People say they like to see teams compete at the peaks of their powers, but that’s not where the best sports drama takes place. The ideal competitive situation pits an established power against an up-and-coming contender that looks ready to unseat the old guard. These squads don’t have to peak at the same time; rather they merely have to intersect in a moment of weakness for the reigning top team, or even at the start of a decline.
This was the dynamic that brought us the embryonic Brady-Belichick Patriots’ upset of the Greatest Show on Turf Rams; Michael Phelps vs. Ian Thorpe; and just about every good sports movie ever made. And we may also see it this year in the AL Central as a young, loaded White Sox team that spent the offseason adding reinforcements looks to knock off the established divisional champion Minnesota Twins.
While some hacky website has spent all week refusing to shut up about the Dodgers and Padres, the real divisional fight of the season might come in the heartland. Prior to the Eloy Jiménez injury news on Wednesday, FanGraphs’ playoff odds put the Twins and White Sox in a virtual dead heat for the title of preseason favorite, pegging Chicago for 88.7 wins and a 46.5 percent chance of taking the AL Central crown, with Minnesota close behind at 87.7 wins and a 39.6 percent chance of finishing first. (No other team even comes in at 10 percent; the Cleveland team that ran the division for much of the late 2010s is more likely to influence the NL East and NL West than its own division.)
This Twins team came of age in 2019, when they won 101 games and hit an MLB-record 307 home runs. How far we’ve come from the days of Cristian Guzmán and Luis Rivas. The roster has turned over somewhat in the past year and a half. Minnesota made a big splash last offseason by signing former MVP Josh Donaldson. The team also glommed on to the Mookie Betts deal like a remora on to the belly of a shark by flipping hard-throwing rookie Brusdar Graterol to the Dodgers for veteran righty Kenta Maeda. And like a remora, they thrived, with Maeda finishing second in 2020 in AL Cy Young voting.
But power remains the key strength of this team, from 40-year-old DH Nelson Cruz to beefy first baseman Miguel Sanó to rookie left fielder Alex Kirilloff. Kirilloff, a 2016 first-rounder, will start the season in the minor leagues, in a move that looks an awful lot like service time manipulation. Kirilloff was good enough to hit in the middle of the order in an elimination game last year, and good enough for the Twins to non-tender longtime left field starter Eddie Rosario. But a disappointing spring meant that apparently he wasn’t good enough to make the big league club out of camp. Surely he’ll be back in the majors after three weeks of working on his defense, even though he’s the kind of player who could stay in Triple-A until the Rapture and still not be a good defender.
This strategy could come back to bite the Twins. Even if Kirilloff’s absence costs the team only one game, Minnesota can ill afford to play around with even that small a margin, as the White Sox have well and truly arrived.
Last year’s team, buoyed by rookies Nick Madrigal, Luis Robert, and hard-throwing lefty Garrett Crochet, finished just a game behind Minnesota and broke an 11-year playoff drought. This offseason, they traded for Lance Lynn, who, along with Dallas Keuchel and Lucas Giolito, gives Chicago a playoff rotation capable of matching any other in the American League. The Sox also waded into free agency to sign Liam Hendriks to one of the largest closer deals in baseball. And though Chicago’s front office focused on pitching this winter, the lineup also gained a new banger when third baseman Yoán Moncada released his new single, “Desastre Personal.”
Alternative forms of this joke:
- Crochet and Michael Kopech might throw 100 mph, but the biggest heater on the team belongs to Yoán Moncada and his new single, “Desastre Personal.”
- Lynn’s cutter will break more than a few bats this year, but Chicago’s biggest jam is “Desastre Personal,” a new single by third baseman Yoán Moncada.
- The White Sox may not be run by a president of baseball operations, but after the release of “Desastre Personal,” Yoán Moncada became the team’s President of Bops.
These two teams’ respective trend lines seem to be heading in opposite directions. Cruz will be one of the older players in baseball this season; Donaldson is 35, Maeda 32, and J.A. Happ 38. Even Minnesota’s “younger” players—Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, Sanó, José Berríos—are in their late 20s now. Contrast that to a White Sox lineup built largely on guys with less than three years of MLB experience.
But the Twins know the White Sox are coming, and they reloaded accordingly this offseason. The team signed former Chicago closer Alex Colomé, who’d been replaced by Hendriks and will immediately become the Twins’ best relief pitcher since pre-shoulder-injury Glen Perkins. They also signed shortstop Andrelton Simmons, fixing a weakness—middle infield defense—that may have cost them the Astros series last year. Simmons and Buxton, incidentally, might be the most dynamic pair of defenders ever to suit up for the same team at the same time. The area behind second base will be a total no-fly zone for opposing hitters this year, and the combination will do a great deal to counteract the Stonehenge-like composition of the rest of the roster.
And the White Sox, for all their exciting youngsters and expensive free agents, still have serious flaws of their own. Most pressing is that Jiménez—the man with the most visible xiphoid process in North American team sports and a pivotal bat in the Chicago lineup—seems to have unbuttoned his left pectoral tendon and will miss most, if not all, of the regular season. Chicago’s lack of outfield options was already cause for alarm, and between Jiménez’s injury and the blockage of the Suez Canal, this has been a big week for running out of depth. Right now, rookie Andrew Vaughn—a man with zero innings in the outfield at the collegiate or professional level—appears to be the favorite to take over for Jiménez in left. Even if he manages to make it through the season without putting up defensive numbers that would make Pat Burrell look like Curt Flood, this is still a huge problem for the Sox. Chicago already needed Vaughn’s bat at DH, and failing a trade in the next few days, there will be a Jiménez-shaped hole in the lineup somewhere.
The White Sox–Padres situational comparison is pretty accurate, down to the fact that both teams’ major offseason acquisitions were gigantic former Texas Rangers aces who once spent disappointing half-seasons with the teams they’re trying to chase down. But here’s where the comparison falls apart: The Padres are set to spend $40 million more on payroll than the White Sox this year.
In practical terms, that means the Padres are extremely deep. They came out of 2020 with Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet in the rotation, and MacKenzie Gore—the top left-handed pitching prospect in the game—waiting in the wings. Still, they spent all winter acting like a bunch of undergrads on Thirsty Thursday and buying tons of pitchers: Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Mark Melancon, and Keone Kela. San Diego has one of the best infields in baseball, with Rookie of the Year contender Jake Cronenworth at second, and the better part of a billion dollars invested in Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer, and Fernando Tatis Jr. But even that didn’t stop them from signing Ha-Seong Kim, one of the top infielders on the free agent market.
The White Sox, meanwhile, did, uh, not that, which means they’re vulnerable to injury or regression from their young players. Not just in the case of Jiménez’s injury—and God forbid any other starter has to miss significant time—but because the rotation has a lot of question marks after Lynn, Keuchel, and Giolito. There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about Kopech, Dylan Cease, or even Carlos Rodón, but all three carry serious health and/or performance questions into their fight for the last two rotation spots.
Rather than spending the offseason gearing up to all but certainly overtake Minnesota this year, the White Sox have settled into a position that could create a hugely entertaining slugfest between two mostly evenly matched teams. That’s a missed opportunity for Chicago, but a gift for neutral fans who want to see exciting teams in a close pennant race. And now we’ll have two: There’s the flashy, overexposed race in Southern California. And an equivalent in the Midwest, where good beer and cheese products and a reasonable cost of living now come with a gripping AL Central rivalry.