Who will win the AL Central? Rival execs handicap the three-team race

With less than a month to go in the regular season, there is plenty of MLB playoff intrigue to go around. Will the New York Mets hold on in the NL East? Will the New York Yankees continue their slide in the AL East? Who will have home-field advantage among a tight group of wild-card contenders? But those questions all involve teams that are all likely to reach the postseason no matter how the final month shakes out.

That is not the case in the AL Central.

Baseball's worst division will send someone to the playoffs -- likely with the worst record among all postseason participants. And it's nearly a guarantee that whomever of the Cleveland Guardians, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins makes it will be the only one from the division playing playoff baseball in October.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the three have been separated by three games or less for 65 days this season and have been within six games of each other for 143 days.

In a poll of 14 executives and scouts this week, ESPN asked who is most likely to win the division and why.

Guardians: 7

White Sox: 5

Twins: 2

Cleveland Guardians

Games remaining: 27 (18 home, 9 away)

Win % of remaining opponents: .488

Odds to win division (from ESPN's Bradford Doolittle): 57%

Why they'll make it: Respondents were pretty simple in their reasoning: Cleveland is currently in first place with less than 30 games left to play. The other two teams have to catch the Guardians. Plus, that remaining home/road split is quite large and includes a six-game home series against the Royals to conclude the season while the White Sox and Twins finish playing against each other.

Why they'll come up short: The Guardians suffered two big blows to their starting staff when Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale were placed on the injured list, and the team actually has the toughest strength of schedule among the three teams. That schedule includes a brutal stretch beginning Friday night in Minnesota in which the Guardians will play 18 games in 17 days.

What executives and scouts say: "They are close enough [to the finish] that I'd go with Cleveland because they have the lead. But I could tell a story supporting any of them."

"I have Cleveland winning that division because I believe in their young pitching and think Jose Ramirez is the most impactful position player in that division."

"With this few games left, even a one-game advantage is pretty huge. Also, good karma for finally switching names."

Chicago White Sox

Game remaining: 24 (11 home, 13 away)

Win % of remaining opponents: .471

Odds to win division: 17%

Why they'll make it: Not only is the White Sox's remaining strength of schedule the easiest among the three teams, it's also the second easiest in all of baseball. And it's spaced out in a way that gives Chicago the next three Mondays off to reset each week. Lance Lynn finally appears to be in midseason form, the White Sox are likely to get Tim Anderson back from a hand injury soon and the addition of Elvis Andrus -- signed only because of injuries -- has provided a needed spark.

Why they'll come up short: Have you watched the White Sox for five months? Every single time the White Sox take a step forward, they follow it by taking one back. And despite that weak remaining schedule, their final nine games include playing in Minnesota for three then flying to San Diego and finishing with three more against the Twins -- without a day off.

What executives and scouts say: "It's pretty simple for me; they're just way more talented than the other teams."

"On paper, their starting staff is easily the best of the three. That should be the difference-maker."

"I can't pick the team that has been in first place the least among the three all season. There's a reason for that."

Minnesota Twins

Games remaining: 26 (14 road, 12 home)

Win % of remaining opponents: .487

Odds to win division: 26%

Why they'll make it: The Twins control their own fate with 14 of their 26 remaining games against the White Sox and Guardians. If they win their series against those teams, they'll win the division. Each team has injured players they are hoping to return, but no other player's return could determine the race than Byron Buxton's would. If he comes back, he could single-handedly give Minnesota a late September boost that puts the Twins over the top.

Why they'll come up short: It starts with Buxton. A hip injury has sidelined him indefinitely and the Twins look fairly pedestrian at the plate without their star center fielder. With Buxton in the starting lineup this season, Minnesota is 47-39 with a .735 team OPS. Without him, they're just 22-28 with a .705 team OPS. And it's not just Buxton: Minnesota currently has 16 players on the IL -- including starting pitcher Tyler Mahle while fellow starter Sonny Gray left his last start with a hamstring injury -- so there's a chance we could see the Twins struggle to get to the finish line in this three-team race.

What executives and scouts say: "Remember, when Minnesota was rolling, it was Luis Arraez and Buxton carrying them. If Buxton can come back, there's no reason that can't happen again."

"I thought midsummer, it was their division. Cleveland is very young and the White Sox have never gotten going. Now? I'm not so sure. Tell me Buxton comes back and gets hot and I'll tell you they might win it. Otherwise, I have my doubts."