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These are not the American League Central standings most everyone projected before the season started. As June comes to a close, the Twins and Guardians are only a game apart, and Cleveland is having one of the hottest months in baseball.
It may have been the White Sox who were the most popular choice to win the division, but that’s increasingly looking unlikely. They won the AL Central going away last year, thanks largely to a great first half of the season, but the White Sox have essentially been a .500 team since last July. Their performance so far this season has left the division to the Twins and Guardians.
And it’s the latter who look more and more like the team to beat. On Thursday, they finished a five-game series with the second of a pair of walk-off victories. In all, the Guardians took three of the five games against the Twins. And a week ago, they won two out of three in Minnesota. For the month of June, the Guardians have gone 18-10.
After going 9-12 in April and an even .500 in May, it looks like the Guardians have found a rhythm. The question going forward is whether they can keep it up and climb past the Twins for their first division title since 2018.
Some of their success this month has been thanks to an uncanny ability to come back from behind late in games. This season, they have come back from being down by three runs or more as late as the ninth inning three different times. No other team has done that more than once, and the other 29 teams have a combined total of five wins after coming back from that large of a deficit. Wednesday’s walk-off win came at the hands of Josh Naylor, who hit a two-run homer to lift his team to a 7-6 victory.
“We’re not really worried about anyone in first place, second place, we don’t really care to be honest,” Naylor said Wednesday. “We want to play our game, play hard and, hopefully, celebrate after.”
Looking ahead to July, the Guardians might be in a good position to move ahead of the Twins. Cleveland begins the month with three games at home against the Yankees, but after that, they will not face a team with a record currently above .500 until July 25 when the Guardians will head to Boston and then Tampa Bay. Otherwise, the Guardians have a pretty soft month ahead with a lot of games against the Royals, Tigers, and White Sox.
The question from there might be how the Guardians handle the trade deadline. It makes a lot of sense for them to be buyers, especially if the race against the Twins stays close.
On that front, there are two areas Cleveland could address. Their catching corps of Austin Hedges, Luke Maile, and Sandy Leon have a combined batting average well under .200, and their starting rotation has a 20th-ranked 3.8 wins above replacement, per Fangraphs.
At catcher, the Cubs’ Willson Contreras will be one of the hottest commodities on the trading block at the August 2 deadline. Contreras was batting .280 with a .913 OPS going into Thursday night’s game, so he would be a massive upgrade at catcher for Cleveland. Contreras currently has an unsettled arbitration case with the Cubs, and he is likely headed to free agency at the end of the season. It’s possible that the Cubs lock him up long-term with a contract extension, but they have previously expressed an unwillingness to negotiate during the season.
And if the Guardians are in the market to improve their rotation, Reds starter Luis Castillo makes sense as a good fit. Castillo is under club control through 2023. He’s earning $7.35 million this season and will be in his final year of arbitration eligibility next year. Castillo missed April with a shoulder strain, but since returning he has a 3.32 ERA in ten starts. The Reds have already been active in the trade market during the offseason, dealing Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez to the Mariners, Sonny Gray to the Twins, Tucker Barnhart to the Tigers, and Amir Garrett to the Royals.
Neither move would impact Cleveland financially, either. The Guardians have a remarkably low 2022 payroll of $69 million, which is nowhere close to the luxury tax threshold.
If the Guardians can make a move at catcher and pitcher, they will be putting themselves in position to contend with the Twins for the division. Obviously, Minnesota is not likely to completely sit out the trade deadline either, and there is always a chance the White Sox get their collective act together and start winning. Regardless of either possible scenario, the Guardians are getting hot and making a run at the division. In order to stay at the top of the AL Central as the season turns past the halfway point, they may need to bolster in a few spots on the roster.