Bobby Witt Jr. Ryan Jeffers Tarik Skubal Steven Kwan A TCB illustration of the AL Central’s best.

Expectations weren’t exceptionally high for the American League Central division this season. Last year, the Minnesota Twins won the division with an 87-75 record. Second-place Detroit finished nine games back at 78-84. There was only one team above .500 in the division. Six other AL clubs – the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, and Seattle Mariners – finished with better records than the Central-winning Twins.

Surprisingly, mediocrity is nowhere to be found in the AL Central throughout the season’s first month. The Cleveland Guardians sit in first place with a record of 27-17. Minnesota checks in at 24-18, while the very surprising Kansas City Royals are 26-19. Even fourth-place Detroit is at 21-22, meaning the Tigers are just 5.5 back of Cleveland. The only team that’s really sour in the Central is the Chicago White Sox, who are an AL-worst 13-30.

Here are six reasons to watch the busy AL Central the rest of the way this season.

Bobby Witt Jr.

MLB’s biggest breakout star through the season’s first month might be Bobby Witt Jr. The Kansas City Royals know what they have in the exciting shortstop, having signed him to a hefty contract extension this offseason. It seems money is a great motivator because Witt Jr. is off to a blistering start.

Witt Jr.’s slashed .293/.359/.500 through the first 44 games this season. His 2.6 fWAR ranks among the highest in the American League. He’s hit five home runs and already has 15 stolen bases this season. His glove has held up its end of the deal also, making him a fantastic all-around player. He’s powering the Royals right now, and if they continue their success, he could get some serious AL MVP consideration.

The emergence of Ryan Jeffers

Another breakout star out of the AL Central is Ryan Jeffers. The former second-round pick will be up for arbitration next season, and he’s building up quite a case for himself. The catcher/designated hitter has already mashed nine home runs this season. Jeffers is among the best in slugging percentage (.614), in the company of the likes of Gunnar Henderson, Kyle Tucker, Juan Soto, Mike Trout, and more. The Twins have 45 home runs this season, so they know the long ball quite well. And Jeffers, so far, has been their most prolific home run hitter with 10.

How good can Tarik Skubal become?

While the Tigers are 21-22 and 5.5 off the lead, and while they might not contend all the way this season, Tarik Skubal is making a name for himself. Detroit’s ace has emerged as one of the best pitchers in the AL this season, if not the best through the first month. Through 49 innings pitched, Skubal is fifth in the AL in strikeouts with 60. He’s posted a K/9 of a whopping 11.02, which would lead the team if not for Jack Flaherty’s 11.65 K/9 rate. Skubal could become a serious Cy Young candidate if he continues pitching like this. Detroit might not make a playoff push, but Skubal deserves your attention nonetheless.

Cole Ragans, strikeout artist

Another reason for Kansas City’s surprising success this season has been their pitching. Namely Cole Ragans. The former first-round pick for the Texas Rangers landed in Kansas City last season in their minor league system. After playing in Triple-A last year, Ragans made the big league club this year and has pitched great. While he holds a mere 2-3 record, through 4 innings, he’s posted a K/9 of a whopping 10.47. His strikeout abilities have made him a surprising story this year. Ragans is a name to watch as Kansas City continues to go.

Can the Twins regain their crown?

Minnesota won the AL Central last year for the third time since 2019. The Twins also exorcised their playoff demons and won their first series since 2002. They’re off to a great start but do find themselves in a battle for first place. One thing to watch for that could tip the scales is how they fare at home. While they have a 13-8 record on the road, a strong number, they’re just 11-10 at Target Field. Cleveland is 12-6 at Progressive Field, and Kansas City is 15-8 at Kauffman Stadium. Minnesota will have to protect its home field more often if they want to win the AL Central again.

Can Cleveland hold up without Shane Bieber?

The first-place Guardians have done what’s been asked of them and then some this year. Steven Kwan has emerged as the team’s best hitter, while superstar Jose Ramirez works his way back to form. It’s been a heavy task, though, without their ace, Shane Bieber. Earlier this season, like several others around the league, Bieber suffered an elbow injury that required season-ending surgery. Without him in the rotation, Cleveland’s suffered a bit. They rank eighth in the AL in starters’ ERA entering Wednesday at 4.11. To be fair, that’s not far off Minnesota’s 4.24, but that almost might explain the close race, especially when the Royals own one of 3.22, the best in the Central. Cleveland may have to get more out of its starters or go get one at the deadline in order to shore up without their All-Star pitcher.

About Chris Novak

Chris Novak has been talking and writing about sports ever since he can remember. Previously, Novak wrote for and managed sites in the SB Nation network for nearly a decade from 2013-2022