than recent years, feeling optimistic about what appears to be a plus pitching staff and some promising players, and could make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Left-hander Tarik Skubal won four straight games and gave up just three runs over his last five starts to end last season and will be followed by newly acquired right-handers Kenta Maeda and Jack Flaherty. The bullpen is led by righties Jason Foley and Alex Lange along with lefty Andrew Chafin. First baseman Spencer Torkelson, the top pick in 2022, has a chance to become a 40-homer hitter. Multi-talented outfielder Parker Meadows generates excitement at the plate and base paths. The franchise gave second baseman Colt Keith a guaranteed deal worth at least $28 million before he faced his first pitch in the majors, clearly excited about his upside, and plan to give him opportunities to prove he was worth the investment.

4.) Kansas City Royals: The Royals are hoping to go worst-to-first this season after losing 106 games a year ago, and there is reason to believe they could do it. For one thing, the AL Central is wide open. But the Royals also spent more than $100 million in free agency to fix their biggest problems, which began and ended with pitching. Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha were signed to join breakout star Cole Ragans, Brady Singer and Jordan Lyles in the rotation, and almost the entire bullpen is new with Will Smith taking over the closer job. The Royals also added slugger Hunter Renfroe and versatile Adam Frazier to the lineup and get power-hitting first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino back from shoulder surgery that wiped out almost his entire 2023 season. With the Royals eying a new downtown ballpark as the centerpiece of a $2 billion development funded in part by the extension of an existing sales tax, it would behoove them to show a weary fanbase that they are serious enough about winning to warrant the new digs.

5.) Chicago White Sox: It was a tough 2023 for the White Sox, who lost 101 games. It's unclear if 2024 will be much better. Chicago was second-to-last in the majors in runs scored and gave up more runs than all but four teams. The team also ranked among the worst on defense. The White Sox hope that pitchers Chris Flexen and Erick Fedde can solidify the back end of the rotation while the offense has a handful of proven offensive players in outfielder Luis Robert Jr., first baseman Andrew Vaughn, outfielder/designated hitter Eloy Jiménez and third baseman Yoán Moncada. It appears that new general manager Chris Getz, starting his first full season, has plenty of work to do.

CEASE GONE

The White Sox signaled they'll be continuing to rebuild when they dealt right-hander Dylan Cease to the San Diego Padres on Wednesday for a package of players, including reliever Steven Wilson.

Cease, who turned 28 in December, was second in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2022 after going 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA. He went 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA last year for a White Sox team that went 61-101.

WITT GETS PAID

The Royals signed young star Bobby Witt Jr. to an 11-year deal worth more than $288.7 million guaranteed in February, easily the longest and richest contract in club history. It includes a three-year, $89 million team option that would drive the value to more than $377 million and keep Witt with the Royals through the 2037 season.

The contract was a seismic shift for a notoriously frugal, small-market ballclub. It also shows that Kansas City's ownership is serious about being more competitive in the division after several lean years.

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AP Baseball Writer Jay Cohen and AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta, Larry Lage and Tom Withers contributed to this report.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb