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2020 MLB X-Factors: AL and NL Central

AL Central

Chicago White Sox | James McCann

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The White Sox struggled on both ends of the field last season as they finished 17 games under .500 in a very weak division. Breakout star Lucas Giolito and the acquisition of former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel will help stabilize their rotation, but they still need the other young pitchers to improve.

Offensively, they were solid with Jose Abreu putting up another All-Star season, and young studs such as Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson having breakout seasons, but for this team to become a threat, it all revolves around James McCann.

He will be an integral part of the success of the pitching staff and the lineup. Chicago sported a disappointing 4.90 team ERA with Giolito being the only pitcher with an ERA below 4.00. The 2019 All-Star will need to manage the staff and keep them in control of the game.

On the other side of the ball, McCann will have to stay consistent, as he hit a spectacular .319 batting average up until June 30th; however, he floundered his way to the finish with a .231 batting average the rest of the way.

Stability is the key for the White Sox, as if McCann can keep the pitching staff under control and stay solid at the plate for a full season, then the Sox have all the pieces to take back the AL Central for the first time since 2008.

Cleveland Indians | Oscar Mercado

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Cleveland was in the pennant race until the very end; however, they were on the outside looking in once the postseason started. They surpassed pitching expectations with a team ERA of 3.76 (3rd best in the AL) despite having one of their top guns, Carlos Carrasco, on the shelf for most of the season as he recovered from cancer.

The issue for the Indians is the lack of bats, and the departure of Jason Kipnis only hurts them more. Up and comer Oscar Mercado showed off all his tools with 15 stolen bases, 15 home runs, and a solid 118 hits in 115 games.

The rookie phenom is the key for Cleveland to reach the next level. Mercado is a multidimensional outfielder who is capable of breaking out this season. If Mercado can prove his worth and exceed expectations in 2020, then Cleveland will be able to give any team a run for their money come the postseason.

Detroit Tigers | Michael Fulmer

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An abomination is the only way to describe Detroit last season. The worst offensive team and second worst pitching team in the AL just could not find their footing. With an aging Hall of Famer in Miguel Cabrera and lots of young players who are still developing, competing will be difficult for the Tigers.

However, one player who was not part of their roster was 26 year old right hander Michael Fulmer, who was out all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. The promising pitcher will not start the season with the team, but when he is healthy, he can lead Detroit’s bewildered rotation.

Fulmer won Rookie of the year in 2016 with a 3.06 ERA in 159 innings, and he has a career ERA of 3.81. When he is able to play, he does everything and more that a team would ask their starter to do for them, as he keeps the ball in the ballpark with a career HR/9 (Home Runs per 9 Innings) below 1 along with the ability to pitch deep into games as he already has 2 complete games to his resume in 3 seasons.

This season may be a stretch, but Detroit can compete if Fulmer is ever able to stay healthy and pitch to his full potential.

Kansas City Royals | Brad Keller

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Underwhelming is a kind way to put Kansas City’s 2019 campaign. The Royals struggled on both sides of the diamond with their lone bright spots being first time All-Star Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler, who broke the franchises single season home run record.

Though despite fine performances by some stand outs, their offense was still very bleak. However, it was the rotation that was a mess with a team ERA of 5.20. Young Brad Keller is the pitcher that will need to lead the Royals staff if they want to be competitive in 2020.

Keller owned the lowest ERA of all Royals starters at 4.19. He showed lots of promise on a very bad team with a 2.6 WAR and he only gave up 15 home runs in 165.1 innings (0.82 HR/9). A pitcher that keeps the ball in the ballpark and already helps a weak team earn wins is a player that will help the Royals to success.

Keller is only 24 years of age and getting better. If he can carry his own weight this season, then the team will only prosper in the future.

Minnesota Twins | Jose Berrios

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For the first time in nearly a decade, Minnesota was able to win the AL Central with the first 100 win season since 1965. However, despite a phenomenal offensive season, thanks to the likes of Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, and Nelson Cruz, and a dependable pitching staff, they got swept out of the postseason by the Yankees.

The reason the Twins could not even steal one game in the series was pitching. Two-time All-Star Jose Berrios was a major part of the Twins success; however, his performance dwindled down the stretch as he sustained a poor 5.83 ERA in August and September.

Berrios has shown that he has the ability to put the team on his back with over 192 innings pitched in each of the last two seasons. If he can successfully endure the grind of a full season, then more winning is looming for this team in 2020.

NL Central

Chicago Cubs | Craig Kimbrel

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The Cubs were able to stay in the pennant race for quite a while in a weaker NL Central, but the Cardinals and Brewers pulled away in the end. Chicago’s entire roster was solid across the board other than the frontline reliever they signed to sure the bullpen in Craig Kimbrel.

The team has three solid starters in Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, and Jon Lester. Hitting wise, they are a team centered around superstar Javier Baez, former MVP Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs have a team that can take this division as long as Kimbrel can rebound.

The closer was untouchable when he came up with Atlanta in 2010, and still holds an extraordinarily low 2.08 career ERA. All Kimbrel needs in 2020 is proper preparation. He missed spring training last season because no team would sign him in fear of losing a draft pick.

Nothing compares to facing Major League competition in the spring; therefore, Kimbrel should be able work out all his issues before the season starts this year. If Kimbrel can get into groove like everyone knows he can, then the Cubs are heading to the postseason.

Cincinnati Reds | Joey Votto

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Cincinnati surprised many people last season with their pitching exceeding expectations. This is thanks to an All-Star season from Luis Castillo, the Oakland A’s version of Sonny Gray, and a very nice year from two-way player Michael Lorenzen out of the bullpen.

Eugenio Suarez had a phenomenal season with 49 home runs; however, one player can not carry an entire team’s offense on his shoulders. The 2010 MVP, Joey Votto, had a disappointing year in 2019, as his ability to reach base just was not the same.

Votto has a career .421 OBP, and last season, his OBP dropped over 60 points to .357, which is still solid for an average player, but unacceptable for a player of Votto’s caliber. The 36 year old should still have some left in the tank for at least one more Joey Vottoesc season.

Today’s game is all about analytics, and if Votto is able to get on base, someone will find a way to drive him home. If the lifetime Red and possible future Hall of Famer can get on track, the Reds will be a legitimate threat to everyone in the NL Central.

Milwaukee Brewers | Brandon Woodruff

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After losing the 2018 MVP Christian Yelich for the season in early September, Milwaukee was able to stay resilient and squeeze into the postseason, and if not for a costly 8th inning error by right fielder Trent Grisham, history could have changed and perhaps the Brewers would do some damage in the postseason.

They have some real good offensive pieces such as Mike Moustakas and Ryan Braun to go along with Yelich, but what they need is an ace. Brandon Woodruff is the man to fill the mantle. He was a full-time starter for Milwaukee when healthy and pitched exceptionally well for a guy who was coming out of the bullpen most of 2018.

He sustained a very respectable 3.62 ERA in part due to his high strikeout rate of 10.58 (K/9) and low Home run rate at 0.89 (HR/9). Woodruff has only improved with each season in the big leagues, and 2020 can be the year he truly develops into an ace.

If Woodruff can lead this staff by being a dominant force up front, then Milwaukee will be right up there with the rest of the teams fighting for the NL Central.

Pittsburgh Pirates | Chris Archer

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Frustrating is the only way to describe the Pirates last season. Pittsburgh was in the mix of the Wild Card Race until the All-Star break, as they fell into a tailspin that they could never recover from ending up in the basement of the NL Central.

They have some bright young position players such as first time All-Star Josh Bell and outfielder Bryan Reynolds, who hit .314 as a rookie. Though a team ERA of 5.18 does not sit well with anyone in the clubhouse and players need to step up. The man to do it is Chris Archer.

He is not the most popular face in Pittsburgh considering that the team gave up Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, who are superstars in the making, to acquire the pitcher. However, the reason the trade was made was because of what Archer brought to the table.

Once a young prodigy for Tampa Bay, Archer had two All-Star seasons and even finished 5th in the AL Cy Young voting in 2015. Archer still holds a career ERA of 3.86 and has the ability to build up strikeouts because of his fantastic stuff.

The problem with him is that he allows too many baserunners with a 1.41 WHIP last season. However, if he can bring back the flare that he had in Tampa Bay and regain his control, the Pirates might be able to shock the rest of the NL Central this year.

St. Louis Cardinals | Paul DeJong

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St. Louis had a very thrilling road to the NLCS to then be swept by the Nationals without putting up much of a fight. It was a memorable season for the winners of the NL Central, but it was in vain from the lack of results.

The Cardinals’ greatest weakness really showed in that final playoff series, as the team did not have the offensive weapons to compete with Washington. The Cardinals rotation was astounding considering the personnel that they had on the mound.

Players such as Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Mike Mikolas proved doubters wrong by shining on the big stage. With the departure of Marcell Ozuna, runs are going to be even tougher to come by for this already run deprived team, but not if Paul DeJong can blossom into a complete player.

The 26 year old shortstop showed off his power with 30 home runs in 2019, but only hit .233 with 149 strikeouts. DeJong has shown that he can hit for average by hitting .285 his rookie season in 2017, while still maintaining his power with 25 home runs.

If DeJong can learn to make more contact and hit for a high average, the power will come, and the Cardinals will be able to find a way back in contention.

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