Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What's Going on in the AL Central?

Sizemore's return has been a 
huge spark for the 19-8 Indians
Back in the mid-2000s, the American League Central seemed like a pretty hot division. The Twins were fresh off three straight playoff appearances, behind the amazing arm of Johan Santana and the bat of Torii Hunter. The White Sox won 90+ games in 2005 and 2006, including a World Series title in '05. The Tigers won only 71 games in '05 by made the World Series in '06, while the Indians won 90+ games in '05 and '07, making it to the ALCS in 2007. Lately, however, the AL Central has taken a backseat to the power race in the American League East and the amazing pitching staffs out in the AL West--the division-winning Twins got swept out of the playoffs the last two seasons, and no AL Central team has won a playoff series since those 2007 Indians. This year, more of the same was expected--the Royals were a year or two away from contending, the Indians were an unknown quantity with Grady Sizemore (see right) returning from injury, while the Twins were expected to win the division behind the arm of Francisco Liriano and the bats of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. However, a month into the season, the standings are straight out of the Twilight Zone: the Indians have the best record in baseball at 19-8, followed by the Royals at 15-13. Behind Kansas City is Detroit (12-17), Chicago (11-19), and the Twins (9-18). Let's take a look at each team and see why they are where they are, and if they can keep it up.

5. Minnesota Twins (9-18, 10 GB)
What's gone right: When your two star players miss time because of viral infections and the flu, you can tell it's not going to be a very good month. Luckily for Minnesota Twins fans, they get to watch their team lose in the brand-new Target Field...although why Minnesota would build an outdoor stadium in one of the coldest cities in the country makes no sense to me--summer sport or not, it's not warm in October in Minneapolis. Scott Baker (1-2, 3.16 ERA) and Brian Duensing (2-1, 2.91 ERA) have been solid, as has right fielder Jason Kubel (.354/.406/.510), whose .300 average two years ago suggest this might not be as much of a fluke as it seems for a .274 career hitter.

What's gone wrong: Did you read the part about "two star players missing time with viral infections/the flu?" Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer have played in a combined 31 out of 54 possible games, not that they've been playing well. Morneau is hitting .225/.287/.338 with an OPS+ of 74, well below league average. Former pitching wunderkind Francisco Liriano is 1-4 with a 9.13 ERA and 1.90 WHIP, and that amazing rookie season he had back in 2006 (12-3, 2.16) is now the exception rather than the rule for his career. In addition, future Hall-of-Famer Jim Thome is now 40 years old, and is hitting just .214 as retirement looms larger and larger. Oh, and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka is on the DL with a broken leg, not that his .208 start was really helping out the team.

Future Outlook: Unless Morneau, 30, and Mauer, 28, have fallen out of their primes 3-5 years before most players do, then the outlook in Minnesota is much better than the first part of the season has gone. Carl Pavano will most likely improve on his 5.84 ERA, though I'm not so sure that Liriano's professional career will last much longer if he keeps pitching as he is. He's walked as many batters as he has struck out, and at 27 he's too old to go back to the minors and completely re-tool his pitching arsenal.

4. Chicago White Sox (11-19, 9.5 GB)
What's gone right: Looking up and down the White Sox stat sheet, it's tough to say that anything is going really well down on the South Side. Paul Konerko is having another solid season a 35 years old, hitting .304 with eight homers and 24 RBIs while playing in all but one game for the White Sox. Konerko (146) and Carlos Quentin (154) are the only starters with OPS+s over 100, with shortstop Alexi Ramirez the only other regular with an OPS+ above 90. Closer Sergio Santos hasn't allowed a run in 13 innings over 11 appearances, but he only has 3 saves

What's gone wrong: Adam Dunn is playing like a $56-million mistake so far, hitting just .165 with an OPS+ of 68 and a WAR of -0.3 already, which is not a good sign from your big offseason acquisition. He's not the only White Sox struggling--3B Brent Morel has an OPS+ of 25, which is just atrocious, and Alex Rios is only putting up a OPS+ of 39 in centerfield. The rotation hasn't been stellar either, with John Danks' 0-4, 3.98 ERA easily the best line of any of the men starting games for Chicago. Mark Buehrle has been average at best, putting up a 4.37 ERA and 1.41 WHIP while going 2-3, while Gavin Floyd has a 4.39 ERA (though his WHIP is much better, at 1.15).

Future Outlook: Adam Dunn is a career .250 hitter, so I'm not really sure why the White Sox felt it necessary to put nearly $60 million into a player whose bat speed will only be getting slower over the next few years. Edwin Jackson does have a no-hitter to hang his hat on, but the 8 walks and 149 pitches it took him last season might mean he threw the luckiest no-hitter in baseball history. Unfortunately for Chicago fans, it looks like they spent their money in all the wrong places--and that's going to cost them both this season and into the future. Gordon Beckham won't be able to leave soon enough.

3. Detroit Tigers (12-17, 8 GB)
What's gone right: Miguel Cabrera has continued to be Miguel Cabrera, putting up 36 hits in his first 29 games for a .350 batting average, along with seven long balls and 21 RBIs. Catcher Alex Avila (.309/.344/.593) and outfielder Brennan Boesch (.300/.368/.420) are also playing well, but they're the only three regulars in the lineup with OPS+s over 100, which is the league average. Ace Justin Verlander is just 2-3 despite a 3.75 ERA/1.15 WHIP, which could be the standard all year if that lineup fails to produce.

What's gone wrong: Well, when 2/3 of your lineup is under the league average in OPS+, that's a serious issue. Besides Boesch, the rest of the outfield has been offensively atrocious between Austin Jackson (.188/.260/.259) and Ryan Raburn (.243/.286/.427). Magglio Ordonez looks over-the-hill at 37 years old, hitting .151 despite not having to play the field. Brad Penny, who went 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA just four years ago is now 1-3 with a 6.11 ERA despite a 7-inning, 0-run performance against Chicago last week.

Future Outlook: Max Scherzer (3-0, 3.82 ERA) is a talented pitcher who, at 26 years old, is just entering his prime. Scherzer and Verlander make a strong 1-2 punch in the rotation, but they really need Penny to be a number 3. If he can settle down, the rotation is actually not too shabby. Cabrera isn't doing anything considered out of the ordinary for him, though Avila is well above his .237 career average (though he in his first full year as a starter). The Tigers need to start getting contributions from either Brandon Inge, Austin Jackson, or Will Rhymes--as well as have Penny settle down-- in order to be competitive. They will improve over the course of the year, but not enough to make a run at a division title.

2. Kansas City Royals (15-13, 4.5 GB)
What's gone right: At the beginning of the year, it was assumed that Kansas City would basically bide its time until they could trade away Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera to contenders in order to call up the talented youngsters they have waiting in the minors. Instead, Cabrera and Francoeur have been two major reasons the Royals still have a winning record, with Melky hitting .283 with 14 RBIs and Francoeur at .308/.350/.579 with six homers and 21 runs batted in. Alex Gordon (.339/.395/.545) is finally living up to expectations, but the number-two overall pick in 2005 still has a career batting average of .251 in 1554 career ABs.

What's gone wrong: The pitching in Kansas City is a huge mess, as the Royals have let up the 4th-most runs in the American League. 27-year-old "ace" Luke Hochevar is just 3-3 with a 5.48 ERA despite a not-that-atrocious 1.24 WHIP, and Jeff Francis has seen his ERA rocket from 2.61 to 5.03 over his last three starts, all losses. The offense has obviously been much more productive, but the bat of Kila Ka'aihue (.203 BA, 6 RBIs) is a concern--though his average has been inching up from the .160 range in the last week.

Future Outlook: This is a tough one to call because of all the unknowns. The emergence of Alex Gordon is certainly a great sign long-term for the Royals, but it's unclear how much Cabrera and Francoeur will be able to contribute beyond one year. They're not exactly in a position to re-establish their careers; instead, they're using Kansas City as a one-year audition to show other teams that they can still be viable starting outfielders. The starting pitchers are going to continue to be a problem, and that doesn't bode well. Lots to look forward to in KC, but this year won't be it. Still, learning how to be competitive and win games is a great thing for a young team.

1. Cleveland Indians (19-8, -- GB)
What's gone right: Hey, remember Grady Sizemore? Remember how he used to be really good? Yeah, well, he's back from injury--and he remembers. In his first 12 games back from microfracture surgery, the 28-year-old is hitting .340/.389/.740 with four home runs and nine RBIs, a great sign for any Cleveland fan. In addition, two members of the starting rotation have been on an absolute tear: Justin Masterson (5-0, 2.25 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (4-0, 2.45) have combined to allow just 55 hits and 21 walks in 77 innings (1.04 WHIP), winning 9 of their 11 starts with an average gamescore of 60.1

What's gone wrong: Not nearly as much as has gone right. The major red flag early in the season is the play of catcher/famous rock guitarist Carlos Santana. The 25-year-old backstop is hitting only .191 through his first 89 at-bats, though he does have 17 RBIs with just 17 hits, as well as 18 walks. In addition, Fausto Carmona is only 2-3 with a 5.15 ERA a year after posting a 3.77 ERA--still, he has not been the same pitcher since his 19-8, 3.06 season back in 2006.

Future Outlook: Sizemore has a career line of .273/.363/.481, with slightly better numbers in his pre-injury years of 2006 and 2007. He's always had talent, however, so a healthy 28-year-old should be having one of the best seasons of his career, even coming off microfracture surgery. The question is whether Masterson and Tomlin can keep it up, as the two had a combined career record of 24-32 with an ERA well over 4.20 coming into the season. If they can, and if Cleveland can get continued contributions from Michael Brantley (.309/.394/.394) and Asdrubal Cabrera (5 HRs, 17 RBIs), then there's no reason that Cleveland can't make the playoffs. Still, some amount of a dropoff is highly likely.

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