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Time to Pay Attention to the Best MLB Playoff Race Nobody Is Talking About

Zachary D. RymerJuly 6, 2022

Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you're looking for a division race that could conceivably be won by one of three teams, there's really only one game in town right now.

So, come on down and check out the American League Central.

Though nobody will accuse the AL Central of being the best division in Major League Baseball, it is the only one of the six that has three teams within 6.5 games of each other in the chase for first place:

  • 1. Minnesota Twins: 47-37
  • 2. Cleveland Guardians: 40-39, 4.5 GB
  • 3. Chicago White Sox: 38-41, 6.5 GB

If they can hold course, the Twins stand to pull off the franchise's first worst-to-first season since the Kirby Puckett-led Twins of 1990-91—but only if they can hold off the Guardians, who've been a thorn in the side of the Twins to the tune of a 6-5 head-to-head record.

Beyond the fact that they're just 1-9 against Minnesota and Cleveland, perhaps the most shocking thing about this three-horse race is that the White Sox aren't leading it. They won the AL Central title on the strength of a 93-69 campaign in 2021.

But lest anyone jump to the conclusion that the Pale Hose are, well, hosed, just remember that Atlanta was as far as six games out of first place in the National League East as late as July 28. That turned out OK for them.

As for how the White Sox might pull off a similarly dramatic comeback, that's as good a place as any to begin a deeper dive into the AL Central race.


Don't Count Out the White Sox

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There isn't a more perfect microcosm of the White Sox's 2022 season than what befell them in their 6-3 loss to the Twins on Monday, wherein a long fly ball of A.J. Pollock's bat eventually turned into the first 8-5 triple play in AL/NL history:

MLB @MLB

Byron Buxton starts off an 8-5 triple play for the Twins! <a href="https://t.co/XZxZnOsPLg">pic.twitter.com/XZxZnOsPLg</a>

Basically, something that started out looking good, only for calamity to swiftly follow.

It's easy to point the finger at Tony La Russa, whose managing has continued to invite skepticism and outright outrage. Whether he's a deserving target of such emotions is another question, however, as it bears noting that the White Sox have actually outperformed what their record should be based on their minus-45 run differential.

It's more so other things that have held the White Sox back, including an underachieving offense and, especially, injuries. Their cumulative injured list reads like a who's-who of their stars, including hitters Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal and Eloy Jimenez and pitchers Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Liam Hendriks.

And yet, the good news is that the White Sox have actually turned a corner of late.

Out of their last 21 games, they've won 11. This is largely a credit to an offense that began warming up even before the wins started to come more consistently:

  • First  51 G: .652 OPS, 3.6 R/G
  • Last 27 G: .745 OPS, 5.3 R/G

Let's grant that the sustainability of this is questionable. The only noticeable improvement has been in the club's performance with runners in scoring position, where its average has gone from the sixth-worst to the second-best. That'll do for a spell, but what this team really needs for the stretch run is more than the 0.8 home runs per game that it's gotten so far.

As for whether that's doable, it's easier to lean "yes" than "no." Jose Abreu, the 2020 AL MVP, is already swinging the bat better, and you'd have to be some kind of skeptic to think that guys like Anderson, Moncada and Luis Robert aren't capable of more than they've shown so far. Furthermore, Jimenez is due to return from a torn hamstring in the very near future.

Shifting to the mound, Hendriks has already rejoined Chicago's bullpen after a stint on the IL with a forearm strain. The veteran closer stands to bolster a relief core that's lately been revolving around Kendall Graveman, Reynaldo Lopez, Tanner Banks and Jose Ruiz, who have a 0.99 ERA since June 13.

Chicago's starters have also come around since the second of Giolito's back-to-back bombs on June 17 and 22, across which he served up 15 runs in 10 innings. He's helped pace the staff to a 3.60 ERA in eight games since then. If this keeps up, it might even preclude general manager Rick Hahn from seeking help on the trade market.

If not, a trade for Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas ahead of the Aug. 2 deadline is possibly in the cards, or at the least, perhaps a rental such as Martin Perez or old friend Jose Quintana.

In any case, the next few weeks could make or break the White Sox's season. With 13 of their next 17 games against the Twins and Guardians, they have an opportunity to correct their record against those two and make the AL Central race that much more interesting.


Don't Sleep on the Guardians

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Cleveland may have a new name, but they're playing throwback baseball.

The offense's 61 home runs are actually one fewer than the White Sox and third from the bottom in MLB. The Guardians also have a starting pitching staff that doesn't really do strikeouts, as its rate of 7.6 punchouts per nine innings is in the bottom third of MLB.

Nevertheless, the Guardians are about as good as it gets at scoring runners that get on base. There's good synergy in their offense, whether it shows in good baserunning, patience with runners in scoring position or in the simple form of contact. As their 18.6 strikeout percentage is the lowest in MLB, no other offense puts the ball in play like the Guardians.

As for how the club's starters are also getting by sans strikeouts, it helps to have one of baseball's best defenses.

Cleveland Guardians @CleGuardians

Gimé made this look unbelievably easy.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ForTheLand?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ForTheLand</a> <a href="https://t.co/dCSoTvHJQc">pic.twitter.com/dCSoTvHJQc</a>

Per its 39 defensive runs saved, Cleveland's defense is the best in baseball outside of the Yankees. Most of those have come from an infield that features perhaps MLB's top defensive double-play combination: Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario.

The Guardians are, however, in a rut.

Since grabbing sole possession of first place from the Twins on June 22, Cleveland has lost 11 of 15. Its offense has gone ice-cold to the tune of a 29th-rank 70 wRC+. Not so uncoincidentally, AL MVP contender Jose Ramirez has just a 77 wRC+ during this stretch.

With their next 16 games all set to be against losing clubs in the White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, the Guardians can see the road ahead as a chance to right the ship before the trade deadline.

But even if they do, a trade for a better offensive catcher than Austin Hedges (i.e., Willson Contreras) or an outfielder with power (i.e., Anthony Santander or David Peralta) needs to be on the table as a means to get the Guardians over the hump.


The Twins Are Chugging Along

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

If it's fair to ask any question about the Twins' hold on first place in the AL Central, it might be about whether they've already peaked. In 41 contests since they went 11 games over .500 on May 24, they've merely succeeded in treading water by going 20-21.

Don't be fooled by that, though.

Even though they've lost one more game than they've won since May 24, they've also outscored the opposition by 19 runs in this span. They've also had one of baseball's hottest offenses of late, as its 125 wRC+ since June 3 ranks third in MLB.

For this, give it up to star sluggers Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa and the most unlikely great hitter in baseball today, Luis Arraez. Between them, they boast a 166 wRC+ and 20 home runs since June 3.

Minnesota Twins @Twins

‼️ unBUCKingbelievable ‼️ <a href="https://t.co/AQ36rNrDmy">pic.twitter.com/AQ36rNrDmy</a>

On the other side of the ball, the sudden departure of pitching coach Wes Johnson is at least an on-paper threat to the success that the Twins have had in turning their pitching around after it experienced a dismal season in 2021.

On the field, however, said threat has yet to materialize. Albeit against lesser competition, Twins hurlers have put up a 2.49 ERA in 10 games since learning of Johnson's departure as they left Colorado on June 26. Starters Dylan Bundy and Sonny Gray are both pitching well as of late, while relievers Jhoan Duran and Griffin Jax have a combined 1.57 ERA since the start of June.

The Twins could nonetheless use stabilizing forces for both their rotation and their bullpen, so they're a hypothetical fit for the top arms on the market. Those include Montas (who was reportedly on the team's radar in March) and Castillo among starters and David Robertson and Daniel Bard among relievers.

Another hitter to help Buxton, Correa and Arraez shoulder the load would also be a good idea, especially if said hitter could be plugged in at first base, such as a Josh Bell.


Time to Pick a Winner

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According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Twins (+100) are the favorite to win the AL Central, and then the White Sox (+155) and Guardians (+425). This also tracks with FanGraphs' odds.

In the context of last year's performance and the sheer amount of star power on their roster, it makes sense that the White Sox would have such good odds despite their record.

But to the former, they essentially ran unopposed in an AL Central race that didn't feature another winning team. And to the latter, even all that star power can't keep us from being spooked by how undisciplined and weirdly punchless their offense has been.

We're therefore picking between the Twins and Guardians for the eventual division winner.

This could come down to which one of them wins the trade deadline. That's where the Guardians will have the advantage in prospect depth, but that may not mean much if ownership is unwilling to add to MLB's fourth-lowest payroll. If they take Correa's looming opt-out as an excuse to go all-in, Twins ownership may not have that reservation.

Our pick is thus a vote for the status quo, an act the likes of which nobody ever regrets.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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