AL Central Surprises

By Steve Tsilimos | Posted 1 year ago

Iis summertime in the U.S. of A. and baseball is in full swing around the country. People are happily flocking to the ballpark to watch their favorite team smack a tinny ball around the diamond. With the All-Star break two weeks away and half of the season practically in the books, the race for the playoffs is shaping up.


The American League has the top two records and those teams, the Yankees and Astros, are running away with their divisions. The Central Division is the only one that has a race at the halfway point of the season in the American League.


The Minnesota Twins are in first place in the divisionahead of the Cleveland Guardians. The Chicago White Sox were the heavy favorites to win the division and had the fourth-best odds to win the World Series on most Vegas sportsbooks. The White Sox are dealing with a slew of injuries and trying to keep it close so they can make a run. The Twins and Guardians are going to make it tough because they are better than most people thought. 

Small Market – AL Central

If you follow baseball then you understand that the Guardians and the Twins are small-market teams that cannot spend money like the teams in L.A. or New York. Small-market teams in the MLB have to be savvy when they build their teams and have to find talent where others may not look. Both the Twins and Guardians have done exceptionally well in developing players that they either acquired via trade or signed free agents. 


The Guardians are one of baseball's biggest surprises this year because they are the youngest team in the majors and have the fourth-lowest payroll in the MLB. Cleveland’s payroll is just over $69 millionmore than 3x less than five different payrolls in the MLB. To put it into perspective the Dodgers are spending more on their infield than the Guardians are spending on their entire team. 

No Salary Cap Needed

The other three major sports leagues in America all have salary caps to give small-market teams a “better chance” to compete. I am not here to argue that the MLB needs a salary cap because the MLB has more parity than any of those other leagues. The MLB has not had a repeat World Series Champ since the Yankees did it over two decades ago. But how are teams like the Guardians supposed to compete with these large-market teams? 


Made famous by the Hollywood movie ‘Moneyball,’ small-market teams must find production in creative ways. Today’s game features more home runs and strikeouts than ever, but that's where the Guardians are different. Cleveland is last in strikeouts and third from the bottom in home runs.


Cleveland Guardians – Trades continue shaping the future

When a team is playing small ball, it needs to have good pitching to keep games close. Cleveland has been a factory for aces since the turn of the decade. Cleveland has had four different pitchers win the AL Cy Young award since 2007 with Corey Kluber winning the award twice bringing the team total to five. No team in all of baseball has won the Cy Young more than three times or has had more than two different players win the award since ‘07.


The problem with rooting for small market teams is that after a player wins the Cy Young or has a few great years the other teams are going to ‘buy’ them in free agency. Sowhat good small-market teams have to do is trade away their best players before they hit free agency. The Guardians have been great at getting future stars when they needed to trade away their big names.


It’s actually quite impressive what Cleveland has done in the trade market over the past few decades. They get rid of players at the right time and get good players in return, develop them into All-Stars then trade them away again. Most recently they traded away SS Francisco Lindor, RHP Carlos Carrasco to the Mets and got back in return, INF Amed Rosario, INF Andrés Giménez, plus two other prospects. 

Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez

Rosario and Giménez have become good middle infielders for the Guardians. If management was stubborn and did not want to trade Lindor, who at the time was their best player, it would have ended up with nothing because he would have signed a huge deal in free agency. 

Gimenez is coming into his own and is currently second in the AL in both BA with runners in scoring position (.397) average and Wins Over Replacement (WAR) for a second basemen (3.4). Gimenez has been great with runners on and he’s been clutch late. He has the third-highest BA after the sixth inning (.342). Gimenez should be an All-Star this year but he will struggle to get the votes playing in Cleveland.


Jose Ramirez

That brings me to the Guardians’ three-time All-Star third basemen Jose Ramirez. Ramirez has been with the team since 2009 and signed the franchise's largest contract this offseason (5-year/$124 million contract extension through 2028). Ramirez has been one of the most valuable players in all of baseball. Over the last six seasons, he’s hit an impressive .286/.364/.531/.895 and averaged 31 home runs, 27 stolen bases, 45 doubles, 107 runs, and 101 RBI per 162 games. Only four position players have produced at least 30 bWAR in the last six seasons, Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, and Jose Ramirez.


Unlike most stars that come through Cleveland, Ramirez wanted to stay with the organization and was not interested in signing a bigger contract with a large market team. While that $124 million is the largest contract in franchise history, it pales in comparison to contracts signed by top third basemen in recent history. In 2019, Manny Machado signed a 10-year/$300 million contract with the Padres


Minnesota Twins – Money well spent

The Twins are doing things differently in Minnesota and it is paying off as they are leading the AL Central. They are spending below the league average this year and have been able to lock down some of their star players on long-term deals. The Twins have eight players on multi-year deals compared to the Guardians three. CF Byron Buxton, one of the players on a long-term contract, is tied for fourth in the AL with 22 HRs. 


Luis Arraez

One of the biggest surprises of the season so far is the Twins utility man Luis Arraezwho leads the majors in BA (.348). Arraez (25) showed he was a good hitter his previous three seasons in the league but he has yet to play more than 121 games in a season. This year he is an everyday player and has been a big part of the Twins' success. 



The Twins signed Arraez in 2013 when he was 16 years old after he led the Venezuela team to a 15U Championship in 2012. This is a prime example of how the small market teams can compete in a league where the best players are usually bought from underneath them. The Twins took a chance on a 16-year-old kid and nine years later it is paying off. 

Could the Guardians and Twins both make the playoffs?

If you were lucky enough to catch any of the Twins/Guardians five-game series last week then you probably had fun watching it. The games were back and forth and there was a lot of late-game drama. The Guardians won the last two games of the series on walk-offs to bring them within one game of the Twins in the division. 



The Twins are 10th in the league in both runs and home runs and ninth in batting average. Their lineup is tough from top to bottom and if they stay healthy is going to be tough to catch. Their bullpen is suspect so they do have problems to deal with before the trade deadline. 


The Guardians need to get some more power into their lineup. They could try to make a trade for a power hitter before the deadline to beef up their lineup. The Guardians are playing great team baseball and are fun to watch because they are young and fiery. As the youngest team in baseball, they will hit some slumps and make some mistakes along the way. 


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