Does Anybody Want to Win the AL Central?

Before the 2012 season, nearly every baseball analyst, including yours truly, picked the  Detroit Tigers to absolutely dominate what looked to be a weak division. Well half of that prediction has come true thus far, because the AL Central has indeed been the weakest division in baseball. In fact its been so bad its time to dust off the old nickname, the Comedy Central. Currently the slumping White Sox hold a slim half game lead over the win-a-game-lose-a-game Indians, and a 2.5 game lead over the struggling Tigers. If baseball abolished divisions and moved all teams into one league, no AL Central team would rank among the top 5 in the American League. So does anyone really want to win this thing? Let’s take a look to see which team has the best chance, starting with those White Sox.

Chicago White Sox

After an excellent May, which saw the White Sox post a robust 18-11 record, they have fallen back again, starting June by going 6-10. The team’s success in May was probably more of a mirage rather than an actual indicator of their true talent level, but June’s slump may be a mirage as well. Chicago’s true talent level probably lies somewhere in between.

On the plus side, Paul Konerko has been a legitimate MVP candidate, ranking 1st in the AL in batting average (.366), 1st in OBP (.434), 1st in OPS+ (176), and 3rd in oWAR. Along with a productive AJ Pierzynski (.286 with 12 homers) and a resurgent Adam Dunn, who leads the AL in homers with 23 despite a low .227 average, the White Sox offense has been the 6th best in baseball so far. The White Sox need to shore up their left side of the infield, because Alexi Ramirez has been the worst hitting shortstop in the league, and the Brett Morel/Orlando Hudson 3rd base combo just won’t cut it.

They could also use some pitching reinforcements, because outside of Chris Sale (2.46 ERA and 9.2 K/9) and Jake Peavy (2.94 ERA), Chicago starters have been awful, and the bullpen hasn’t been much better either. Gavin Floyd and John Danks, normally two reliable mid-rotation pitchers, have struggled posting 5.63 and 5.70 ERAs respectively. Phil Humber (the same Humber with a perfect game this season) has been even worse posting a 6.01 ERA while struggling with his control.

While teams in the past have been able to scrap by with a top heavy rotation (the early 2000s Diamondbacks are the best example), its not recommended for teams that truly want to contend. Those Diamondback teams had 2 separate pitchers strikeout over 300 batters, and these White Sox may not have a pitcher who can get within a hundred of that total. Unless the White Sox decide to make a move, their a .500 team at best, because the bottom of their rotation is going to hold them back.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians at 34-32, have been either the smartest team in baseball or the luckiest, because they have played 5 games better than their pythagorean record (29-37), which is based on runs scored/allowed. Cleveland’s been outscored by a wide margin this year, 39 runs, which is a huge red flag for a contender. The Indians have been able to accomplish this by going 11-2 in 1 run games despite having the 3rd worst bullpen ERA (4.48) in baseball. Something has to give, and I’m betting that Cleveland’s luck runs out sometime over the next month.

Cleveland does do an excellent job of squeezing every possible run out of a depleted lineup. They lead the American League in steals and rank 2nd in walks, which allows them to scrap together enough runs to win games, despite ranking in the bottom 1/3 of the league in total bases. Jason Kipnis has been the team’s catalyst, swiping 17 bags in 18 attempts and playing excellent defense, while also leading the team with 11 homers. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is again playing at an All-Star level, showing last season was no fluke, hitting .299/.389/.464. The rest of the offense, particularly Casey Kotchmann at 1st base has struggled, and left Cleveland ranking in the middle of the pack offensively.

On the mound, its a wonder the team is competitive, because none of the 5 most used starting pitchers have ERAs under 4.30. In fact, Cleveland ranks 2nd to last in the AL in staff ERA, a bad sign for a team looking to remain in the playoff hunt. They strikeout batters at a poor rate (12th in the AL), walk too many hitters (2nd most in the AL), and allow too many hits (2nd most in the AL). The only two things this pitching staff does well is prevent homers and rack up saves, both of which are somewhat arbitrary in the long run. This team is the exact definition of a paper tiger, and when the competition turns up a notch, expect the Indians to slink back in the standings.

Detroit Tigers

No team was more heavily favored to win its division before the season began than the Tigers, who have disappointed mightily after adding Prince Fielder in the offseason. Prince hasn’t been the problem for the 32-34 Tigers, hitting .315/.392/.504 while popping off 10 homers in his new league. The real issue has been the pitching staff which ranks 22nd in baseball in runs prevention.

Justin Verlander is having another phenomenal season, leading everybody in strikeouts and innings pitched. He’s one of only two starters this season (CC Sabathia is the other) to throw at least 100 pitches in every start, and through shear force of will has kept the Tigers’ staff afloat this season. Injuries have been an issue which has prevented Detroit from getting more innings out of its best arms. Doug Fister has been excellent when he hasn’t been on the DL, which has been far too often, and even Drew Smyly was pitching at a league average rate before he had to make a trip to the list with arm soreness.

Because of these injuries, Detroit has been stuck giving important innings to scrubs like Casey Crosby and his 9.49 ERA and Adam Wilk, who has a 8.18 ERA, who each have made 3 starts. Two rotation mainstays, Rick Porcello, who can’t get anyone out, and Max Scherzer, who has control issues, each have ERAs topping 5.00 and have made a combined 27 starts. Add all that up, and in exactly half of their games the Tigers have essentially started with a 4-5 run deficit, which is taxing even on an offense with Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.

Detroit has been a notoriously slow starting team over the past 4-5 seasons, and 2012 may just be more of the same. The Tigers are normally an aggressive team at the trade deadline, and will probably want to shore up their rotation weaknesses by that point. If Detroit can make a savvy deadline deal like they did for Fister last season, and if their pitching can get healthy, they are still the division favorites.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals have had a very odd season this year, and they appear to actually be better than their record suggests. They have an impressive 18-16 record on the road, a sign that the team is maturing and learning how to win. But even more maddening is their 11-20 home record, worst in the Major Leagues, a sign that the team needs to learn to defend its home turf. Kansas City is still well within striking distance, only 5 games out of 1st place, and its not outside the realm of possibility that they can put a nice run together and get to the top of the Central, especially if Eric Hosmer starts hitting.

Hosmer has had a difficult sophomore campaign after finishing 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2011, but he is showing some positive signs of development. Hosmer has improved his pitch selection, dropping his K/BB rate from 2.41 a year ago to a near-elite 1.38 this season. He’s also been plagued by a bit of bad luck, posting only a .222 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is over 70 points below the league average. He’s hit better over the last month raising his batting average over 30 points. If he continues to improve his play and has one hot month the Royals offense will really be humming, because Billy Butler (.298/.364/.500 with 12 homers) has developed into a force, and Mike Moustakas (.278/.347/.476 with great defense) is quietly becoming one of the game’s elite 3rd basemen.

The Royals big issue however is their rotation, which has really struggled this season. The Royals pen ranks 7th in baseball in team ERA which is excellent, but the starters rank 28th, posting an abysmal 4.97 ERA as a unit. It may be time to give up on former #1 pick Luke Hochevar, who has been bombed this season to the tune of a 6.27 ERA, while allowing 115 base runners in just 70.2 innings. His stuff, an average fastball and a mediocre curve, just don’t seem to be good enough to cut it in a Major League rotation. Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez have also been lit up and both have ERAs topping 5.00.

If the Royals continue to hang around like they are now, and if their front office is feeling a little ballsy, they may be inclined to trade for some pitching help. The Royals have plenty of chips to trade if they want to make a move, possessing one of the elite farm systems in all of baseball.

Minnesota Twins

While I don’t like entirely dismissing the Twins’ chances, I will for one big reason: they rank dead last in the American League in nearly every pitching category (ERA, hits allowed, runs allowed, homeruns allowed, and strikeouts). No Major League team has ever competed with a rotation as pathetic as the one in Minnesota, where 4 of the 6 most used starting pitchers have ERAs topping 6.00. Scott Diamond has been excellent in his 8 starts, posting a robust 2.13 ERA, but unless the Twins can find 2 or 3 more Diamond’s in the rough they aren’t going anywhere this year. Minnesota should be focused on trading away any usable pieces for high-upside prospects.

I still think that the Detroit Tigers are the favorites in the division, with the White Sox and Royals as their best competition for the AL Central’s playoff spot. I think that the Tigers will probably make a move to shore up their leaky bullpen, which will probably be the difference in a division where the winner will only have to finish with 85 or so wins to take the crown.

It’s a shame that baseball has divisions and doesn’t just take the best 4-5 teams per league, because its almost unfair that one of these franchises not only makes the playoffs, but will be given a better opportunity to win the World Series than either of the AL Wild Card teams.

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