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

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

So come down and check out American League Central.

While no one will accuse AL Central of being the best division in Major League Baseball, it is the only one of the six to have three teams in 6.5 games in the hunt for first place:

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

If they can stay the course, the Twins will endure the franchise’s first worst season since the Kirby Puckett-led Twins of 1990-91 – but only if they can fend off the Guardians, who have been a thorn in the side of the Twins to Melody of a 6-5 head-to-head record.

Aside from the fact that they’re only 1-9 against Minnesota and Cleveland, perhaps the most shocking thing about this three-horse race is that the White Sox are not leads it. They won the AL Central title on a 93-69 campaign in 2021.

But lest anyone conclude that the Pale Hose, well, hosed, remember that as of July 28, Atlanta was six games away from first place in the National League East. That was fine with her.

How the White Sox could pull off a similarly dramatic comeback is as good a place as any to delve deeper into the AL Central race.


Don’t count out the White Sox

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There’s no more perfect microcosm of the White Sox’s 2022 season than what befell them in their 6-3 loss to the Twins on Monday, where a long flyball from AJ Pollock’s racquet eventually turned into the first 8-5 triple play AL/NL history:

MLB @MLB

Byron Buxton starts an 8-5 triple play for the Twins! pic.twitter.com/XZxZnOsPLg

Basically something that looked good, only bad things quickly followed.

It’s easy to point the finger at Tony La Russa, whose management keeps inviting skepticism and outright outrage. Whether he’s a deserving target of such emotion is another question, however, as it’s important to point out that the White Sox did in fact surpass what should be their record based on their minus-45 run differential.

It’s more other things that have held the White Sox back, including an underperforming offense and particularly injuries. Her cumulative injury list reads like a who’s who of her 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 the corner lately.

They have won 11 of their last 21 games. This is largely thanks to an offense that started warming up before wins became more consistent:

  • First 51G: 0.652 OPS, 3.6 R/G
  • Last 27G: 0.745 OPS, 5.3 R/G

Let’s admit that the sustainability of this is questionable. The only noticeable improvement was the club’s performance with runners in the goalscoring position, where the average has gone up from sixth worst to second best. That’s enough for a while, but what this team really needs to stretch is more than the .8 home runs per game they’ve hit so far.

Whether this is feasible is more of a “yes” than a “no”. AL 2020 MVP Jose Abreu is already swinging the racquet better and it takes a bit of skepticism to believe the likes of Anderson, Moncada and Luis Robert aren’t capable of more than they’ve shown up to now. Additionally, Jimenez will be returning from a hamstring injury in the near future.

Hendriks, who moved to the mound, has already returned to Chicago’s bullpen after a stint in the IL with a forearm strain. The veteran closer stands to bolster a relief core that has recently centered around Kendall Graveman, Reynaldo Lopez, Tanner Banks and Jose Ruiz, who have had a 0.99 ERA as of June 13.

Chicago’s starters have also bounced back since the second of Giolito’s back-to-back bombs on June 17 and 22, over which he served 15 runs in 10 innings. Since then, he has helped propel the staff to a 3.60 ERA in eight games. If this continues, it could even discourage General Manager Rick Hahn from seeking help in the trading market.

If not, a swap for Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas may be on the cards before the August 2 deadline, or at least a loan move like Martin Perez or old friend Jose Quintana.

Either way, 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 set 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 play retro baseball.

The offensive’s 61 homers are actually one short of the White Sox and third from the bottom in MLB. The Guardians also have a pitching staff that doesn’t actually hit strikeouts, as its rate of 7.6 punchouts per nine innings is in the bottom third of MLB.

Still, the Guardians are as good as they can be at scoring runners coming to base. There’s good synergy in their offense, whether that’s good baserunning, patience with runners in goal position, or the simple form of contact. With their strikeout percentage of 18.6 being the lowest in MLB, no other offensive puts the ball in play quite like the Guardians.

How the club’s starters make ends meet without strikes helps having one of baseball’s best defenses.

Cleveland Guardian @CleGuardians

Gimé made this look incredibly easy.#ForTheLand pic.twitter.com/dCSoTvHJQc

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

However, the Guardians are in a rut.

Since taking sole possession of first place from the Twins on June 22, Cleveland has lost 11 of 15. His offensive has become ice cold with a 29th place 70 wRC+. Not entirely coincidentally, AL MVP contender Jose Ramirez only has 77 wRC+ at this track.

With their next 16 games, all against losing clubs the White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, the Guardians can see the path ahead as a chance to put the ship back on track before the trade deadline.

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


The twins chug along

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If it’s fair to ask questions about keeping the Twins in first place on AL Central, it could be about whether they’ve peaked yet. In 41 contests since going 11 games over .500 on May 24, they’ve only managed to mark time by going 20-21.

But don’t let that fool you.

Although they’ve lost one more game than they’ve won since May 24, they’ve also outplayed their opponents by 19 runs in that span. They’ve also had one of baseball’s hottest offenses of late, as their 125 wRC+ ranks third in the MLB as of June 3.

Hand it to star hitters Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa and the most unlikely hitter in baseball today, Luis Arraez. Together they have 166 wRC+ and 20 home runs as of June 3rd.

Minnesota twins @Twins

‼️ unBUCKingbelievable ‼️ pic.twitter.com/AQ36rNrDmy

On the other side of the ball, the sudden exit by pitching coach Wes Johnson is, on paper at least, a threat to the success the twins have had when they reversed their pitching after a dismal season in 2021.

On the field, however, this threat has yet to materialize. Despite lesser competition, the Twins hurlers have compiled a 2.49 ERA in 10 games since learning of Johnson’s departure when they left Colorado on June 26. Starters Dylan Bundy and Sonny Gray are both throwing well lately, while assists Jhoan Duran and Griffin Jax have a combined ERA of 1.57 as of early June.

The Twins could still use stabilizing powers for both their rotation and their bullpen, so hypothetically they match the best weapons on the market. This includes Montas (who was allegedly on the team’s radar in March) and Castillo among the starters and David Robertson and Daniel Bard among the helpers.

Another batsman to help Buxton, Correa and Arraez shoulder the load would also be a good idea, especially if the batsman could be hooked up 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 favorites to win the AL Central, followed by the White Sox (+155) and Guardians (+425). This is also in line 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 a good chance despite their record.

But for the former, they essentially ran unopposed in an AL Central race where no other winning team appeared. And for the latter, even all that star power can’t stop us from being appalled at how undisciplined and oddly shotless their offense was.

We therefore select the eventual division winner between the Twins and Guardians.

This could boil down to which of them wins the trading deadline. This is where the Guardians will have the advantage in terms of depth of prospect, but that might not mean much unless ownership is willing to raise MLB’s fourth-lowest payroll. If they use Correa’s upcoming opt-out as an excuse to go all-in, Twins ownership may not have that reservation.

Our election is therefore a vote for the status quo, an act no one ever regrets. 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.


Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant.

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