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AL Central preview: Cleveland’s reign continues, Twins inch closer

The American League Central was a true one-horse race in 2018 — it was Cleveland and five also-rans.

Minnesota finish the season as the runner-up in the divisional race, six games below .500 and 13 games back. Little will change in 2019.

The Royals’ biggest addition was a lead-off hitter who can’t hit, the White Sox will need monster contributions from a pair of youngsters and the Tigers’ only key acquisition is a second baseman who has progressively regressed since being named an All-Star in 2014.

The Twins are the only team that improved its roster enough to challenge Cleveland, who has won the division crown three years in a row.

Cleveland Indians vs San Francisco Giants
Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) throws out San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter Pence (8) in the seventh inning as the Cleveland Indians face the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Scot Tucker/SFBay
Offensively, Cleveland will once again lean on two young MVP candidates, Francisco Lindor, who has been a top-10 finisher in the AL MVP race three-straight seasons, and José Ramírez, who finished third in each of the past two.

Around them, Carlos Santana, who hit 174 homers in seven seasons in Cleveland before playing in Philadelphia in 2018, will rejoin AL pennant-winning teammates: Lindor, Ramírez, Jason Kipnis and Tyler Naquin. Cleveland also took flyers on a contingent of veterans looking for some much-needed depth.

Boston Red Sox vs Oakland Athletics
Boston Red Sox left fielder Hanley Ramirez (13) grounds out in the second inning as the Boston Red Sox face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, May 19, 2017. Scot Tucker/SFBay
Should injuries hamper the 2016 World Series runners-up, Matt Joyce, Hanley Ramírez and Dioner Navarro will be there to step in.

And because they were unable to pull the trigger on several rumored trades, two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber will once again be at the top of the Cleveland rotation.

It isn’t all roses and sunshine at Progressive Field, though. Lindor will likely miss the first month of the regular season with a calf strain, and the late-inning duo of Andrew Miller (Cardinals) and Cody Allen (Angels) have each moved on to greener pastures.

That tiny door could be just what the Twins need to make up the 13 games of ground,

Looking to close the gap, the Twins added Nelson Cruz, Marwin González and  Jonathan Schoop.

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher José Berríos (17) throws a pitch in the first inning as the Minnesota Twins face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, September 21, 2018. Scot Tucker/SFBay
More important than the added trio of All-Stars will be the return to form of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó, each of whom struggled so mightily in 2018 they were optioned to Triple-A. Any bounce back from Sanó will have to wait until May when the slugging third baseman is slated to return from an Achilles laceration.

The White Sox, Royals and Tigers are all in the same boat — tasked with turning the page and hoping for the right trade to move expiring talent.

Miguel Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos could each bring a handsome return to Motwon. A José Abreu deal could help an already young South Side club — where Yoán Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech (out all of 2019 following Tommy John surgery) already offer a promising future — get younger. Unfortunately for Kansas City, the most exciting thing about watching Royals baseball, Salvador Pérez, will be sidelined all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Oakland A's vs Kansas City Royals
Godofredo Vasquez/SFBay
Because of the additions to the Twins roster, and a return of Buxton to his 2017 form, along with the extended absence of Lindor, the AL Central will not be as one-sided as it was a year ago. But it remains Cleveland’s division to lose.


1st — Cleveland 94-68 (91-71 last season)

2nd — Twins 84-78 (78-84 last season)

3rd — White Sox 70-92 (62-100 last season)

4th — Tigers 59-103 (64-98 last season)

5th — Royals 53-109 (58-104 last season)

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