Checking in on the AL Central: Twins taking their turn as the hottest team in one of MLB's most competitive divisions

When the season began, many believed the AL Central would be the worst of MLB’s six divisions. But with the calendar turned to May, it’s the only division with four teams above .500. And with the Central’s four contenders bunched together, there will be ample opportunity and ample competition to determine who ultimately wins this division.

The Twins, who are currently on a 10-game winning streak, are taking their turn in the AL Central driver’s seat after a less-than-stellar start to the season. After beginning 7-13, Minnesota has gotten itself back in the mix and now sits at 17-13, just three games out of first.

Over the past few seasons, the Twins have dealt with significant injuries to their stars, and the start of 2024 has been no different. The team lost third baseman Royce Lewis to a moderate quad strain in the first game of the season and will see him sidelined until June. Shortstop Carlos Correa, right fielder Max Kepler and closer Jhoan Duran have all spent time on the injured list. Not to mention, oft-injured center fielder Byron Buxton left Wednesday’s win over the White Sox due to right knee soreness.

Yet the Twins have been able to tread water long enough to get things rolling. And thanks to a break in the schedule courtesy of the White Sox and Angels, along with the team’s good-luck summer sausage, Minnesota has new life going into May.

“We have lost a lot of very dynamic [players], some of the best players in the game. We’ve lost them for long periods of time,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “And it feels like every year, we’ve kind of dealt with that. And more than one guy and more than two guys.

“It was tough initially. But the way that we reacted [in April] and adapted quickly to the new situation and started playing really well — there were some openings, guys filled those openings really fast. I can point to a half-dozen guys that did it.”

The contributions Baldelli speaks of have come in different forms, whether that’s right-hander Griffin Jax (four saves) taking over the closer role or Trevor Larnach (1.039 OPS), José Miranda (.858 OPS) and Carlos Santana (four homers in past seven games) bolstering the lineup when it needed a serious boost.

And it’s the offense as a whole that has taken the biggest step forward during the Twins’ winning streak. Over the past 15 games, the Twins lead MLB in hits and runs scored, looking like a different team than they were just three weeks ago.

“When we were struggling at the beginning of the year, it almost felt like we could never come back,” Correa said Tuesday after the Twins’ 6-5 comeback victory against the White Sox. “To be able to bounce back and put some numbers on the board, have good at-bats and play the way that we play says a lot about where our confidence level is at right now and where we stand as a team.”

Through a month of play, the American League Central is looking like one of MLB's most competitive divisions. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)Through a month of play, the American League Central is looking like one of MLB's most competitive divisions. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

Through a month of play, the American League Central is looking like one of MLB’s most competitive divisions. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

Where do things stand for the rest of the AL Central’s competitive squads? With apologies to the White Sox, let’s run through them.

The Royals have been one of this season’s biggest early surprises. They were especially hot at the outset, winning 12 of their first 18 games and a franchise-record 17 in April.

The starting pitching has been the biggest strength for the Royals over the first month, headlined by veteran right-hander Seth Lugo, who pitched to the tune of a stellar 1.66 ERA in April. And Lugo hasn’t done it alone, as Cole Ragans, Brady Singer and Alec Marsh each have an ERA under 3.50 so far this season.

The question for Kansas City in May and the remainder of the season will be whether they can find enough ways to score runs outside of heroics from catcher Salvedor Perez and superstar shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. Thus far, Perez and Witt are the only Royals with an OPS over .750, and the team ranks 21st in OPS and 24th in OBP.

Of course, the division-rival Guardians have shown in recent years that it’s possible for strong pitching to carry a light-hitting offense into October. But if that pitching ever falters, it can be catastrophic. As such, it’s clear the Royals need more consistent offense to stay competitive in this division. Maybe that comes from slugging first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino getting hot after a slow first month. If not, it could mean a lot more close, low-scoring losses.

In recent years, the pitching has been the strength for the Guardians, but this season, things have flipped in Cleveland, with the offense leading the way. First baseman Josh Naylor’s big bat and ferocious energy have led the charge for a lineup that is top-10 in runs scored so far this season. That’s a significant improvement if they can keep it up; the Guardians’ offense has finished no higher than 15th in runs scored since 2018.

Unfortunately for the Guardians, they’ve desperately needed the offense to take a step forward because their pitching has been hit hard by injuries. 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber is out for the season after undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery, and former top prospect Gavin Williams, who had a strong rookie season for Cleveland in 2023, was shut down after experiencing right-elbow discomfort during a rehab assignment.

And while Tanner Bibee (3.45 ERA) has been a bright spot, Logan Allen and Triston McKenzie have left a lot to be desired, as each currently owns an ERA near 5.00. Starting pitching has often been a strength for the Guardians, but after trading Aaron Civale to the Rays and Cal Quantrill to the Rockies last year, the lack of depth is being felt in Cleveland.

Recent history has taught us that you can never count out the Guardians, but the injuries in the rotation so early in the season make it difficult to see this team sustaining their strong start if they suffer any more injuries, even with the boost in offense.

After looking like the heir apparent to this division back in the second half of 2021, it’s almost as if the Tigers have finally returned to life. Detroit’s strong spring comes at a time when the team is as healthy as it has been in more than three seasons.

When the Tigers drafted Casey Mize with the first pick in 2019, he was supposed to be the ace of Detroit’s future rotation. Due to a number of injuries, including Tommy John surgery, it has taken the No. 1 overall pick quite a bit of time to be healthy enough to find a rhythm, but he has finally started to look like that guy this season, with a 3.08 ERA thus far.

And while the Tigers have been waiting for Mize, southpaw Tarik Skubal has become not only the best starter in Detroit but also one of the best starters in baseball. It’s no secret why he’s considered a contender to win this year’s AL Cy Young; Skubal is second in MLB in WHIP and sixth in batting average against. With the duo of Mize and Skubal, along with contributions from another young arm in Reese Olson, the Tigers have the makings of a rotation with staying power.

Much like with Kansas City, the success of the Tigers will ultimately depend on their ability to match their pitching with consistent offense. Detroit’s offense has seen improvements in recent weeks, ranking sixth in baseball in runs scored over the past 15 games, with Riley Greene, Mark Canha and rookie standout Wenceel Pérez doing the heavy lifting.

But it’s unrealistic to expect three players to keep the Tigers’ offense at this level. Detroit desperately needs 2020 No. 1 pick Spencer Torkelson and shortstop Javier Báez to produce and provide the lineup with some additional depth and production.

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