Why the AL Central is one of the Most Interesting Playoff Races in Baseball

AL Central

Before the season, many felt the favorite in the AL Central was the Chicago White Sox, despite the Minnesota Twins signing Carlos Correa. The start of the season hasn’t played out that way. The Twins and the Cleveland Guardians are the two leaders in the division, with the White Sox in third.

The AL Central has been outshined by the NL West and NL East so far this year, but as the second half of the season approaches this may be the most exciting division race in baseball.

Twins and Guardians Contend for First

After the White Sox’s surprising struggles to start the season, the Twins have led the AL Central for much of the year. However, the last two weeks have seen the Guardians reenter the division race, going 8-2 in their previous 10 games, culminating in a series win over the Twins.

The Twins have found their success due to a solid offense that is led by Byron Buxton and Correa. Buxton has been dealing with a knee injury which has bothered him since Spring Training and which was possibly made worse by a strange slide into second base against the Red Sox on April 15.

Despite the injury, Buxton remains one of the best outfielders in the American League. The 28-year-old has hit 19 home runs on his way to a .882 OPS, and will likely be a member of the AL All-Star team.

Correa has dealt with injuries of his own this season and posted just a .633 OPS in April, but since then the shortstop has been fantastic. He recorded a .884 OPS in May before an even better start to June. So far this month he has hit .364 with a 1.043 OPS and five home runs.

Overall, the Twins have the third-best team OPS+ in the AL and the fourth most runs scored. Luis Arraez and Max Kepler have also been major offensive contributors in the lineup.

Pitching was the primary concern for the Twins heading into the season, but despite several injures the team has combined to post a close to league average ERA+ of 99 so far this season. Joe Ryan, who recently returned from the IL, is a Rookie of the Year contender and has an ERA of 3.00, while Sonny Gray, who also has dealt with an injury, has been even better with an ERA of 2.53.

The Twins bullpen is essentially league-average and has been hurt by the trade of Taylor Rogers to the Padres in exchange for Chris Paddack, who unfortunately is out for the season. The bullpen could be a key focus for the Twins at the trade deadline, along with potentially adding a starting pitcher if the right deal presents itself.

In contrast to Minnesota, the Guardians’ strength this season has been, unsurprisingly, their pitching staff. Cleveland has allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL this season and has the fifth-best team ERA in the American League.

Shane Bieber has led the starting rotation. The 2020 Cy Young winner has a 3.00 ERA, and although he likely won’t be a contender to win his second Cy Young this year, remains one of the best starters in the American League.

Triston McKenzie has also been a key contributor, with a 3.51 ERA so far this season in what could be a breakout year for the 24-year-old. The Guardians’ bullpen has been even better and includes seven relievers with an above-average ERA and has the third-best bullpen ERA in the AL.

The concerns with the Guardians always surround the team’s offense, but the team has had success scoring runs so far this season. Cleveland ranks fifth in the AL in runs scored and has been a league-average team in terms of OPS+ while striking out the fewest times in the entire MLB.

Jose Ramirez could start the All-Star Game, and he has a .302/.393/.630 slash line in his first season since signing a contract extension earlier this year. Andres Gimenez, who was traded to the team from the Mets as part of the Francisco Lindor trade, could join him in Los Angeles.

In addition, Josh Naylor is having the best season of his career so far, with an OPS+ of 142. Steven Kwan has also been a key contributor and is a contender for the AL’s Rookie of the Year Award.

The race for the AL Central has been very competitive between the Twins and the Guardians so far this season, and both teams could be active at the trade deadline. Cleveland will target another bat to add to their lineup, while the Twins will hope to strengthen their pitching staff.

White Sox Haven’t Lived Up to Expectations

While the Twins, and especially the Guardians, have exceeded expectations this season, the White Sox have been one of the MLB’s most disappointing teams. Injuries and other issues have resulted in the White Sox’s current record of 33-34, four games behind in the division.

The disappointing start to the year has created a lot of pressure on Tony La Russa and his team, but they are close enough to the Twins and Guardians to turn things around in the second half of the season.
Eloy Jimenez is expected to return from the injured list in the next few weeks after a hamstring injury he sustained in late April, which will provide a boost to the team. Unfortunately, Danny Mendick recently tore his right ACL and will be out for the season, and he joins Adam Engel, Yasmani Grandal, Yoan Moncada, and Liam Hendricks, among others, on the injured list.

The injuries have undoubtedly been one of the causes, if not the primary cause, of Chicago’s struggles this season. While the White Sox remain just four games back in the division race, it is unclear how aggressive they will be at the deadline considering the long-term injuries the team faces.

No matter what, the Twins, Guardians, and White Sox will all be among the most interesting teams to watch at the trade deadline. The competition for the AL Central could end up being the most exciting playoff race in baseball when August and September begin.

 


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