AL Central Report: Cleveland Blasts Its Way To The Top

No one’s doubted that the Detroit Tigers have been struggling for a while now, at least after a strong first week of the season. The relevant question was whether anyone in the AL Central could take advantage and make it a race. The Cleveland Indians are looking to give some answers, as they’ve surged to the top of the division and hold a three-game lead on the Tigers coming into Tuesday’s games. Cleveland took two of three in a key separation series in Chicago last week, then won a weekend series in Texas, then got the White Sox back in Jacobs Field and swept a day-night doubleheader on Monday. At 17-11, is it time to take the Tribe for real as a contender?

While the pitching has been respectable, it’s the bats that have keyed this recent hot streak, as Cleveland is fourth in the American League in runs scored for May. What is concerning though, is that this is very top-heavy. The middle infield tandem of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and second baseman Jason Kipnis are on fire, producing every which way you can imagine. No one else is doing much of anything, at least over the past several games. Let’s take a brief look at the overall performance so far of the Cleveland hitters

CLEAR ASSETS: Cabrera and Kipnis have been getting at done at the plate all year. Kipnis’ .366 OPB and .509 slugging is a sustainable season-long rate. Cabrera’s .437 OBP is going to come down and his .556 slugging will at least nudge down somewhat. And though Travis Hafner hasn’t been part of the recent offensive barrage, his outstanding plate discipline always makes him an asset, with an on-base percentage of .400, and while the power isn’t what it was in his heyday, he’s still got pop.

CLEAR LIABILITIES: Michael Brantley in center and Casey Kotchman at first have done nothing and are deadwood. Both are capable of more, but neither has a track record so good that we can just assume improvement. If nothing else, Brantley’s struggles make it easier to move him out in June when Grady Sizemore makes his latest attempt at a comeback from the disabled list.

CAN GO EITHER WAY: Carlos Santana is cut in Hafner’s mold as a hitter. He’s got this power streak that you hope would unleash, but even when he doesn’t hit, he does take his walks. Jack Hannahan’s done a nice job at third base, but after a hot start, he’s starting to cool down. The next month will be key in determining if he’s got a summer bounceback in him. And the big question mark in this offense is Shin Soo-Choo. From 2009-10 he was the best rightfielder in the American League. Injuries made a mess of last season. This year, he’s hanging on the fringes of respectability, but is one more bad week from being an outright liability. Are we watching the end of his productive days as a starter? How you answer that question  also answers how you feel about the long-term prospects of the Cleveland offense. And my answer is ringing, bold, “I have no freakin’ idea”.

The Indians have signed Johnny Damon and he’s now slotted to play every day in left, although at this point in Damon’s career his value is more intangible than anything. The team can use the veteran leadership that he, and his former Red Sox teammate Derek Lowe on the pitching staff, can provide. But overall, I still see more question marks than anything and would lean toward this current hot streak being a mirage.

A look at the rest of the AL Central…

Detroit (14-14): I think the Tigers’ worst days may have passed. They got Doug Fister back from the disabled list and even though he lost last night, the #2 starter pitched well in Seattle and at least the staff has an option on non-Verlander nights. Offensively, the rest of the lineup beyond Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera is kicking in. Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta and Andy Dirks are all swinging good bats and went a combined 23-for-61 in the last week. Austin Jackson continues his hot hitting as the table-setter.

Chi Sox (13-17): Since April 23 this team is 3-11, including losing six of eight to Detroit and Cleveland. Since his perfect game, Phillip Humber’s been hammered each time out. John Danks is pitching lousy. Paul Konerko is slumping. The positive to the lack of offense is that at least all of Adam Dunn’s strikeouts aren’t preventing him from moving up baserunners. Though in fairness to Dunn he has returned to his old form of at least balancing all the K’s with home run power and a good chunk of walks.

Kansas City (9-19): I’ve said it before in this space, and I’m going to keep saying it. Don’t sleep on this team. As bad as the record looks, the Royals have stabilized, splitting their last 12 games after a hideous start, including a four-game split with the Yankees over the weekend—although I suppose you can argue New York wasn’t feeling like themselves after Mariano Rivera’s injury. But they’ve got hitters, the bullpen is at least respectable, and Alex Gordon is really locked in right now after a slow start. Ned Yost needs Luke Hochevar to give him some consistency in the rotation, because Bruce Chen and Danny Duffy are already pitching well. Three good starters will be enough to key a Kansas City move.

Minnesota (7-21): The one positive the Twins had going for them in this miserable year is that Denard Span, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer were hitting the ball well. Then came last week. Morneau went to the disabled list with a wrist injury. Span and Mauer combined to go 6-for-47, all singles. No one else picked up the slack. The Twin Cities must be longing for the glory days of 2002 when their team was under threat of contraction.