Since the AL Central has been a two-team race for the majority of the season, most of the space in this column has been occupied by coverage of the White Sox and Twins. However, despite their teams’ lack of success, there is at least one player each for Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City who has had an unexpected breakout season. In this election season, it’s important to respect the concept of equal time, so this week’s Centrally Located will be devoted to the overlooked breakthroughs of 2008.
Mike Aviles (SS/2B, Kansas City Royals)
Aviles had been buried at Triple-A for the last two seasons, and this spring all signs pointed to him spending a third year in Omaha. But between Aviles knocking the cover off the ball on the farm, Tony Pena turning in one of the worst hitting seasons since the dead ball era, and Mark Grudzielanek choosing from his annual buffet of nagging injuries, Aviles was called up at the end of May and hasn’t looked back. He’s leading American League rookies in batting average (.324) with 34 extra-base hits, including 7 home runs. His defense gets mixed reviews, but his performance at the plate has allowed Royals fans to forget Pena’s glovework. He’s a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate.
Kelly Shoppach (C, Cleveland Indians)
Shoppach’s been on the scene for a few seasons, but he’s never had regular playing time before this year. Thanks to Victor Martinez’s injury troubles, Shoppach has been given a chance to showcase his skills, and he’s made the most of it. Shoppach’s batting average (.261) won’t turn any heads, but he’s getting on base at a respectable rate (.330) and has banged 17 homers and 23 doubles, resulting in a .503 slugging percentage. That’s not production that will rival a healthy Martinez, but it gives the Indians the option of moving Martinez to first next season and put an end to the Ryan Garko Experience.
Shin-Soo Choo also warrants a mention for the Tribe. He missed the first two months of the season with an injury and hasn’t had full-time duty until recently, but when he’s in the lineup he’s been the second-best bat in the Cleveland lineup, after Grady Sizemore. Choo’s hitting .303 with 9 homers and 26 doubles in only 254 at-bats.
Armando Galarraga (RHP, Detroit Tigers)
Detroit’s pitching staff has been a mess this season, but one bright spot has been Galarraga, who’s compiled a 12-5 mark with a 3.39 ERA as a starter for the Tigers. He’s leading their rotation in wins and ERA despite starting the year at Triple-A Toledo. Dontrelle Willis went down with an injury early in the season, Galarraga was called up, and the rest, as they say, is history. Galarraga was acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers in the offseason in return for the renowned prospect Michael Hernandez. It’s too early to close the book on that trade yet, but I’d say the Tigers have the early lead. Galarraga doesn’t claim an unusual number of strikeout victims (or survivors, if you will) but he’s limited walks and homers, and that’s a recipe for success at the big league level.
Keep an eye on these players next season, as they try to prove that 2008 was no fluke. Who knows, their teams might be decent then, too.