PT TOMORROW: AL Central—Hildenberger among the bullpen arms to watch in MIN

Minnesota Twins

Heading into the season, the conventional wisdom suggested Trevor May (RHP, MIN) would continue his late 2018 run of three saves into the full-time closer role starting in 2019, but that's not how things are working out at the moment. After being designated for assignment in the offseason by the Los Angeles Angels, the Twins added Blake Parker (RHP, MIN) as a late-inning insurance policy—one that has paid off handsomely in the early going, as Parker has tallied four saves so far (to May’s zero) and may be cementing himself as the ninth inning option. Both pitchers have struggled with their control and their xERAs (4.79 for May, 4.99 for Parker) are hardly closer-worthy to date, though it is, of course, early.

One reliever who is posting closer-worthy numbers so far is Trevor Hildenberger (RHP, MIN), with a 9/1 K/BB ratio and a 2.50 xERA in 5.2 innings pitched. Hildenberger was thought to be in line for a late-inning slot heading into 2018 until he was unable to duplicate his strong 2017 numbers and subsequently fell out of contention, so it’s not as though he came out of nowhere, but should he maintain these metrics into May, he could force the Twins to rethink their closer mix. 

In the rotation, only Jose Berrios (RHP, MIN) has an xERA below 4.00 (at 3.21). Kyle Gibson (RHP, MIN) Jake Odorizzi (RHP, MIN), and Martin Perez (LHP, MIN) are all experiencing control issues and will need to limit the free passes going forward, or potentially face competition from a number of Triple-A starters the Twins have. That said, not one of the starters at the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate has been pitching well, and all appear to need more time in the minors before making the jump. Stephen Gonsalves (LHP, MIN) would have been the most likely rotation call-up, but he’s been dealing with a strained elbow since the beginning of April.

Before moving to the bullpen full time entering 2019 in an effort to keep him off the injured list, Fernando Romero (RHP, MIN) might have been a candidate to make a handful of starts, but at this point, he is more a closer-of-the-future type. 


Cleveland Indians

Cleveland sits atop the AL Central, though remaining there will require them to shuffle their starting staff and implement some stopgap measures, but at least on the offensive side, help has arrived. Francisco Lindor (SS, CLE) spent the majority of April rehabbing, first from a calf strain suffered in spring training, then from a sprained ankle suffered during his initial rehab, but he rejoined the parent club over the weekend. Lindor’s return will relegate shortstop placeholders Mike Freeman (SS, CLE) and Max Moroff (2B/SS, CLE) to the bench at the very least, with the possibility that some eventual time in Triple-A might be in order.

With the back injury to Mike Clevinger (RHP, CLE) and uncharacteristic wildness on the part of Corey Kluber (RHP, CLE), Cleveland could turn to recently-promoted Cody Anderson (RHP, CLE) to help stabilize the rotation in a spot-start role as the season progresses. Elbow injuries and subsequent surgeries cost Anderson all of 2017 and almost all of 2018 (he threw 3 IP in the low minors), and only this spring training has he been able to return to the mound. He will doubtless be brought along slowly in an effort to keep him healthy, but with Adam Plutko (RHP, CLE) recovering from a strained forearm suffered at the end of spring training, and Chih-Wei Hu (RHP, CLE) ineffective throughout spring training and in Triple-A so far, Cleveland is seemingly running out of options.

A trade for starting pitching might be the next move as Clevinger could be out for two months or more.


Detroit Tigers

Shane Greene (RHP, DET) has been one of the big surprises of 2019 so far, logging nine saves with good peripherals. His 1.64/3.45 ERA/xERA suggests he has been a little lucky, but his solid 10/3 K/BB ratio and only four hits allowed over 11 innings pitched (good for a 0.64 WHIP) indicates it’s not all smoke and mirrors here, making it more likely he could be traded to a contender if (when?) the Tigers fall out of contention, should Greene be able to maintain this level of performance. The Joe Jimenez (RHP, DET) Era in Detroit has been delayed for the foreseeable future, as his 9/6 K/BB ratio over 7.2 innings is underwhelming. 

Matt Moore’s (LHP, DET) knee injury ended up being a torn meniscus that required surgery, and he is out for the remainder of the 2019 season. The Tigers haven’t made a corresponding move regarding the rotation since Moore landed on the injured list, so Daniel Norris (LHP, DET) may get the spot start when it arises. 2019 has not been good to Norris, as he’s surrendered three home runs in a mere 8.1 innings pitched. That, along with 11 hits given up and a poor 4/3 K/BB ratio, makes his xERA of 5.94 understandable in spite of his 91% strand rate. Given his track record, he would merely be a placeholder in the rotation.

Rookie outfielder Christin Stewart (OF, DET) has landed on the injured list with a quad strain, but should be back at the end of the month when his 10 days are up. In the interim, Dustin Peterson (OF, DET) has assumed left field duties with Brandon Dixon (INF/OF, DET) slotting in as the fourth outfielder for the duration. The exciting name at Triple-A is Daz Cameron (OF, DET), who is slashing .264/.394/.434 in early action and who should get at least a cup of coffee this year. He reached Triple-A last season, but has only 128 plate appearances at that level so will get more time to develop the bat, though his glove may be ready now. 


Kansas City Royals

The Royals knew that losing Salvador Perez (C, KC) for the season was going to leave a hole in the offense, but it’s unlikely anyone predicted that replacements Cam Gallagher (C, KC) and Martin Maldonado (C, KC) would be this hapless at the plate through the first three weeks. The two catchers are a combined 11-for-71, and while their 12/5 K/BB ratio is respectable, they are slashing .155/.225/.197, which is light production even from the catcher slot. Andrew Susac (C, KC) at Triple-A and Meibrys Viloria (C, KC) at Double-A could find themselves vying for playing time in the coming months, but neither player is likely to force his way into the catching job. Prized catching prospect MJ Melendez (C, KC) started the year in Single-A and the organization is unlikely to rush him for any reason.

Alex Gordon (OF, KC) is experiencing something of a renaissance with a fast start in 2019, slashing .329/.417/.571 over 78 at-bats, while Jorge Soler (OF, KC) has been struggling to get on base, and Billy Hamilton (OF, KC) hasn’t been able to do much of anything at the plate so far. All three outfielders field their positions well, but as good as Hamilton’s defense is, his .236/.328/.291 slash line over 55 at bats is a bitter pill even at the bottom of that lineup. 

Should Hamilton find himself on the bench for a spell, Terrence Gore (OF, KC) is the likely substitution. His slash line .417/.462/.667 in 12 at bats is a small sample size mirage, but what is very real is his four stolen bases (compared to Hamilton’s six) in about one-quarter of the at-bats. Gore won’t suddenly become a superstar, but if he is used in favorable matchups, he could provide the spark at the top of the order the Royals could use about now.


Chicago White Sox

There has been a little bit of a rotation shakeup in Chicago as Lucas Giolito (RHP, CHW) goes on the injured list with a strained hamstring and is slated to miss most of the rest of April. Taking his spot in the rotation will be Manny Banuelos (LHP, CHW) for a turn or two. Lack of control continues to be an issue for Banuelos and is among the reasons he hadn’t seen any time in the majors since 2015 with the Atlanta Braves. This year is no different, as he has posted a 9/7 K/BB ratio over 10.1 innings, but if he can limit the free passes, he could become a serviceable, back-of-the-rotation starter.

Daniel Palka (OF, CHW) was optioned to Triple-A and Ryan Cordell (OF, CHW) was promoted to take his starting slot in right field. This move seemingly won’t affect fourth outfielder Adam Engel (OF, CHW), who will continue to get reps at all three outfield positions. Palka’s power potential was on full display in 2018 and seemed to set the stage for him as a starter this year, but after slashing .029/.190/.029 in 35 at bats, it’s clear Palka was lost at the plate and needs to rediscover the swing that produced 27 home runs in 124 games last season. He will never be a high average hitter, but the power is there, and tapping into that power is Palka’s clearest path back to the bigs. 

Fifth starter Ervin Santana (RHP, CHW) needs to right his ship in a hurry if he’s going to remain in the rotation going forward. His 4/6 K/BB ratio over 8.2 innings pitched is problematic in its own right, but through two starts, he has given up 13 hits, five of which have been home runs. Yes, it’s a small sample size, and yes, the home run rate seems to be up across baseball, but the White Sox will need to find a replacement soon if Santana doesn’t put up better numbers in his next start or two.

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