With almost 25% of the season in the books, the AL Central is living up to its billing as the top division in baseball. Detroit and Cleveland have performed up to their pre-season touting, as they have been right behind Boston for the best team in MLB honors. I’m not surprised how they have started, but let me mention why I think these 2 teams will come back to the pack a bit over the next few months.
The 2006 Tigers were compared often to the 2005 White Sox. While I can see the reason for the comparison, the 2005 White Sox were a superior team. Here are the reasons why.
Sox won 99 games. (Tigers won 95)
Sox were AL Central champs. (Tigers were wildcard, game behind Twins.)
Sox lost just one playoff game and swept the World Series. (Tigers lost to 83-79 Cards)
I do believe the 2007 Tigers are more similar to the 2006 White Sox, though. This season the Tigers' offense will be better than their previous year, much like what happened with the 2006.White Sox. I suspect this improvement will keep the Tigers in contention, but they will trail off in the second half, as their starting pitchers will show the wear and tear of last year's long season. (See the second half of 2006 White Sox starting pitchers for what I'm talking about.) Oh and losing Zamaya will hurt them as well, as I think their bullpen now rates behind the Twins and White Sox.
The Indians are the best team in the division and finally have showed the ability to actually win a few one-run games. What many are forgetting is that they have the worst closer in baseball and no one on the roster who looks to be able to the job much better. Considering the far superior bullpens their AL Central competitors possess, the Indians will go back to losing games at the end. (See today’s latest Borowski in Oakland). The brutal schedule that they have facing them the rest of the year because of the early season freeze-outs, will tax them their pitching staff even more. On paper they are the best team, but the Indians are playing an uphill schedule the rest of the year and unless they can find a competent closer, they are on shaky ground.
The Twins have really been scuffling around the past month, as allowing Sidney Ponson take the mound for 7 games potentially cost them a couple of wins they are going to need at the end of the year. While they have some great young arms in the minors, there is no one to plug in who will provide an automatic win, like Liriano did in 2006. The best the Twins will see out of Ramon Ortiz and Carlos Silva was what they have so far accomplished. SWOBODA sees them at the end of the season with an ERA more than a run higher than where they are at, currently. The Twins is the best in baseball, but unless Joe Mauer comes back and duplicates what he did in 2006, I think they will struggle to win 90.
Something strange is going on in Chicago, as US Cellular Field has been playing like PETCO. In the first 15 home games, there have been a total of only 111 runs scored. With Jim Thome and Scott Podsednik out of the lineup, the leading hitter for the White Sox has been Darin Erstad batting a robust .250. Take a look at three of their top hitters OPS plummet, with last season in parenthesis.
Paul Konerko OPS .626 (.932
Jermaine Dye OPS .656 (.1006)
Joe Crede OPS .552 (.882)
It is amazing that the White Sox could be the worst hitting team in baseball and still have a winning record. What in the name of PECOTA could be happening? The starting pitching has been sensational. Garland, Buerhle, Contreas, and Vasquez seem to provide a quality start almost every time they hit the mound. (The 4 of them have an ERA between 3.44 and 3.86.) Fifth starter John Danks seems to be Rangers GM Jon Daniels latest trading blunder, as he has a higher ceiling than Brandon McCarthy, who is poorly-equipped to deal with homer happy parks like US Cellular or Ameriquest Field.
No change here from the Juice Blog pre-season preview.
I think the top 3 will win close to 90, with the Twins trailing behind by a few games. The amount of close games will favor the best pitching staff, which I give the advantage to the White Sox. SWOBODA sees at least one more Tiger pitcher going down to injury, which they can't afford after losing Rogers and Zamaya. The wild card in the whole battle will be if the Indians can find a real closer.