On Sept. 9 last year, the Minnesota Twins headed home to face the Cleveland Guardians. Minnesota had a 69-67 record after beating the New York Yankees 4-3 to avoid a sweep in the Bronx; Cleveland entered the series at 71-65 after taking two of three in Kansas City. Cleveland swept the series at Target Field.
In their next series, the Twins swept the Kansas City Royals at home. However, Minnesota lost four of five games in Cleveland, including a 15-inning battle, and the Royals swept them in KC. On Sept. 23, the Twins returned home with a 73-77 record. Cleveland was 83-67 on that same date and swept the Texas Rangers, running away with the AL Central.
Cleveland won 92 games last year. The Twins led the AL Central for most of the season, but they suffered myriad late-season injuries and ended up 78-84. Minnesota hired Nick Paparesta to replace Michael Salazar as head trainer, re-signed Carlos Correa, and bolstered their rotation and depth. The Guardians signed Josh Bell and Mike Zunino while returning most of their division-winning team.
Despite Cleveland’s modest offseason, their 92-70 season greatly influenced most pundits. “The Guardians return every decent player from a 92-win team,” wrote ESPN’s David Schoenfield, “and while not prohibitive favorites in the AL Central, they are certainly favored to win it again.” ESPN projected Cleveland to win 91 games and take the division. They had Minnesota at 85 wins and the Chicago White Sox at 83.
Baseball America also had the Guardians winning the Central. However, they felt that Minnesota had a chance to take it. “The Twins were the division’s busiest team in the offseason,” they wrote in their season preview, “and with better luck and better health in 2023, they should be in the mix for first place.”
DraftKings gave Cleveland the best odds to win the Central (+130), followed by the Twins (+215) and White Sox (+250). “This is going to be a three-team race for the title, and the odds reflect it,” wrote Henry Palatella for DraftKings. “[The Twins] would have had a legit chance to win the division last year if he was able to stay healthy. The loss of AL batting champ Luis Arraez hurts them, but the addition of Pablo López doesn’t, as the Twins now have a rotation that can keep up with the Guardians.”
Writing for MLB.com, Will Leitch had the White Sox winning the AL Central with 90 wins, Cleveland in second with 88, and the Twins in third with 86. “This is the fourth consecutive year I’ve picked the White Sox to win the division,” he wrote, “and, to be fair, they did actually do it once (in 2021). I’m still a believer, with a new manager and better health. In the end, I don’t trust the Guardians to make the big move they probably need to take advantage of this division. As usual, though, you could pick any of those top three teams.”
For posterity, he doesn’t mention the Twins other than to lump them in with “those top three teams.” In Leitch’s case, he leaned on Chicago’s 93-win season from two years ago. Past results don’t promise future returns, as you’ve probably heard. But it’s fair to use the recent past as a guide for the future. Still, it felt like most prognosticators had Cleveland winning the division, Leitch aside, and Minnesota there to take it if they faltered.
Instead, the season played out in reverse. The White Sox lost 10 straight games from April 19 to April 29, dropping them to 7-21. They never recovered. Chicago cleared out the front office in late August, only to replace Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn with an internal hire. On April 29, the Twins had a 16-12 record after losing a game to Kansas City, the Guardians dropped to 13-14 after losing a 10-inning game in Boston, and that’s how most of the season played out.
Minnesota dominated the Central most of the year, aside from a few spots in the season where they slipped. For example, the Twins had a five-game late July slide when they sunk to 54-53 following a sweep in Kansas City. But they stayed ahead of Cleveland for most of the season. The Guardians were always there to take the division if the Twins spiraled. However, Minnesota never did, and they have it all but wrapped up now.
In hindsight, the national media should have given the Twins more credit for addressing their issues. They went all-out to add depth, knowing that injuries derailed their season last year. That led to tough conversations with Bailey Ober coming out of Spring Training and Matt Wallner in the middle of the summer. But it kept them from falling into the Cleveland sinkhole at any point in the season. Minnesota also filled out its rotation with the controversial López trade, and Wallner, Edouard Julien, and Royce Lewis gave them meaningful production.
Nobody would have guessed how the Twins got to where they are now, but Vegas and the national media were generally right about their record. Still, they were wrong about the Guardians and White Sox, mainly because they focused too much on past results. Minnesota is now in a position where they can dominate the AL Central for years. But to do so, they must break their playoff losing streak this year and make significant investments to build a 90-plus-win team. Eighty-five (or so) wins aren’t going to win the division every year.