AL Central players with something to prove

August 22nd, 2019

Injuries are unavoidable in baseball. So are slumps. But the beauty of MLB's 162-game schedule is that there's plenty of time in any year for a player to make his impact on the field, and a well-timed hot streak late in the season can sometimes serve as a catalyst for a playoff push.

One player finding his groove could make all the difference for the Twins and Indians, who have six head-to-head contests remaining as they jostle for command of the American League Central. On the other hand, several young players on rebuilding teams could also use late August and September to make a case for a role in upcoming seasons.

With that in mind, here's a look around the division at one player on each team that has something to prove in the final six weeks of the season.

Indians: , OF

The Indians traded away Trevor Bauer, an ace-level pitcher, in a Trade Deadline deal, and they got back some needed right-handed power in the form of and Reyes. While Puig has quickly become an impact bat in the middle of the lineup, the transition hasn't been so smooth for Reyes, who got off to a 2-for-27 start with his new club before his bat woke up a bit in the last two weeks.

With Corey Kluber's recovery having hit a setback and Bauer no longer in the fold, the wiggle room for the offense has slimmed for the Indians down the stretch. It's tough to put too many expectations on a young player transitioning to a new league, but more immediate help from Reyes would be a big help for the Indians as they look to close the gap on the division-leading Twins.

Royals: , RHP

Lopez, whom the Royals acquired in the Mike Moustakas trade from the Brewers in 2018, raised expectations by nearly throwing a perfect game last Sept. 8. He retired the first 24 Twins he faced before giving up a walk and a hit.

But Lopez hasn’t been nearly the same pitcher this season. He is 2-7 with a 6.25 ERA. He started the season in the rotation, was demoted to the bullpen, and he's received a couple of spot starts recently with Danny Duffy on the injured list. Lopez was better Monday night, getting a win in Baltimore by throwing five innings and giving up just two hits and one run. Manager Ned Yost recently admitted it’s puzzling why Lopez hasn’t been better.

"The stuff is really good," Yost said. "Really good fastball, really good curveball, good changeup. He just needs to consistently find the zone."

-- Jeffrey Flanagan

Tigers: , RHP

A year after Jimenez was an All-Star setup man, the 24-year-old has had an up-and-down season. While his strikeout rate is up, putting him among the top 10 percent of big league pitchers, his walk and hit ratios are up as well. His home run rate has more than doubled, resulting in a FIP a run and a half above last year's.

With Shane Greene now in Atlanta, the time has arrived for Jimenez to become the Tigers' closer. He can put a firm hold on the role with a strong finish and establish himself as the centerpiece of the next Tigers bullpen ahead of the arrival of prospects like Bryan Garcia.

-- Jason Beck

Twins: , OF

Cave more than pulled his weight as a rookie last season in 's extended absence by hitting .265/.313/.473 with 13 homers and 16 doubles in 91 games, but the 26-year-old outfielder struggled to replicate that production for most of this season, bottoming out at a .191/.311/.292 line earlier this month while again filling in for an injured Buxton.

More consistent playing time has helped Cave's bat wake up in the last two weeks, as he entered Wednesday's game on a 13-for-26 tear with four doubles and five multihit games since Aug. 7. Cave's continued improvement will go a long way toward rounding out the bottom of the Twins' lineup during the stretch run as they await Buxton's return, which will likely come sometime in September.

"He didn't get very consistent playing time the first time around when he was with us earlier, really," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "Did he have a short spell with us early on where he wasn't swinging it like this? Sure, but for the most part, he's been a pretty good, consistent offensive player."

White Sox: , OF

Jimenez is a supremely talented rookie, especially on the offensive side, whose learning experiences during this first season with the White Sox far outweigh anything he produces on the field. But a high right ankle sprain, a right ulnar bruise and time on the bereavement list have somewhat limited his playing time and have definitely limited his search for consistency at the plate.

Jimenez seems to have found more of an offensive groove after his return from the ulnar injury and continues to work diligently to prove that he’s a viable defensive option in left field as one of the fulcrums of the rebuild. It’s certainly not a question of whether Jimenez belongs, but one of where and how he fits.

-- Scott Merkin