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Cleveland Guardians players celebrate winning the American League Central in the locker room after defeating the Texas Rangers in a baseball game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Gareth Patterson)

The Mahoning Valley Scrappers now play in a summer collegiate league in a town called Niles, Ohio, just over an hour’s drive from Cleveland. But back in 2017, when they were a minor-league affiliate of Cleveland, the Scrappers played in the Class-A short-season New York Penn League. Luke Carlin, a catcher who played a total of 56 games in the big leagues, most of those with the Padres, was the manager.

The Scrappers won the Pinckney Division with a 44-29 record before falling in the playoffs to the Vermont Lake Monsters. The oldest player on the roster was 23 years old. Most everybody else ranged from 19 to 21 years old.

Well, those kids grew up. And when the Cleveland Guardians, the youngest team in the major leagues, clinched the American League Central title on Sunday, a remarkable nine players from that Scrappers squad were contributing members of these improbable division winners, most notably starting pitcher Zach Plesac, outfielder Oscar Gonzalez, and relievers Eli Morgan, Sam Hentges, James Karinchak and Kirk McCarty.

AL Rookie of the Year contender Steven Kwan was a Scrapper the following season, so this core group has essentially grown up together, forming a bond made up of confidence and mutual trust that has proven to be a key part of this team’s improbable success.

“It often gets overlooked, but the job our minor-league staff has done in preparing our younger players to come up and succeed (is incredible),” Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told Cleveland.com during the team’s raucous celebration Sunday.

Of the 10 MLB clubs with the highest payrolls, eight would be playoff-bound if the season ended today. Four of the six likely division winners have payrolls eclipsing $200 million, led by the New York Mets, who are a million shy short of $300 million. The St. Louis Cardinals, who are close to clinching the National League Central title, rank 15th at $170 million, which is still nearly double the payroll of the Guardians, who at $90.2 million rank 27th in the majors.

If you’re going to do it on the cheap, you’d better have exceptional scouting and player development people. That is clearly the case with Cleveland, as Antonetti has masterfully avoided the kind of painful rebuilds that other teams (Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs) were willing to undergo in order to return to contention.

Lightly regarded entering this season, the Guardians were given little chance to compete with the Chicago White Sox, who were heavily favored to win the AL Central, and the Minnesota Twins, who added the top position player in free agency in shortstop Carlos Correa. But with the division still up for grabs, Cleveland crushed the competition, first taking out the Twins by winning seven of eight head-to-head meetings over successive weekends, then rolling into Chicago to kill any hope the White Sox had by beating them three straight at Guaranteed Rate Field.

The Guardians are on an 18-3 tear as they prepare for their first-round playoff opponent, which would be the Seattle Mariners if the current standings hold.

Cleveland’s headliners have all had great years — slugging third baseman José Ramírez, the face of the franchise who elected on the last day of spring training to sign an extension that gave the entire organization a lift; All-Star second baseman Andres Gimenez, the prize the Guardians extracted from the Mets when they traded Francisco Lindor; and closer Emmanuel Clase and his 102 mile-an-hour fastball.

And manager Terry Francona just further burnished his Hall of Fame credentials with the job he’s done in never allowing this team to believe it was overmatched. Cleveland will be going to the postseason for the sixth time in Francona’s 10 seasons as manager, four times as division winners.

“We don’t look at ourselves as underdogs,” catcher Austin Hedges, who turned 30 in August making him a member of the AARP in this crowd, told The Athletic. “But I know everybody else thought we were. And I don’t blame them. We’re young. Who would have thought? But we believed in ourselves, and we’re going to continue to shock the world.”

Our MLB Power Rankings voters bumped the Guardians up from 12th to No. 7 this week. Let’s take a look at the rest of the rankings.

MLB Power Rankings

Rankings are determined by staff vote

Records and statistics are through Sept. 25

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (106-47, Last week: 1): They’ve made 106-win seasons a routine in Chavez Ravine, but having to replace your closer days before the playoffs, as the Dodgers have done with Craig Kimbrel, exposes a vulnerability that bears watching in October.

2. Houston Astros (101-53, LW: 2): Justin Verlander probably will win the AL Cy Young Award, but don’t sleep on Astros left-hander Framber Valdez. His first 25 starts of the season were all quality starts (3 ER or fewer, 6 IP or more) for a major-league record. That streak was broken Saturday by the Orioles, but Valdez is a key component in a starting rotation that can go seven deep.

3. New York Mets (97-57, LW: 3): It took a year, but Francisco Lindor has been everything the Mets thought they were getting when they signed him to a 10-year, $341 million contract extension. He’s having a great second half (.315/.380/.492/.871).

4. Atlanta Braves (95-58, LW: 4): Losing rookie pitching sensation Spencer Strider to an oblique muscle injury has made the Braves’ task of repeating as World Series champions exponentially more difficult. They say he’ll be back for the first round of the playoffs, but obliques are notoriously unpredictable. It would help if Matt Olson could emerge from the worst slump of his career, a month-long dive in which he is 9-for-98 (.102) with one home run, five RBIs, 31 strikeouts and nine walks in his last 25 games.

5. New York Yankees (94-58, LW: 6): General manager Brian Cashman caught a lot of heat after trading starter Jordan Montgomery to St. Louis, where he got off to a hot start. However, the left-hander has hit a plateau, and Harrison Bader has become the everyday center fielder in New York since finally debuting last week after being sidelined with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Bader’s arrival has allowed the Yanks to move Aaron Judge back to right field.

6. St. Louis Cardinals (89-65, LW: 5): While St. Louis has been celebrating the achievements of the rejuvenated Albert Pujols, who hit his 700th home run last Friday, fellow graybeard Adam Wainwright has struggled since turning 41 on Aug. 30. In five September starts, Wainwright has a 6.38 ERA with as many walks (nine) as strikeouts. Said the right-hander: “This team needs me to pitch well if we’re going to win the World Series. I really need to be a part of it. I’m frustrated.”

7. Cleveland Guardians (86-67, LW: 12): Their run to the AL Central crown ranks as one of this season’s best stories (see above).

8. Toronto Blue Jays (86-67, LW: 7): The Jays managed to win the last two games of their four-game set with Tampa Bay, leaving them with a two-game cushion for home-field advantage in their potential wild-card matchup with nine games left to play. Based on history, staying out of the Trop would seem to be a matter of urgency for Toronto, which is 86-130 (.398) when playing under the big top in St. Petersburg.

9. San Diego Padres (85-68, LW: 10): Juan Soto has finally had a Juan Soto-like week as the Padres push for their second postseason appearance since 2006. Soto went 11-for-26 (.423) with seven walks and five extra-base hits, including two home runs.

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San Diego Padres' Juan Soto grounds out against Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Ryan Feltner in the first inning of a baseball game Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

10. Tampa Bay Rays (84-69, LW: 8): The Rays insist back-to-back bad starts by ace Shane McClanahan (three home runs against Toronto) are due to command issues and are not related to the shoulder impingement that sidelined him earlier this month.

11. Philadelphia Phillies (83-69, LW: 11): If they want to see Citizens Park again in 2022, the Phillies have to maintain their 1 1/2-game lead over Milwaukee for the National League’s final wild-card spot. Philly plays its last 10 games on the road, against the Cubs, Nationals and Astros, while the Brewers finish at home against the Cardinals, Marlins and Diamondbacks.

12. Seattle Mariners (83-69, LW: 9): They figured to be on cruise control in their quest to claim a postseason spot for the first time since 2001. Instead, they lost consensus AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez to a back injury that will keep him out down the stretch, then concluded a disastrous trip by blowing a nine-run lead and giving up an 11-spot to the lowly Royals on Sunday. “You can’t let a game like today define our season. And it won’t. We will not let that happen,” manager Scott Servais said afterward. We’ll see.

13. Milwaukee Brewers (82-71, LW: 13): The long ball has proven nightmarish for closer Taylor Rogers, who was acquired at the trade deadline from San Diego for Josh Hader. Rogers has allowed six home runs in 20 innings with the Brewers, after giving up one in 41 1/3 innings for the Padres prior to the trade. He has allowed four home runs this month alone in just 8 2/3 innings.

14. Baltimore Orioles (79-73, LW: 15): What a roller-coaster weekend in Houston for the Orioles. They shut out the mighty Astros in back-to-back games, then blew leads in the next two games and lost in extra innings, which may have been fatal to Baltimore’s long-shot postseason hopes. The O’s remain four games behind the Mariners for the final AL wild-card spot.

15. San Francisco Giants (75-78, LW: 18): Buster Posey was the Giants’ most important player for more than a decade before retiring. Now the three-time World Series champion will try to make an impact as a member of the team’s ownership group and board of directors.

16. Chicago White Sox (76-77, LW: 14): A disappointing season has turned ugly on the South Side, where the White Sox’s abject surrender to Cleveland has fans in a mutinous mood, much of their ire directed at owner Jerry Reinsdorf and players that at times have appeared shockingly indifferent. Tony La Russa won’t be back this season because of health issues, and the team’s six-game losing streak last week has all but wiped out most of the good vibes interim manager Miguel Cairo had created as a potential replacement if La Russa doesn’t return next season.

17. Minnesota Twins (74-79, LW: 16): Byron Buxton is undergoing knee surgery, ending a season in which he played in just 92 games. He was great when he played — 28 home runs in 340 at-bats, sensational defense — and the Twins were their best selves (47-39). Without him, they were 27-40. Minnesota has had other injury issues — a ridiculous 37 pitchers have been used this year — but keeping Buxton on the field remains the top priority. His right knee was an issue all season.

18. Boston Red Sox (72-80, LW: 17): J.D. Martinez told reporters he’d like to play two more years, but it won’t be for the Red Sox. The 35-year-old DH is a free agent after the season, and after a 2022 in which he has hit a career-low 12 home runs in 560 plate appearances, there has been no conversation about an extension. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Xander Bogaerts, whose run at a batting title could cost Aaron Judge a potential triple crown, will also be on the move. Bogaerts is having one of the best Septembers of his career (.353/.430/.500/.930) and will be a prime target for any team looking for an elite shortstop.

19. Arizona Diamondbacks (71-83, LW: 19): The local writers’ chapter named first baseman Christian Walker the team’s MVP. The 31-year-old has a career-high 36 home runs.

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Arizona Diamondbacks designated hitter Christian Walker (53) hits a home run during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

20. Los Angeles Angels (67-86, LW: 22): Mike Trout has a team-high 37 home runs in 407 at-bats and a 5.7 WAR entering the last week-plus of the season. Makes you wonder what those numbers would have been if he hadn’t missed 42 games.

21. Chicago Cubs (67-86, LW: 23): The Cubs have a chance to finish with a winning record for the season’s second half (32-29, .525 entering play Monday), making them a much more appealing bunch to root for than their underachieving South Side counterparts.

22. Texas Rangers (65-87, LW: 20): You take your wins where you can get them. Bubba Thompson has 17 stolen bases in his first 46 games and has a chance to become the first Ranger ever to steal 20 in his first 50 games. Meanwhile, the Rangers are headed toward another 90-loss season, their fourth since 2014.

23. Colorado Rockies (65-88, LW: 21): Tough second half for All-Star C.J. Cron, whose OPS has dropped from .902 to .648 in that time. But even though he has just eight home runs since the break after hitting 21 in the first half, Cron still has a chance to reach 30 for the season.

24. Kansas City Royals (63-90, LW: 26): Dayton Moore brought the Royals to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015, winning it all the second time, but the Royals haven’t had a winning season since. That’s why team CEO and chairman John Sherman tapped Moore’s assistant, J.J. Picollo, as Moore’s replacement. It remains to be seen if K.C. will be willing to spend more money than it did under Moore.

25. Miami Marlins (63-90, LW: 24): It’s a bit eerie that news of Don Mattingly not returning as Marlins manager next season came on the sixth anniversary of the boat crash that claimed ace pitcher Jose Fernandez. The Marlins made the postseason in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but have never come close to being the contending team Mattingly thought he would have with Fernandez leading the way in Miami. Getting Mattingly’s replacement right may well determine the shape of GM Kim Ng’s future with the Marlins.

26. Cincinnati Reds (60-93, LW: 25): Reds lefty Nick Lodolo’s 126 strikeouts in 98 1/3 innings bode well for his development, but the 6-foot-6, 24-year-old rookie will go into the books for his 18 hit batsmen, most by a Cincinnati pitcher since Rube Benton plunked 18 in 1912.

27. Detroit Tigers (60-92, LW: 27): Scott Harris pulled his name out of consideration for the Mets’ top baseball ops job last season, but after three season with the Giants, the 34-year-old Theo Epstein-Farhan Zaidi disciple embraced the chance to revive the Tigers, one of the season’s biggest disappointments. Harris was only 25 when Epstein made him the Cubs’ director of baseball operations.

28. Oakland Athletics (56-97, LW: 29): With three home games left next week, the Athletics have had 20 crowds of fewer than 5,000 fans. But incredibly, their average attendance of 9,890 is actually an increase of 1,448 per game from last season.

29. Pittsburgh Pirates (56-97, LW: 28): They have a major-league low 17 wins in the second half. They’ve also had a player sliding into third base with a cellphone falling out of his back pocket and a player taking off his glove to eat sunflower seeds in the middle of a play. You call this a rebuild?

30. Washington Nationals (53-99, LW: 30): The Nationals are excited about what they’ve seen from C.J. Abrams, the 21-year-old shortstop who was the centerpiece of the package from the Padres in the Juan Soto blockbuster deal. “I love everything he is doing,’’ manager Dave Martinez said.

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