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MLB End-of-May Check-in: AL Central

Does anyone actually wanna win this thing?

Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Every day, Pinstripe Alley offers updates on what the Yankees’ top American League opponents are up to through the Rivalry Roundup. The AL East is well-trodden ground there, but with the month of May coming to a close, we’re going to take a peak around MLB as a whole and check in with each of the other five divisions. Who’s surprising? Who’s underwhelming? Who’s simply mediocre at the moment? Read on and find out.

We take a look at the state of baseball on a monthly basis, and the state of the AL Central is NOT GOOD. Just one team is above .500, collectively the division is 116-154, and we are seeing the effects of the newly balanced schedule. When playing outside their division, the squads have combined for just a .392 winning percentage, cannon fodder that the rest of baseball fattens up on. Even the regular stars aren’t quite themselves so far this season, with José Ramírez on pace for “just” a four-win season — not that I expect that to be his true end-of-year contribution.

First Place: Minnesota Twins (28-26)

Top Position Player: Byron Buxton (0.9 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Sonny Gray (2.2 fWAR)

The current division leaders, Minnesota has been paced by an outstanding pitching staff, the second-best in baseball by fWAR. Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan rank first and fifth in ERA respectively, and if you care about wins they’ve been credited with 11 of the club’s 27 wins. New acquisition Pablo López has been solid, if not outstanding, as the workhorse of the staff albeit one with a 4.11 ERA.

Offensively, the team has struggled to put up runs — a recurring theme in this post — and some of the hot starts at the plate have begun to cool off. Oft-leadoff man Joey Gallo still has his 136 wRC+, but has fallen into his hot-and-cold streak that Yankee fans may be familiar with:

Carlos Correa has also scuffled in the first two months of the season, barely a league-average hitter before being sent to the IL with plantar fasciitis. Despite this lackluster lineup, the Twins are still favorites to win the division, with a 75.2-percent chance per FanGraphs. However, with just 84 projected wins, they currently have the second-lowest World Series odds of any division leader.

Second Place: Detroit Tigers (25-27; 2.0 GB)

Top Position Player: Zach McKinstry/Riley Greene (1.7 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Eduardo Rodriguez (1.7 fWAR)

The biggest positive surprise in the division, the Tigers have looked reasonably competent this season against their AL Central rivals, although they’ve majorly struggled outside of it. Miguel Cabrera’s farewell campaign has fallen flat, with just a 32 wRC+ and no home runs, but a trio of youngsters in the lineup have helped carry the club. Zack Short, Zach McKinstry, and Riley Greene have combined for a 135 wRC+, albeit in just over 400 plate appearances between them.

The pitching staff isn’t much to write home about either, save for Eduardo Rodriguez. E-Rod is the unquestioned MVP of the team, including an 18-inning scoreless streak at the end of April. He’s adopted a strategy that we’ve seen many pitchers implement, including Robbie Ray in his 2021 Cy Young season — throw fastballs and sliders almost exclusively, setting up right down the plate and letting his natural movement take over from there. It’s not a complicated plan, but it’s working for him right now in a comeback year after a tough first year of his contract with Detroit. It may turn out to be timely too, as he has an opt-out after 2023.

(Update: Rodriguez is now heading to the IL with a “left index finger pulley rupture,” so ... so much for the positive developments.)

Third Place: Cleveland Guardians (24-29, 3.5 GB)

Top Position Player: José Ramírez (1.3 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Shane Bieber (1.1 fWAR)

I’m not going to dance on the grave of the game’s worst offense, but those who spent the postseason and winter talking about how the Guardians’ dynamic, contact-based approach was the future of baseball should take a look at how it’s working in 2023. Cleveland still boasts the second-best strikeout rate in the game, but they’re dead last in runs scored and ISO.

Now the team is running a relatively low BABIP, which suggests they may be hitting into a little bit of bad luck. The particular style of the offense is vulnerable to BABIP swings, however, because of the reliance on contact. If you remember that frustrating, extra-innings loss in the ALDS last season, sometimes those bloop hits are going to drop in and the team will score — however, it’s more likely those balls hang up and are caught, or otherwise converted to outs.

The pitching staff is hit-and-miss, with Shane Bieber enjoying another strong season, although regression may be around the corner. He’s striking out batters at a career low rate, while also engineering a career low ground ball rate, a bad combination in today’s power-driven game. Despite these warts, the Guardians have the second-best division odds, but with a projected sub-.500 record, unless they do win the division there’s no postseason path for Terry Francona’s club.

Fourth Place: Chicago White Sox (22-34, 7.0 GB)

Top Position Player: Luis Robert (1.8 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Lucas Giolito (1.0 fWAR)

Let’s start with the good news. The White Sox are not quite as bad as they were in April, five wins clear of the last-place Royals. Luis Robert and Jake Burger are having something of a coming out party, combining for 23 home runs. Gregory Santos has been a breath of fresh air in the bullpen, and Liam Hendriks returned to the club Monday after completing cancer treatment.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is everything else. Lucas Giolito has the lowest ERA (3.98) and FIP (4.20) in the rotation, a collection of pitchers that has more or less set themselves on fire. Dylan Cease, the runner-up in last year’s Cy Young race, has seen a 20 percent decrease in strikeout rate, Lance Lynn has more than doubled his walk rate, and Michael Kopech has already surrendered 14 home runs after allowing just 15 in nearly twice as many innings last season. Andrew Benintendi, meanwhile, is sort of having the Cleveland Guardians’ season in micro. His strikeout rate is virtually identical to his career-best last year, but a complete absence of power has left him a below-average hitter (89 wRC+).

GM Rick Hahn accepted responsibility for the dreadful start to the Sox campaign, and he certainly finds himself on the hot seat, perhaps the hottest in the league. Chicago’s been a disappointment for a number of seasons now, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better on the South Side.

Last Place: Kansas City Royals (17-38, 11.5 GB)

Top Position Player: Bobby Witt Jr./Salvador Perez (1.1 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Aroldis Chapman (0.7 fWAR)

A distant 11.5 games back in the worst division in baseball, my goodness. The attempted rebuild in Kansas City has been a disaster, with Brady Singer, who was supposed to be the centerpiece of a young, high-ceiling rotation now arguably the worst starting pitcher in baseball. Bobby Witt Jr. has flashed some defensive and baserunning brilliance, but that doesn’t mean much when you only get on base at a .270 clip.

To perhaps fully contextualize how bad the Royals have been, the two best players by fWAR have been Witt, the dynamic shortstop, and Sal Perez, the power hitting catcher (and new captain). The third-best has been Aroldis Chapman. To his credit, the erstwhile Yankees closer has been very good in the later innings, but whenever a guy who pitches less than one inning per outing is the most valuable pitcher on your roster, you’re going to be in trouble.