Will the AL Central crown be a fight between the White Sox and Royals?

The Royals earned another impressive victory on Sunday, as they defeated the Detroit Tigers 4-0 to not only earn their 13th win of the season, but also clinch another series win in 2021:

As of now, it seems to difficult for those outside of Kansas City to figure out what the Royals are and what they will be for the remainder of 2021. Remember, most people and projections figured the Royals would be a 70-73 win team going into Spring Training, which seemed understandable after a 26-34 campaign in 2020, and back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in 2018 and 2019.

And yet, the Royals continue to win, and not only stay at the top of the AL Central, but also the American League, after Sunday’s slate of games:

Depth Charts, via Fangraphs, figures the Royals will eventually regress at some point this year. They project that the Royals will finish 81-81 by season’s end, which means that they would finish 69-74 over the remainder of the season. However, that was before today’s game, and while the rest of baseball thinks that the Royals’ luck will run out at some point, this club continues to deny the odds, and win games. Yes, the Royals have an easy stretch as of now, as their next three games are against the last place Tigers and the Pirates, who are expected to be cellar dwellers in the NL Central. But right now, the Royals are playing their best baseball in years (or at least since 2017), and they still are missing Adalberto Mondesi, who will likely boost this team not only defensively up the middle, but also offensively at the plate and on the basepaths as well.

And yet, while the Royals are in first place now, there is a team slightly behind them that most likely will make a run and prove to be the biggest challenge to Kansas City for the remainder of the season…

And that club is none other than the Chicago White Sox, who have been a thorn in the Royals’ side the past couple of seasons.

Hence, it will be interesting to see if Royals-White Sox will be a battle in the AL Central in 2021 that will not only be for valuable bragging rights, but perhaps the division crown as well…

Which is something not a lot of baseball fans envisioned going into Spring Training.

The White Sox entered Spring Training as the prohibitive favorites in the AL Central, especially after the acquisition of Lance Lynn and the hiring of manager Tony La Russa, who brought his Hall of Fame chops (for better and worse) to Chicago’s South Side.

After going through a slight rebuilding process from 2013-2019 (their last winning season was in 2012, but they did not make the playoffs), the White Sox took a turn for the better last season, as they went 35-25 season, and qualified for a Wild Card spot in the expanded postseason. However, the White Sox ceded the division at the end of the season to the Minnesota Twins, and the White Sox also blew a shot to advance in the postseason, as they lost in the Wild Card series to the Oakland Athletics despite winning the first game of the three-game series.

Thus, 2021 was expected to be a season of redemption and progression for the White Sox. They let go of manager Rick Renteria, and brought in La Russa, even though La Russa had not managed a ball club since retiring as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. The White Sox were a loaded offensive machine in 2020, and with the addition of Lynn, and the return of an impressive, young core, it seemed like the Central was the White Sox’s division to lose, barring injury or a complete meltdown.

Granted, things haven’t gone entirely swimmingly for Chicago to begin the year. The White Sox lost slugger Eloy Jimenez to injury in Spring Training, and he’ll be out for a considerable amount of time, which is a major blow to their postseason chances. However, despite the loss of Jimenez, and seeing Tim Anderson lose some time early to injury, the White Sox continue to hover slightly behind the Royals in the early division race.

Currently, Chicago is 12-9, which includes a 7-3 mark in their last 10 games, much like Kansas City. However, while the Royals have a +3 run differential this season, the White Sox have a run differential of +21, which would give them an expected W-L record of 13-8, in comparison to the Royals’ expected W-L record of 10-10.

Thus, while the Royals have been overly lucky to start 2021, the White Sox have been slightly unlucky, which may make them more of a candidate to not only go on a surge soon, but also be a stronger candidate to take the division later in the year, in comparison to the plucky Royals.

That being said, if the Central does come down to the Royals and White Sox, the Boys in Blue will not make it easy for the South Siders.

First off, the tension between the Royals and White Sox the past couple of seasons has gone under the radar among most baseball fans (mostly due to their lackluster records), but is widely known between the two fan bases. The Royals are the classic, small-market club that has underachieved recently, but are on the upswing, helped not only by some key free agent acquisitions this off-season, but the development of some key prospects in their farm system the past couple of seasons as well. Brady Singer, the Royals’ 2018 first-round pick, has suddenly become the “ace” of the Royals rotation, as evidenced by his last few starts:

And Singer is not alone. Nicky Lopez is becoming a key contributor on both the offensive and defensive end. Salvador Perez is showing that he has been worth the extension. And Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, and Michael A. Taylor, have displayed that they were acquisitions well worth getting this off-season, even if it did cost the Royals some money and/or prospects in the process.

That being said, while the Royals are turning heads, the White Sox are also doing their share to keep pace in the Central, and then some. While the Royals are in first, the White Sox have had bigger stories so far this season, as evidenced by Carlos Rodon, who threw the season’s first no-hitter:

In addition to Rodon’s surprising breakout (he was initially non-tendered by the White Sox in the off-season before being re-signed on a cheaper deal), the White Sox have also gotten excellent production from Michael Kopech, who is not only posting a 1.72 ERA, but has also struck out 27 batters in 15.2 IP, according to Baseball Savant. Also, Yermin Mercedes has been an out-of-nowhere surprise at the plate, and Luis Robert is off to a strong start as well, as he is hitting .316 so far in 2021.

That being said, the White Sox’s production has been a bit inconsistent. While they rank 7th in the league in OPS, they really haven’t gotten MVP production from Jose Abreu (.211 average), and Yasmani Grandal has also struggled immensely at the plate (.130 average). Thus, if the White Sox are producing now, despite struggles from some of their stars, one has to wonder what this lineup could do when they are all humming at the same time…

And what kind of effect that would have on their win-loss record as well.

If there is one Achilles heel for the White Sox, it may be their bullpen, which currently ranks 21st in the league in ERA, in comparison to the Royals, which ranks 19th. While the White Sox did add Liam Hendriks this off-season from Oakland, he is posting a 4.82 ERA for the year in 9.1 IP. Granted, he has struck out 16 batters this season, so his high ERA may be from a couple of bad outings (including one against the Royals), but his performance and how it fares over the course of the season, will be something to pay attention to, not only from White Sox fans, but Royals ones as well.

Granted, it may not necessarily simply be between the White Sox and Royals for the Central crown. After all, Depth Charts still projects the Twins to finish ahead of the Royals by season’s end, and even the Indians, despite their hitting issues, still have one of the best pitching staffs in the American League. There still is a lot of the 2021 season to go, and while the Royals are on a hot streak now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Twins and Indians go on their torrid own runs, especially with the weapons that they have hitting and pitching-wise.

Nonetheless, so far this season, it feels like the Central division race will come down between Chicago and Kansas City. Will the big bats, big-name manager, and high-upside arms of the White Sox take away the division? Or will the suddenly competitive Royals continue their magical run, boosted in the next month or two by not only the return of Mondesi, but perhaps the arrival of one of the big pitching prospects in their system, such as Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, or perhaps someone else?

The Royals and White Sox have been the class of the AL Central division thus far, able to stay up at the top, despite playing in the shadow of the pandemic.

However, there still is a lot of baseball left in the American League’s Midwest division…

But for some reason, the battle between La Russa’s White Sox and Matheny’s Royals may be the story that defines the division this season.

Let’s see if the Royals will be the one that will come out on top…

The Royals-White Sox series from May 7th-9th at Kauffman Stadium could be very telling…

Photo Credit: Peter G. Aiken

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