There is Still a Path for the Twins to Win the AL Central

Photo Credit: David Dermer (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Twins came into this season with high hopes. Not only is the team trying to defend two consecutive division titles, they’re also trying to get over the hump of a 17-year playoff losing streak. A mess of injuries, extra-inning losses, and COVID outbreaks have factored into their slow start. Still, poor play and regression are significant contributors to their 7-14 record one month into the season.

With a start as bad as this, fans are starting to give up on the Twins. This is especially true given that other teams like the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians look capable of winning the AL Central. Luckily for Minnesota, the division race isn’t close to over yet. While some of the teams have been surprising, none of them have set themselves apart as a clear frontrunner.

Here’s a look at the division standings entering Tuesday morning:

The biggest surprise in the first month of the season has to be that the Kansas City Royals have the best record in the junior circuit. Six years removed from winning the World Series, the Royals have not gone all-in on a rebuild or committed to contending. But this year, they have played like surprise contenders.

Kansas City’s aggressive offseason has paid off with the additions of Michael A. Taylor, who’s led their offense with a .354 batting average on balls in play, a 0.7 WAR, and a 2.9 defensive rating in center field. They signed longtime Cleveland DH Carlos Santana, and he picked up right where he left off with a .354 weighted on-base average and a slugging percentage of .457. Their performances have been paired with Whit Merrifield, the team’s core player. The six-year veteran has hit a .767 OPS and a strikeout percentage of only 8.9%.

Low strikeout rates have been a key for Kansas City this year. They have the second-least amount of strikeouts in all of baseball, sitting only behind the Houston Astros, drawing walks in 21.7% of their at-bats. That’s complemented by their pitchers, who are keeping the ball in the park. Kansas City gives up an average of 0.9 home runs a game, the third-best rate in baseball.

The Royals have a run differential of plus-4, but they sit more towards the middle of the pack in total offense and pitching. They just have been incredibly fortunate this season, owning a league-best luck rating of 3.95 along with going 6-0 in one-run games. But FanGraphs predicts the Royals will regress. They give K.C. a 26% chance to make the playoffs and expect them to finish the year with an 82-80 record.

Next in the standings are the White Sox, a team expected to compete for the AL pennant. Chicago’s front office complemented their young core by acquiring Lance Lynn, Liam Hendriks, and Adam Eaton and putting Tony LaRussa back in the dugout.

The White Sox have struggled to live up to expectations so far, but they are starting to find their footing, winning seven out of their last 10 games. They are led by their powerful lineup (.317 BABIP and a .341 OBP), top-two in baseball. Their hitters also have a 21.9% strikeout rate. But it’s not just the bats. Chicago’s pitching staff has a team ERA of 3.72, averaging 10.62 strikeouts per game, and are keeping home runs low with only 1.04 home runs per game.

With a plus-21 run differential, the White Sox are starting to reach their potential. FanGraphs has them finishing with a record of 88-74 with a 68% chance to get to the postseason, maintaining them as the favorites to take the division even after a slow start. However, a few things could hold them back. Chicago’s starters have been solid, but the bullpen has been shaky, and the pitching staff as a whole gives up a lot of baserunners. It also doesn’t help that the defense continues to struggle. There also are lingering concerns over whether the younger players will buy into 78-year-old LaRussa’s coaching style.

Chicago may be the favorites, but they are nowhere close to running away with the Central. And the Twins still haven’t played them yet.

The Indians are the other bona fide contender for the division, but they traded Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets in a much-anticipated offseason move. Now a team that mostly wins because of their pitching will have to try and compete without their best offensive player.

Even with Franmil Reyes and Jose Ramirez producing at the plate, the Cleveland offense has been one of the worst in baseball. They have a bottom-five offense with 3.86 runs per game, an OPS of .661, and are dead last with a .242 BABIP. But despite their lack of offensive firepower, the Indians still have a positive run differential of plus-2 because of their outstanding pitching staff, led by reigning Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. They have a top-10 pitching staff (3.47 ERA, a 1.152 WHIP) and give up just under seven hits per game, second in all of baseball.

However, their pitchers are susceptible to the longball. That includes Bieber, who’s already given up five home runs in April. Cleveland is shaping up to be about a .500 team this year. FanGraphs projects them to have an 80-82 record with a 21% chance of making the playoffs.

The Detroit Tigers are continuing their rebuild and have the worst record in the AL Central. But they have their manager now, with A.J. Hinch at the helm after the Houston Astros fired him following their cheating scandal.

Some of their top prospects are beginning to reach the big league-level, including 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize. But last year’s No. 1 pick, Spencer Torkelson, will spend his first season in their farm system, and many of their prospects are still matriculating through the minors. They have stockpiled talent but it will be a few more years before Detroit is competitive.

The AL Central is nowhere near as bad as it was three years ago. But even with Minnesota’s poor start, there is still a window to compete for the division. FanGraphs projects the Twins will finish at 83-79, which gives them a 27.3% chance to make the playoffs. That number has dropped over the last couple of weeks from the estimated 88 wins and 63% chance to reach the postseason. Time is running out to turn the season around, but there is still some confidence that this team is too talented to be out of the race.

Where Kansas City has been incredibly lucky to start the season, the Twins can’t catch a break. They have a league-worst luck score of minus-4.67 due to early-season losses, attributable to the rule changes for extra-innings and doubleheaders. They are 7-5 in nine-inning games and 0-9 in all other contests, a trend that is unlikely to continue all season.

But with a run differential of minus-11, Minnesota is also creating their own misfortune. Poor starts from veterans like Max Kepler and Miguel Sano, injuries to key players like Byron Buxton, and a COVID outbreak that forced Andrelton Simmons to sit out a stretch have all factored into the losing as well. They average over nine strikeouts per game and have seen their power numbers decline. The pitching staff has been shaky outside of Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda, but they haven’t been helped out by a limited defense that’s been putting fielders in challenging positions.

The solution for getting back into the division race is simple: They have win games against their AL Central foes. Baseball is a long season, and it seems weird to pronounce a team dead in April. The problem is the Twins might have dug themselves too deep a hole to get out of. It feels like the only way they will reach the postseason this year is by winning the division. Lucky, it’s going to be a wide-open race as the season begins to take shape.

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Photo Credit: David Dermer (USA TODAY Sports)

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