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2021 could be the most competitive AL Central in years

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A look at some key AL Central races since it assumed its current form in 1998

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a hot minute since the American League Central has had a real three-team race for the division.

Define “competitive” however you want, but in seasons where a global pandemic didn’t ruin everything, it’s a struggle to find anything but either a blowout or a two-team race in the last five years, and it hasn’t happened all that often since the division formed as it is in 1998.

To find the last time the top three teams in the Central have finished within double-digit wins of each other (and also played more than 60 games) you would have to go all the way back to the long-long before time of 2014.

Back then, when TV’s were still in black and white and there were only four Michael Bay Transformers movies, the Detroit Tigers were coming off their fourth straight division title. They were not quite the same team that made a World Series run in 2012, however, and were only a year away from diving face-first into a rebuild. The AL Central hadn’t quite found its next star yet. Detroit won 90 games that year, followed by the Kansas City Royals — who were about to make their first of two consecutive World Series appearances — with 89 wins and your own Cleveland baseball team was in third with 85 wins.

The division was just as competitive a year earlier in 2013 when the Tigers won 93 games and Cleveland narrowly lost the division with 92 wins with their late-season run thanks to a Ubaldo Jiménez surge and some Jason Giambi #leadership. The Royals were a distant third at 86 wins and six games out of second place.

But from 2015 onward, the division has consistently been a blowout for whoever wins — and the last three years have featured the third-place team being 22 or more wins behind. That was the Twins winning by eight games in 2019 and Cleveland winning in 2018 (13 games), 2017 (17 games), and of course 2016 (eight wins).

After their World Series win in 2015, in which they won the AL Central by 12 games, the Royals were a distant third in 2016 and 2017 but finished with a losing record in both seasons.

Now, let’s take a full look at precisely how the Central’s top three teams have finished since Milwaukee was booted to the National League and Detroit was moved to the AL Central after 1997.

AL Central Standings, 2019 - 1998

Year Team 1 Team 2 Team 3 Team 1 W Team 2 W Team 3 W
Year Team 1 Team 2 Team 3 Team 1 W Team 2 W Team 3 W
2019 MIN CLE CHI 101 93 72
2018 CLE MIN DET 91 78 64
2017 CLE MIN KC 102 85 80
2016 CLE DET KC 94 86 81
2015 KC MIN CLE 95 83 81
2014 DET KC CLE 90 89 85
2013 DET CLE KC 93 92 86
2012 DET CHI KC 88 85 72
2011 DET CLE CHI 95 80 79
2010 MIN CHI DET 94 88 81
2009 MIN DET CHI 87 86 79
2008 CHI MIN CLE 89 88 81
2007 CLE DET MIN 96 88 79
2006 MIN DET CHI 96 95 90
2005 CHI CLE MIN 99 93 83
2004 MIN CHI CLE 92 83 80
2003 MIN CHI KC 90 86 83
2002 MIN CHI CLE 94 81 74
2001 CLE MIN CHI 91 85 83
2000 CHI CLE DET 95 90 79
1999 CLE CHI DET 97 75 69
1998 CLE CHI KC 89 80 72

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a division-leading seven wins for Cleveland, and somehow the Royals — the only team to win a World Series in this span — only won the division once.

These recent years have also featured some of the best teams in the Central since it assumed its current form, with two 100-win teams in the span of three years (Cleveland in 2017, Minnesota in 2019). While both of those teams were undoubtedly great, a lot of those wins came by beating up the rest of the awful AL Central — the Twins had a 29-game gap between them and the third-place White Sox in 2019, and Cleveland had a 22-game lead over the third-place Royals in 2017. The Royals and Tigers have been perennial doormats since 2016.

As of this writing, FanGraphs projects the Twins and White Sox to finish 2021 tied atop the division at 87 wins, with Cleveland trailing behind at 80. The Twins and White Sox finished within a game of each other in last year’s 60-game season, but if they live up to this tight race, it would easily be the most exciting division race since the Tigers edged out the Royals in 2014 and Cleveland in 2013. Granted, it wouldn’t be exciting for us but it sure would be exciting for someone.

However, if we look at Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections — those big, beautiful PECOTA projections — they have Minnesota winning with roughly 91 wins, Cleveland second with 85 wins, and Chicago in a close third at 83 wins. I always knew I liked you, PECOTA.

There also exists a world in which Cleveland outperforms its FanGraphs projections, and Chicago does better than PECOTA expects. In that world, we welcome the onset of the greatest AL Central race of the 21st century.

The Twins figure to be up there no matter what, but the White Sox are just so young and wildly unpredictable that anything between PECOTA and FanGraphs can sound right. And Cleveland, well they can hope for the best. Literally, if things go right, they too will be competing for a top two or three spot — probably enough to make it a fun race, at the very least. They lack the depth in any capacity besides pitching to stay afloat if things start to go south, but it’s that very pitching that should help them make this a three-team race.

I guess what I’m saying with all this is: I’m excited for a real race throughout the summer. I would much rather have Cleveland be the favorite in such a race, granted, but having multiple good teams in a division makes for a more fun 162, as opposed to blowing everyone out and just twiddling thumbs until rolling the dice in October.

This is the culmination of other teams rebuilding that we’ve been waiting for, and it’ll be a ride for years to come either way.