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The state of the AL Central entering September

The Guardians have a slim lead while the Tigers crashed and burned.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

As of September 2, the Cleveland Guardians have a one-game lead over the Minnesota Twins with the Chicago White Sox not too far behind.

Meanwhile, the Royals are 16 games under .500 but are 2.5 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers, cellar dwellers who fired their GM after a misguided spending spree in the offseason yielded no gains.

Here’s a closer look at each team as the season nears its conclusion.

New Name, Same Game

In Cleveland’s first season under the Guardians moniker, the team is surprising a ton of people leading the weakest division in baseball with just a month and change to go. The Guardians currently sit 68-61, a single game ahead of the Twins.

Naturally, Cleveland is pulling this off with one of the smallest payrolls in the majors, ahead of only the Pirates, Athletics, and Orioles.

Leading the way is Jose Ramirez, who signed an extension right before the season began. He’s boasting a .285/.354/.546/.900 slash line to go with a team-leading 26 home runs 106 RBIs, 39 doubles, and 72 runs scored. But the Guardians are also getting excellent production from second baseman Andres Gimenez, acquired from the Mets in the Francisco Lindor deal. In his first full season, Gimenez has been worth 5.5 WAR as he’s slashed .302/.367/.487/.854 while he’s tied for the team lead in stolen bases with 15.

As usual, Cleveland’s pitching has been more than stellar, this year with Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill leading the way. Closer Emmanuel Clase, acquired a couple of years ago for Corey Kluber, has 30 saves already to go with a 1.15 ERA and 1.84 FIP.

Twin City Conundrums

The Twins are playing...fine. They’re currently 67-62, a game back of the Guardians with a full month left in the season. That record also leaves them three games back of the third and final wild-card spot. More, that record would have the Twins fourth in the AL East, third in the AL West, fourth in the NL East, third in the NL Central, and third in the NL West.

What I’m saying is, the AL Central is weak sauce.

Anyway, the Twins can still win the Central, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they do. While Carlos Correa isn’t going to win the MVP like I predicted a long time ago*, he is performing well, as he’s third on the team in OPS (.782), home runs (15), batting average (.271) and runs scored (54) while second in hits (108).

*I also predicted the Royals to finish 82-80. Whoops.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Byron Buxton has had a great year, worth 4.0 WAR, but, like always, he’s battled injuries and has only appeared in 92 games. One of these years, I hope, he plays a full season, and that will be something to witness. In limited time this year, he’s bashed 28 homers and slugged .526.

Only two pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched have an ERA that is above league-average: Sonny Gray (3.88) and Devin Smeltzer (3.71), the latter of whom is back in the minors. Dylan Bundy, Chris Archer, and Joe Ryan have all struggled to varying degrees.

With Correa most likely opting out of his contract after this season, the Twins need to take advantage of the tepid Central now. Thankfully for them, they’re within striking distance.

Somber South Side

First, I hope Tony La Russa is fine, and if he’s not, that he gets well soon. The White Sox manager is currently away from the team indefinitely while undergoing further medical testing. As a lifelong Cardinals fan, I’ve always liked TLR and been a fan of his, even during his post-St. Louis forays into the front office with the Diamondbacks and Red Sox. He may now manage a rival of the Royals, my favorite team, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still root for the 77-year-old. Best wishes, Tony.

As for the team, it’s been a rough and disappointing season. They’re 65-66 with a minus-37 run differential. Perhaps the series win against the Royals gets them back on track; perhaps not. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Pale Hose react to playing under Miguel Cairo now that La Russa is absent.

Tim Anderson remains out, having only played in 79 games so far this season. Third baseman Yoan Moncada has appeared in just one more. Eloy Jiménez has played in only 56 games, Luis Robert in 90. That’s a lot of missed games from key members of the squad. Among batters, only José Abreu, Andrew Vaughn, and AJ Pollock have played in more than 100 games, and Pollock’s OPS is thirteen percent below league average.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Johnny Cueto, now 36, pitched well against the Royals recently, and is dominating the AL Central as a whole. But when the team is getting key innings from Cueto, who’s now made 19 starts, something is going right. The Dallas Keuchel experiment failed rather quickly. Dylan Cease is having a fine year, but fellow young pitchers Michael Kopech (injured) and Lucas Giolito (76 ERA+) can’t say the same.

Youth Movement

You’re at this site for a reason, so you probably know all there is to know about the Kansas City Royals. It’s been a weird season—before it began, expectations were high. Then they cratered. Then veterans began getting dealt. Now a youth movement is in full effect. The team’s on pace to go 65-97.

That’s bad.

But the young guys are fun to watch.

Bobby Witt Jr. is on the verge of a 20/20 season in his rookie year; Nick Pratto’s turning a corner; MJ Melendez is getting plenty of playing time both behind the plate and in the outfield; and Vinnie Pasquantino had been raking before getting injured. Other young guys like Edward Olivares, Nate Eaton, Kyle Isbel, Michael Massey, DrewWaters, and Brent Rooker have been given a chance to show what they can do.

Brady Singer’s been pitching incredibly well since his brief trip to Omaha. Kris Bubich and Daniel Lynch have shown flashes of effectiveness.

There’s a long way to go but there is a glimmer of light at the end of that long, dark tunnel.

Motown Misery

Last season, the Detroit Tigers finished third in the Central with a 77-85 record. That was the team’s best winning percentage since 2016. To capitalize on the improvement, GM Al Avila signed free-agent pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez and free-agent shortstop Javier Báez, The team also called up top-five prospects Spencer Torkelson and, when he became healthy, Riley Greene.

Less than one month ago, with the Tigers taking a massive step backward, Detroit fired Avila.

Rodríguez has only pitched in 11 games after being away from the team for some time, and he’s been awful—4.17 ERA (93 ERA+) and 4.25 FIP.

Báez hasn’t been much better as he’s posting full-season career lows in batting average (.223), on-base percentage (.266) and slugging percentage (.361). His .628 OPS is 19 percent below league-average. He’s struck out 95 more times than he’s walked. But hey, he’s signed for another five years.

Torkelson, the No. 1 pick back in 2020 out of Arizona State, got sent back to the minors in mid-July after struggling to the tune of .197/.282/.295/.577. His time in Toledo hasn’t gone much better: .229/.348/.389/.738.

At least Greene has performed well. His OPS+ is 104, which leads the club, but he’s still not shown much power (.387 slugging) as he’s cracked 5 homers, 4 triples, and 12 doubles.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Overall, a year to forget in Detroit. With the fourth-worst record in baseball, they’ll have 13.25% shot at the first overall pick in next year’s draft, and with it, the right to take either LSU stud outfielder Dylan Crews or Arizona prep outfielder Max Clark.

With just a handful of games remaining, losing more games to “catch” Pittsburgh and Oakland may well be worth it.