The Twins, who were universally predicted to contend for a third straight division title, have arguably been the sport’s most disappointing team and enter Thursday with the fewest wins in baseball. The Royals surprised the baseball world by leading the division for much of April before suddenly cratering with 11 straight losses in early May.
Heck, even the White Sox, who unsurprisingly lead the division, are dealing with their own turmoil due to key injuries to their star players and manager Tony La Russa’s constant presence in the headlines amid all of the recent controversy over Yermín Mercedes’ homer off Willians Astudillo.
With all that in mind, we asked: What is one question that each team in the AL Central needs to answer before the All-Star break?
Indians: How can they improve the offense?
There are a handful of different questions the Indians need to answer before the All-Star break, including how to get their rotation back to being as strong as it has been the last couple of seasons. However, the inconsistent offense has been the team’s most constant problem. So, what can they do?
José Ramírez has been lights-out as usual, and the Indians expect Franmil Reyes, Eddie Rosario and Josh Naylor to pick up steam, consistently, down the road. But as they’re waiting for their big hitters to heat up, they need to find answers elsewhere.
Could those answers be waiting in Triple-A? It may be time to give different bats a chance. Cleveland has infielder Owen Miller, who has been raking for Columbus, waiting in the Minors. First base prospect Bobby Bradley already has four homers in his first 11 games with Triple-A, and outfielder Daniel Johnson’s .836 OPS in seven games with Columbus could warrant another shot in the Majors. Cleveland’s roster is already the youngest in baseball, but maybe the answers it’s looking for are waiting in the Minors. — Mandy Bell
Royals: Is the pitching depth ready to step up?
The health of the Royals’ pitching has played a pivotal role for the club already. Two of their high-leverage relievers, Jesse Hahn (right shoulder impingement) and Kyle Zimmer (left trap strain), suffered injuries that caused the Royals to patch things together at the back of their ‘pen. Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow, as well as Greg Holland, have been good, but when they’re unavailable, there aren’t a ton of big arms left.
That was the reason the Royals moved Jakob Junis back to the bullpen this month, but that hasn’t gone as well as they hoped. In the rotation, Danny Duffy, who has been one of the better starters in baseball this year, was placed on the 10-day injured list with a left forearm flexor strain this week.
The injuries open up spots for prospects who have earned them, but as we saw with Daniel Lynch this month, even prospects with high ceilings are going to go through ups and downs as they learn what it takes to stick in the Major Leagues. Royals starters had only pitched 196 1/3 innings through 41 games – 26th in the Majors – and posted a 4.63 ERA through Tuesday. To stay in the division race by the All-Star break and beyond, the Royals know their rotation will need to go deep into games, and they’ll need their depth to step up and fill in when needed. — Anne Rogers
Tigers: Who fits in Detroit’s long-term plans?
Though the Tigers got off to a terrible start this season, this wasn’t expected to be the year for them to make a major jump into contention, anyway. The bigger issue for them is sorting through the struggles and the points of encouragement and figuring out who fits into manager A.J. Hinch’s long-term plan for this roster to get Detroit back to competitive baseball.
On one side, Willi Castro’s move from shortstop to second base, coupled with his struggles at the plate and the looming free-agent market, have him battling for a job in the middle infield, even without much competition in the near term. Jeimer Candelario has a stronger hold on third base, to the point that he could become the first Tiger in years to garner a contract extension from the club.
On the flip side, Matthew Boyd’s strong start, coupled with his impending free agency after next season, could force the Tigers to decide this summer whether to put him on the trade market like in 2019 or weigh an extension, a consideration further complicated by the young starters already in Detroit and others expected to fight for rotation spots in the next year or two. — Jason Beck
Twins: Can this season still be salvaged?
Not even the most pessimistic of projections could possibly have predicted a confounding 14-27 start for the defending back-to-back division champions. A brutal combination of awful situational hitting and a bullpen implosion have paved the way for a 9-25 skid since a 5-2 start to the season.
The Twins insist that they’ll get on track. But have they dug too deep of a hole?
History suggests that the answer is a firm “yes.” No MLB team in the last century lost 27 of its first 41 games and went on to make the playoffs. Even if this team turns a corner, it will take a long time to claw back to .500 before even thinking about the playoffs. In the coming weeks, Twins leadership will need to decide how this season will fit into the big picture.
Can they still have faith that this roster can be repaired and fortified into some sort of playoff contender? Or will they look ahead to posturing for a run in 2022 and beyond by selling off their more appealing players on expiring contracts in Nelson Cruz, Andrelton Simmons, Michael Pineda and Hansel Robles — or even Byron Buxton and José Berríos, who still have a year of team control remaining and could bring back huge prospect hauls?
White Sox: How much more does this team need?
The White Sox will be without Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert until well after the All-Star break. Outfielder Adam Engel has yet to play in the regular season due to a right hamstring strain, and even the indestructible José Abreu, the reigning AL Most Valuable Player Award winner and team leader, missed the recent series in Minnesota due to an ankle injury.
Yet, the Sox are the best team in the AL Central and possibly the best team in all of baseball. There’s a pretty clear chasm between the White Sox and the second-place Indians, who can pitch with the South Siders but don’t have the offense. So, general manager Rick Hahn, executive vice president Ken Williams and the front office can survey the landscape over the next six weeks and figure out where they need to improve.
Remember, this is not a team with its sights set on a first division title since ’08 and the franchise’s first back-to-back playoff appearances ever. It has a World-Series-championship-or-bust sort of mentality. Do the White Sox need outfield help, even with Jiménez and Robert potentially returning? Does another bullpen arm become the biggest need for La Russa? Those are some of the questions to be answered, potentially turning a very good team into a great one. — Scott Merkin