This week, Sunday Night Baseball (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) features one of Major League Baseball’s enduring rivalries between two of the original eight teams in the American League, as the Chicago White Sox host the Cleveland Indians in Guaranteed Rate Field on the South Side of the Windy City.
Even before baseball expanded each league’s playoff slate to eight teams apiece, both clubs were teams with postseason potential. Now, they’re scrambling to keep up with the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central and keep themselves in the thick of a crowded field of teams racing for one of those eight spots.
We asked baseball writers David Schoenfield and Bradford Doolittle some key questions to get you ready for Sunday night’s game.
Two weeks in, how many American League Central teams do you think are making the postseason?
David Schoenfield: It’s starting to look like three teams, primarily because the Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners all look pretty weak so far and nobody expects the Baltimore Orioles to keep up their .500-ish level of play.
So if we eliminate those four teams, plus the Kansas City Royals, that leaves 10 teams for eight spots. Based on the projected results the rest of the way and what we know about the on-field talent, it’s also pretty easy to write off the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers as contenders. Oh, and the Boston Red Sox‘s rotation is a mess, so let’s knock them out as well. So, there, I’ve eliminated eight teams from the AL playoff race … and, wait … at least one of those teams will make it, since we need eight playoff teams, not seven.
The point? I don’t think we have eight good teams in the AL, so the Twins, Indians and White Sox look like solid picks at this point, even if they have their flaws, such as Cleveland’s offense or Chicago’s rotation.
Bradford Doolittle: Three is a good bet, and four is a possibility, given how up-for-grabs the race for the eighth and final spot looks. Dave has pretty much pegged the contenders, but there will be a noncontender who gets into the AL playoffs. It could be anyone. The Twins look like they are on a higher tier than the White Sox or Indians, and look like a bona fide threat to win the AL pennant. The race for second between Chicago and Cleveland is compelling. If you gave the White Sox the Indians’ rotation, you’d have one of the best teams in baseball.
Where does Shane Bieber rank among the best starting pitchers in baseball right now?
Schoenfield: Based on his first three starts, you can make the argument that Bieber is the best at this specific moment in time: 3-0, 0.83 ERA, 35 strikeouts and just three walks in 21 ⅔ innings. The only two runs he has allowed have come on two solo home runs, and two of his starts came against the Twins and Reds, a great offensive team and an OK one.
One aspect that I love about Bieber’s game is that even though he has developed into an elite strikeout pitcher, he remains very efficient, allowing him to pitch deeper into games. He’s averaging 3.86 pitchers per batter, which is actually below the MLB average. Jacob deGrom, by comparison, is averaging 4.26, and Gerrit Cole 4.00. Is Bieber better than those two? We probably need more than three starts to make that declaration, and he’s going to beat up on a lot of weak offenses in the AL Central the rest of the way, but Bieber is looking like baseball’s next great ace.
Doolittle: I’m not putting Bieber ahead of Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom. But given his dominance over the first couple of weeks, he’s in a group on the next tier and ranks with Jack Flaherty and Walker Buehler as the young starters you’d most like to have over the next two or three years. Nate Pearson might be in that group, as well.
Luis Robert is the most exciting prospect you’ve seen enter the league since ________.
Schoenfield: Well … I mean, Fernando Tatis Jr. did enter the league last season. Pete Alonso hit 53 home runs as a rookie last year. Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto were in the league that season before that.
One thing that has been impressive so far is Robert looks like he might be an elite, Gold Glove center fielder. According to Statcast metrics, he ranks in the 99th percentile in sprint speed, and his other defensive metrics are also outstanding so far. With Soto confined to a corner outfield position and Acuna playing more right field than center, Robert might be the more valuable defensive player — and making those highlight-reel catches center fielders are famous for.
We’ll see how his bat develops — he’s older than Tatis, Acuna and Soto, but it’s certainly safe to say he’s the latest exciting young star.
Doolittle: There is always something exhilarating about a hyped prospect living up to his advanced billing. Robert has certainly done that. But like Dave suggests, this is almost becoming the expectation. Soto, Tatis, Gleyber Torres, Acuna … there are some really good and really young star hitters in baseball right now, and Robert looks like another one.