You can see the equivalent piece on the teams of the two East divisions for the details of this shtick. The gist is that we’re breaking down each team at the All-Star break, using only one word per game played to this point. It’s an exercise in humility, in understanding how little a single half of a season really tells us. Today, the 10 teams in the two Central divisions get their turn.
Chicago Cubs (43-45)
They’re a wildly talented team having a very strange season. They’ve allowed a ton of runs in the first inning. Their defensive deficiency was an early storyline, but they now rank fourth in both raw and park-adjusted defensive efficiency. Their starting pitchers badly need that kind of support, but also more (and earlier) offensive help. It’s hard to believe Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell have lost so much since last fall. Ben Zobrist’s age is showing. Ian Happ is both a key cog and a potential trade chip.
Chicago White Sox (38-49)
Avisail Garcia’s better physique and plate adjustments only transformed him into Miguel Cabrera for about a month. He’s himself again. That brief outburst was a reminder, though, that a long track record doesn’t preclude a sudden, radical, and protracted departure from an established performance standard. The universe, wishing to cruelly hammer this point home for Jerry Reinsdorf and company, has also made Jose Quintana stink this year. The White Sox need Tim Anderson’s plate discipline to improve, but his track record as a hacker already feels inescapable.
Cincinnati Reds (39-49)
Between Zack Cozart, Scooter Gennett, Adam Duvall, and Scott Schebler, the Reds are testing the confidence of anyone who ever tried to peg a hitter’s true talent and leave it unchanged. Each has made some slow changes over the last few years, and each is enjoying the benefits of The Great American Ballpark, but it’s just not clear to what extent each guy has transformed himself. Cincinnati needs to extend or trade Cozart and decide whether to make room for Jesse Winker in their outfield, so they need answers soon.
Cleveland Indians (47-40)
This year, no team better epitomizes all the ways a season can twist than this one. The Indians have seen Francisco Lindor play like an MVP for six weeks, and like a good-field, light-hit shortstop for six. They’ve seen their expensive DH struggle, their All-Star second baseman get hurt twice, and their outfield plan change multiple times. They needed to replace Corey Kluber, which is impossible, but two different guys did it for stretches. Looking forward, though, they look about as good as they looked in March.
Detroit Tigers (39-48)
At this point, it feels like Detroit can’t reasonably hope to reach the playoffs. Still, is it clear to you that they’re not good? Justin Verlander has bad numbers, but quality stuff, and such a strong track record. Miguel Cabrera’s numbers are soft, but he adjusts and hits well-executed pitches hard more consistently than anyone. Nick Castellanos is a Statcast superstar, a guy who somehow got a whole lot faster this winter … and whose result stats still suggest he stinks. Alex Avila is somehow a stud again.
Kansas City Royals (44-43)
Coming into the season, the most important question I had about the Royals was whether they would be good enough to justify holding on to the core of their championship team—to have that meaningless final home game at which fans can rise over and over and salute Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, and Escobar, even if it's the last time. Answer: yes! They're walking at the lowest rate in the league and they've become an average baserunning and defensive group, but they have quietly infused themselves with youth.
Milwaukee Brewers (50-41)
Some of this is certainly real. Or maybe all of it is partially real, and partially ephemeral. Eric Sogard, Eric Thames, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, and Keon Broxton have always shown a blend of solid, valuable skills (like Sogard’s on-base ability, Thames’ and Shaw’s power) and significant, unrealized potential. Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson have long been considered good candidates to mature into starting pitchers, though perhaps not ones quite as good as they've been this year. Still, it feels unlikely those players all continue to hit their ceilings at once.
Minnesota Twins (45-43)
They're simply playing over their heads. No team is outplaying their third-order winning percentage by more. It's possible to squint and see them sustaining that, however. It's a good offense and a good defense, and Paul Molitor has found the key to maximizing the wins a pitching staff with just four or five quality arms can deliver. It still feels like, down the stretch, they'll need more help just to sustain this winning percentage. If Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco make progress at bat, maybe that equation changes.
Pittsburgh Pirates (42-47)
The Big Data Baseball machine has broken down, but there's still an abundance of talent here. Andrew McCutchen’s sojourn through the Valley of Outfielder Career Death is over. Starling Marte will complete his suspension before the end of the month. There are several valuable trade assets here, but also enough of an opening to give Neal Huntington pause about offloading them. The concerns are that the pitching staff is thin, and that Felipe Rivero (linchpin of the bullpen) has a lot of injury red flags sticking out of him.
St. Louis Cardinals (43-45)
They're very fortunate that neither the Cubs nor anyone else put them away during their two long stretches of bad baseball. So blessed, though, they still have a fighting chance. Dexter Fowler looks like the offensive force they needed him to be. They do such wonderful work with young hitters, and are really benefiting from that work this year. The starting rotation pitched over its head early, but even as it falls to earth it's possible to see either reinforcements (hello, Jack Flaherty) or rebounds keeping them respectable.