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The AL Central Report #11

Now that we’re nearly at the quarter pole of the regular season, the flukes of April should be fading away to reveal something more concrete in the American League Central. Instead, it’s a muddled race to the middle, with only 4.5 games separating first place from fifth, and no team with a winning percentage over .530 or under .400. Any analysis based on a given team’s spot in this crapshoot could be completely irrelevant by this time next week. But hey, that’s why I’m here.

Minnesota (20–18): After winning three out of four from the Boston Red Sox this weekend — despite only outscoring them 25–22 in the series — the Twins look as solid at this point as they have all season. Here’s a weird schedule fluke for you: as of Tuesday morning, none of the Twins’ opponents from now until June 20 (Arizona) currently have a winning record. That group does include the Yankees, Tigers, Rockies and Indians, but still, everybody is at .500 or below right now. Minnesota probably lost reliever Pat Neshek for the season with a partially torn ligament in his elbow earlier this week; the best-case scenario is that he could return without surgery in September, while the other end of the hopefulness spectrum is brought to you by the letters T and J. Oh, and if you didn’t already see Michael Cuddyer’s Keystone Kops Katch on Monday night, check it out.

Cleveland (20–19): In Monday’s doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays, starting pitchers Fausto Carmona and Cliff Lee combined for 18 shutout innings, but only Carmona claimed a victory. Lee left after nine innings and 117 pitches in a scoreless tie, and Rafael Betancourt quickly gave up 3 runs in the 10th to facilitate a Blue Jays win. Lee lowered his ERA to 0.67, which we already covered last week, while Betancourt’s Joe Borowski impression continued to be a little too spot-on for most Indians fans. Since Borowski went on the DL on April 15, Betancourt has given up at least one run in 4 of his 10 appearances, and has two losses and one blown save. After Monday night’s fiasco, his ERA is 6.89. Despite otherwise excellent pitching (with the exception of C.C. Sabathia’s April), the Indians are scuffling due to their unexpectedly poor offense — they are hitting .236 as a team (last in the AL) and have scored only 4.3 runs per game (11th).

Chicago (18–20): The Sox had dropped six games in a row through last Monday, May 5, a crisis which required blow-up dolls in the clubhouse (insert Ozzie and the Real Doll joke here). Ozzie’s crew responded to that motivational ploy by winning their next two series, against the Twins and Mariners, so who knows what the remedy will be for their next slump. Other than Mark Buehrle (1–5, 5.81 ERA), their rotation has been great, with John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras all sporting ERA’s between 2.74 and 3.66. New left fielder Carlos Quentin has been spearheading the offense, and looks poised for a breakout season if he stays healthy. So why aren’t they winning more games? The most obvious reason is that half their team isn’t hitting: four regulars (Jim Thome, Nick Swisher, Paul Konerko, Orlando Cabrera and Juan Uribe) are hitting .230 or lower. At least Thome (.350 OBP), Swisher (.331), and Konerko (.338) are still getting on base at an acceptable rate while their bats warm up. Chicago, as usual, has the pieces in place to contend, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up stuck around the .500 mark most of the season.

Kansas City (17-21): The Royals’ situation is pretty simple, and not likely to change anytime soon: their pitching and defense are decent, and their offense is bad. On the pitching side, Zack Greinke has been phenomenal so far, charging to a 4–1 start with a 1.93 ERA. In the bullpen, Joakim Soria has been untouchable, saving 9 games while surrendering only 4 hits and no runs in 15–1/3 inning pitched. Brian Bannister has been decent, going 4–4 with a 3.75 ERA. On the offensive side, however, things get ugly in a big hurry. Kansas City has scored only 3.6 runs per game, last in the majors. They have 19 home runs and are on pace to hit 82 homers this season, which is still more than Barry Bonds’ record of 73, but not a very good effort for an entire team. Free agent acquisition Jose Guillen finally raised his batting average over .200 this past week, but he’s still lagging behind the performance of the man he replaced, the none-too-fondly-remembered Emil Brown.

Detroit (16–23): On the other end of the spectrum, the Tigers have achieved strikingly similar results to those of the Royals with the opposite formula: decent offense combined with shoddy pitching and fielding. Other than fill-in Armando Galarraga and his 3.07 ERA in five starts, the only other rotation member with an ERA under 5 is Jeremy Bonderman (a sparkling 4.80 mark to go with his 2–4 record). Heralded acquisitions Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis haven’t contributed much so far. Willis has been hurt, but Cabrera has just been confounding. He’s been moved to first base because of defensive struggles at third, and his patience and production at the plate are far behind his career averages. All season we’ve been waiting for the Tigers to break out of their funk and play like the team they were expected to be. Maybe it will still happen, but they are looking more like a team in disarray than the wrecking ball that was promised.

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