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MLB On The Record: AL Central GMs talk playoff curses and controversial offseason decisions

Hannah Keyser
·20-min read

Among the many — and perhaps least important — “unprecedenteds” that can be deployed in a facile attempt to explain the previous 12 months is an unprecedented lack of access at sporting events. I like to think we’re getting by — fans and reporters, both — through a healthy dose of innovation, perspective, and an unhealthy dose of time spent staring at various screens.

But for an in-depth look at each team ahead of the 2021 season, I wanted to talk to someone who’s allowed within six feet of the field. So for each team, division by division, you’ll hear from a top executive about expectations and evaluations. Are they biased? Absolutely, but you’re smart enough to see through that when it applies. And besides, we tried to provide an appropriate counterbalance.

All the quotes are based on exclusive interviews conducted by Yahoo Sports over the past six weeks and have been edited for length and clarity. The teams are ordered by the projected standings from the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus.

Kenta Maeda pitches prior to a spring training game.
Kenta Maeda stepped forward as a Cy Young contender in his first year with the Twins. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

MINNESOTA TWINS

With Thad Levine, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Twins?

Levine: “I never, ever place a win goal on a team, and not to sound glib but our goal is to finish with at least one more win than the team in second place in the American League Central. That would be a good outcome for the team. We have been fortunate to win the American League Central each of the last two years. And I think one of the things that drives this franchise is a spirit that has been espoused both from the front office and from our manager Rocco Baldelli that we don't think we're entitled to win it again just because we won it twice in a row. …

“One of the reasons why we've been able to maintain an edge here is that there's no complacency, there's no sense of entitlement of our group so they're, they're genuinely striving each and every day to win that night's game.

“Now, that being said, having won the division the last two years, we also have not won a playoff series. So there's clearly goals that transcend just making the playoffs for this franchise, and I think we're setting our sights much higher.”

What do the projections say?

Despite a loud offseason on the South Side of Chicago, the Twins are the clear favorites in the division. PECOTA gives Minnesota a 70 percent chance of taking the AL Central crown, and projects 92 wins. It also fully buys Kenta Maeda as a Cy Young contender, forecasting a stellar 2.63 ERA.

How did all the uncertainty this offseason impact how you went about acquisitions?

Levine: “Significantly. I think from a very, very fundamental standpoint, we, like so many clubs, walked into this offseason really not knowing what our payroll for 2021 would be because we were all reeling from a degradation of revenues in 2020, and an unknown about revenues forecasted for 2021. So we — like so many teams, and quite frankly some teams who still to this day hold this position — we waded into the free agent pool very slowly, very methodically, and very thoughtfully. And were less aggressive in that space in the beginning. I think we learned so much this offseason, as to more information relative to the financial dynamics of the game and then we responded and we were very active and we were active late. And so, what transpired in our market was this slow boil of our fan base, you know stoked by our media, that we were sitting on the sidelines not doing anything and we were a playoff-contending team and how can we do that. I think frustrations mounted in that space. We cannot change our thought process or strategies in response to fan appeal. We have to separate ourselves from any notion of a Q-rating and continue to do what we think is best for the franchise.

“And we had a plan. Admittedly, it was not a linear one. We did not execute what was Plan A, but I think that's the nature of our jobs — today's Plan B or C has to be tomorrow's Plan A. And we always have to have multiple plans, and we executed a plan we think really put this team in a position to continue its pursuit of winning playoff games.”

What won’t the team tell you?

When Levine says the team hasn’t won a postseason series despite finishing the past two years atop the division, he is widely underselling the scope of October frustration — both in length and severity. The postseason curse (more on that in a minute) currently sits at 18 straight losses dating back to 2004. On the one hand, the best thing the current Twins team can do is try not to let that get in their heads. On the other hand, the combined age of the No. 2 and No. 3 hitters is 75 — that’s older than the team’s history in Minnesota — and no amount of naps is gonna help Nelson Cruz to age in reverse. The Twins are the best team in the division, with an incredible balance of veteran leadership and youthful reinforcements that will extend their window, but the margin for error is small after the kind of offseason the White Sox had, and every disappointing early exit in October is another squandered year of their aging core.

Do you ever think about the postseason “curse”?

Levine: “I think the answer to that is supposed to be ‘no.’ You know, the reality of it is that so much of it predated my participation in the organization and predated a lot of our players and coaches. So as we get into September, as we clinch playoff spots, it becomes such a dominating theme of stories told about the Twins — like no one writes a story at that time without referencing the consecutive playoff losses. I would say, pretty objectively, outside of that timeframe nobody thinks about it too much, in terms of the people most directly connected to the team. And by and large, a lot of our players have no idea about it because they just haven't been part of it for long enough to have it really hurt and be personal to them. That being said, it's clearly an ominous cloud that hangs over our fan base, and if we could give them no gift than to shirk that it seems as if they could breathe a little bit easier. There's a weight on their chest which is certainly impeding freedom of deep breaths, and so we would like to give them that gift.

Shane Bieber pitches against the Detroit Tigers.
Shane Bieber won the AL Cy Young in 2020 and now will shoulder even more of the burden with Francisco Lindor traded to New York. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND

With Chris Antonetti, president of baseball operations

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for Cleveland?

Antonetti: “Well zooming out and looking at it from an industry perspective, if we are able to get through the full schedule and full postseason, and avoid any serious health consequences, that would be a successful season as a starting point.

“I think beyond that, looking with our team, we're hoping that we have a group of young and emerging players that take the next step forward in their development, and continue our track record of competing for the American League Central title.”

What do the projections say?

Second place? Second place. PECOTA projects a strong pitching staff, led of course by reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, to boost Cleveland to an 85-win season. FanGraphs is less optimistic, mirroring more conventional wisdom that a relatively punchless lineup will doom the team to a .500 season and third place.

Do you think you have a better team than you did last year?

Antonetti: “That's so hard. I'm not sure.

“There's no way to replace Francisco Lindor, to individually replace Francisco Lindor — he's one of the best players in baseball. Carlos Carrasco is one of the most effective pitchers in American League, so we'd certainly appreciate the contributions those players have made and how good they are. I think what we're counting on, is what I shared with you at the beginning, is that we need a group of people to step in and step up in terms of their performance, and contribute even at a greater level than they did last year. And we think we have a number of guys that are poised to do so.”

What won’t the team tell you?

Cleveland’s established pipeline for developing award-worthy pitchers reached new heights with Shane Bieber’s Cy Young season. Combine a reliably solid rotation with a recent track record of finishing first or second, and the team would have had to do something extreme to slip to the middle of the pack in 2021 projections. This past offseason, they did exactly that by trading away a franchise face that could double as a toothpaste ad in Francisco Lindor, plus one of those superb arms in Carlos Carrasco. Lindor’s departure, in particular, has felt like a fait accompli for a few years now, so fans have had time to reckon with what that says about team ownership’s commitment to paying players what they’re worth, but in practice, it looks like the team is simply taking the division for granted at a time when the field is getting even more competitive.

Other GMs have referenced Cleveland as a team that has managed to stay in contention on a budget — never quite bottoming out. Is the organization's goal to never have to fully “rebuild?”

Antonetti: “I'd love for that to be the goal, but I think we have to deal with a reality that's in front of us. We've been fortunate to be in a position of having competitive teams and to be able to make some decisions where we've reallocated payroll or investments to maintain our competitiveness while also managing our finances. And that's something we'll have to continue to be proactive in doing. I think what that does necessitate is that oftentimes we have to make very difficult decisions, even in the middle of a contending period, which could mean trading Trevor Bauer in the middle of the season for players that not only help us that year but will help us in future years beyond the time Trevor would have been with us.”

Jose Abreu looks on during the second inning of a spring training game.
White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu is coming off a surprise MVP campaign. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

With Rick Hahn, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the White Sox?

Hahn: “It's a good question, because there's obviously so many extra obstacles this year — just in terms of health and safety — and getting through things itself will be a challenge. However, you know, we started this rebuild four years ago in the winter of 2016 with the Chris Sale deal, with the long-term goal of putting ourselves in a position to contend for championships. And obviously, we had a nice year last year, made the postseason. A lot of our young guys got some valuable experience. But I think we've gotten to the point now where we feel the window is open, and the talk all around camp is about winning a World Series. I mean, that's where the eye level is right now. Now, if, for whatever reason, we fall short, obviously we need to take a look at what happened, what contributed to it before we decide just how disappointed we are.

“But really, the goal is to win a championship and be in a position to be having a similar conversation a year from now. That's why we went through the hardship that we went through.”

What do the projections say?

They say they don’t buy Chicago’s winning offseason. It is always good to recalibrate your perspective after a winter of splashy trades and free agent signings, and PECOTA’s 80-win outlook is sending up a very bright flare about the White Sox. Still, it seems notably sour, particularly on Tim Anderson — projecting the shortstop to give back nearly all the gains he’s made at the plate over the past two seasons.

I'm sure that Tony La Russa is not unaware of the controversy around his hiring. And I'm curious if you had any conversations with him about how to introduce himself to the team and how to get integrated with the staff that's already here? Or whether that's a creation of the media and he didn't feel that pressure.

Hahn: “No, I think he — whether it's from the reaction to the hire, or simply being with a new organization, or having not been in the dugout for nine seasons — he himself from the start, felt that, as Tony would put it, he was starting from zero.

“And that he, despite the rings, despite the Hall of Fame plaque, that he was going to have to earn the respect and trust of the players. And by extension, the fans eventually, once they were able to be around him more. He took that very seriously from the start. Obviously, it was a little more challenging this year, but [he] was in contact with our players via Zoom or via phone and actually moved into a one-bedroom apartment out here in Arizona very soon after he was hired so that he could have access to the complex. And again, in a protocol-regulated way, has some interactions with the players that were using the complex over the course of the offseason. ...

“He knew that he was, as he put it, starting from zero, and he had to earn every bit of trust and respect that he could from the players in the organization.”

What won’t the team tell you?

Despite regularly being asked about it, no one on the team has indicated this spring that the hiring of Tony La Russa has caused a rift in the clubhouse. But going into a season in which the White Sox are expected to improve on their surprise 2020 postseason appearance — achieved under the stewardship of the unceremoniously (unofficially) axed Rick Renteria — that remains a source of public unease. La Russa brings a World Series-winning pedigree back to the White Sox, but also an AARP card and an unequivocally problematic recent past of driving while intoxicated. The concern is that the 76-year-old with accordingly old-school expectations will clash with a young club entering its window for contention. Another cause for mitigated optimism? The nearly season-long sidelining of Eloy Jiménez, who ruptured his pectoral tendon in a recent spring training game, that leaves the team without an obvious solution in left field and down a powerful bat.

You replaced longtime pitching coach Don Cooper with Ethan Katz, of Harvard Westlake fame. Was it really as simple as just getting the guy who made Lucas Giolito the star that he is today?

Hahn: “His name got on our radar because of that work, yes. And we were obviously aware of it at the time, and certainly heard from Lucas how highly he viewed Ethan’s capabilities and why he trusted him with essentially reinventing Lucas's delivery a few years back.

"Obviously, he's had success with [Max] Fried and with [Jack] Flaherty as well — he has his fingerprints on those guys as well. So you notice someone like that, and certainly when you see the impact it had for us, up close and personal, you take notice. But it was more than just that. As much as Lucas loves him and spoke extremely highly of him, we were able to dig around with some of the stops he's made as a professional — both in San Francisco and Seattle and Anaheim — and got a lot more feedback from other people who felt the same way.

"And then once we were able, first to Zoom, and then once we sat down face-to-face with [him], his ability to communicate, innovation, obviously his work ethic and desire to creatively tailor approach for each individual's needs, it was very impressive. There is no doubt he originally got at least on my radar a couple years ago after he had the success of Lucas, but ultimately the decision to hire him was the totality of his career and what he brought to the table."

Andrew Benintendi takes his lead at first base against the San Diego Padres.
The Royals traded for left fielder Andrew Benintendi over the offseason, adding another veteran to a team that was presumed to be a year or more out from its competitive window. (Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

With Dayton Moore, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Royals?

Moore: “We expect to compete the entire season for a playoff spot. And of course, the division is very strong. However, we feel like we’ve done our best to … potentially put ourselves in position to keep pace with the additions other teams have made and kind of meet the challenges of the opponents in our division.

“Adding Carlos Santana, Mike Minor and Michael A. Taylor, re-signing Greg Holland and trading for Andrew Benintendi — you blend that in with some of the predictors and some of the things we feel Jorge Soler’s going to be able to do, that Salvador Perez is going to continue to be strong. We didn’t really have Salvy in part of ‘18 and ‘19 and it really affected our team. Of course, he came back last year — did miss more time with an eye deficiency he was dealing with — but when he was on the field, obviously, he was Comeback Player of the Year and made the postseason All-Star team. Along with Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier, we like our team. It’s a good baseball team.”

What’s the rationale behind adding veterans while you have such a young team? Like Benintendi, are you adding him because you hope to contend before 2022 or are you hoping to extend him? How do the veterans fit into the plan?

Moore: “I’ve talked to young GMs in the past, and they've asked me certain questions and I've said you're never gonna win because you're not trying to win now. You have to try to win in all aspects of what you’re doing. You’ve got to win in the draft. You’ve got to win in player development. You’ve got to win in the front office. You’ve got to win in the community. You’ve got to commit to raise players, to connect with fans so we ensure that this game is enjoyed by our kids and our grandkids just the way that we’ve enjoyed it. So I just think it’s really, really important — the future of baseball depends on all 30 teams busting their butts to put the best team on the field each and every year to inspire people to come to the ballpark. It’s that freakin’ simple.”

What do the projections say?

PECOTA sees 72 wins and a lot of early career lumps for the young pieces here, especially the pitchers.

What won’t the team tell you?

The Royals confused everyone this offseason by adding a handful of Names You Know in a year when they’re barely even supposed to matter. All that caring combined with Cleveland’s apathy means they could make a run at the middle of the division, but ultimately, the team lacks the star talent to land anywhere close to serious contention. Their most promising prospects are a few years away from showing their full potential and the proven additions are probably past their prime. Basically, the Royals are putting too much stock in guys who would be role players on a postseason-caliber team. They’re doubling down on middling ability and ending up in the middle of the pack. It’s respectable, or admirable even, but when people are clamoring for a kid who has 37 games of pro experience, it’s probably because there just isn’t enough horsepower at the big league level.

The last Royals contending team was built on scouting and development, that process is, I imagine, very different these days than it ever was before. What feels different, or the same, in terms of getting an edge in those areas in 2021?

Moore: “The roster that we constructed for 2012, ‘13, ‘14, ‘15 and even into ‘17 — a lot of those guys were selected from 2006 to 2009. And so the work that we were doing during that process was putting us in position to have a strong, young, talented, hungry roster for those playoff runs and ultimately the World Series.

“So the same work we’ve been doing the past three or four years is putting us in this position now, with [Brady] Singer and [Kris] Bubic and [Daniel] Lynch and Bobby Witt Jr., who’s on the horizon; Nicky Lopez, who was part of a draft a few years ago and has a chance to be an everyday player at second base. And so a lot of the work we’re doing now, internationally and in the draft, is preparing us hopefully for success in ‘23, ‘24 and ‘25. So it’s a constant necessary and important commitment to be strong in the draft and internationally and, of course, player development."

Tarik Skubal pitches against the Kansas City Royals.
Left-hander Tarik Skubal is one of several prominent prospects who Tigers fans will be watching in Detroit. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

DETROIT TIGERS

What would it take to consider 2021 successful for the Tigers?

“I look at it as being disciplined this year and resisting an urge to really try to step up. The last thing we want to do is go out and spend some money that we're trying to get rid of next year or the year after that,” GM Al Avila told the Detroit Free Press in December about the outlook on 2021. Avila has not responded to Yahoo Sports requests for comment.

"We want some of the younger guys to get a little bit closer," Avila said in the same interview. "The guys that are already there, we want them to feel a little more established. There's a timing factor from the economics and talent on the field."

What do the projections say?

Uh, it’s a good year to follow some young players in Detroit without looking at the line score. PECOTA forecasts 66 wins, but does think interesting strikeout artist Tarik Skubal will be the best starting pitcher on staff. So there’s that!

What won’t the team tell you?

That the blueprint laid out by the Astros for how to tank your way into contention is a lot harder to follow in the current baseball climate — even if you can buy low on the Astros’ disgraced manager who took the team all the way to a World Series win four years after losing 100 games.

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