Guardians celebrate [608x342]
Guardians celebrate [608x342] (Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Pivotal to our success Steelers extend Tomlin

Last week, we focused on the early-season disappointments in Real or Not. This week, we turn our attention to the surprises -- such as the new, improved and much more exciting American League Central.

Not including the shortened 2020 season, the AL Central hasn't had more than one playoff team since 2017. It's had just one season with two winning teams since then, in 2019. It hasn't seen three teams with a winning record since 2014. Last season, the division was a collective 89 games under .500 in non-division games.

The early returns in 2024, however, are setting up a different storyline. The Cleveland Guardians continue to roll with clutch hitting and a great bullpen, the Kansas City Royals are playing well, the Minnesota Twins recovered from a slow start to reel off a 12-game winning streak and the Detroit Tigers are hanging around .500. Even with the woeful Chicago White Sox, the AL Central is over .500 in interdivision action.

Including the Guardians and Royals, there are five clubs that went from having playoff odds under 50% on Opening Day to over 50% now. Let's break down those teams to see if they really are potential postseason contenders in the long run.

Cleveland Guardians (33-17)

Key stat: The Guardians currently lead the AL in runs per game after finishing 12th last season. After finishing last in the majors in home runs in 2023 with 0.77 per game, Cleveland is averaging 1.08 in 2024, just above the MLB average.

Hot start: Closer Emmanuel Clase is 3-1 with a 0.39 ERA and 13 saves. He has three blown save opportunities, but the Guardians still won all three games. Last season, he lost nine games and blew 12 saves.

Can he keep it going? Triston McKenzie has a 3.44 ERA despite walking over five batters per nine innings.

Area of concern: The rotation is shaky without Shane Bieber and the bench has been weak other than catcher/utilityman/DH David Fry.

Last weekend was a perfect summation of how the season has gone for Cleveland. On Friday, the Guardians were tied 2-2 with the Twins in the bottom of the eighth. With the top of the order up, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli summoned flamethrower Jhoan Duran. With two outs, Duran hung a 2-1 curveball to Jose Ramirez, who hit the go-ahead home run. The Guardians blew out the Twins on Saturday and then on Sunday, Duran once again entered a tie game after Minnesota scored off Clase in the ninth with an unearned run (Clase's own error). After a walk, wild pitch and intentional walk to Josh Naylor, the Guardians' Will Brennan hit a first-pitch curveball for a two-out, walk-off home run. It was a statement series against the team favored to win the division at the start of the season.

Clutch hitting and clutch relief work have carried Cleveland. The Guardians had created an estimated 213 runs -- but scored 244, as they've done their best work with runners in scoring position, hitting .302 and slugging .501. Six players have an OPS over .900 with RISP. The bullpen, meanwhile, has been deep and effective, ranking first in the majors in both win probability added and ERA. It has also been worked a lot with Clase, Nick Sandlin, Hunter Gaddis and Scott Barlow each appearing in at least 23 of the team's first 47 games. Still, kudos to first-year manager Stephen Vogt (and longtime pitching coach Carl Willis) for pulling all the right strings in the pen.

Of course, we know these things are likely to regress, especially the hitting with runners in scoring position. That will put more pressure on a shaky rotation and an offense that still has holes. The Guardians really need Bo Naylor and Brayan Rocchio to do more at the plate; in Naylor's case, at least he showed as a rookie last season that he has more potential than what we've seen in 2024.

Verdict: Real

Is Cleveland this good? Probably not, but this verdict is more affirmation that I believe they'll remain in the AL Central race all season. The current playoff odds see it as a coin flip between Cleveland, Minnesota and Kansas City with Detroit owning about a 10% chance of winning the division. The Guardians are young and scrappy with a deep, dominant bullpen that can help cover a mediocre rotation. Now, if only ownership would find some loose change to add a starter or an outfield bat at the trade deadline. But don't count on it.

Kansas City Royals (32-19)

Key stat: The Royals are fourth in the majors with a rotation ERA of 3.03 -- after ranking 27th in 2023 with a 5.12 ERA. If they can keep this up, it would be one of the most dramatic year-to-year improvements in MLB history. It reminds me a bit of the 2007-08 Tampa Bay Rays, who went from a 5.20 rotation ERA to 3.95 -- and all the way to the World Series.

Hot start: Bobby Witt Jr. has been an MVP candidate through the first quarter of the season, but it's Salvador Perez who is somehow better than ever at the plate at age 34. Perez has been consistent in recent years with a 23%-25% strikeout rate, but he's cut that down to right around 16% -- while more than doubling his career walk rate. His current OPS+ also ranks as one of the highest in Royals history:

George Brett, 1980: 203 George Brett, 1985: 179 Danny Tartabull, 1991: 171 John Mayberry, 1972: 168 John Mayberry, 1975: 168 Salvador Perez, 2024: 166

Can he keep it going? Seth Lugo has led the rotation, pitching like a Cy Young contender in going 7-1 with a 1.79 ERA and throwing a high-spin curveball that has been unhittable as part of a seven-pitch mix that has helped him overcome a lack of premium velocity.

Area of concern: Outside of Witt, Perez and Vinnie Pasquantino, no other regular in the lineup has an OBP over .300. As well as Lugo has worked out as a free agent, Hunter Renfroe and Adam Frazier have not. Closer James McArthur has 11 saves but has allowed 27 hits and four home runs in 21⅔ innings.

Even when the Royals went to back-to-back World Series in 2014-15, the starting pitching was more "fine" than outstanding, especially after accounting for the home park and the team defense. This rotation has been a revelation and has a chance to be one of the best in franchise history, right up with the Bret Saberhagen/Mark Gubicza/Charlie Leibrandt group that won the World Series in 1985. Cole Ragans is proving that his breakout over the final two months of 2023 was for real and he has pitched better this season than his ERA shows. Brady Singer, after getting hit hard last year, has found his 2022 groove again and Alec Marsh and Michael Wacha have held down the back end of the rotation.

Yes, the Royals are 12-2 against the White Sox, Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels -- 15-2 if you include the Houston Astros, whom Kansas City caught while they were a mess. But that's how the Royals can become a playoff team: beat up on the bad teams and play close to .500 against everyone else. We'll see how they fare in this upcoming 23-game stretch when they play the Rays, Guardians, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.

The offense, so far, has been top heavy with Perez and Witt, and the bullpen hasn't been that great, with free agents Chris Stratton and Will Smith relatively ineffective. (Indeed, for all the money the Royals spent on free agents, only Lugo and Wacha have paid off.) Like the Guardians, the offense has overperformed with runners in scoring position, so there is likely regression in that department -- and if that happens, I don't see this lineup scoring enough runs. All that puts pressure on this rotation to keep performing at an extremely high level.

Verdict: Not real

I hope I'm wrong -- and the good thing for the Royals is that only the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles have separated themselves from the rest of the AL. The wild-card floor might end up several wins below last year's 89, which means the Royals have at least put themselves in a position to contend deep into the season.

Milwaukee Brewers (28-21)

Key stat: The bullpen leads the majors with 17 wins while ranking second in win probability added -- and that's with All-Star closer Devin Williams sidelined all season.

Hot start: William Contreras has been absolutely dominant, ranking in the top 10 in the majors in OPS and second to Shohei Ohtani in batting average. He's been so good that skipper Pat Murphy can't leave him out of the lineup -- he's played every game, DHing when he's not catching.

Can he keep it going? Brice Turang hit just .214 as a rookie in 2023, but this year he's hitting over .300, is 18-for-18 stealing bases and playing a solid second base.

Area of concern: The rotation was the concern heading into the season and that's still the case as it has pitched the fewest innings in the majors -- plus, Wade Miley is out for the year.

I picked the Brewers to win the National League Central -- although the players leading the way aren't exactly the players I thought would be leading the way. The bullpen has been terrific, but I figured Williams, Abner Uribe (sent to Triple-A due to wildness) and Joel Payamps (ERA over 5.00) to be the big three, not Trevor Megill, Bryan Hudson and Hoby Milner. It's Turang and Joey Ortiz leading the young players, not Jackson Chourio and Sal Frelick. DL Hall and Miley are injured, so the rotation has had to count on Joe Ross and Colin Rea.

It feels like a big key to Milwaukee's success this season will be Christian Yelich. He has looked like MVP Yelich when he's played, but he has missed 23 games already when his back flared up -- an injury he has dealt with in the past. If he stays on the field, the Brewers have a nice middle of the order with Contreras, Ortiz and Rhys Hoskins (who is currently out with a hamstring strain), plus guys like Turang and Willy Adames adding depth. If Chourio figures it out -- and he has a history of struggling in his past promotions before figuring things out in the second half -- they're going to keep scoring runs.

Verdict: Real

The bullpen has to keep performing -- getting Williams back on the mound and Uribe back to throwing strikes will help. There's a scenario in which the rotation completely collapses, but I like the lineup, I like the energy (like Yelich's steal of home Monday on a toss back to the pitcher) and I like how they haven't skipped a beat with Murphy replacing Craig Counsell. I think the Brewers have staying power -- but adding a starting pitcher feels like a must.

Chicago Cubs (27-23)

Key stat: Kyle Hendricks and Justin Steele are a combined 0-6 in 12 starts -- and the Cubs are 2-10 in games those two have started. So maybe it's a good thing that they're over .500 despite two of the projected top starters struggling.

Hot start: Shota Imanaga looks like the steal of the offseason as he's 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA in nine starts with 58 strikeouts, nine walks and just three home runs -- plus he's winning fans over with his personality. Imanaga was homer-prone in Japan, but he has been spotting his four-seamer with perfection and his splitter has been a true wipeout pitch. Let's see if he can keep the ball in the park as the league makes adjustments to his repertoire.

Can he keep it going? As great as Imanaga has been, Javier Assad is right behind him at 4-0 with a 1.70 ERA.

Area of concern: The catching tandem of Miguel Amaya and Yan Gomes has struggled at the plate and the bullpen depth is a bit worrisome.

The Cubs are battling for the division lead, so they're exactly where we thought they would be, but it has been a season of extremes: Imanaga, Assad and Jameson Taillon have carried the rotation while Steele, last year's breakout, missed a month after getting injured on Opening Day and Hendricks has been shelled.

Manager Craig Counsell did make a tough decision in moving Hendricks, who has a 10.57 ERA while allowing a 1.048 OPS, to the bullpen to see if he can sort things out in lower-leverage situations. Hendricks has been a stalwart in the Cubs rotation since 2014, but when every batter was hitting like Ohtani against him, the Cubs couldn't afford to keep rolling him out there. The problem is the Cubs have eight pitchers on the injured list, although they do have other starter options in Ben Brown and Hayden Wesneski. For now, Hendricks' scheduled start on Thursday will be a bullpen game and then the Cubs will go from there.

Verdict: Real

As in, yes, the Cubs are a playoff contender. I feel like the offense has more to come: Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ and Christopher Morel have all slightly underperformed from last season while Seiya Suzuki missed 24 games after a nice start and Cody Bellinger missed a couple of weeks, too. The bullpen might need to be reconfigured a bit, especially if Brown or Wesneski have to start, but the Cubs have more depth than any other team in the division. That should play out over 162 games.

San Diego Padres (26-26)

Key stat: The bullpen ranks 28th in the majors in win probability added -- which is somehow a step down from last season, when the Padres ranked 21st but went 2-12 in extra innings and 9-23 in one-run games. At least this year's Padres are 1-0 in extra innings and 5-6 in one-run games. Closer Robert Suarez has been the one big strength with 13 saves and a 0.42 ERA.

Hot start: Yu Darvish is 37 years old and coming off the worst full-season ERA of his career, but he's riding a streak of four straight scoreless starts that has lowered his 2024 ERA to 2.08.

Can he keep it going? The Padres didn't even sign Jurickson Profar until after spring training had started, but he shockingly has been the team's best hitter after an unproductive 2023 spent mostly with the Colorado Rockies.

Area of concern: Overall pitching depth. And also ... Xander Bogaerts and Manny Machado?

Let's start with the second concern there: Profar and Jake Cronenworth have been the team's best hitters -- and it's a good thing they've had solid starts because Bogaerts and Machado are both well below their career numbers. Bogaerts was hitting just .219/.265/.316 when he dove for a ground ball on Monday and fractured his shoulder. He won't need surgery, but he'll still be out until late summer. Machado, meanwhile, is struggling with the lowest OPS of his career, although he can at least use the excuse that he was recovering from offseason elbow surgery that limited him to DH duties in April.

Luis Arraez can cover for Bogaerts at second, but that opens up a big hole at DH -- exposing the lack of depth the Padres have on their 40-man roster. This team is built around getting production from their big three of Machado, Bogaerts and Fernando Tatis Jr. and that hasn't happened.

The pitching has a chance to get better. Joe Musgrove, who had a 6.37 ERA in his first eight starts, returned Tuesday from a short stint on the IL. Michael King has mixed scoreless outings with several multi-run starts. And with Darvish and Dylan Cease, there is enough high-end talent here to reel off a 14-3 run or something that would create separation from the mass of wild-card contenders in the NL.

Verdict: Real

I don't say that with a ton of confidence, and I rate the Padres behind both the Brewers and Cubs, but the wild-card picture -- once you get past the NL East runner-up -- projects as a whole bunch of teams fighting for 84 wins, just like last season. Or even slightly fewer wins than that. The Padres have more potential front-line talent than the next tier of NL teams -- the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals. Plus, as general manager A.J. Preller has already shown with the late spring training trade for Cease and then the Arraez deal, the Padres won't be too cautious about making more additions.