With small payrolls, A.L., N.L. Centrals are lagging again


The AL Central-leading Cleveland Guardians have been below .500 since late April. The Cincinnati Reds top the NL Central standings while on an 86-win pace.

Welcome to life in baseball’s two weakest divisions, where even the best teams struggle to win more games than they lose.

Cleveland (39-40) overtook the Minnesota Twins (40-42) in the AL Central standings on Wednesday, but the Guardians would be dead last if they played in the AL East. This is the first time in 15 years that an entire division has been below .500 this late in a season.

“You know, I’ve been in a lot of different scenarios,” said Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, whose team is 34-45 but only five games off the AL Central lead. “This is a little bit unique to the Central right now. But a lot of baseball left to play for a lot of teams, but certainly weird.”

It’s not much better in the NL Central, though Cincinnati (43-38) has come on strong lately thanks to an exciting rookie class headed by sensational shortstop Elly De La Cruz. The Reds were in last place just over a month ago but now lead the division by a half-game over the Milwaukee Brewers (42-38) after winning 14 of their last 17.

These aren’t new struggles either — neither Central division has produced a pennant winner since the Chicago Cubs beat Cleveland in the 2016 World Series.

The way Central division clubs have managed their budgets, it’s no surprise they’ve lagged behind their East and West counterparts.

No team from either group ranked among the top 12 major league payrolls on opening day this season, but five of them fell in the bottom 10 — Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City and Milwaukee. No Central team has cracked the top 5 since the Cubs during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Six of baseball’s 10 smallest markets come from the Centrals, according to Nielsen, and only Chicago cracks the top 10. Not that small-market clubs can’t spend big — San Diego’s TV market is comparable to Kansas City, yet the Padres ranked third among opening day payrolls as they try to keep pace with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

No such behemoth in the Midwest has been forcing Central teams to invest and keep pace.

It’s shown in the results. No team from either Central division has even reached the League Championship Series since the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals.

But the gap separating the Central from the East and West is even larger than usual this year.

Part of the reason is a change by MLB to balance the schedule, forcing Central teams to play East and West foes more often. The 2023 schedule includes 52 games against division opponents, down from 76 in previous seasons.

It’s also noteworthy that the defending AL Central and NL Central champions got off to slow starts.

One year after going 93-69 to win the NL Central, the Cardinals are last in the division with a 33-46 mark. St. Louis’ team ERA has soared from 3.79 in 2022 to 4.46 this year.

“We do believe we have a chance at this,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “But in reality, if we’re talking about (making it) sustainable, we’re going to have to pitch better and we’re going to have to continue to do what we do offensively.”

Cleveland fell below .500 on April 29 and has had a losing record since, though it hasn’t stopped the Guardians from grabbing the AL Central lead.

According to Sportradar, the last time an entire division was below .500 this late in the season was the NL West on July 24, 2008. The Los Angeles Dodgers won the NL West that year with an 84-78 record.

The Guardians’ issues have centered on a light-hitting offense and injuries in its rotation. The Guardians are leaning on three rookies — including top prospect Gavin Williams — as starters.

Both the Cardinals and Guardians will try to repeat the late surges they made a year ago.

The Cardinals trailed the Brewers by four games on July 30 before going 40-21 down the stretch. The Guardians were under .500 as late as July 13 but went 49-26 the rest of the way — including 16-4 in their last 20 games — to run away with the AL Central by 11 games.

Guardians general manager Mike Chernoff believes that experience can help this year’s squad.

“This is a team that I think is dying to be in situations like this,” Chernoff said, “and thankfully with where our division is, we’ve been able to put ourselves in a place where we can continue to compete.”

If nobody makes a similar run this year, the AL Central could make some unfortunate history. The worst record ever owned by a division champion was 82-80 by the 2005 San Diego Padres.

If nothing else, the unsettled nature of the races gives just about every Central division team a reason to believe. Only 5 1/2 games separate the top four teams in the AL Central. The top four teams in the NL Central are within five games of one another, and the last-place Cardinals are only nine back.

Central division teams in both leagues can also take comfort in knowing regular-season records don’t mean much as long as you make the playoffs.

The Atlanta Braves won the 2021 World Series and the Philadelphia Phillies captured the 2022 NL pennant after compiling fewer than 90 regular-season victories. Why couldn’t a Central team follow a similar path?

“I think we’ve seen over the last four or five years, plenty of teams with deep runs and championships that weren’t necessarily favorites heading into the playoffs or with the highest win total in the regular season,” Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said.

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