MLB: AL Central Memorial Day Week Check-In

The AL Central was a division with low expectations at the start of the year. Based on Over/Under win totals, Minnesota was the only team expected to finished with a winning record and even the Twins weren’t anticipated to get to 90 wins. As the season reaches its Memorial Day turn, those expectations are being turned on their head. Of the four teams in the American League playing at a .600 or better pace, two of them are in the AL Central. And neither one is from Minnesota—the surprising Cleveland Guardians and the shocking Kansas City Royals are setting the pace, while the Twins are still very much in the hunt.

These three teams are offering the promise of a fun summer in Middle America as they sort themselves out. Here is a general overview of how each team is doing it, and what we might look for in the weeks and months ahead:

Cleveland (34-17)
It’s about the bullpen in Cleveland, where Guardian relievers have the best composite ERA in the league. Emmanuel Clase has been one of the top closers for a few years now, and at 15 saves with an 0.36 ERA, he’s as unhittable as ever. First-year manager Stephen Vogt has a deep group of arms leading up to Clase.

But after that, it’s hard to explain why Cleveland is not just winning, but doing so at a red-hot pace. The rotation is good enough, but with staff ace Shane Bieber lost for the year to Tommy John surgery, there’s no true stopper. Triston McKenzie and Tanner Bibee are steady, but not spectacular. Ben Lively is having a surprise year at age 32, with a 2.84 ERA in his seven starts. But the rotation is soft at the 4-5 spots.

Even so, a respectable trio of starters and a great bullpen can certainly explain the American League’s third-best overall ERA. What’s a complete mystery is how the Guardians are also third in the American League for runs scored.

The only offensive player having a truly good year is outfielder Steven Kwan, with his stat line of a .407 on-base percentage/.496 slugging percentage. And even Kwan is on the IL right now, although it doesn’t appear to be long-term. Jose Ramirez has 12 homers and 45 RBIs, but with a .258 batting average, he’s really not vintage Jose just yet. Josh Naylor has 12 homers and is drawing walks. After that, nobody else is hitting.

If you looked at this team’s profile without seeing their record you would assume they were competitive. But 34-17?! Things seem like a little out of joint. If you’re a pessimist, Cleveland is ripe for a fall. If you’re an optimist, they’re winning like this and Ramirez hasn’t even heated up yet.

Kansas City (33-19)
A review of KC’s lineup makes it easier to see how they’re winning. For the Royals, a team that hasn’t been competitive since winning the World Series in 2015, the bigger question is how sustainable that is.

Salvador Perez is off to a blazing start. The 34-year-old catcher who likely has Cooperstown in his future is hitting .337, keying the AL’s second-most prolific offense. Bobby Witt, a rising star at shortstop has a .365 OBP and is slugging .551. The Royals are going to need to get these two some help to keep up the offensive production. Witt’s numbers look sustainable. Perez, even giving him all the credit in the world, would seem due to cool at least a little bit.

What’s really set KC apart though, is the quality of their starting pitching. Seth Lugo, with a 1.79 ERA has been dominant. Brady Singer’s ERA is 2.70. Cole Ragans and Alec Marsh are off to a strong starts. Ironically, the biggest name in the Royal rotation—veteran Michael Wacha—is the one with the worst ERA, at 4.45. But you can credibly say that Kansas City has four starters who would all be the rotation ace in Cleveland.

The Royal bullpen isn’t as deep as the Guardians, but John Schrieber and Angel Zorba are both having really good years. I would be concerned about closer James MacArthur’s ERA being on the wrong side of 4. This is a top-line analysis, so I didn’t go game-by-game, but I hope an ERA that high is just due to one ugly outing. Otherwise, it’s a big sign of inconsistency that can really hurt in situations where your closer has to pitch in a tie game.

Is Kansas City going to continue at their current 103-win pace? That’s pushing it. But are the Royals a team on the upswing that has the pieces to stay in the playoff race all year? It certainly appears so.

Minnesota (27-23)
When you’re the preseason favorite in your division and are sitting at 6 ½ games out at the first turn, it’s easy to ask what’s wrong. In reality, nothing is wrong with the Twins. They were projected to win 87-88 games and that is exactly the pace they’re on.

Minnesota’s bright spots are shortstop Carlos Correa, who has been stead with a .362 OBP/.455 slugging percentage, and rightfielder Max Kepler, at .368/.544. Ryan Jeffers has been a pleasant surprise behind the plate and at DH. Jeffers has popped 10 home runs.

The disappointing part for the Twins has to start with the rotation, where their starters’ ERA ranks just 10th in the American League. Joe Ryan, with a 3.15 ERA in ten starts is throwing the ball well. Otherwise, manager Rocco Baldelli is dealing with mediocrity. And he’s getting forced to use a bullpen that is also 10th in the AL, with no one you would circle as likely to get better.

Minnesota can look forward to return of third baseman Royce Lewis. He’s been on the IL, and while replacement Jose Miranda hasn’t been horrible, a healthy Lewis would be a major upgrade. Lewis really hasn’t played this year, but was recently spotted running the bases in rehab.

Detroit (24-27) & Chicago (15-37)
We’ll lump the Tigers and White Sox together. Detroit was expected to be mediocre and they are. Chicago was expected to lose 100 games and still managed to be overrated.

If Detroit is going to pick up the pace, the building blocks will be a nice top-3 in their starting rotation. Tank Skubal and Reece Olson are pitching extremely well, and Jack Flaherty has been steady. The problem is the everyday lineup. Olson, in spite of a 2.16 ERA, hasn’t gotten a win yet. The only real bright spot is young centerfielder Wenceel Perez, with his .364 OBP/.495 slugging.

Chicago is absolutely hideous and the nicest thing we can say from a team perspective is that they’re at least middle of the league for hitting doubles and stealing bases. Otherwise, the South Side offers nothing. Luis Robert is hurt. Yoan Moncada is hurt. We’ll give a shout-out to 36-year-old Tommy Pham, who could make a run at the batting title. Erick Fedde and Jordan Leasure are having good years in the rotation. But they are lonely warriors.


I still think Minnesota is the best bet to bring this one home in the end. As noted, they are actually playing at the expected pace. For the Twins, it’s more about just keeping that pace, and letting Cleveland and Kansas City come back to the pack. I have a hard time thinking even the most optimistic of Guardian and Royal fans are expecting this current pace of play to continue. But, that said, a division that appeared to combine general mediocrity with an unexciting race, now looks like they have three pretty good teams.