The AL Central is as tight as any division in baseball. Within the last week, three different teams have been alone in first place. A fourth could join them with a well-timed hot streak. Only the Twins are buried — at 21 games below .500, they can start looking towards next season.
Standings on June 1 are not necessarily good predictors of the final standings in October, of course. Although the Royals ran away with the Central last year, they were actually in second place behind the Twins on June 1. The year before that, the Tigers had a 6.5-game lead on the last-place Royals… who would eventually enjoy 45 days in first place before settling for a Wild Card spot.
The AL Central race is both too close and too early to call, but we can still get a good idea of who’s contending, who’s not, and what problems each team is facing this season.
|AL Central Standings, June 1
|Kansas City Royals
|Chicago White Sox
Chicago White Sox (28-25, 2.0 GB)
Everything started so well for the White Sox. Then it all came crashing down. They’ve lost 13 of 17 since May 14. Even worse, most of those losses have come against division rivals, including near-sweeps to the Royals and Indians and then what was possibly the most soul-crushing regular season series Chicago fans have ever seen.
Nothing is going right for manager Robin Ventura and his bullpen. He has been under fire this week with players rallying to support him. The General Manager had to make a public comment on Ventura as well. Royals fans need no reminders of just how poorly the White Sox relievers are faring, so here is one anyway:
One of those comebacks spoiled a great start from Chris Sale, who with Jose Quintana forms one of the better one-two combos in MLB. Quintana is having a breakout year. He has a better ERA and FIP (2.13, 2.28) than Sale (2.29, 2.89), whose numbers themselves are nothing to scoff at.
The White Sox have been doing perfectly fine at the plate even during this skid. Adam Eaton is having a career year and is near the top of baseball-reference’s WAR leaderboard (2.8 bWAR). Todd Frazier, meanwhile, is turning into the Kid Who Only Hit Homers. One-third of his hits have left the yard, and he’s on nearly a 50-HR pace.
On the flip side, Jose Abreu has been relatively cold. His OPS has dropped .150 since last year, and wRC+ is down 43 points from 129 to 86. But he’s rebounded a little bit in May and should hit closer to expectations the rest of the year.
Injury report: RP Jake Petricka should return soon from a hip injury.
Upcoming series against Kansas City: June 10-12 in Chicago.
Read more at South Side Sox: The White Sox use up their cushion, so now what?
Cleveland Indians (26-24, 2.5 GB)
The Indians had hovered around .500 for much of the year until a fortuitous run of games against the Reds and slumping White Sox boosted them towards the top of the division. Their upcoming games against Kansas City come in the midst of a four-series stretch against first- and second-place teams, so we should get a good idea of whether or not they’re ready to contend for the postseason.
Cleveland’s success has been fueled by a dominant rotation. Danny Salazar has been lights-out (2.35 ERA, 2.81 FIP) and Corey Kluber, despite some early bad luck, should continue to pitch like Corey Kluber. Josh Tomlin had been undefeated before imploding and losing his first game of the season Monday, and Carlos Carrasco looked dominant before heading to the DL with a hamstring injury. Starter Mike Clevinger recently made his MLB debut. The prospect has yet to live up to the hype in his three starts, but has the potential to make the Cleveland rotation top-to-bottom one of the best in the league.
Second-year shortstop Francisco Lindor leads the Indians both at the plate and in the field. He was the rookie of the year runner-up last year, and is picking up where he left off. Utility player Jose Ramirez, a career .239 hitter before this season, is hitting .310/.384/.448 through 44 games this year. He’s making the most of an opportunity to prove himself with Michael Brantley on the DL and his versatility should allow the Indians to keep him in the lineup once Brantley returns.
Catcher Yan Gomes is having the opposite sort of season. He has never been a prolific hitter, but he has not touched the Mendoza Line since the start of May and remains average, at best, defensively. But with Roberto Perez injured, the Indians have few options behind the plate.
Injury report: LF Michael Brantley returned too soon from offseason shoulder surgery and is back on the DL. He could return as soon as early June. C Roberto Perez is on the 60-day DL after thumb surgery in mid-May. SP Carlos Carrasco is nearing his return from a hamstring injury. He pitched a rehab start on Sunday.
Upcoming series against Kansas City: June 2-5 in Cleveland, June 13-15 in Kansas City.
Read more on Let’s Go Tribe: Cleveland Indians offense getting the job done despite not having any stars.
Detroit Tigers (24-27, 5.0 GB)
It is the Tigers, and not the Twins or White Sox, who have gone through the worst 12-game stretch in the division so far. A 1-11 skid in early May erased a good start to the season. Detroit has rebounded since then, going 9-6, and they’ve spent the last week or so hovering around .500.
The Tigers’ lineup has a bit of a split personality. Half of the team is firing on all cylinders, while the other half has struggled. 33-year-old Ian Kinsler is turning in his best performance since he was 26, hitting .313/.363/.525. His best work has come recently: He’s posted a 1.140 OPS and a 212 wRC+ in his last twelve games. Kinsler’s season wRC+ of 147 puts him in the league’s top 25, and behind three other Tigers: Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Nick Castellanos.
Jose Iglesias has always been in the lineup for his glove, not his bat, but his hitting has been good enough in the past to earn a trip to the All-Star game. Not so this year. He’s posted a 40 wRC+ so far, a number which is actually worse than Omar Infante’s 2015 wRC+. Free agent Justin Upton has struggled mightily at the plate, with a line of .217/.264/.326 with just three home runs, and his 36.5% strike out rate leads all of baseball.
Like the lineup, Detroit’s rotation is a mixture of very good and very bad. After a scorching start, Jordan Zimmermann remains at least fairly warm and is still the Tigers’ best pitcher. Rookie Michael Fulmer, acquired last year from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade, and is 4-1 with a 3.97 ERA and coming off two very strong outings.
Anibal Sanchez, who has been on the decline in recent years, is gaining downhill momentum with a 3-6 record and an ERA north of 6. Off-season addition Mike Pelfrey is winless and has proved to be more of an off-season subtraction. The bullpen still isn’t great, but there are at least a few serviceable arms relative to some of their previous seasons. The Royals and Tigers have actually blown the same number of saves (5) so far this year, although Detroit's bullpen ERA is second-worst in the league at 4.78.
Injury report: P Shane Greene’s finger injury paved the way for Fulmer to start. Greene has completed a rehab start and may be headed for the bullpen when he returns to Detroit.
Upcoming series against Kansas City: June 17-19 in Detroit.
Read more from Bless You Boys: Here’s how Miguel Cabrera got out of his early-season slump
Minnesota Twins (15-36, 14.0 GB)
Are the Twins showing signs of life? The cellar dwellers have won four of their last six (including a sweep of the then-first place Mariners) to move into a tie with the Atlanta Braves for 29th place in MLB. Even if the Twins were to win 15 of their next 20, they’d still be nowhere close to first place. They are currently on a pace to win 48 games, and allow 854 runs.
Not much has gone right in the Twin Cities after a surprising second-place finish in 2015. The team is stuggling at the plate, struggling on the mound, and struggling in the field. While nearly everyone in the lineup is struggling, the most concerning is Brian Dozier. He’s hitting .202/.294/.329 on the year, and it’s been a consistent slump, too – not the product of a terrible couple of weeks. Dozier will never be mistaken for a slugger, and in his defense, he’s run afoul of the BABIP fairy. But 2016 Dozier looks a lot different than the one that earned an MVP vote last year.
No one is pitching well in Minnesota, either. Each of the starters has struggled in their own way, but Phil Hughes deserves a special mention. Hughes is 1-7 with a 5.74 ERA on the year, including a horrific 7.43 ERA in the month of May. He’s walking batters at double his career rate and is giving up more hard contact than ever before. The Twins, who have Hughes signed to a $58 million contract through 2019, just demoted him to the bullpen.
Joe Mauer is one of the few bright spots for the Twins. After a couple of weaker seasons, Mauer is hitting like you’d expect Mauer to hit. He and Eduardo Nunez are the only regular Twins hitting above .260 on the year, and Nunez has been the beneficiary of some BABIP luck. Miguel Sano and Byung-ho Park have brought some power to the plate, but not much else.
15-36. pic.twitter.com/Zqqu60hjWi— Brandon Warne (@Brandon_Warne) June 1, 2016
The Twins just recalled Byron Buxton again after an injury to Danny Santana. Buxton was sent down to the minors earlier in the year to work on striking out less often. Buxton’s role right now is to give Twins fans a little hope for the years ahead, as this one appears already out of their grasp.
Injury report: OF Danny Santana injured his hamstring on Monday and immediately went on the 15-day DL. SP Kyle Gibson is returning from a shoulder injury later this week to take Phil Hughes’ spot in the rotation. RP Glen Perkins also has a shoulder injury and is on the 60-day DL.
Upcoming series against Kansas City: None until August.
Read more from Twinkie Town: Staying reasonable with Byron Buxton