Believe it or not, we’ve now reached the quarter pole of the season, and the first quarter was nothing to write home about. The Royals are 13-28, a record that is decidedly Not Good. Over a full season, that pace will yield 52 or 53 wins, depending how generous you want to be in your rounding.
And yet, somehow, the Royals aren’t all that far outside the playoff picture. They’re just 7.5 games behind first place. At this point in 2014, they were 7 games back in the division race, and they’d do-si-do with the Tigers for first place much of that summer before going on a World Series run.
The 2018 Royals are managed by someone who thought they were three games worse off than they actually were, and their players promptly showed their loyalty by losing the next three games anyway. But somehow – yeah, it’s a big stretch – you could make the argument the Royals of May 15 aren’t dead yet.
Because the AL Central is terrible.
There’s every division’s win percentage up to last night’s games. Put the Royals in any other division, and they’re well out of the picture and probably in last. NL West? 11.5 games back. NL West? 12.5. AL East? A full 15.5. Heck, put the Indians in another division and they’re at best in third place and in more cases fourth. We have an entire division playing at-or-below-.500 baseball.
That’s not normal, especially as we trudge deeper into the season. Here’s the worst division in baseball at this point each of the past ten seasons:
By now, a hierarchy should have established itself: One or two contenders, a couple of middling teams, and one or two bottom-feeders. The 2018 AL Central currently has no contenders, two or three middling teams, and two or three teams already making plans to renovate the basement. If the Twins blow a tire, this could turn into one of the most exciting races to the cellar in baseball history.
Might as well lean into it. Let’s scout our opposition:
Cleveland Indians (20-20, .500, -- GB)
What’s going well: We saw the Indians we expected to see in the final two games of their series with the Royals this weekend. They should be a team that can hit, that has dominant starting pitching, and that dispatches opponents with aplomb. They have young talent like Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez who we’ll all hate for the next decade. Michael Brantley is back and as good as ever after a couple injury-shortened seasons. The rotation (outside of Josh Tomlin) has been as advertised.
What’s going wrong: The bullpen. Here’s the recap over at the Indians’ SB Nation site from Friday’s loss to the Royals, when the extraordinarily dependable Andrew Miller imploded. If they sound exasperated, it’s because the inning in which the Indians give up the most earned runs is the ninth. You never want to give up runs, but giving up a lot of them in the ninth inning seems poorly-timed.
Also, Jason Kipnis no longer knows how to swing a baseball bat (an OPS+ of just 35!), and Edwin Encarnacion is having his worst season at the plate in his career. Sure, the early season was frigid, but it’s plenty warm in Cleveland by now. They should have thawed out already.
What’s next: This has been one of the worst possible starts for this Cleveland roster, and they’re still in first place and above .500. There are bona fide stars on this team, and those that are underperforming should be able to rebound eventually. They can always pick up bullpen help at the trade deadline. And, hey, the Indians were also 20-19 last year… and finished with 102 wins. They’ll be fine.
Minnesota Twins (17-20, .459, 1.5 GB)
What’s going well: Fernando Romero is the shiny new toy in the Twins’ rotation. He made his third start Sunday against far-more publicized shiny new toy Shohei Ohtani, and it turned out to be a pretty impressive pitchers’ duel. Romero gave up his first earned run, but it’s his only one in 16.2 innings of work so far.
Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Eduardo Escobar are putting together nice seasons at the plate, and having a 41-year-old Fernando Rodney closing out games hasn’t turned out to be a terrible idea. Yet.
What’s going wrong: Injuries, for one thing. Ervin Santana and Trevor May have both been on the DL since the start of the season, and the rotation has basically been held together with duct tape. Regulars Jason Castro and Miguel Sano are also on the shelf, and Byron Buxton has posted a meager wRC+ of 20 when he hasn’t been injured.
What’s next: The Twins should be getting healthier over the next few weeks. If Romero is the real deal and Santana can anchor the rotation, and if nobody else gets seriously injured, the Twins could challenge for a wild card spot. It’s also not hard to envision a future where Romero falls back to earth, the rotation crumbles, the lineup regresses and the Twins wind up hovering a tick under .500.
Detroit Tigers (18-22, .450, 2 GB)
What’s going well: There’s a fair amount of positivity in Detroit despite their record, as their youth movement is beginning to bear fruit. Jeimer Candelario is the biggest surprise. The third baseman impressed in a September audition last year, and he’s picked up where he left off this season. Nick Castellanos, 26, has been with the team a few years now, but he’s posting the best numbers of his career.
Some of the veterans still have some gas in the tank, too. Miguel Cabrera was enjoying a renaissance before tweaking his hamstring, and Francisco Liriano is resurgent in his first season in the Tigers rotation.
What’s going wrong: Like most of the AL Central, Detroit’s bullpen is frequently on fire. Warwick Saupold is the only regular reliever to have an ERA under 3, and his FIP (5.04) is basically screaming at you not to buy into that. The Tigers have blown nine saves this season, the most in the AL.
There are some holes in the lineup — Jose Iglesias still hasn’t replicated his rookie season at the dish, and second baseman Dixon Machado hits like he’s playing second for the early-2010s Royals — but overall it’s been a decent start for a team many people had already written off — myself included.
What’s next: The regression monster has its eye on the Tigers. After Michael Fulmer, Liriano and Matt Boyd have been their best starters thus far, but I’m not buying that as a recipe for success the rest of the year. Can we expect the hot starts from youngsters Candelario and JaCoby Jones to continue? It’s risky. The Tigers are pushing toward their ceiling, and there’s plenty of floor below them. But Detroit fans have to feel good about how their rebuild is going.
Chicago White Sox (10-27, .270, 8.5 GB)
What’s going well: Yoan Moncada looks good? Matt Davidson hits a lot of home runs when he plays the Royals? There’s not a lot to work with here.
What’s going wrong: Their games stopped getting postponed due to weather, and they can’t play the Royals 162 times.
Seriously: Half of Chicago’s wins have come against Kansas City. 5 out of 10. Take those away, and the White Sox would be setting a course for 25-137. Joakim Soria is their closer. James Shields has the best FIP in the rotation, and it’s 4.50. They have won two games in their last 13.
They’ll always have Opening Day, I guess.
What’s next: The Sox should pull out of this tailspin, but even given how bad the AL Central is, they have a lot of ground to make up to post a respectable season. On the bright side, Moncada should be fun to watc—nope, too late, he’s injured.