AL Central 2024 preview: Prediction for how Tigers’ youth will fare in wide-open division

The Post’s Joel Sherman previews the AL Central.

1. Detroit Tigers

O/U wins: 81.5

Key player: Tarik Skubal. He returned from flexor tendon surgery on July 4 and from there until the end of last season, among the 133 pitchers with at least 50 innings, Skubal’s 2.80 ERA was 14th, his batting average against (.199) was 12th and his strikeout percentage (32.9) was fourth. Was this the blossoming of an ace?

Player who’ll need to step up: Javier Baez. The Tigers have tried to minimize Baez’s importance with the promotion of youngsters and the addition of well-regarded veteran teammates such as Mark Canha and Gio Urshela. What can’t be minimized is that Baez is only in Season 3 of a six-year, $140 million pact. His 77 OPS-plus is the second-worst in the majors the past two seasons for anyone with at least 1,000 plate appearances. The Tigers simply need more.

Tigers ace Tarik Skubal MLB Photos via Getty Images

Name you’ll get to know: Colt Keith. The Tigers signed Keith to a six-year, $28.64 million contract before his first MLB at-bat. They believe heavily in his makeup and lefty bat and hope that a switch from third to second will allow him to offer competent defense to get the offensive upside.

Biggest question mark: With so much youth, is there just too much volatility to win the division? The Tigers have sprinkled in veterans including Jack Flaherty and Kenta Maeda for the rotation. But there is still a lot of inexperience, especially when it comes to playing big games.

How it’ll go down: Picking the Tigers to win the division is a belief in their young talent, but also a vote against the overall quality of the AL Central.

2. Minnesota Twins

O/U wins: 86.5

Key player: Chris Paddack. The AL Cy Young runner-up, Sonny Gray, signed with the Cardinals and Kenta Maeda with the Tigers. The only import was Anthony DeSclafani, who in the past two seasons has had difficulty staying healthy while sporting a 5.16 ERA. The best internal option is Paddack, who returned after Tommy John surgery late last season to pitch out of the pen. You may remember Paddack as a Padre in 2019 who clashed with Pete Alonso in their rookie seasons. Paddack has never been as good or healthy since. Can he refind that form?

Player who’ll need to step up: Carlos Correa. Perhaps no player drew more attention last offseason than Correa, who failed physicals with the Giants and Mets to scuttle $300 million-plus contracts before agreeing to stay with the Twins for six years at $200 million. His worrisome right leg stayed healthy, but he still hit just .230 while grounding into 30 double plays — the most in the majors since Casey McGehee had 31 in 2014.

Name you’ll get to know: Brooks Lee. The eighth-overall pick in 2022 is nearly MLB ready. He is a shortstop. So is Correa.

The Twins need a big year out of Chris Paddack. Getty Images

Biggest question mark: Can Correa, Byron Buxton and Royce Lewis stay healthy? This is a talented trio. But Buxton and Lewis have had difficulty playing — Buxton did not play an inning in center last season, for example, but plans to be back in 2024. They can be the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters in the lineup or the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 biggest problems for the club.

How it’ll go down: They ended their 18-game postseason losing streak last season and won a round, and then substantially cut payroll with concerns about local TV revenue. That left the Twins a lot more vulnerable in their rotation.

3. Kansas City Royals

O/U wins: 73.5

Key player: Cole Ragans. The Yankees received, notably, Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman, when the Cubs craved the lefty reliever as a finishing piece to their 2016 championship. The Royals received Ragans last year from the Rangers, who added Chapman en route to their first-ever title. Ragans went into Kansas City’s rotation on July 15 and among the 121 pitchers who worked at least 50 innings thereafter, Ragans was 12th in ERA (2.64), eighth in batting average against (.195) and seventh in strikeout percentage (31.1). He already has had two Tommy John surgeries. Can he endure?

Player who’ll need to step up: Nick Pratto. He is here as a representative of a group of homegrown youngsters Kansas City has brought up in the last few years — think Maikel Garcia, Kyle Isbel, Michael Massey, MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino — that it needs a lot more from if it is going to climb in the standings.

The Royals will need a lot more from Nick Pratto in 2024. Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Name you’ll get to know: Nick Loftin. Kansas City signed two veteran utility types in Adam Frazier and Garrett Hampson. That may block Loftin initially this season. But, overall, the Royals have drafted poorly and Loftin is the closest minor leaguer likely to offer any help in 2024.

Biggest question mark: Did they spend money wisely? The Royals’ $109.5 million spent in free agency was the fifth-most by any club and they made Bobby Witt Jr. their franchise face by signing him to an 11-year, $288.8 million contract. Witt is 23 and looks like he will be a long-term star. But the free-agent haul was mainly second- and third-level players with gambles in particular that Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha can stay healthy and steady a rotation that has a 4.95 ERA over the last three seasons combined.

How it’ll go down: The Royals have lost 20 more games than any other club over the last six years combined, including 106 last year. They are throwing some money at the problem. Can they get to mediocrity in 2024?

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4. Cleveland Guardians

O/U wins: 79.5

Key player: Shane Bieber. He was not throwing as hard or well even before being lost for two-plus months late last season with elbow inflammation. Cleveland needs Bieber to be good for many reasons, including being a candidate for a trade come July, since this is his walk year.

Player who’ll need to step up: Stephen Vogt. He is not a player, but the new manager of the Guardians. He is replacing one of the best ever in Terry Francona and doing it off of one year of MLB coaching experience as the Mariners bullpen coach in 2023 after retiring as a player following the 2022 season. He is filling enormous shoes.

Name you’ll get to know: Kyle Manzardo. The Guardians hit 27 fewer homers than any team and averaged the fourth-fewest runs. The lineup has Jose Ramirez and no one else who induces fear. Manzardo was obtained during last season from Tampa Bay for Aaron Civale. Can he and outfield prospect Chase DeLauter come up at some point this year to begin to deepen this offense?

Kyle Manzardo has a chance to provide some backup for Jose Ramirez. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Biggest question mark: Can they score enough to back a strong staff in a weak division? They have managed just 251 homers the past two years, which wouldn’t have even been the most in the majors last year.

How it’ll go down: From 2016-22, the Guardians had the majors’ fourth-best winning percentage behind the Dodgers, Astros and Yankees, and made the playoffs five times in those seven seasons. But in Francona’s 11th and final Cleveland season, the record was 76-86 and all the offensive worries that beset that club largely remain in place now.

5. Chicago White Sox

O/U wins: 60.5

Key player: Erick Fedde. The 18th pick in the 2014 draft, Fedde played in parts of six seasons for Washington and his 5.41 ERA is by far the worst for anyone who threw at least 450 innings in Expos/Nationals history. He pitched for the NC Dinos last year and won 20 games and the Korean Baseball Organization’s MVP and version of the Cy Young. The White Sox signed him to a two-year, $15 million hoping he is an improved version to help a rotation that had five pitchers work more than 85 innings last season, and the only one still on the roster, Michael Kopech, was moved to the pen.

Erick Fedde needs to provide a big boost to the Royals rotation. AP

Player who’ll need to step up: Andrew Benintendi. Like the Guardians with Jose Ramirez, the White Sox have star center fielder Luis Robert and … ? They need revival from a lot of corners, including Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada and Benintendi, who signed a five-year, $75 million contract and followed with a five-homer, 87 OPS–plus season.

Name you’ll get to know: Garrett Crochet. You probably know him already as the 11th overall pick in 2020 who never spent a day in the minors, going straight into the pen for the playoff-bound White Sox. He had a strong 2021, but then needed Tommy John surgery, missed all of 2022 and walked 13 in 12 ²/₃ relief innings last year. Crochet is being tried as a starter and his high-end stuff was playing in spring. There was a time when as a lefty with high velocity, a devastating slider and low arm slot he was comped to Chris Sale. Where do the White Sox sign up for that repeat?

Biggest question mark: Can they avoid a franchise record for losses (it is 106 in 1970)? The White Sox lost 101 last year and are arguably worse. Remember Yankees touted prospect gone bad Deivi Garcia? He might be pitching in the late innings for the White Sox.

How it’ll go down: New GM Chris Getz has not hid the total rebuild — trading his ace, Dylan Cease, two weeks before the season was the latest example. Teams will monitor whether he wants to build around Robert or decides to market his center fielder at some point.

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