close
close

Reamm Org

MX News Update 2024

bacul43e

Don’t look now, but the AL Central might be… good? (with one major exception)

CLEVELAND – Triston McKenzie has never kept it a secret: his four least favorite teams in Major League Baseball are all in the American League Central. On Monday, he pitched the Guardians to a victory against the Tigers.

“A win in the AL Central,” McKenzie said after the series-opening victory, “that’s my problem.”

A win in the AL Central means a lot more than it used to. The division, long tarnished by its ineptitude, mediocre champions and endless rebuilding, is experiencing a renaissance.

In the division era (since 1969), the 2018 AL Central holds the dubious record for worst collective winning percentage, at .436. The 2023 AL Central flirted with that title for much of last season before a late-summer revival fueled in large part by the Twins and Tigers. That turnaround was just the precursor. Every sports story needs a redemption arc, and the AL Central could be baseball’s Comeback Player of the Year.

“The teams in our division are much better than what the media has reported,” said Guardians manager Stephen Vogt. “Everyone has gotten better.”

Vogt said that he does not look at the rankings especially in May. But a look at the data in the AL Central should surprise many.

The Guardians are in first place with a 24-13 record. After a slow start, the Minnesota Twins came alive with a twelve-game winning streak. The speedy Kansas City Royals have parlayed an aggressive offseason into a 22-16 record. At 19-18, the Detroit Tigers are in fourth place but are off to their best start in eight years. The Central is the only baseball division with four winning teams.

Maybe this is just the nice thing about a small sample size. Perhaps these rosters will crumble before the end of the season. Or perhaps Central America’s scrappy teams are on their way to earning respect after a winter in which the industry dismissed the AL Central as the sport’s presumed weakest division.

“Any team can win in this division any day,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “I really don’t look at expectations. I see the tough matchups when you see what the Royals are starting to do, what Cleveland does all the time, what the Twins have done the last few years. I know the White Sox have been through it a little bit. We are moving in the right direction.”

The rise of the Royals has played a major role in restoring the division’s credibility. In late July last year, their rebuilding came to a halt and their path forward was uncertain. They were at 28-73.

“Ouch. Really?” Royals pitching coach Brian Sweeney wondered when reminded of that number.

“Is that us?” asked Royals manager Matt Quatraro.

Now they are within screaming distance of that win total through the first six weeks of this season.

“We took our lumps,” Sweeney said. “We have learned a lot.”


Reigning AL Central champion Minnesota rode a 12-game winning streak into the month of May. (Brad Rempel/USA Today)

Kansas City spent the winter hoarding mid-level free agents to raise their level. They bolstered their rotation with Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha and added a slew of veteran relievers, including John Schreiber and Nick Anderson, all of whom have fueled the Royals’ 3.39 ERA. Franchise cornerstone Bobby Witt Jr., who declared during spring training that the Royals were about to “get a lot of attention,” has posted a .927 OPS.

Infielder Adam Frazier said this spring that he signed with the Royals in part because he felt they could “cause damage in the Central.”

The Royals lost 104 games in 2018, 103 games in 2019 and 106 games in 2023. They have finished fourth or fifth in the division each of the last six years. But for much of this season, they have carried some of the best scoring in baseball.

“Those stories are dangerous, right?” Quatraro said. “You can sit there in February and say, ‘This is going to be everyone.’ But there’s a reason why you come here to play. Last year the Tigers took a big step forward. Cleveland has always been good. Minnesota won the division. You can write or talk about what’s going to happen, but until you go here and play it, you don’t know. We felt good about our team going into the year. We are 40 games in. … But there is good baseball in this division.”

The division’s glaring weak point is the south side of Chicago, where the White Sox operate in a bizarre purgatory. A supposed cause of contention two years ago disappeared in an ugly way. Now under the leadership of general manager Chris Getz, the White Sox appear to be breaking down and preparing to start over.

They have won just eight games and have a point differential of minus 92. Against AL Central foes, they are 2-18. But the success of the rest of the division goes beyond everyone feeding into the awful White Sox. The balanced schedule that MLB implemented last season reduced the number of games teams play against division opponents from 52 to 76.

2023 win statistics by division

Division wins Win percentage

AL East

449

.554

NL East

424

.523

NL West

404

.499

NL Central

404

.499

AL West

391

.483

AL Central

358

.441

For example, the Guardians are 13-8 against teams with winning records; they’ve had just one series with Chicago, though they begin a four-game set on the South Side on Thursday. In his first year at the helm, Vogt has guided his club – largely the same group of players that sputtered to 76 wins last year – through season-long injuries to top man Shane Bieber and setup man Trevor Stephan. Gavin Williams, a frontline starter in the making, is not expected to pitch again until June at the earliest. Steven Kwan, one of the few bright spots in Cleveland’s lineup, will miss the next month with a hamstring injury. And yet the Guardians keep going.

Meanwhile, the mood in Detroit has been on the upswing since last summer’s surge. Last year, the Tigers went 35-17 against their AL Central opponents, one of the reasons why players entered the year with high expectations while the front office preached patience for the young roster.

“The eyes are on the division,” left-hander Tarik Skubal said in the spring. “Win the division, you get into the play-offs and anything can happen. … I thought we played really, really well in our division last year, so do that again.”

The Twins are the reigning division champions and may still be the team best equipped to win the crown again, despite an unspectacular offseason. Minnesota bounced back from a lackluster start as the team’s engines started firing and the club reeled off twelve consecutive victories. They have a well-balanced roster with lesser-known contributors like Ryan Jeffers and recognizable names in Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa. It should be noted that the Twins have been the biggest beneficiaries of the White Sox’ ineptitude thus far; Minnesota is 7-0 against Chicago this season, but 5-7 against the rest of the division.

“It’s going to be a challenging division,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We’ve seen very early, but very clearly, that several teams in the division are seeing pitching exceptionally well. Some of them have made huge strides. So we also have to take steps forward, not just to keep up, but also to excel and win and get to the top of where we want to be. We’re going to have to play better than we probably imagined because the division is coming and it’s probably been improving beneath the surface for a while, but we’re seeing big results now from several of these teams, and I think the league is also is. discovering that there are a lot of good teams in this division right now.

The AL Central still lacks a juggernaut like the Yankees or Dodgers. It’s true that there are stars like Witt Jr. and José Ramírez, that the Tigers have a potential Cy Young frontrunner in Skubal, and that outfielders Kwan and Riley Greene are quietly two of the best young hitters in baseball. But the reality is that the names populating these teams don’t quite equate to blockbusters.

Rather, this division is constructed more through the win-on-the-margin style that modern front offices have embraced. There are the melee-oriented Guardians and the base-stealing Royals. The Tigers’ strength so far has been their pesky bullpen, which has a look all its own.

However improved the records may be, the slapstick baseball that defined the division for much of last year may not be completely lost. This week the Tigers and Guardians played three hard-fought games. The Guardians won 2-1 on Monday, and the Tigers 11-7 on Tuesday. Cleveland stormed back Wednesday with a run in the eighth, another run in the ninth and a decisive run in the 10th to steal the rubber match.

“We like to play on the close-ups,” Vogt said. “It will be a tight distribution all year.”

Look at the box score and you might trick yourself into thinking two teams were fighting tooth and nail for coveted wins in the AL Central. In reality, all three games had their share of unfortunate at-bats, baserunning errors and haphazard plays in the field. This wasn’t playoff-style baseball.

But dismiss the AL Central at your peril.

“We’ve seen some Central teams get some wins, and we’re one of them,” Hinch said. “But you have to play all 162, and at the end they add them up and see who’s in the lead.”

—With contributions from Stephen J. Nesbitt and Rustin Dodd

(Top photo: Nick Cammett/Getty Images)