What If Cleveland Is the Real Threat In the AL Central?

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Guardians took two different paths this offseason.

Coming off a last-place finish, the Twins dealt their way through the winter. After trading for Isiah Kiner-Falefa and immediately flipping him (along with Josh Donaldson’s contract) to the New York Yankees, the Twins cleared enough payroll to sign Carlos Correa to the largest free-agent contract in franchise history.

Once the Twins also shored up their rotation by trading for Sonny Gray and signing Chris Archer and Dylan Bundy, they found themselves back atop the American League Central.

But while the Twins added, the Guardians subtracted. One year after trading Francisco Lindor, Cleveland took another step toward a full-blown rebuild. Former first-round pick Bradley Zimmer was the only piece of the core they traded. However, the Guardians spent the offseason locking up what they already had in Jose Ramirez, Emmanuel Clase, and Myles Straw.

Cleveland’s payroll was $69 million when they took the field. That’s a big reason they enter this week’s series with the Twins…one game behind first place.

Wait. What?

You read that correctly. The Guardians, who have a payroll that is less than double what the Twins are paying Correa, enter Target Field with a chance to take the division lead. With eight of the next 11 against Minnesota, the Guardians could not only take control of the division but could also become the biggest threat to the Twins.

How did we get here? It starts with development.

Of the players on the Guardians’ 26-man roster, they only acquired Bryan Shaw, Enyel De Los Santos, and Luke Maile as free agents. They built the rest of the team through amateur free agent signings, trades, or the draft.

That makes sense, considering what the Guardians have been doing over the past two seasons. It wasn’t long ago that Cleveland was surging toward the Twins in the middle of the 2019 season, and that team had a similar homegrown feel.

Lindor and Ramirez made up the middle of the lineup, but Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis were heading toward the twilight of their careers. They built the rest of that team with prospects who didn’t pan out (Zimmer, Jake Bauers, Tyler Naquin), and the Twins were able to hold them off to win the division.

But while the Guardians couldn’t claim victory in 2019, they built a foundation on the mound. Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger were lynchpins in the rotation, but Cleveland eventually traded them away to restock the farm system. While those moves appeared to be a fire sale at the time, the Guardians got key pieces in return.

However, Shane Bieber rose above the morass to become one of the best pitchers in the game. A fourth-round selection in the 2016 draft, Bieber went on to win the AL Cy Young Award in 2020 and lead the Guardians staff into the future.

Bieber is also the cornerstone of the Guardians’ draft-and-develop approach. Cleveland cashed in when 2015 first-round pick Triston McKenzie became a solid starter and followed up when Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale also came out of the 2016 draft.

The Guardians have also found their talent through the trade market. They acquired Cal Quantrill, 27, in a 2020 trade that sent Clevinger to the San Diego Padres. After going 12-7 with a 3.17 ERA, he looks like a top-of-the-rotation starter with room to grow.

Clase was also a hidden gem in the Corey Kluber trade. While the Texas Rangers got one inning of Kluber, Clase developed a 100 mph cutter and has become one of the best closers in baseball.

Straw, Josh Naylor, and Owen Miller are also products of shrewd trades by Cleveland’s front office. Now they’ve built a team that may be better than anyone else in the division.

Look at the Chicago White Sox, who were expected to be the Twins’ biggest threat in the Central. The White Sox won the division title a year ago and shouldn’t be counted out in June. However, injuries and a manager that’s beginning to look his age give them an uphill climb even with a favorable schedule.

The Twins have sat on top of the division all season long, but their lead doesn’t appear sustainable. While Cleveland has built a team that can contend at a cheaper price point, Minnesota has had to pay a tax for its failures in development.

Do the Twins trade for Chris Paddack if Jordan Balazovic or a similar pitcher finds their way into the rotation? Is there a chance the Twins are signing the same reclamation pitchers if they’ve established a pipeline? The answer is probably not.

That puts the Guardians in a race where they are basically playing with house money. If the White Sox don’t make the postseason, they’re probably going to fire Tony La Russa. If the Twins lose another playoff game, there will be some difficult conversations. But if the Guardians miss out, they just get another year of development.

It’s an interesting dynamic in the race for the Central.

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