AL Central Report: Detroit Hasn’t Pulled Away Yet

If the American League Central is going to turn into a walk for the Detroit Tigers it won’t happen right away. Three teams are bunched near the top of this division, as TheSportsNotebook continues its MLB division reports with a look at the AL Central…

Detroit (10-6): The Tigers are having some depth problems in their starting rotation. Justin Verlander has picked up where he left off from his Cy Young and MVP season a year ago, with a 1.72 ERA in four starts, and young Drew Smyly has thrilled the Motor City with a 1.13 ERA in three times to the post. But Doug Fister has made an early trip to the disabled list, while Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have had disastrous starts. The positive for Jim Leyland is that the bullpen depth is coming together with Duane Below and Octavio Dotel pitching well, and Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera are both off to good starts in the lineup. With Fielder having gotten the big contract, and Cabrera shifting to third base, this at least spares them answering early questions over whether those issues are causing an early slump.  And Austin Jackson is off to a good start. After swinging the bat poorly for a year and a half, it was reasonable to conclude that his strong first half of 2010 was fool’s gold. Now he’s back to getting on base and setting the table for Fielder and Cabrera.

Chi Sox (10-6): Philip Humber captured the attention of the nation with a perfect game in Seattle on Saturday, but that shouldn’t obscure that the White Sox are second in the American League in team ERA, meaning they’re doing some good mound work on a consistent basis. A big problem is that the good work isn’t coming from John Danks or Gavin Floyd. Each has to pitch well for the team to be successful and each was off a bit last year. It’s the bullpen trio of Matt Thornton, Addison Reed and Nate Jones that’s been dominant—20+ IP and not an earned run given up yet. And the offense has everyone hitting on all cylinders, including Adam Dunn. After his horrid showing in 2011 he’s started his bid for Comeback Player of the Year with four early home runs and a .366 on-base percentage. Alex Rios, another veteran with question marks surrounding him, is hitting for both average and power in the early going.

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Cleveland (8-6): The Tribe is hitting the ball early and showing some excellent discipline at the plate. Travis Hafner leads the majors with a .509 OBP, and along with Shelley Duncan and Carlos Santana, all three have draw 10-plus walks. Throw in a hot start by third baseman Jack Hannahan and you have an offense that’s a surprising 6th in the AL in runs scored. The problem is going to be pitching—Justin Masterson is off to a lousy start, with a 6.65 ERA in four outings and Ubaldo Jiminez’s 4.00 ERA fits the profile of mediocrity that TheSportsNotebook believes he really is. Manny Acta has a good bullpen, but that does no good if you can’t hand over leads.

Minnesota (5-12): Later this week, Notebook contributor Isaac Huss, a Twin Cities resident, is going to have a piece on the rough state of affairs Minnesota sports fans are living through right now. I had hoped he might be able to have a positive spin on the Twins, but the early record isn’t there, thanks primarily to atrocious starting pitching, with Francisco Liriano and his 11.02 ERA the prime culprit. But there is good news amidst this—Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau look like their old selves swinging the bat again and outfielder Josh Willingham has reacted well to his liberation from Oakland and is scorching the ball to the tune of five home runs and a .425/.623 OBP/Slugging line. If Denard Span can keep his own nice start (.370 OBP) rolling the Twins will be able to score runs. Ultimately, I’m not backing down on my view that taking this team go Over their Las Vegas win total of 73.5 was the best futures bet of spring training.

Kansas City (3-13): The Royals have not only lost ten straight games, they coughed them all up at home, so the good people of Kaycee have yet to see a win. Every hitter not named Billy Butler was off to a slow start, although Eric Hosmer heated up over the weekend, while Alex Gordon is showing signs of life, as is third baseman Mike Moustakas. But the bullpen, something that should be a team strength even without closer Joakim Soria, has not been up to snuff and the starting pitchers need to work deeper into games.