MLB Playoff Picture: The AL Central Race

The combatants in the AL Central race played their last head-to-head game yesterday afternoon in Chicago, as the White Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 5-4 in a makeup game.  Chicago, at 80-66, now leads in the division by three games with 2 ½ weeks to go. Let’s size up how each team is playing right now and what lies ahead the rest of the way…

DETROIT:  Detroit’s muscle men of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder might get the attention, but the lack of overall depth in this lineup is hurting them in this race. Detroit’s rank in slugging percentage, relative to other American League teams, has been in decline since the All-Star break and hitting what they hope will be a bottom-out point of being 11th in September. It’s no fault of Cabrera who continues a torrid MVP-caliber pace, but while Fielder isn’t in any kind of epic meltdown, he has hit below his season-long totals since the All-Star break and it’s gotten a little worse in September. The biggest problem is that Austin Jackson’s power is also going down. Given that he’s a leadoff man that’s not particularly surprising, but it underscores how much of Detroit’s offense was predicated by a natural contact hitter producing abnormal power numbers. While Jackson is still getting on base at a good clip and doing his job, and catcher Alex Avila is doing the same, the rest of this lineup is dead weight.

The good news Detroit can draw is that power outages and surges can change faster than anything in baseball, and if the pendulum is able to swing back, the team is getting good starting pitching. Believe it nor, Justin Verlander does not have the best ERA on this team in the second half. Max Scherzer has been on fire, going 8-1 in his last 12 starts and both he and Doug Fister have better post-All Star break ERAs than the staff ace, who is hardly in any kind of slump. Anibal Sanchez has also pitched well at the season’s most important time, posting a 2.29 ERA in his three September starts.

What this staff is being hurt by is the lack of power production dragging their run support and a questionable bullpen that ranks 11th in the American League when it comes to closing saves. Given that closer Jose Valverde caught lightning in a bottle last year when he managed to make it the entire 2011 season without blowing a save in spite of repeatedly pitching himself into trouble, the struggles of this season cannot be a surprise and with little margin for error left, the Tigers can’t afford to blow any leads.

CHICAGO:  Chicago’s offense is going the opposite direction of their rival. While the team’s overall numbers for the season are comparable, it’s the White Sox attack that’s coming together down the stretch as they are getting on base and hitting for power at better rates than the Tigers. Chicago benefits from the fact that Adam Dunn, Kevin Youkilis and Paul Konerko are all hitters who take walks in addition to having power, so in spite of low batting averages for Dunn and Youkilis, the team is rarely without at least a small contribution from its key players. Then we add in that Alex Rios and A.J. Pierzynski are driving the ball for power and up-and-down rookie Dayan Viciedo has caught fire in September, and you have the formula for winning offense.

The dark cloud hanging over Chicago is that this lineup relies more on power than on-base consistency, which is a byproduct of the strengths and weaknesses of Rios and Pierzynski. As noted above, those power surges can go as quickly as they come and if they disappear the next couple weeks, a three-game lead can disappear.

Robin Ventura’s pitching staff really needed the outing they got from Jose Quintana yesterday afternoon. While he wasn’t dominant in the 5-4 win, he was at least a serviceable #3 starter and that’s something he wasn’t in his early starts this month. Chicago is strong at the top with Chris Sale at 17-6 and a 2.78 ERA, while Jake Peavy is 11-11, but with a solid 3.26 ERA. Gavin Floyd is also back from the disabled list and can give Ventura a needed extra arm as he hits the homestretch. And like Detroit, Chicago’s bullpen is less than ideal for a contender, although setup man Hector Santiago has caught fire in September.

THE REST OF THE WAY: If Detroit can survive a three-game home series with Oakland that starts tonight, the schedule shapes up well for them to have the hot streak they need. The Tigers play seven more home games against the Twins & Royals, then close the season with six on the road against the same two teams. It’s very reasonable to think they can go 10-3 in those games, which would place considerable pressure on Chicago. The White Sox would have to go 8-5 against a schedule that includes a three-game series in Anaheim and a four-game home set with Tampa Bay. Even a 7-6 mark allows Detroit to pull even.

Thus, if you’re a Chicago fan, you look at these next three nights—the White Sox are in Kansas City, while the Tigers mess around with the A’s—as your opportunity to add at least one game of extra cushion before the schedule dynamic shifts in Detroit’s favor starting Friday.