5 AL Central predictions going into September

August 29th, 2019

All teams -- regardless of whether or not they’re in a postseason race -- have some sort of intriguing side story that creates an extra level of interest heading into September.

Maybe it’s a question of if a hot prospect will get a callup to the big leagues. Maybe an individual milestone is within reach for a star player. During a time when the contenders and the wait-‘til-next-year teams have separated themselves, there’s always a storyline for a fanbase to latch on to. In the American League Central division, September predictions are wide-ranging.

Indians: Reyes’ bat stays hot

The Indians suffered an enormous blow this week, losing third baseman Jose Ramirez for at least the rest of the regular season due to a fractured hamate bone. And while the Tribe had hoped for Franmil Reyes to make a big splash for his new club when he was traded at the end of July and he was slow to deliver, the slugger may be heating up at just the right time. In his first game shifting up in the batting order to replace Ramirez in the five-spot, Reyes launched two home runs, including the game-tying three-run blast in the bottom of the ninth against the Royals on Sunday. The former Padre strung together a few hits in the middle of August before cooling back off, but this time, it seems like his hot bat is here to stay. Reyes is the club’s best bet to replace Ramirez’s .313 average and 1.013 OPS in his last 57 games.

-- Mandy Bell

Royals: O'Hearn soars in September

Ryan O’Hearn will have a strong September and claim the first-base job heading into 2020. OK, that may seem like a stretch, considering O’Hearn is hitting just .172. But as manager Ned Yost pointed out the other day, “Have you watched him smoke the ball this season with no results?”

Indeed, O’Hearn’s average exit velocity is 90 mph, above league average. His hard-hit rate of 41 percent is also above league average (34 percent). Simply put, O’Hearn hasn’t had much good fortune.

O’Hearn did in the second half of 2018 when he burst onto the scene with 12 home runs, 30 RBIs and a .950 OPS in just 44 games.

O’Hearn’s two-homer game Sunday in Cleveland propelled the Royals to an extra-innings win, and may be a sign he’s ready for a strong finish. Of course, not all of O’Hearn’s issues stem from bad luck. He has a 50-percent ground-ball rate this season as opposed to 35-percent last season.

“Too often he’s ripping balls into the shift,” Yost said. “He’s working on elevating the ball more.”

-- Jeffrey Flanagan

Tigers: Draft implications

The battle for the first pick in next year’s MLB Draft will come down to the final day as the Tigers and Orioles edge within a game of each other at the bottom of the standings. The O’s visit Detroit for four games in September, which should close the gap. Much like two years ago, when Pablo Sandoval’s walk-off earned the Giants a season-ending win and pushed the Tigers into the pick they eventually used on Casey Mize, Detroit could need help on the final day, like a blown lead from the Red Sox bullpen against the O’s, to get the spot.

-- Jason Beck

Twins: Kepler and Cruz become Twins' only pair of teammates with 40 homers in same season

Here's the full list of Twins players who have posted 40-homer seasons since the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961: Harmon Killebrew and Brian Dozier. That's it. Killebrew, the Hall of Fame slugger, accomplished the feat seven times in Minnesota, while Dozier rode a torrid second half to the mark in 2016, when he clubbed 28 homers in 72 games following the All-Star break to record a career-high 42 bombs.

Plenty of team homer records will fall to the Bomba Squad before the Twins close the book on their regular season, and the individual performances of Max Kepler and Nelson Cruz will be a significant part of that. Kepler enters Thursday with 35 homers, while Cruz has posted 33 in only 94 games. If both maintain their current power pace, Kepler should easily pass the 40-homer mark, while Cruz should end up right around the threshold.

Many around the organization thought that Kepler was poised for a breakout season after he signed a five-year extension during Spring Training, while Cruz could go down as one of the most impactful free agent signings in club history.

-- Do-Hyoung Park

White Sox: Robert will not be called up

Luis Robert, the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball and No. 1 White Sox prospect, per MLB Pipeline, belongs in the Majors. He has produced 30 home runs, 31 doubles, 10 triples, 104 runs scored, 89 RBIs and 36 stolen bases across stops with Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. But the White Sox might not be inclined to promote the uber-talented 22-year-old a fourth level in the same season. Service-time issues would be a concern, but Charlotte also is looking postseason bound, and the White Sox simply might give Robert down time after the Knights’ season concludes.

-- Scott Merkin