MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians

AL Central Rivals Series: Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins

The American League Central certainly has a different landscape than a few seasons ago, and even as recently as a year ago. Though some of these teams may still be finding pieces of confetti in their caps from the latest World Series victory parades and other may be ticking off the days on the calendar until their latest prospects are ready to arrive in the majors — the important part is right now, and the first series in which the White Sox will face these teams to set the tone for the season.

Taking a look at the American League Central, let’s highlight what the biggest concerns the White Sox specifically could be facing with each team, and what aspects of these teams flaws they may use to their advantage. We’ll start with two clubs that the White Sox be facing for the first time in 2016 this coming week; the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins.

Cleveland Indians

2015 vs. White Sox: 9 wins, 10 losses; 66 runs scored, 73 runs allowed

The Offense

Advantage: Francisco Lindor is still young and adjusting to the majors, Michael Brantley is not back in the lineup yet, and finally — no more Ryan Raburn.

Disadvantage: Mike Napoli’s sole duty vs. the White Sox will be to smash lefties, and eventually, Michael Brantley will return to the lineup.

The Cleveland Indians have always been quite enigmatic to me. The old saying goes “pitching wins ballgames”, and the Indians have one of the best pitching staffs in the American League, one that some could say might get even better in 2016. But there’s omitted information in the “pitching wins ballgames” tale. That being the tale of run support, that you still must score runs in order to win those ballgames.

That’s where the Indians came to a screeching halt, coming in last season with just 669 runs, good for 11th place in the American League and they scored seven less runs than allowed vs. the Sox. A power outage in Cleveland’s lineup could be partially to blame, as the team’s power peaked last season with Carlos Santana, who hit just 19 home runs in 666 plate appearances.

But the times are changing for this Cleveland lineup. It’s tough to call Lindor a glove-first prospect, because though his glove is elite, his bat plays a large role in his hype. In just 99 games in Cleveland last season, Lindor hit an impressive 14 home runs. But just because Lindor had an offensive heyday in Cleveland while hitters were getting their first look at him doesn’t mean that this bounty of power will continue to flourish at this level. (For the record, from the White Sox standpoint, the only times Lindor really dominated them was against Jeff Samardzija and Zach Duke.) Pitchers will see him, study him, and figure out his weaknesses. He’s still a 22-year old hitter in the big leagues with fewer than 100 games under his belt.

As is the case with many young hitters, Lindor struggles with breaking pitches, and turned over ground balls at a 51 percent clip in 2015. Though that ground ball rate is almost virtually unsustainable for a full season with someone with Lindor’s profile, whiffing and making weak contact on grounders will still continue to be an area of struggle for him, perhaps mitigating the damage he will do against the White Sox’s clan of aces who thrive on such arsenal.

When the notorious Raburn, who hits a ludicrous .295/.415/.591 lifetime against the White Sox, was (finally) no longer a part of not only the Indians organization but the American League Central as a whole, White Sox fans were quick to rejoice. But the Indians didn’t go without attempting to find another hitter who might be able to torment the White Sox to Raburn-esque levels in 2016.

From the looks of it, they did so successfully. Mike Napoli, whose splits vs. left handed pitchers are as ludicrous as Raburn’s numbers against the Sox were, is the perfect cog in the White Sox’s quest for freedom from the clutches of Indians player who wishes to exploit their weaknesses. With the White Sox doling out four left handers in their rotation at the moment, the South siders will certainly be running into some trouble with Napoli in 2016. The Cleveland organization was quite clever with that one.

In the upcoming series (and a significant period after that), the Indians will be without Brantley as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. This is the time for the White Sox to take advantage of a weaker Indians lineup early on. When Brantley does return, the question will be how much of his 2015 form and contact skills came back with him. But for right now; no Brantley, no problem.

The Pitching

Advantage: As the weaker members of a strong rotation, Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson are exploitable. That’s about it.

Disadvantage: This is likely the best pitching trio in the American League. Quite honestly — disadvantage everyone.

Now comes the ugly part. There isn’t a lot to the “advantage other team” side of this argument. The Indians top three starting trio of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar are elite — no matter which team is facing them or how strong said team’s offense is. Which isn’t going to bode well for the White Sox. The trio finished among the top 20 in American League ERA in 2015, and was in the top 5 for K/9 rate. Trying to squeak runs past this group will not be for the faint of heart.

The advantage the Sox will have, starting with the upcoming series, is that they’ll have weaknesses in the back end of this rotation that are much more exploitable than Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar. Anderson is still a bit rough around the edges, a dominant run in the end of last season was more a string of crazy baseball luck than indicative of his future; cFIP has Anderson pegged for regression at 117. Tomlin is a typical back end starter, and with a 46 percent fly ball rate and extremely lucky .199 BABIP in 2015, the Sox and their new brigade of sluggers will need to jump on the opportunities to take those fly balls into the seats more often than not.

So the theory here would have to be: Mitigate the run scoring early on from a lineup that has a lot of potential for mediocrity, and try to hammer out as many runs as you can against this rotation. Even the Corey Kluber’s of the world are bound to have a few bad days, and the Sox can’t afford to let those opportunities pass them by.


Minnesota Twins

2015 vs. White Sox: 13 wins, 6 losses; 107 runs scores, 57 runs allowed

The Offense

Advantage: There will be weaknesses to expose against the plethora of new and young hitters in this lineup.

Disadvantage: Trevor PlouffeBrian Dozier.

As a developmental organization the Twins are now showing off their shiny new prospects to the baseball world. With Byung-ho Park now joining Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Eddie Rosario in the big leagues this year, it could be a time for the Twins offense to really shine.

Sano will be the toughest challenge for the White Sox to face, and although he’s participated in about 19 fewer major league contests than the Indians young star Lindor, he posted significantly better on base and slugging numbers than Lindor. The one cause for concern while Sano is exploring the big leagues is his tendency to strikeout. Sano struck out at nearly a 36 percent clip last season, and if it wasn’t for the staggeringly strong slash line (.269/.385/.530), Sano could have likely been back on his way to the minors. Pitchers with nasty stuff such as Chris Sale and even Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon (though Rodon was a victim of one of two Sano home runs vs. the White Sox, the other being Nate Jones) will need to unleash the filth in order to silence the power of Sano. It’ll be a challenge, but it is possible.

Never having faced MLB level pitching, Byung-ho Park has had to adjust to the level of velocity that he will now be regularly facing, which is a level up from that which he faced in the KBO. Though Twins manager Paul Molitor thinks that the spike in velocity doesn’t much faze Park, we have yet to see how he handles the movement and velocity of Sale, Quintana and Rodon this year.  

Even should the aces of the White Sox pitching staff find the weaknesses of the new comers in this Twins lineup, unfortunately, they’ll still be left to face Dozier and Plouffe.

Even during Dozier’s historically bad second half last year, he still managed to put up a slash line up .277/.318/.530 against the White Sox pitching staff. That, coupled with Plouffe, who hit .329/.410/.557 against the White Sox in 2015, could spell some serious trouble for this team.

The Pitching

Disadvantages: Somehow, the White Sox bats have been silenced by a middling Twins starting pitching staff, who also have a pretty good bullpen.

Advantages: It’s still not a very good rotation that leaves a bevy of ways for an improved White Sox team to gain the advantage.

While the White Sox’s toughest challenge facing the Indians will be starting pitching, almost the opposite can be said for the Minnesota Twins. The Twins are certainly the Achilles heel that the White Sox face nearly every year, and the legitimacy of this Minnesota team is likely to improve this season. But with the additions of better defense and a more sound roster that in years past, the Sox can look to target the one area of Minnesota’s weakness: their starting pitching staff.

It’s quite the feat when you look at the 2015 run differential for the White Sox against the mystifying Twins. Of a rotation that includes Ervin Santana as their No. 1 starter, followed by Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone and Ricky Nolasco, the only pitcher the White Sox have even had mildly above average success against is Nolasco, who pitched to a 6.75 ERA in 37 innings last year (but didn’t do much better in 2014 with a 5.38 ERA in 159 IP).

The rotation the Twins will be sending out this year isn’t one that will be sailing strikes by hitters and raking up the whiff counts though. Last year’s Twins pitching staff came in dead last in the American League in K/9 rate, and without much change to this rotation, it doesn’t look as if they’re fit to raise that rate anymore. Bum luck and poor power numbers were most likely the culprit for the Sox only scoring 57 runs on Minnesota last year, but with the upgrade to their lineup, that will likely change.

They will need strike early though, as the Twins bullpen that consists of starter-turned-reliever Trevor May, Kevin Jepsen, and Glen Perkins, is a quite solid.

Unfortunately for the White Sox, there doesn’t seem to be an exact rhyme or reason to why they encounter such bad luck with the Twins, it’s just one of those weird baseball things. But perhaps the new dose of talent in this White Sox order will finally help them team route the pesky Twins.

The White Sox will begin their first inter-division series against these two teams starting with three games against Cleveland at home on Friday, and three at Minnesota on Monday.

Stay tuned for more on the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers just before the White Sox being their first series against them in mid-May.

Photo courtesy of Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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