Making Sense of the Surprisingly Good AL Central

For the last few years, both Central divisions have been the weak links in their respective leagues. No Central Division champion has even received a wild card bye yet, and this is especially true for the AL Central. The last time the AL Central champion didn’t have the worst record among AL division winners was in 2017 when the Cleveland Guardians (then the Indians) won 102 games and then lost in the ALDS.

In the early going of 2024 though things look like they’re changing. The NL Central has three winning teams including two of the top three records in the NL while the Guardians have the best record in the AL and three of five teams are over .500 as well. Additionally, the preseason favorite Minnesota Twins are only one game below .500 and still have a good chance to win this division. So what happened? What changed that made this division so competitive all of a sudden? While some of this may be just early-season noise, this piece will try to make sense of a surprisingly good AL Central division.

While this piece will focus solely on the AL Central, the next one will go in-depth on the National League side of things.

How Is The AL Central So Competitive?

Two Teams Coming Out of Long Rebuilds

This is the big factor that has made the division so compelling in the early going, both the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals have started on the upswing after each going through long rebuilds to return to contention. The Royals haven’t made the postseason since their 2015 title run and the Tigers haven’t made the playoffs since getting swept in the 2014 ALDS, only putting together one winning season since then in 2016. While the Tigers showed signs of improvement last year, winning 78 games, the Royals had been a dreadful team as recently as 2023 when they won just 56 games.

The Tigers have seen their roster improve through internal improvements, the health of young ace Tarik Skubal along with a young rotation of former first overall pick Casey Mize and Reese Olson, and the production they’ve provided, along with the bullpen’s stellar 2.69 ERA have helped to carry what has thus far been a putrid offense. Despite excellent performances from young outfielders Riley Greene and Kerry Carpenter the lineup has not been good, due in large part to the struggles of former top prospects Spencer TorkelsonColt Keith, and Parker Meadows. If those three can start to find a rhythm together at the game’s highest level this lineup could help give this pitching staff a break and help them win some games.

The Royals have gone about it a different way, being aggressive in the offseason and bringing many of the guys that have made them successful, especially in the pitching staff. They made a couple of big splashes in the starting rotation, giving contracts to Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha. Both have been good but Lugo has been especially phenomenal, putting up a 1.66 ERA in 38 innings across six starts up to this point. Those two additions along with a bounce-back year from 28-year-old Brady Singer have helped young stud and future ace Cole Ragans lead what now looks like a very solid rotation.

The Kansas City offense hasn’t been bad either, in fact, they are almost exactly average, ranking 17th in the league in wRC+ at 100. Led by superstar shortstop Bobby Witt Jr and veteran catcher Salvador Perez they have a young offense filled with players who have good process numbers just waiting to break out. 24-year-old Maikel Garcia crushes the ball as hard as anyone and is finally starting to put it all together, first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino has the fourth best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the game, and MJ Melendez has become one of the better outfield defenders in the game. All of those players are young, controllable, and just getting better so this Royals squad is not going away.

Overall, both of these teams seem to finally be coming out of long and painful rebuilds for their fanbase and it’s going to be fun to watch these two teams battle it out for the division crown over the next few years. While it would be great to just watch these two teams fight for a title, neither of these teams is in first this year, that distinction goes to a seemingly indestructible team.

The Cleveland Guardians Seem Unbreakable

We are around a month into the season and the Cleveland Guardians have the best record in the AL and the second-best record in baseball. If you were told this at the start of the season you would think they were being led by a return to form by Shane Bieber and an MVP-level performance by Jose Ramirez but that has not been the case. Bieber is out for the season with Tommy John surgery and Ramirez has put up just a .733 OPS. Additionally, top young starter Gavin Williams is on the injured list along with four key relievers, including Eli Morgan, and Sam Hentges. Making what’s going on in Cleveland all the more impressive.

The Guardians’ offense has been one of the best in the game, their 111 wRC+ is good for sixth-best in the league but they’ve gotten that production from somewhat surprising sources. Josh Naylor is hitting like a superstar and outfielder Steven Kwan is putting together the best season of his career, with a .343 average good for 12th best in baseball. Additionally, they have received surprise contributions from outfielder Will Brennan, utility infielder Gabriel Arias, and catcher David Fry among others who have combined to create an extremely deep and balanced attack.

The real separator for them though is what it’s always been, their pitching. Even without Bieber, Williams, and several key relievers the Guardians have a decent rotation and the number-one bullpen in the majors according to fWAR. The pen has been unbelievable so far, with three players with more than 11 innings posting an ERA under 1.00: Emmanuel Clase (0.69), Hunter Gaddis (0.00), and Tim Herrin (0.77). That is in addition to three other arms with ERA’s under 3.75. Once Williams comes back and the rotation starts to turn it around, this will be one of the most effective pitching staffs in MLB and could help this team return to the postseason. The Guardians were underestimated this winter after a down year in 2023 and they are now showing everyone that despite dealing with lots of adversity and bad luck, they are a force to be reckoned with in the American League.

The Twins Aren’t Going Away

The fact that the Minnesota Twins are currently in fourth in the division is nothing short of shocking. Last year’s champions ended their 20-year playoff woes by not only winning a game but a round and went into the season with a solid young group of hitters and a lot of optimism for 2024. While things haven’t gone the way they would have hoped, they are far from out of the race.

First of all, while they lost Cy Young runner-up Sonny Gray they still have a very solid starting rotation. Ace Pablo Lopez was one of the favorites to win Cy Young entering the season, young arm Joe Ryan added a new slider in the offseason among a flurry of changes that have more than paid off to start the year and Bailey Ober continues to be a very reliable middle-of-the-rotation arm. They are also joined by rookie Simeon Woods-Richardson who will start to establish himself as a legitimately good big league starter.

The lineup hasn’t been great to start the season but there’s still a lot to be excited about there. Second baseman Edouard Julien has continued the fantastic start to his career, Austin Martin, the former fifth overall pick was just called up and is ready to make a name for himself in the big leagues and other young bats are starting to find their footing in MLB. Ryan JeffersTrevor Larnach, and Alex Kirilloff are all off to very strong starts to support the struggling veterans and help cover the loss of superstar Royce Lewis.

Overall, this Twins team is still very good and has a good chance to return to the playoffs, and they will only get better when they get two of their best hitters back in Lewis and shortstop Carlos Correa along with elite closer Jhoan Duran from the injured list. Not much has come together for this Twins team yet in 2024 but when it does watch out because they could be the best this now competitive division has to offer.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the AL Central is one of the most exciting divisions in baseball, even though the Chicago White Sox might be the worst MLB team ever there are four young and exciting teams in this division fighting it out for the ultimate goal of a division crown and a spot in the postseason. Who knows, maybe a Central team will even be a Wild Card for the first time under the new format.

Main Image: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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