5 early-season surprises in AL Central

Detroit Tigers

A new season always brings new developments for every team, whether it’s a player outperforming (or underperforming) expectations set on him during Spring Training, or a team trend that wasn’t envisioned when the season kicked off on April 1.

Some can be good developments. Some can be bad. Either way, every team has its surprises. Here is something unexpected from each American League Central team that has transpired over the first four weeks of the 2021 season.

Indians: Shaw has resembled the 2014 version of himself
As the season started, Bryan Shaw told Indians manager Terry Francona that he was betting on himself.

“He doesn’t say a lot of things that he doesn’t mean,” Francona recently said.

And Shaw has certainly held up his end of the bargain. When Cleveland first decided to bring him back just before Spring Training got underway, Shaw was confident in the fact that his struggles from the past three seasons were behind him. He spent most of the year at the Mariners’ alternate training site in 2020 reinventing himself as a pitcher, and he was ready to prove that his time to walk away from the game is still far from the present.

Francona said during camp that Shaw can be this team’s wild card. If he’s as good as he expected himself to be, he could take this bullpen to the next level, and that’s exactly what he’s done. Through his first nine appearances, he’s permitted just one run (1.00 ERA) on two hits with six walks and 10 strikeouts. — Mandy Bell

Royals: Lopez steps up and shines
A right oblique strain that put shortstop Adalberto Mondesi on the injured list a day before Opening Day was a major blow to the Royals’ lineup and defense, as contending hopes surrounded the team for the first time in a few years. Nicky Lopez made sure that hope stuck around — and he has helped turn that into results.

The infielder was informed late in March that he wasn’t going to make the Opening Day roster after a rough spring that saw him hit .118 with 13 strikeouts in 34 at-bats. In the week that he was demoted, he watched video and worked for hours in the batting cage to get back to being the hitter that he was in the Minor Leagues: relying on contact, speed and the “little things” to get on base. As it turned out, the Royals did need him on the Opening Day roster to play shortstop and hit at the bottom of the order.

Lopez immediately showed improvement in his swing. Entering Thursday, he’s hitting .254 with a .673 OPS, and he has been a big part of the Royals’ 15-8 start to the season by placing perfect bunts, moving runners over and using his speed on the bases. He’s only struck out eight times in 63 at-bats. That’s the kind of hitter the Royals need him to be, and when Mondesi does return, adding his production on top of Lopez’s is only going to help the offense. — Anne Rogers

Tigers: Baddoo can play in big leagues
Not only has Akil Baddoo stuck with the team as a Rule 5 Draft pick, he has become a regular member of Detroit’s starting outfield and a key part of the Tigers’ offense thanks to a historic start. He hit his first big league pitch out for a home run, hit a grand slam the next day, a walk-off hit the next day and an RBI triple the next day. He went on a tear the following week in Houston, going 5-for-11 with two doubles, two homers and four RBIs against the Astros.

Baddoo had the highest slugging percentage in AL history for a player in his first eight games. At times, he’s looked like a 22-year-old who hadn’t played a game above Class A ball until this year, striking out at a high rate, but his immense talent and athleticism are evident.

The Tigers and manager A.J. Hinch are willing to let him learn on the job in the Majors, sitting against tough left-handers but facing most everyone else. It’s an incredible opportunity for the former Twins second-round pick, and a great discovery for the Tigers as they try to find young hitting talent to go with their core of top-ranked pitching prospects. — Jason Beck

Twins: What on earth has happened to Colomé?
When the Twins signed former White Sox closer Alex Colomé to a one-year deal with a mutual option to shore up their bullpen during the offseason, it was a safe bet that he wouldn’t replicate his 0.81 ERA from a shortened 2020, but the Twins still felt that he would shore up their high-leverage bullpen depth with a reliable closing option alongside Taylor Rogers. Colomé had been a sure thing throughout his eight-year career, with a 2.95 ERA across 326 appearances.

Instead, the veteran right-hander has had a disastrous start to his Twins career, including three blown saves and three losses among his nine appearances. It was concerning enough to the point where he was removed from the high-leverage mix — and he still hit a batter and walked three on Tuesday while watching his ERA rise to 8.31.

The Twins need Colomé to figure things out — and fast. He was meant to occupy a very important role in the bullpen following the offseason departures of Trevor May, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard and Matt Wisler. Without Colomé, Minnesota’s high-leverage core is down to Rogers, Tyler Duffey and Hansel Robles — and Duffey has also struggled to open the season. There aren’t any immediate solutions to step up, either, as Cody Stashak, Jorge Alcala and Caleb Thielbar have also been hit hard early — and all of a sudden, a bullpen that was the bedrock of the Twins’ success last year is looking awfully shaky, with no immediate answers in sight. — Do-Hyoung Park

White Sox: Mercedes hasn’t slowed down
A healthy Carlos Rodón has been utterly dominant with a 0.47 ERA over three starts, including a no-hitter thrown against Cleveland. Michael Kopech has been equally impressive with 27 strikeouts, four walks and seven hits allowed over 15 2/3 innings. But in deference to both of these great White Sox stories, there probably has been no bigger April surprise in baseball than Yermín Mercedes.

Mercedes, 28, had one big league at-bat coming into this season, and if not for Spring Training injuries to Eloy Jiménez and Adam Engel, he wouldn’t have broken camp with the team. Without manager Tony La Russa wanting to give all his players at-bats during the first series in Anaheim, Mercedes wouldn’t have had the chance to go 5-for-5 on April 2.

He hasn’t slowed down since, hitting .432 through 80 plate appearances. Mercedes has proven to be a very polished hitter, adjusting his leg kick on the swing to go without a stride when he gets to two strikes and giving him 13 two-strike hits, as an example. He also has hit the four longest White Sox home runs in ’21. The team will have an interesting playing time scenario to discuss assuming Jiménez returns this season, with Andrew Vaughn currently in left, José Abreu at first base and Mercedes tearing it up at designated hitter. But having too much talent is a good problem to have. — Scott Merkin

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