The American League Central is a two-horse race between the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins. But if the latter is going to dethrone the division champions of the last three years, they need their starting rotation to turn a corner.
Currently 13-9, the Twins are in first place in the AL Central. The driving force of their early success is first-year manager Rocco Baldelli‘s lineup. Going into their Wednesday night matchup with the Houston Astros, the Twins were ninth in Major League Baseball in runs (120), seventh in home runs (36), ninth in total bases (364), second in batting average (.272), 10th in on-base percentage (.339), second in slugging (.503), and third in OPS (.843). Given the runners they’ve left on base, one could argue that the Twins should be producing runs at a higher rate.
Eddie Rosario is hitting .276 while totaling 10 home runs and 23 RBIs; Jorge Polanco is off to a remarkable start, hitting .366 while totaling five home runs and 10 RBIs; Jonathan Schoop is hitting .282; Byron Buxton is hitting .284; Nelson Cruz is hitting .279 while totaling 13 RBIs; C.J. Cron has driven in 11 runs; Max Kepler has driven in 10 runs; Mitch Garver is hitting .405 while blasting five home runs in 37 at-bats.
The Twins problem? Their pitching staff, their starting rotation in particular.
When you think of the Twins, one of the first names that comes to mind is Jose Berrios. The 24-year-old right-hander is one of the best young starters in the sport, has a menacing curveball, and is the Twins ace. In the five starts he has made this season, Berrios owns a 2.97 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. The rest of the rotation? An entirely different story.The @Twins are off to a great start in 2019, but they will need their poor starting rotation to strengthen up if they expect to win the American League Central.Click To Tweet
After a career year that saw him finish with a 3.62 ERA, Kyle Gibson has struggled immensely out of the gate. He currently owns a 6.10 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, has struggled with his command, and isn’t giving the Twins length.
While he has been shaky in recent memory, the Twins need Jake Odorizzi to return to being the swift starter he was with the Tampa Bay Rays; it still hasn’t happened. The right-hander is putting too many runners on base, laboring through at-bats, and owns an underwhelming 4.37 ERA.
Granted this is his first season back from a 2017 elbow injury, the Twins are relying on Michael Pineda to be a steady force on the rubber every fifth day, and, to this point, he isn’t delivering; he currently owns a 5.63 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. Meanwhile, Martin Perez, who has started in two of his five appearances this season, owns a 5.31 ERA and 1.77 WHIP.
Now, if you look at the Twins bullpen, they’re arguably a more unreliable unit than their comrades in the starting rotation. But that was well-known in spring training. Success with this team was and is still going to be on the shoulders of their starting rotation. They can only lean on their lineup for so much, especially considering how the Indians are a potent foe.
Regardless of their offensive teardown that’s seen Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, and Yan Gomes change teams, the Indians lineup still features the likes of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Gonzalez. Manager Terry Francona also has the biggest asset in the AL Central by his side: their starting rotation.
Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer are elite pitchers, Carlos Carrasco is arguably the most underrated star pitcher in baseball, and, when healthy, Mike Clevinger is a deceptive pitcher capable of striking out the side in any given inning. Heck, the four right-handers became the first quartet in MLB history to individually finish with 200-plus strikeouts last season.
The Indians lineup is a respectable bunch. With that said, the Twins mix of young, budding talent and reliable veterans makes for a better offense. But that alone isn’t enough for them to be the frontrunner, or team to beat in the division. What’s better: the Twins lineup, or the Indians starting rotation?
Plus, each team has a shaky bullpen that doesn’t appear to be getting any better in the foreseeable future, barring a midseason trade for such an arm, so the Twins best chance at improvement is bounce-back and/or wake-up seasons from their current starters. Gibson is coming off an encouraging season; Odorizzi is capable of being a reliable groundball pitcher; Pineda can record strikeouts at a high rate; Berrios has improved in each of his four seasons in the majors. Collectively, they could be a respectable rotation, but that’s dependent on everyone pitching to their capabilities.
The Indians have been crowned division champions in each of the last three years, and 2019 is the first time in a while that there’s a threat to overtake them. But the Twins have no margin for error. Their offense has to keep producing at the level it is now, if not take things to another level, their pitching staff has to perform with more consistency, and perhaps general manager Thad Levine needs to work the phone and get Baldelli another arm to work with.
The Indians have an edge when it comes to their starting rotation and managerial experience; the Twins have an edge when it comes to their lineup; it’s a draw when it comes to these teams’ bullpens.
The Twins are capable of winning their division. But without a boost from their starting rotation, they won’t stand a chance at conquering the AL Central in September.