Win-now Indians stand out in AL Central

Tribe built to contend for years while much of division in transition

Win-now Indians stand out in AL Central

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Rival executives have been impressed by the prospect haul that the White Sox have netted in trades over the past two days at the Winter Meetings. One American League evaluator opined that Chicago has set itself up to realistically contend in a few years.

Looking to the future seems to be the sudden trend within the AL Central. The Twins are in a transitional phase with a new front office, the Royals' window appears to be closing, the Tigers have hefty contracts they would like to move, and the White Sox have started the rebuilding process. The lone exception is the AL-champion Indians, who are built to win now and conceivably for the next several seasons.

Given the way the rest of the AL Central is shaping up, Cleveland looks to be in a great position for 2017 and the handful of seasons beyond.

"Obviously, you see what is happening with the other teams," Indians general manager Mike Chernoff said on Wednesday. "But, it's not like we can control it in any direction. So, we try not to focus on that and, instead, just think about how to improve our team the most."

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Cleveland is concentrating on finding ways to supplement a roster that can return mostly intact to defend its AL Central title and AL pennant. The entirety of the Tribe's talented rotation will come back unchanged, the Andrew Miller and Cody Allen-led bullpen should remain a force, and the lineup will received a great boost if star Michael Brantley comes back healthy.

The Indians are positioned in such a way where they do not need to dramatically alter the construction of their roster. That said, Cleveland is looking to inject some power into its offense and has been tied to free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion over the past several days. Re-signing Mike Napoli also remains a possibility, as does exploring lower-tier free-agent alternatives such as Chris Carter, Adam Lind or Michael Saunders.

After the World Series, the Indians' only major losses to free agency were Napoli and Rajai Davis.

"Especially coming off the year that we came off," Chernoff said, "and not having a ton of players leave through free agency, it's definitely a good feeling going into the next offseason feeling like we have a really good core in place. A lot of that core is here even beyond this year for 2017 and going forward. So, it feels like there's a lot to build around we know we have a championship-caliber team that hopefully can compete not just for one year, but for multiple years."

The rest of the division is dealing with that reality.

"The division, it's still the Indians on top," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus told reporters this week. "They have a very good team, and the vast majority is coming back. Right now, they are the cream of the Central Division, and it's up to us to catch them."

While Detroit has some large contracts that could be moved via trade, Ausmus said he expects the Tigers to field roughly the same team at the start of '17. Last season, Detroit ended eight games behind the 94-win Indians and went 4-14 against Cleveland on the campaign.

The Royals know they could lose a handful of players to free agency after '17, so they are trying to balance winning now with planning for the future. That approach played a role in Wednesday's one-for-one trade that sent closer Wade Davis to the Cubs and brought outfielder Jorge Soler to Kansas City.

"We want to continue to win," Royals GM Dayton Moore said. "We want to win consistently in Kansas City, and Jorge certainly gives us a better opportunity to do that."

The White Sox, meanwhile, appear to be hitting the reset button.

In the past two days, Chicago traded ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox and outfielder Adam Eaton to the Nationals. For Sale, the White Sox acquired Yoan Moncada (baseball's No. 1 overall prospect per MLBPipeline.com), Michael Kopech (No. 30), Luis Basabe and Victor Diaz. For Eaton, they landed Lucas Giolito (No. 3), Reynaldo Lopez (No. 38) and Dane Dunning.

"Given where we were as an organization entering this offseason," White Sox GM Rick Hahn said, "we knew we were going to have to make some painful decisions. But, if we had the opportunity to acquire some high-impact talent that would be around for a number of years, it was time to start that process."

It is Cleveland's time to continue to capitalize on the division's landscape.

Last year, the Indians went a combined 28-9 against the Tigers and Royals, who finished second and third, respectively in the AL Central. Overall, Cleveland posted a 49-26 record within the Central, marking the franchise's most wins in the division since it went to its current alignment in 1998. The Indians posted a record above .500 against all four of their rivals.

"Obviously, it's double the value any time you beat a team that would come in second in your division," Chernoff said. "So, it's definitely important. But, in the end, it's about how many wins you have."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.