In the sense that they acquired one player in exchange for another player and reported this transaction to the commissioner’s office by a certain time, the Cleveland Guardians were “active” at the August trade deadline. In spirit, they were extremely not. Think less hot stove and more rubbing one’s hands together, futilely, for warmth on a frigid Midwestern day. The extent of the dealmaking was to send backup catcher Sandy Leon, who played (poorly) a total of nine games for Cleveland, to the Twins for reliever Ian Hamilton, who has given up two earned runs in the 2.2 innings he has pitched all season. From a glance at the transaction wire, you would have little idea that the Guardians are one of three teams still more or less equally in the mix to win the AL Central this year. Heading into deadline day, the FanGraphs projections gave them a 44 percent chance of making the playoffs. Doing nothing to strengthen their postseason position has, naturally, only strengthened their postseason position. The Twins—chumps for actually trying at the deadline!—saw their newly shored-up bullpen implode against the Dodgers last night. And so the 58-52 Guardians, to their surprise and possible resentment, woke up one game in first place this morning, those odds now at 53 percent. The division is anyone’s for the taking. The only problem is no one will take it.
I have sometimes thought of an MLB division as being like an apartment complex of neighbors who can’t stand each other. These neighbors are horrible, but they are always there, and you are always running into them in the hallway or in the lobby; passive-aggressive notes about bikes being left in the stairwell are always appearing on the door, and really you would prefer to have nothing to do with any of them, a wish thwarted by circumstances which dictate you must see them and interact with them every single day of your stupid life.
The AL Central’s building is decrepit. Its residents are miserable and unseemly. The one capable of redeeming the whole enterprise before the season began—let’s extend the analogy and call the White Sox the guy who volunteered to shovel the communal sidewalk last year when no one else could be bothered—has decided to give up too. For several months, FanGraphs’s projection model kept the faith in last year’s division champs and gave them the best odds. Its various algorithms and gears whirred and buzzed, unbothered by Tony La Russa’s weird substitutions, saying Really? No. Really? You’re really going to be this bad? No. Are you sure? I don’t think so.
The run of injuries that made such faith look reasonable early in the season may have obscured just how flawed the roster is, even at full strength. The White Sox misunderstood MLB’s adoption of a “universal DH” this year to mean that every spot in the lineup should be filled by a DH. Andrew Vaughn, drafted as a first baseman, struggles so much in the outfield that despite hitting close to .300 with some pop he has not quite accumulated 1 fWAR this season. For every fly ball Eloy Jiménez tracks normally out there, he breaks one leg. At the deadline, the front office surveyed the still extremely winnable division and the team’s extremely obvious needs and made just one Cleveland-style backup-catcher-for-bad-reliever swap. The half-hearted rumor about their interest in Shohei Ohtani amused me, not because of its resemblance to 100 other almost-deals the White Sox have made, but because I would have liked to see Shohei forced into some kind of platoon arrangement with Leury Garcia at second base. At last, the FanGraphs model has decided to take the team’s own word for it. After the White Sox announced Tim Anderson would miss six weeks with a finger injury and then lost 8-3 to the Royals to fall to 1.5 games out of first place yesterday, it relented and lowered Chicago’s postseason odds to a third-best 40 percent.
This puts them, the Twins, and the Guardians in possibly the lamest division race ever. To muddle the first analogy with another, it is like one of those baby races at an NBA halftime show, where all of the babies are crawling into the opposite lane or stopping halfway through to crawl backwards. I am an exasperated parent at the finish line, waving my hands, begging even one of these babies to step up. For the low cost of zero dollars, the Guardians have overachieved with the youngest roster in baseball, one characterized by patient contact hitters. Consider them—we’re switching back to the apartment thing—the lone happy resident of this awful building. The Twins, meanwhile, responded to last year’s last-place disappointment by putting in effort at every appropriate juncture. They signed Carlos Correa to a big short-term deal in free agency; he has been just decent by his standards this year, and curiously bad since the all-star break. They acquired a good starting pitcher and two excellent relievers at the trade deadline to address their weaknesses and, for all their trouble, have gone 4-6 since.
A hasty tour of the basement. Avert your eyes! Like the Guardians, the Royals roster is quite young and cool and brimming with potential. Unlike the Guardians, they are 20 games below .500 and began playing respectably once their season was more or less over. The best advertisement for the new general manager vacancy in Detroit might be this blog about how few obstacles there are to contention in the AL Central. As microcosms for the state of the division go, you could do worse than this intense beef between Javy Báez and Amir Garrett, whose OPS and ERA, respectively, at the time began with “6.” You can smell a gas leak down here.
No-good layabouts plague all of baseball. The NL Central’s own building looks pretty damn (no pun intended) rickety. But this sorry bunch takes the cake. Welcome to contemporary MLB’s extreme, where most teams have resolved to achieve success only by accident. I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting my garbage neighbors, all of whom I hate, three of whom are “in the hunt,” one of whom has to win by default, and none of whom will end this division’s five-season playoff series losing streak come October. The Orioles would be in first place here.