Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Look Around the AL Central

I feel bad that I only managed three posts this week, so I figured a Saturday post was in order. We're about nine weeks into the season now, so it seems a good time to take a look at the competition surrounding the Twins in the AL Central.

Coming into the year, it appeared that the Central would be a wide-open division, which is why many Twins fans held optimism about their team's chances in spite of its significant flaws. Thus far, the division has lived up to its billing. Detroit leads the Central with a 28-25 record -- the worst record of any first-place team in baseball -- and only six games separate them from last-place Cleveland.

The Twins currently sit in second place, 1.5 games behind the Tigers. While near the top of the division, the Twins also must keep an eye on the rearview mirror, where the three other Central squads are none too far behind.

Let's take an early-June status check on the four other AL Central teams.

Detroit Tigers: 28-25 (First place)

The Tigers lead the division, but not for the reasons that one might have guessed coming into the year. Their offense, which as recently as a year ago was vaunted as one of the best in the league, has been rather pedestrian. They rank sixth in the AL in runs per game and 10th in OPS. Those figures aren't awful but they certainly aren't good enough to carry what many assumed would be a rather atrocious pitching staff.

Things is, Detroit's pitching has not been atrocious. They've actually been rather excellent. Among AL clubs, only Seattle is allowing fewer runs on average than Detroit. The Tigers' pitching staff ranks second in ERA and second in WHIP, after last year ranking third-to-last in both categories. That's a pretty incredible turnaround, particularly considering that the Tigers didn't do all that much to upgrade their pitching corps during the offseason. The improvement has come about thanks to phenomenal work of their one major offseason rotation addition -- Edwin Jackson, who is 5-3 with a 2.30 ERA -- as well as a resurgent season from Justin Verlander and a strong debut from Rick Porcello. Meanwhile, Armando Galarraga, who was essentially the only reliable starter on this staff last year, has a 5.31 ERA. Go figure.

Chicago White Sox: 25-29 (Third place)

The Sox have held their own this year in spite of seeing some regression offensively. Carlos Quentin has been dealing with some injuries, and hasn't been nearly the force he was last year when in the lineup. The Sox have gotten paltry production from all their infield positions other than first base (sound familiar?). They've struggled to find an answer in center field, although Scott Podsednik is getting the job done for now. Certainly, though, this isn't the menacing Sox lineup we've seen in the past.

As expected, the rotation has been a mixed bag. Mark Buehrle has been fantastic with a 6-2 record and 2.91 ERA, and Bartolo Colon has been surprisingly effective, but Gavin Floyd has regressed bigtime (who could've seen that coming) and Jose Contreras' attempt to come back from an Achillies injury has been disastrous.

This team looks mediocre to me. That's actually better than I expected them to be, but I don't see them as a real threat unless the Twins and Tigers both collapse.

Kansas City Royals: 23-31 (Fourth place)

The Royals got off to an excellent start this year, winning 18 of their first 29 games and clutching the division lead into mid-May. This led many pundits to become prematurely excited and gloat about how you can't sleep on the Royals, and about how this upstart group led by otherworldly ace Zack Greinke was taking the league by storm. The whole while, I stood by my position that, while young and promising, the Royals just do not have enough offensive talent to compete for a division title.

Sure enough, since winning on May 7 to improve their record to 18-11, the Royals have gone 5-20 and have sunk like a rock in the AL Central. They're currently riding an eight-game losing streak. The reason for the fall? Offense. The Royals rank second-to-last in runs scored, second-to-last in home runs and fourth-to-last in team OPS. During their current 25-game slump, the Royals have averaged less than three runs per game. With that type of performance, Greinke won't have enough miracles up his sleeve to keep them out of last place. It doesn't help that the Royals also can't find answers for the back end of their rotation -- they quickly pulled the plug on the Horacio Ramirez experiment but Kyle Davies, Sidney Ponson and Luke Hochevar haven't been meaningfully better.

There are a number of things to like about this team, particularly on the pitching side, but no hitter has an OPS over 800 and they've gotten a .209/.311/.316 hitting line from the cleanup spot. It doesn't take much to see why this team is in the dregs, and still sinking.

Cleveland Indians: 24-33 (Fifth place)

While I might have been right about the Royals, it appears I was dead wrong about the Indians, whom I picked as my division favorite back in March. Looking back, I don't even know what I liked so much about this team. I guess I figured they'd be able to cobble together a decent rotation behind Cliff Lee but that hasn't been the case. Aaron Laffey has been decent in limited duty as a starter and Carl Pavano has been OK after a rough start to the season, but the rest of the this team's starters have been abysmal. No pitcher outside of those three who has made a start for this team has an ERA lower than 6.16. Fausto Carmona, who I expected to have a bounce-back year (and drafted on two fantasy teams), has been a mess and was demoted to rookie ball after being pounded by the Twins on Thursday. Kerry Wood has been let-down in the closer role and as a whole the Cleveland bullpen ranks 12th in the AL with a 4.93 ERA. In spite of Mark Shapiro's efforts to upgrade that unit during the offseason, it continues to be a huge liability.

Offensively, the Indians have been decent, so if they can get their pitching on track they have a chance to make a bit of a run, but up to this point they have been very, very bad. If they're out of first place by double-digits in July we'll undoubtedly be hearing a lot of Cliff Lee rumors.

10 comments:

WWCD said...

And the recap on the Twins is:

Twins 28-28 Second Place

Playing like a 500 team. Surprising power led by the J-Team (Joe, Justin and Jason). Starting pitching below expectations. With no relief help obtained the season will go in the tank as soon as Guerrier tires out again.

Nick N. said...

Thanks, I thought I'd leave that one up to someone else. :)

Schruender said...

I think a lot of people just assumed Carmona was an ace. It's just not the case at all. He was really quite lucky to be good in 2007.

I think the Twins are the best team in this division. The Tigers pitching won't continue to do what they've done. I'm talking specifically about Edwin Jackson. Rick Porcello is struggling as I type. The Twins have guys that are just starting to peak whom the stats don't really recognize. Baker looks great again and Liriano didn't come around until this time last season.

Anonymous said...

Detroit's upgrade to their pitching during the offseason was not so much in a pitcher but in a new pitching coach who has made all of them better. Where the heck did they get that guy?

David said...

The Twins are world-beaters at home, not so good on the road. If the Twins could elevate their road record to .500 the rest of the way out, they will win the division.

I'm not worried about the bullpen any more. Dickey has taken over the long-relief role so well, he might be given a few chances to start. Did you see his stats last night? His ERA in May was under 2.00, and he hasn't given up an earned run in June. Even though we lost on Sunday, it was a lot of fun watching the aggressive Seattle hitters tie them selves up in knots trying to hit the knuckleball.
The Twins have to get more hits with runners on base. The two runs we scored on Sunday came home on outs.

Nick N. said...

I'm willing to admit I might have been wrong about Dickey. I was upset the Twins risked losing Humber so they could keep him in on the roster, but now that Dickey is being used properly (i.e., actually in mop-up situations), he's been quite effective.

DK said...

Dickey's FIP is still fairly high at 5.19, because he still doesn't strike out enough batters to make up for the batters he walks/hits. As solely a mop-up guy he's been fortunate to enter a lot of situations without baserunners; he's allowed 10 of his 13 inherited runners to score, which doesn't show up in his ERA. Once Gardy starts putting him in higher leverage situations (which I have no doubt will happen) these problems will resurface.

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