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The Central Focus for a Playoff Push

The 2023 Cleveland Guardians continue to underperform and struggle on the field into mid-June. Their offense was atrocious through late May and only now starting to score runs on a fairly consistent basis. The inability to hit the long ball continues to be a big issue for the lineup.

Steven Kwan and Andres Gimenez have both experiencing declines in their offensive production after last season. Free agent acquisition Josh Bell has been a bust of a signing so far. Mike Zunino was a disaster behind the plate (he's been released from the team). Jose Ramirez isn't driving in runs or hitting the long ball like he has in the past.

The starting pitching has been ravished with injuries as Triston McKenzie has made only two starts and is now back on the injured list with an elbow injury. Aaron Civale was out for over 6 weeks and now Cal Quantrill is battling through an injury.

The bullpen has been vastly overworked due to the incredible amount of 1-run games the team has played thus far. The pitch clock certainly made for a difficult adjustment for both James Karinchak (whose no longer on ballclub) and closer Emmanuel Clase in the early going.

It's all added up to a subpar below .500 34-38 record (through Tuesday) nearing the unofficial halfway point for 2023.

In most seasons, Cleveland would be well out of the playoff picture needing a huge second half. However, the saving grace for the Guardians is being in a dreadfully awful American League Central division.

Comedy Central

After Tuesday, June 20th, the Minnesota Twins sit atop the standings in the Central division with a below .500 record at 36-38. Thus the Guardians are potentially a day or two away from being in first place despite playing such uninspiring baseball to this point!

Only 1 game out of first place, Cleveland is far from the only team in the division within striking distance of catching the Twins.

The Detroit Tigers are a lackluster 31-41 yet only 4 games out of first place. And the Chicago White Sox are 32-43 but only 4.5 games out in the Central Division!

The only team truly out of contention are the pathetic Kansas City Royals who have one more win than the Oakland A's, possessing the 2nd worst record in baseball at 20-53!

What's even more stunning is that if you combined the American League East and Central, the teams records would fall in order from 1-10. Why? Because the East is the exact opposite of the Central containing 5 teams with WINNING records from first to last place!

Looking at the American League as a whole---only two teams outside of the Central division have LOSING records--the Seattle Mariners with a record of 35-36 and the Oakland A's!

So only one team has a worst record than all five teams in Central Division on the remaining ten teams in the American League!

The Central Contributing Factor

Why is the Central division so terrible this season? Without question the number one contributing factor is the new balanced schedule that was implemented in 2023.

Over the past several seasons, teams would play nearly half their schedule within their own division. 19 times (three series home, three away) for each of their four division foes for a total of 76 games.

With the Central division being so weak in recent years, it was quite easy for the Twins, White Sox, and Guardians to stack up wins within the Central division beating up on the the lowly Royals and Tigers 19 times each.

Now in 2023, teams only play their division opponents 13 times each (two series home, two on the road). That's a total of 52 games within a division, a decrease of 24 games overall. Those games now consist of playing interleague contests---all 15 teams in a 3 game series either home or away each season.

The Central division teams have been subpar for years now, but in 2023 its now abundantly clear for the rest of baseball to see this reality on a daily basis with the new schedule format.

A Losing Trend

Playing outside of their own division has certainly played a key factor in Cleveland's struggles this season. Overall, though, the team has exhibited a losing trend early on and hasn't been able to right the ship yet this season.

Just getting back to the .500 marks seems like a huge hill to climb for this ballclub as the midway point of 2023 draws near.

Despite some big, thrilling comeback wins in late May and early June, the Guardians find themselves coming off another disappointing stretch of baseball losing 4 of 6 on a west coast trip (they won in 10 innings on Tuesday night over the A's).

They're 9-8 in the month of June and incredibly haven't swept a single series to this point in the season. The Guards longest winning streak is 4 games....which were their first 4 wins of the season dating back to March 31st to April 3rd.

The ballclub hasn't been at the .500 mark since April 23rd when they were 11-11. Since that point, Cleveland is 23-27.

While they're avoided any long losing streaks (only been swept once at the hands of the New York Mets) the Guardians have lost a ton of series 2 out of 3. To date it's happened a whopping 12 times!

Already they've been shutout 8 times (tied for most in baseball) and have had suffered 6 walk-off losses. Most telling is that 31 of their first 72 games have been a one-run contest! The Guardians hold a losing record in these games with a record of 14-17.

A Division Title Or Bust

Needless to say, the 2023 Cleveland Guardians have only one way to make the playoffs---winning the division title. Getting in as a wildcard seemingly is impossible at this point with potentially 7 teams competing for 3 playoff spots.

It's feasible that the division winner in the Central division will only need to win 83-85 wins. Getting a wildcard spot most likely will require a team to win 92-95 wins.

In order to reach 92 wins, Cleveland would have to go an incredible 59-32 starting this week until season's end. That's 27 games over .500!

On the other hand, to reach 85 wins, the Guardians would need to go 52-39, 13 games over .500. This is much more attainable and a possible goal for this team moving forward.

When it comes to the MLB playoffs, getting in is all that matters. Your regular season record only has clear benefit---getting home field advantage. But everyone is 0-0 when the October baseball gets underway.

Last year the Philadelphia Phillies had just 87 wins and were the 3rd wildcard team in the National League. Then proceeded to catch fire upsetting the favored Cardinals, Braves, and Padres to reach the World Series.

Ultimately the best team doesn't always win the World Series or go far in the postseason. It's the teams that get hot at the right time.

By winning the American League division title, Cleveland would possess the 3rd seed and get home field advantage in the wildcard round. So despite possessing a worst record (most likely) than all 3 wildcard teams, the Guardians would have an advantage starting postseason play.

It's Now or Never

The next three weeks for Cleveland will make or break their playoff push for a division title in the American League Central. After a rough few weeks playing quality competition such as Baltimore, Houston, Boston, San Diego, and Arizona the schedule is quite favorable up until the All-Star break.

Starting Tuesday the 20th, the Guardians play the hapless Oakland A's at home who own a MLB worst 19-56 record. This weekend they'll go up against the Milwaukee Brewers at home who are barely over .500 at 38-35 and slumping of late.

Next week begins a stretch of playing the dreadfully pathetic Kansas City Royals 7 times in 2 weeks. The Royals are just as bad as the Oakland A's with a record of 20-53. To start the month of July, the Guardians play the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field who are a subpar 35-38 in third place in the National League Central.

Their only tough opponent is the Atlanta Braves at home during July 3-5. The Braves are the best team in the National League at 47-26, 21 games over the .500 mark.

This is a stretch of 19 games. To get back to .500, Cleveland must go at least 12-7 during the next three weeks. This would give them a record of 45-45 at the All-Star break.

A slightly better 13-6 or 14-5 would propel the team to a winning record of 46-44 or 47-43; which almost certainly would put them a few games up in the standings and potentially in the driver's seat for a repeat Central division title.

Yet if the Guardians struggle to win series (with a sweep or two mixed in) then it might be a struggle to the finish line for the ballclub. Regardless, more than likely, Cleveland will be able to stay in contention in the division into September barring a complete collapse.

Awaiting Answers

There's a lot of question marks facing the ballclub in the coming weeks that need answered. These answers will determine the fate of the season.

These questions include: Is Triston McKenzie pitching again in 2023? Will Amed Rosario or Shane Bieber get traded at the deadline? Is Bo Naylor ready to make an impact on the big league team? Can the rookies in the rotation stay strong and healthy into September? Can the front office make a key move for a power hitting outfield bat?

No matter what happens, the Guardians have one huge factor in their favor---the division they play in. And because of this, the window of opportunity to make the playoffs again for the seventh time in eleventh seasons is theirs for the taking.


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