The time for baseball is coming, with spring training having opened and exhibition games beginning. When we last left baseball, Madison Bumgarner was reminding us of just how extraordinary the game can be sometimes with his once-in-a-lifetime performance in the San Francisco Giants’ World Series win over the Kansas City Royals. Now it’s a time for a fresh season and fresh storylines and the one that has me most intrigued is the AL Central race.
The Detroit Tigers have won this division each of the last four years, but the gap is clearly narrowing—most obviously by the fact that it was Kansas City who went storming through the American League playoffs. Detroit also has to keep an eye on the Cleveland Indians, who made the playoffs two years ago and posted a winning record last year under the leadership of Terry Francona. This post isn’t intended to be an exhaustive preview of the AL Central, merely a tone-setter for what we have to look forward to. Each of the three teams have unique angles and reasons why they can win:
*Kansas City may have lost staff ace James Shields to free agency, but the Royals still have the most dynamic collection of young talent in the game. Last September and October they finally put it all together and rather than being a fluke, I think that was the “real Royals” finally coming to life before our eyes.
Now they’re battle-tested and know they can win. The loss of Shields’ innings are going to be missed, but manager Ned Yost still has an extremely deep and talented bullpen.
*Detroit is still the four-time defending champs, the only team that has proven they can do it over a 162-game haul, however much potential and October success Kansas City has enjoyed. But the Tigers now have to do it without Max Scherzer, who left for Washington. And they don’t have the kind of bullpen KC has to fall back on—which is putting it mildly.
The biggest key to the Tigers is going to be whether Justin Verlander can regain his form after getting knocked around in 2014, to the tune of a 4.54 ERA in one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball. It’s also fair to wonder how much wear and tear is on the body of Miguel Cabrera, who has finished each of the last two seasons playing through health problems. I’m deeply skeptical that Detroit will make it five in a row.
*Now we come to Cleveland, more under the radar this season after failing to reach the playoffs last year. I would submit, however, that finishing with a winning record last year was a very quiet sign that the Indians are here to stay. They had almost everything possible go wrong from an injury standpoint and still won more games than they lost and produced a Cy Young winner, in Cory Kluber. What happens if things break their way this season?
There’s precedent for this. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays came out of nowhere to reach the World Series, in much the same way the Indians of 2013 just splashed onto the scene and made the playoffs. The Rays of 2009 slipped back and missed the playoffs, winning 84 games. But the quiet winning season established that the magic of the previous year wasn’t just a one-year wonder before a fall back into oblivion. And Tampa Bay stayed a contender through 2013.
Or consider the Baltimore Orioles, who came blazing out of nowhere to make the playoffs in 2012. The Orioles missed the playoffs in 2013, but finished with a winning record. What happened the next year? Established as a winner, they won the AL East.
The cycle is clear—come out of nowhere and make the playoffs. Then have a fallback year where things don’t go your way, but establish yourself as a winner. Then rev it back up for big Year 3. Cleveland is now in Year 3 of that cycle under Francona and we’ll see if that same pattern holds.
I’m pulling for the Indians and for Tito. I haven’t made a prediction yet, other than this—as a subscriber to the MLB Extra Innings package, I intend to enjoy the entire AL Central race this year.
Today’s MLB coverage is the second part of our weeklong series that will provide a basic statistical profile of each division in baseball. The focus for Tuesday is going to be the American League Central. As in yesterday’s look at the AL East, the format will be as follows…
*We’ll list each team’s rank, within the American League for runs scored, as well as the component parts of on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The same will be done on the pitching side for starters’ ERA, bullpen ERA and save percentage.
*Then I’ll list a couple notable individual performances, usually a pitcher and a hitter. They might be good, they might be bad, but they’ll generally be reflective of the team-wide performance in a given category.
* We’ll conclude with some brief comments on each team going forward.
Detroit Tigers (49-39)
Starters’ ERA: 1st
Bullpen ERA: 10th
Save Opportunities: 19/28
Notable: Max Scherzer is still unbeaten, with a 13-0 record and 3.06 ERA after eighteen starts. And perhaps you’ve heard of Miguel Cabrera, rolling to another MVP award with a stat line of .457 OBP/.673 slugging, and possibly even another Triple Crown if he can catch Baltimore’s Chris Davis in home runs (Davis leads 33-28 coming into Tuesday).
Comments: The Tigers haven’t ran off and hid from the AL Central the way they were expected to, but this is still a 90-win pace in spite of the problems in the bullpen and what has been, relatively speaking, a subpar first half for Justin Verlander. The team’s offensive prowess, given the vast dimensions of Comerica Park, is astounding, as is the depth of a rotation that’s still the league’s best with a down Verlander and Anibal Sanchez pulling some DL time.
Cleveland Indians (46-43)
Starters’ ERA: 6th
Relievers ERA: 11th
Save Opportunities: 18/35
Notable: Jason Kipnis is having a solid year at second base, with a stat line of .379/.517, as he continues to establish himself as one of the better offensive middle infielders in the league. Ubaldo Jiminez has got to give the starting pitching some depth behind Justin Masterson. Jiminez has a 4.67 ERA after 17 starts.
Comments: Amidst the mainstream media wailing over Detroit’s bullpen problems, has anyone noticed that this same issue is the only thing keeping Cleveland from overtaking the Tigers? Chris Perez did a stint on the disabled list and having him healthy obviously helps, the depth to the pen has not been there. If they could get Brett Myers healthy—his rehab had a setback last week, for how long we’re not sure—who knows what kind of run Tito’s Tribe could get on.
Kansas City Royals (42-44)
Starters’ ERA: 8th
Bullpen ERA: 2nd
Save Opportunities: 25/37
Notable: Closer Greg Holland is anchoring that underrated bullpen, with a 1.85 ERA and nailing 21/23 of his save chances. Mike Moustakas is the biggest culprit in that underachieving offense, batting .217.
Comments: This division is still there for Kansas City to step up and take, at least so long as the Tigers can’t get on a big run. The Royals are the one contender with the bullpen who can consistently close games, and while the starters’ ERA has slipped in recent weeks, I think it’s an area the team can feel comfortable with going forward. But they need all the offensive pieces working in tandem.
Minnesota Twins (37-49)
Starters’ ERA: 15th
Bullpen ERA: 5th
Save Opportunities: 23/36
Notable: Josh Willingham is getting on base, with a .356 OBP, but struggling with his power, at .398 in slugging. It robs the Twins of a run producer on the field and a trade chip for the impending July 31 non-waiver deadline. Vance Worley has been a disaster in the rotation, with a 7.21 ERA in ten starts and going to the minors.
Comments: A lot of credit to the Twins for piecing together a bullpen that could close leads, but the bad luck with Worley and the inability of Scott Diamond to develop are just killing the starting pitching. If Minnesota could even move up to 11th or so in starters’ ERA, they could make a run at .500.
Chicago White Sox (34-52)
Starters’ ERA: 3rd
Bullpen ERA: 12th
Save Opportunities: 22/31
Notable: Chris Sale’s 5-8 record with a 2.78 ERA is indicative of the starting pitching—both the quality of their work and the non-support they get. Paul Konerko may have reached the end of the line, with a .314/.368 stat line
Comments: Not much to think about this year. It’s about building for the future and in that regard, the organization needs Jake Peavy healthy so they can trade him. Peavy threw a simulated game yesterday.
THE VIEW FROM LAS VEGAS
The race might be close, but Detroit is still a top-heavy 1-7 favorite to win the division. Cleveland is 7-2, while Kansas City is a healthy 20-1. I picked the Tigers to win the World Series at the start of the year, and am standing by that, but I have to say that the price tag on the Royals looks pretty enticing. If Detroit stays at a 90-win pace—or maybe dips to 87 or so by season’s end, is it really 20-1 unthinkable that Kansas City could be the team that steals the Central? Minnesota is 500-1 and Chicago is 1,000-1.
I’ll be re-evaluating all my preseason picks next week during the All-Star break, although the only thing I see myself backing off on here is the 100-win projection for the Tigers, and believing that the Indians would be terrible. The playoff projection—Detroit, and no wild-cards will likely be unchanged.
The AL Central race is all but over after this weekend, and it’s because Detroit’s pitching come through, while Chicago’s big hitters did not. The Tigers won a series over the Twins, while the White Sox dropped three of four from the Rays. The end result is that Detroit is plus-3 games with the same number left.
Detroit got the usual stellar outing from Justin Verlander on Saturday, who pitched seven innings and allowed just an unearned run. Less expected was great work from Drew Smyly on Friday and Anibal Sanchez on Sunday. Though neither went deep into the game—they combined for 11.2 innings—both starters shut down the Minnesota bats, and though Friday’s opener ended up in Twins’ hands, the Tiger bullpen—with help from a big home run by Prince Fielder—delivered the Sunday victory that all but sealed this division title.
Chicago’s bats had a tough task in taking on Tampa Bay in the Trop, and the White Sox hitters certainly didn’t do anything to exceed expectations. The 2 thru 7 hitters on this team are Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and A.J. Piersynzki, and together they have given Chicago a consistent offense. Over the last four games in Tampa the quintet combined to 14-for-66, a collective batting average of .212. If we mix in the few walks they drew, the on-base percentage is still a terrible .278. Was there any power you ask? Other than a Rios home run, the other hits were all singles. That’s a good way to hit your way home for October and that’s what happened to the Southsiders.
Detroit needs one more win or one more Chicago defeat to make this official. The Tigers are in Kansas City, while the White Sox go to Cleveland for the final series. Let’s note this is the same Indians’ team that just took two of three in Chicago and now needs only one win to end their rival’s season. Let’s further note that if the miracle happens and the White Sox pull back even, it still just means a one-game playoff. And by the way, Verlander would be on full rest to pitch that game. I don’t think it’s jumping the gun to plan on watching the Tigers in action this coming Saturday when the Division Series begins.
Around the rest of the MLB playoff picture…
*Baltimore & Oakland both came up with weekend sweeps. The Orioles pulled even in the AL East with the Yanks and clinched at least a wild-card. The A’s are on the verge of doing the same, holding a three-game cushion on the Angels & Rays with three to play. Coco Crisp came up big for Oakland, with seven hits in the first two games of the wins in Seattle, Brandon Moss had a big five-RBI game on Saturday and Josh Donaldson hit a two-run shot in the ninth inning that same day, a tying blast that set up a later three-run jack by Moss.
Baltimore’s sweep of Boston was aided considerably by Chris Davis, who homered on Friday night and had two hits both Saturday and Sunday. And Jim Thome got two starts in the series and had multiple-hit games both times. The Birds’ sweep went in conjunction with New York splitting four in Toronto and allowing the Orioles to wipe out a 1.5 game deficit. The Yanks had a scare when Robinson Cano needed his hand X-rayed, but they came back negative. Cano otherwise spent the weekend giving Toronto pitching a scare, with a 10-for-16 run through the four games.
Thus, we can realistically conclude that we know the five teams that will be in the American League playoffs. Baltimore, New York and Texas are all clinched. Detroit and Oakland are right on the brink of doing so. But the brilliance of the new playoff format is now shining through, because we don’t yet know who will win the AL East & AL West. The Rangers should take care of business in the West, but they’re still only up two on Oakland and the teams go head-to-head out west. You’d like to say with certainty that Texas will pick up the one win they need to clinch, but they have inconsistent starters Martin Perez and Ryan Dempster scheduled for Monday and Wednesday. And if the Rangers do clinch, they still need to keep an eye on Baltimore/New York, whom they only lead by a game for homefield advantage.
New York and Baltimore both have tougher challenges, particularly the Orioles who go to Tampa. The Yanks theoretically have it easier with a home series against Boston, but the Red Sox have Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz set for Monday and Tuesday and all it takes is either pitcher to perform to his ability one time and the Yanks could find themselves in a one-game showdown come Friday. As a Red Sox fan, hoping for such an outcome is all I have left this season.
Over in the National League, Washington isn’t quite there in the NL East, but they are up three on Atlanta. The Braves are playing Pittsburgh, a dead team walking, so Washington likely needs to take care of its own business one time against Philadelphia at home. The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the top overall seed, a factor that can impact pitching decisions on Tuesday and Wednesday if the NL East doesn’t get settled tonight. The #1 seed doesn’t open Division Series play until Sunday, while the #2 seed plays on Saturday.
The only postseason berth really left up in the air is the final NL wild-card, which has been narrowed to St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Cards are still in firm control with a two-game cushion. They play at Cincinnati, while the Dodgers host San Francisco. In theory, both division leaders can spoil the postseason hopes of a rival they hate. In practice, Johnny Cueto for Cincy pitched yesterday and won’t see the mound in this final series.
If Los Angeles can push this race to the final day, they have Clayton Kershaw set to pitch on Wednesday against a San Francisco team that is all but locked into the #3 seed. Still, making up two games realistically requires a sweep and with Matt Cain making his last regular season start tonight that’s a lot to ask. I know it’s not over, but I’ve already started to look forward to a Cardinals-Braves wild-card game on Friday.
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.
Everything was all set up for the Los Angeles Angels to make one final push in the MLB playoff race. The talented big-budget team with the enigmatic bullpen was on a roll and a four-game home series with wild-card leading Oakland was just the ticket to get themselves into the lead for one of the two spots in the first-ever American League wild-card game. But the Angels again seem intent on turning Michael Corleone’s quote from Godfather III on its head, in that every time we think they’re in, they pull themselves back out.
Oakland won its third straight game in this series, and sixth overall, as A.J. Griffin tossed eight shutout innings in leading the way to a 4-1 win. Los Angeles got its lone run in the ninth when Albert Pujols, 2-for-12 with two singles in the series coming into the inning, hit a solo home run. Pujols is apparently doing his best A-Rod impersonation in padding his stats when the game is decided. Meanwhile Oakland got hits from eight different players, including two from hot leadoff man Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes homered for the second straight day. The Angels are now 3.5 games back of catching the AL East runner-up for the wild-card slot and throw Jered Weaver into today’s desperation matinee finale. As for Oakland, they are now five up for a wild-card slot and can focus their attention on division-leading Texas, who kept its three-game margin in beating Cleveland.
In the AL East, the Orioles and Yankees created a little space between themselves at Tampa. New York survived a 5-4 game in Boston thanks to some bounceback efforts. Curtis Granderson has awakened from a recent slump and hit two home runs. And the starting pitching, a big issue for New York right now, got some help from David Phelps who pitched 5 2/3 and gave up one run, before the bullpen made it interesting at the end. The Yanks overcame a three-hit night from Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalmacchia who tripled into the triangle (need we even say that the ball went to the deepest part of Fenway if noting that a catcher hit a triple) and homered in the ninth to cut the lead to one run.
Meanwhile the miracle Orioles beat Tampa 3-2. It’s not that Baltimore scored the winning run in the ninth that makes it all so magical. It’s that the Rays managed to lose a low-scoring game where they got nine hits, seven walks and a first-inning home run by B.J. Upton. One would think they’d trip their way into three or four runs. Apparently not, and Tampa now trails its AL East rivals by three games. Both AL East series conclude tonight, Rays-Orioles with a 12:30 PM ET matinee and the Yanks-Sox tonight.
Detroit has put themselves in a perfect position heading into tonight’s finale of their four-game series in Chicago. Their 8-6 win yesterday ensured at least a split on the road and Justin Verlander’s on the mound tonight. Everyone in the lineup hit, including Prince Fielder, who had been quiet in this series until his three-run jack in the fifth busted the game open. Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson each delivered three hits apiece. Detroit was cruising until Kevin Youkilis, who drove in four runs, hit a home run that was part of an eighth-inning rally and then Tiger closer Jose Valverede continued his usual routine of making closing a game far more interesting than it needs to be.
The American League has the primary focus this week at TheSportsNotebook with the Tigers-White Sox, Orioles-Rays and A’s-Angels all going down. Tomorrow we’re going to look more in depth at a National League wild-card race that, for the second straight year, is taking on an unbelievable storyline in September. With three teams, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh vying for the second wild-card, the possibility of a longshot seemed like…well, like a longshot. All three teams have slumped, including losses last night for each, the Brewers and Phillies are red-hot and suddenly the latter two teams are over .500 and within three games of a playoff berth. More on the National League race in this space tomorrow.
The American League’s big seriesgot underway yesterday on the South Side of Chicago, and the White Sox came up with a 6-1 win over the Tigers that gave Chicago the first of a four-game set and extended their lead in the AL Central to three games. Rick Porcello was solid through five innings for Detroit and took a 1-0 lead into the sixth, but then Alex Rios left his mark.
Chicago’s rightfielder hit a three-run shot to make it a 3-1 game and A.J. Pierszynski immediately followed with a solo home run of his own. It was plenty for Jose Quintana who worked into the eighth inning and kept Detroit’s power duo of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera under control. The Tigers’ muscle men combined to go just 1-for-8 with a single and no walks. Porcello, and the three relievers that followed him for Detroit, were effective at handling the top of the Chicago order. Alejandro de Aza, Kevin Youkilis and DeWayne Wise went a collective 0-for-11, though they did draw a couple walks. But with Rios bailed everyone out with the long ball and the folks in the South Side can breathe a little easier.
Oakland’s visit to Los Angeles in the hotly contested wild-card race is one of two other big battles going on in the American League in the early part of this week. Jarrod Parker pitched seven innings of one-run ball for Oakland and the A’s got a 3-1 win. Dan Haren pitched well for the Angels, but in a 1-1 game he gave up leadoff home runs to Brandon Moss in the fifth inning and Chad Pennington in the sixth and those lapses were too much to overcome.
Coco Crisp, the A’s centerfielder and leadoff man, continues to swing a hot bat over the past several weeks, as he led the game off with a triple against Haren and scored on a ground ball out. The Halos’ top of the order, Mike Trout and Tori Hunter combined to tie the game in the third when Trout got aboard and Hunter doubled him in. But Albert Pujols went 0-for-4 in the middle.
The third MLB playoff race showdown battle is Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and that gets underway tonight in Camden Yards as Jason Hammel faces Matt Moore. Hammel pitched very well on Thursday against New York, holding the Yanks to one run in six innings of work. With the Orioles’ missing rightfielder Nick Markakis with a broken thumb and the Tampa Bay pitching staff in lockdown mode as it is, Hammel doesn’t have much room for error.
Detroit sends Doug Fister to the mound tonight, hoping their #2 starter can help keep them alive and give Justin Verlander a chance to pitch a big game on Thursday. The White Sox would obviously like to ensure a split prior to then, even if they have Chris Sale waiting for the finale. They’ll send Jake Peavy to the hill tonight. Out west, it’s young Dan Straily for the A’s against veteran journeyman Jerome Williams for the Angels.
In the quieter National League, Pittsburgh suffered its third straight tough loss, losing 4-3 in a 14-inning battle to Cincinnati. Wandy Rodriguez was unable to hold a 3-0 lead, as Chris Heisey—the Reds centerfielder who’s suddenly morphed into the second coming of Eric Davis at the plate—hit a two-run blast and then Cincy tied it in the seventh. And in the NL East, Gio Gonzalez, the new ace for the Washington Nationals, won his 19th game in downing the Mets 5-1. If nothing else, the shutdown of Stephen Strasburg will give Gonzalez some deserved attention in the postseason.
The American League wild-card race might not be clear, but it’s starting to look we might have one fewer contestant for the two berths in the one-game showdown that will kickstart the MLB playoffs in less than a month. The AL Central race between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox is starting to look like a winner-take-all affair. The Tigers went west over the weekend and were swept by the Los Angeles Angels. The White Sox dropped two of three to Kansas City and concluded a six-game homestand where they could only split against the Royals and Twins. Detroit, currently two games back in the division race is now 4.5 back in the wild-card race and have the Angels, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles all to catch. With only three and a half weeks to go in the regular season that’s going to take a lot.
Furthermore, let’s not the obvious which is that if Detroit gets that hot, the wild-card won’t be relevant to them—they’ll win the AL Central. Both the Tigers and White Sox have to stop their current backpedal to the finish line. And since they go head-to-head in a four-game series to start the week it’s apparent that such a double hot streak can’t begin until at least Friday.
That might hurt the AL Central’s wild-card chances, but it sure ratchets up the intensity for these coming four nights on the South Side. Just a week ago Detroit beat Chicago three straight in Comerica Park, and now the White Sox try to return the favor. And just like in that previous series, the schedule works out so that Justin Verlander and Chris Sale each pitch the finale.
The Detroit-ChiSox battle is the biggest in the first half of the week, but two more showdowns are going to be crucial in the American League race, both wild-card and for division titles. The Orioles & Rays go head-to-head in Camden Yards. Baltimore split four with the Yanks over the weekend to stay one game back in the East, while Tampa grabbed two of three from Texas to keep within two games. What are the odds that when you said “AL East Showdown” for this spot in the schedule, you’d be thinking Rays-Orioles, and not Yanks-Red Sox, who hook up in the Fens? Boston is collapsing fast and if they’re interested in playing spoiler at all, we’ve seen precious little evidence on the field. If we don’t see it at home these next three nights, it’s never going to surface—and with still two more series against Baltimore and one more against New York, the Red Sox state of mind will be a factor in this race.
Los Angeles ‘ sweep of Detroit has pulled them even with Tampa Bay and both teams are only one game back of Baltimore for the last berth. Oakland, currently the #1 wild-card, has a 2.5 game cushion between themselves and elimination. Now the Angels host the A’s for a three-game set, though the hot Halos have a biceps problem for Jered Weaver looming over their heads and the ace’s start in Wednesday’s matinee finale is in question.
These three big series are where the action is at in baseball this week and over the next three days, TheSportsNotebook will essentially tune up for the playoffs, but having morning reaction to the results from all three locales, the same as will be the case for each day of the postseason.
Here’s the rundown on other series involving the contenders…
Pittsburgh-Cincinnati: The standings tell us the Pirates are a contender, only 2.5 games out of the playoffs. The results on the field tell us they just lost three straight to the Cubs, concluding a 2-4 homestand where the Astros were the other opponent. Their only hope is lack of focus from Cincinnati, who has run away with the Central.
Washington-NY Mets: Wednesday’s game will be the focal point, as John Lannan gets the ball. It’s Lannan who’s taking the place of the now-shutdown Stephen Strasburg. Keep in mind while Washington’s lead of 5.5 games is comfortable, it’s not insurmountable.
Atlanta-Milwaukee: The Braves just polished off the Mets three straight and have opened up a seven-game lead for one of the wild-card berths. After last year, no one in Atlanta is going to breathe too easy, and the Brewers are sneaking up on the .500 mark, having just knocked off St. Louis in a road series this weekend. Where I write, just outside of Milwaukee, there’s cautious talk of a miracle September run, although the Brewers would need to sweep a series like this for such talk to go beyond the hard-core fan base.
San Francisco-Colorado: Great weekend for the Giants, who grabbed two wins over the Dodgers and hold a 5.5 game lead in the NL West. Between now and the season-ending series with their rival to the south, San Fran has an exclusive diet of Arizona, Colorado and San Diego. It’s all there for the Giants to clinch before the final battle with the Dodgers even begins.
LA Dodgers-Arizona: Clayton Kershaw is dealing with a nagging injury, but is expected to pitch tonight to open the two-game series. This is a sandwich spot for the Dodgers, right between the weekend in Frisco and a coming four-game set with St. Louis, with whom they are battling for the last wild-card slot.
St. Louis-San Diego: The Cards come off a disappointing home series with Milwaukee, losing two of three and have been unable to put distance between themselves and the slumping Pirates and the sluggish Dodgers. Now they start a West Coast swing that could leave them regretting missed opportunity.
Cleveland-Texas: Ron Washington’s Rangers can’t shake Oakland and the AL West lead is just 3.5 games, but after finishing a weekend in Tampa Bay—and two series with the Rays over the last week and a half—the Texas schedule gets easier and it starts right here.
The Chicago White Sox may have seen their six-game winning streak come to an end last night in Baltimore, but the White Sox are still rolling around at 71-56, and keeping their two-game cushion on Detroit in the race for the AL Central title. Chicago is also only 2.5 games back of New York for the two-seed in the American League playoffs, meaning homefield advantage in the Division Series. Given the tightness of the division race and the current landscape which has only one team making it to the postseason from the AL Central, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But for a team the Las Vegas numbers had projected as a 74-88 team back in March, Robin Ventura’s White Sox have had quite a run. The biggest reason is there offense.
Chicago is fourth in the American League in runs scored, making up for a pitching staff that John Danks first disappoint, then be lost for the year to a shoulder injury. The rotation has seen Gavin Floyd struggle with the same mix of injuries and incompetence. They’ve survived thanks to a good year from Jake Peavy and a great year from 15-game winner Chris Sale, who gets the ball tonight in Camden Yards, but the staff is subordinate to the job the offense is doing.
Paul Konerko has always been the reliable cog in the White Sox machine and this year is no different. The first baseman has churned out a .390./514 year for on-base percentage and slugging percentage and that’s par for the course for one of the game’s underrated players. Virtually everywhere else though, has popped up pleasant surprises and best-case scenarios come true.
Alex Rios has finally found the form he seemed to have permanently left in Toronto back in 2006. Six years ago Rios was emerging as one of the game’s top all-around offensive players. He regressed, was traded to the South Side three years later and while he showed flashes, he never put it all together. This season he’s batting .303 and has popped 20 home runs. Rios still needs more plate discipline to up the on-base percentage, but he’s back as a threat to hit for contact and power.
Adam Dunn showed that last year was just a sad aberration and he’s on course again as a walk-drawer and home-run hitter, with a .338 on-base percentage and 38 home runs. Alejandro de Aza has posted a nice .346 on-base percentage and been a table-setter. He’s currently on the disabled list, but will be back in September and in the meantime DeWayne Wise has stepped in with a .328/.491 line since he was cut loose from the Yankees after they acquired Ichiro Suzuki. Wise won’t have to lose playing time when de Aza comes back. The one thing that hasn’t gone well for the White Sox offense this year is the development of Dayan Viciedo in left, and the kid can go to the bench to make room for Wise.
But the big addition to the offense is the unlikely acquiring of Kevin Youkilis from Boston. Who could have guessed that Youkilis would be the first victim of the Bobby Valentine era in Fenway, struggle early and play his way out of town. Those who believed a change of scenery was the ticket were right. Youkilis has had 184 at-bats with Chicago and submitted .381/.495 stat line, including 12 home runs.
When you add it all up, that’s a pretty deep lineup and it makes the prospect of facing the combination of this offense and Sale on the mound twice in a postseason series, a nerve-wracking thought for New York or Texas. In the meantime, this offense is the biggest reason the White Sox have so drastically exceeded expectations and continue to lead a division everyone handed to Detroit in March.
If there was anything we could count on when the baseball season opened it’s that the Detroit Tigers were a mortal lock to win the AL Central. There might have been debate over whether they could win a pennant and a World Series—no one said they were better than the Rangers, Angels, Yankees or Phillies. But all of those teams had real-life competition in their divisions. Detroit did not. So the story went. But now we sit here with the games of June 7 about to start in the next few minutes and the Tigers are staring at a 26-31 record and are 5.5 games off the lead. It’s not that the deficit is insurmountable—heck, they could be in first by the All-Star break. But it’s that Detroit has dug themselves this hole without anyone else having to be great. What’s gone wrong?
The Tigers get a little bit of a pass for injuries. Austin Jackson had been playing excellent baseball in centerfield and solidifying the leadoff role, with a .414/.544 line for his on-base percentage/slugging percentage. He’s been out and will just start a rehab assignment this week. Andy Dirks has been out with an Achilles after posting a .379/.515 stat line in left field. He’ll be back by the middle of the month. Both players gave support to Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the power tandem who have come as advertised. Detroit’s also got an offense that ranks 5th in the American League in on-base percentage and seventh in slugging, yet is only ninth in runs scored. Is that a sign of just some bad luck that will even out or a deeper structural flaw. I’ll say the former and again give them benefit of the doubt.
But ultimately the offense isn’t the reason the Tigers are losing games. The pitching is the problem. Now we can indict a lot of subordinates on this staff, but let’s start at the top, with a focus on the ace of the staff and the closer, each indicted for a different reason. With closer Jose Valverde, he’s simply been mediocre. While no one could expect him to have another perfect year on save chances, Jim Leyland certainly could expect better than 10-for-13, and a closer with a 4.24 ERA is not one you can feel good about bringing into a tie game. With Justin Verlander, the indictment is different. It’s not about him—you can’t argue with a 2.67 ERA in 11 starts. But it’s not the Verlander of last year and anyone who was thinking that any pitcher could go back-to-back on seasons like the one he enjoyed in 2011 was kidding themselves. Verlander is a good solid #1 starter, but he’s not otherworldly. Because he’s performing below expectations he’s a reason the Tigers are below expectations.
Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are starting pitchers below expectations and in their case we can pin it on the pitchers themselves, not the media. Scherzer’s ERA is an appalling 5.88, while Porcello’s is a poor 4.86. Given Detroit is a pitcher’s park and the AL Central lineups they disproportionately face are less than imposing, these numbers look even worse. 21-year-old Drew Smyly got off to a nice start, but he’s going through growing pains right now, with mediocre outings his last five starts. Doug Fister started the year on the disabled list and just went back on. The #2 starter’s only gone to the post six times this year. As for the bullpen, the crew setting up Valverde is almost as troublesome as he is. Other than Duane Below, Leyland’s options are Phil Coke (4.37) and Octavio Dotel (4.42).
Some of Detroit’s problems will get better, and I would imagine this offense will be in the top six in the American League in runs scored before it’s all over—and rank higher in the park-adjusted data of statheads. Scherzer has to get better. But even that just makes Detroit an 85-88 win team. Unless the back-end pitching and bullpen improves, Detroit will not meet expectations and that means there’s no reason to expect a sudden turnaround.
Around the rest of the AL Central…
ChiSox (31-25): It’s offense that’s carrying the White Sox right now, and if that’s going to continue than young rightfielder Dayan Viciedo has got to be more patient at the plate. The rookie rightfielder has given a tremendous power surge to the lineup, hitting 12 home runs. But his respectable .265 batting average only translates into a .292 on-base percentage. I would have thought it impossible for an everyday player to only walk five times by early June, but that’s what the rookie has done and if unchanged will make him a liability during the inevitable power drought.
Cleveland (30-26): The Tribe could use a Viciedo to pump power into their attack. Cleveland has no problem putting runners aboard, ranking 3rd in the American League, but when Asdrubal Cabrera’s .468 slugging is the best power your team can offer, a lot of runners are going to be left to die. That’s what’s happening in Cleveland and given the problems with starting pitching, they offense doesn’t have runs to give away.
Kansas City (24-31): Eric Hosmer has gotten off the mat at first base, hitting .368 in the past week. Like the Tigers, the Royals have an offense that is underperforming itself in terms of taking their runners and their power and translating them into runs. If Alex Gordon could lift his .377 slugging percentage it would help alleviate some of the problem.
Minnesota (22-34): I’ve mentioned the three young starting pitchers the organization has given shots too, all of whom are pitching well, in previous reports. Now Francisco Liriano has given two straight solid starts. The Twins have won seven of their last ten. What I’d like to see now is Joe Mauer get his power stroke back—he’s churning out on-base percentage (.407) like the Mauer who won MVP, and this offense could use a little bit more muscle.
The Chicago White Sox have caught fire in the AL Central race. A three-game sweep on the road in Tampa Bay pushes the White Sox winning streak to eight games, lifts their record to 29-22 and has moved them into first place. With a nine-game homestand starting tomorrow against Seattle, Toronto and Houston there’s every reason to think Robin Ventura’s team can keep this going into June. How are they getting it done?
Close followers of baseball know how good Paul Konerko has been for a long time at first base, although either Mark Teixeira in New York or Adrian Gonzalez in Boston would normally suck up all the media oxygen. With the more well-known first baseman struggling, perhaps Konerko can start getting some more love. All he’s doing this year is leading the league in batting average at .381, and slugging .642. For much of the year he’s had to do it without much help, but now some supporting pieces are rounding into form. Dayan Viciedo, the young rightfielder, has opened up with his power. He hit four home runs in the past week and now has 11 on the year. Alejandro de Aza in center has a .363 on-base percentage for the season and A.J. Pierzynski is enjoying a productive offensive year at catcher, with a .345/.512 OBP/Slugging line. Then let’s add in that Adam Dunn is officially back at DH, after his horrible year in 2011. Yes, he strikes out a lot and his batting average is a meager .230. But he draws a ton of walks lifting his OBP all the way to .378 and he’s got 16 home runs. The offense was the best in the AL over the past week and keyed the surge.
>Starting pitching was supposed to be a Chicago strength, but it’s here I think Ventura has reasons to be concerned about what he can expect during the dog days of summer. While Chris Sale (2.34 ERA in nine starts) and Jake Peavy (3.07 ERA in ten starts) have been very good at the top, John Danks was first inconsistent and then hit the disabled list until July. Philip Humber had his perfect game, but otherwise has a 5.37 ERA, the worst of which came after his April perfecto, so any corner he might be turning is one going in the wrong direction. Gavin Floyd’s been a disappointment with a 5.02 ERA. The staff has gotten some good work in the last couple weeks form Jose Quintana, 23-years-old and has worked 15 innings and given up just three runs. I would expect Ventura will give him more starts, especially while Danks is out.
In the bullpen, Nate Jones and Matt Thornton are solid in the setup spots, while rookie Addison Reed is handling the closer’s role and has been tolerable, if not necessarily a source of comfort. But the White Sox appear committed to developing him in that role and in that light, his progress is good enough.
If you’re looking for negatives on the White Sox right now, you correctly note that no team will survive over a long period with starting pitching like that Chicago is getting. If you want the positive side you correctly note that Floyd has a track record that tells you he can pitch better, as does Danks when he gets back. If nothing else, it has to thrill the South Side that the starting pitching, the team’s presumed strength can struggle and the White Sox can still be in first place on the final day of May. For that, let’s make sure our next MVP conversations with fellow fans include Konerko.
Around the rest of the AL Central…
Cleveland (27-23): The Indians were another victim of the Chicago hot streak, losing three straight and then dropping two of three to Kansas City. The Tribe’s run through the division continues with a weekend home series against Minnesota, followed by road trips to Detroit, St. Louis and Cincinnati. With a staff ERA of 7.17 in the last week do we really need to say they must pitch better?
Detroit (23-27): I thought now was when Detroit would make its move and I guess I was right, although I thought the move would go in a completely different direction. Like the Indians, pitching has been terrible in Motown. If you watched Tuesday night’s Tigers-Red Sox game on ESPN, you saw Justin Verlander get roughed up a bit and the rest of the staff was lousy as well. Doug Fister was the worst of the crowd and as the #2 man he has to be a part of any Detroit revival. While the offense was only 9th in the AL in runs scored for the week, I’ll go to bat for them (no pun intended)—Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Alex Avila are all swinging the bat extremely well, so there may be some bad luck mixed in with that. The Tigers need Austin Jackson back in center, but although he’s eligible to come off the DL tomorrow, the team doesn’t like his progress from the abdomen injury and will keep the centerfielder and leadoff hitter sidelined a little while longer.
Kansas City (21-28): The push by the Royals that I’ve been waiting for has a chance to start now. Kansas City won consecutive series on the road in Baltimore and Cleveland, both first-place teams when the Royals visited. With home series ahead against Oakland and Minnesota the opportunity exists to keep the good times rolling. What KC needs is for more hitters on base. They’ve survived in recent games with power, as Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Jeff Franceour all slugging over .450, but it’s tough to maintain that without runners on base consistently, and Franceour, who’s been scorching hot of late, is the only one doing that.
Minnesota (18-32): Minny swept Oakland to bounce back after getting the broom taken to them by Detroit last weekend, and now a road trip to Cleveland and Kansas City presents the Twins the opportunity to move up. Minnesota has called up another young pitcher, 27-year-old Cole DeVries, to join a rotation that’s already been infused with Scott Diamond and P.J. Walter over the past several walks. DeVries has made two good starts, going five innings per with an ERA of 2.70. And the core four hitters of Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham combined last week to go 33-for-108, with 12 of those 33 hits being doubles and seven more being home runs. The offensive core is coming around, the pitching staff is getting an injection of life and I still like my preseason hypothetical bet of this team to win at least 74 games before it’s over.
The Detroit Tigers are still struggling. The Cleveland Indians are feeling good about themselves, with a 3 ½ game lead in the AL Central coming into Wednesday’s games. But in a division where no team is really playing well, it’s important to keep everyone on the radar. And that’s why, for as inept as the Minnesota Twins have looked for the first month and a half, the offensive burst they’ve enjoyed the last several games deserves a second look.
It was the usual suspects who delivered the Twins’ offense to the second-most runs in the American League over the past week. Joe Mauer went 10-for-24 and while he didn’t go deep, he hit four doubles. Josh Willingham went 7-for-23. Justin Morneau, back from the disabled list had a .591 slugging percentage. And Denard Span continued to get on base, setting the table at a .381 clip. Not only is the success noteworthy, but so is the reality that this is sustainable success. There’s no reason to think all four players can’t go on to have good years. Then let’s add in that Ben Revere stepped it up with a 5-for-19 week made all the more productive by the fact three of his five hits went for extra bases and he drew a couple walks.
After hitting a 9-22 low point on May 9, the Twins turned it around to split a four-game set with a good Toronto team who would make the playoffs if the season ended today. They split a total of four more with the Indians and Tigers in their own division and then won a weekend series against Milwaukee, three games that may prove to be two ships passing in the night. Then the Twins opened a three-game series on the South Side of Chicago last night by blasting the second-place White Sox 9-2. Clearly, these are not the Twins of April.
If they’re not the Twins of April, are they back to being the Twins of 2002-10, who set the standard for baseball with their fundamental play and overachieving? That depends on the pitching, which was still last in the league during this positive stretch. Clearly, the ERA has to improve or the losses will return. But I like what the organization has done in bringing up younger pitchers and whether this spark can turn into a summer run depends on arms like Scott Diamond and P.J. Walter, the latter who threw a complete game last night and has good outings against Toronto and Detroit to his credit.
There’s a big middle ground between the Twins of April the Twins of 2002-10 and my guess is that for the rest of the season the team will settle somewhere in there, with the pitching of Diamond and Walter being a big determining factor. But in the meantime, it’s good to see Mauer and Morneau hitting again and professional baseball having returned to the Twin Cities.
Minnesota is 15-27, still bringing up the rear in the AL Central. Here’s the rest of the division, ascending upward…
Kansas City (17-25): I keep saying the Royals are a team to watch, as they’ve stabilized themselves since their 10-game losing streak dropped them to 3-14 on April 24. And I’m going to keep saying it until either they get hot, have another losing streak or see a clear frontrunner run off and hide in this division. Kansas City’s getting some good swings from Jeff Francoeur of late, with a .633 slugging percentage over the last week and Alcides Escobar went 10-for-28, enough to compensate for a little down tick from Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas. Now someone just has to get Eric Hosmer going at first base, as the highly touted prospect is having an absolutely disastrous start to his season.
Detroit (20-22): You heard on the sports media that Justin Verlander came within two outs of a no-hitter in Pittsburgh and then Max Scherzer struck out 15 of 21 batters against the same Pirate lineup. Great performances to be sure, but the rest of the Tiger staff is having problems. Detroit started a 10-game road stretch last night with a 5-3 loss at frontrunning Cleveland. The trip takes them to Minnesota and then to Boston, with both fifth-place teams playing better than their records and then the return to Motown finds the Yankees and Indians waiting.
ChiSox (21-22): A weekend sweep of the Cubs in Wrigley gave the White Sox some bragging rights and in the AL Central three straight wins is a major hot streak, so they move up into second place. Gordon Beckham and Dayan Vicedio had power surges, hitting three home runs apiece in the last week, while John Danks and Jake Peavy were each razor-sharp in their last starts. Even more heartening was that Philip Humber pitched well, showing he might finally be over his perfect game hangover (I guess if you’re going to have a hangover, that’s as good a reason as any). But Gavin Floyd was blasted last night by the Twins and a weekend series with Cleveland awaits. Life’s tougher when the opponent isn’t the Cubs.
Cleveland (24-18): The Tribe lost a weekend series to Miami, meaning the baseball team missed a chance to avenge the city for LeBron James, but the quality of pitching the Indians are getting is improving rapidly. Ubaldo Jiminez finally pitched well in a big game when he beat Detroit last night, while Justin Masterson and Jeanmar Gomez also had solid starts. But the bullpen showed flashes of 2011 form, with Tony Sipp and Vinnie Pestano combining for 6.1 innings of shutout ball and Chris Perez nailing both his save opps and then calling out the fans and telling them to get to the ballpark more often. I’m sympathetic with Perez, but he should be aware that the demands of ticket prices make a millionaire ballplayer look a little out of touch in telling middle-class people to spend more money. Safe to say Perez’s political career just got snuffed out.
With the first set of interleague games coming up in the baseball schedule this weekend and teams having at least 35 games under their belt, we’re a little more than 20 percent of the way through the schedule, so now is as good a time as any to have an early season evaluation session. TheSportsNotebook takes a concise look at what each team has done and what we might expect going forward.
This post focuses on the American League. Click here for the National League overview, and please also check the individual reports that were run yesterday, with an All-Star ballot put together for both theAL & NL.
Baltimore (23-14): The Orioles haven’t had a bullpen that was really effective since B.J. Ryan up and left for Toronto as a ridiculously overpaid free agent following the 2005 season. Ryan blew out his elbow, but the Orioles never recovered either. Until this season. With Jim Johnson having a fantastic season as a closer—and he has been a reliably consistent setup man for five years now and Buck Showalter fitting other pieces into place, you can no longer feel good if you’re down a run in Baltimore after six.
Offensively, Matt Wieters and Adam Jones are living up to their potential as the young breakout stars, while Wei-Yin Chen has been a boon to the pitching staff, including last night when he beat C.C. Sabathia in Camden Yards. Now the question is do the O’s keep it going? Well, they’re playing at a 101-win pace and I don’t think anyone expects that to keep going, nor do people expect them to win the AL East. But be a contender? If Nick Markakis can pick up his offense, along with J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds, that can help cushion when inevitable slumps come from the two young stars and Brian Matusz can continue his recover in the starting rotation, then yes, the Orioles can hang around.
Tampa Bay (23-14): With the injury to Mariano Rivera, the implosion of the Red Sox and the presumed fade of Baltimore, it’s the Rays who are the favorite to win this division and that’s appropriate. Like the Orioles, Tampa has put together a bullpen they has vastly outperformed expectations, with Fernando Rodney making the most of his opportunity at the back end.
The Rays are dealing with injuries right now, with Evan Longoria out for another 2-3 weeks and Desmond Jennings also on the DL. Offensively, they do a good job drawing walks, but need more guys who can hit—Carlos Pena’s .391 slugging percentage is the most obvious evidence of this problem. But at the end of the day, this rotation comes along to James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson—all having good years that are sustainable and if Matt Moore gets settled in as a rookie, the Rays will wear the rest of the AL East down.
NY Yankees (20-16): Not only is Rivera out for the year, but now replacement David Robertson has hit the disabled list. It was supposed to be bullpen depth combined with offense that bailed out a Yankee rotation that had serious problems behind Sabathia. But that depth is gone—even if Rafael Soriano stabilizes the ninth inning. The pitching problems have gotten worse, with the season-ending injury to Michael Pineda, the continued struggles of Phil Hughes and the demotion of Freddy Garcia. Even the offense, while hardly a problem at #3 in the American League scoring runs isn’t up to its usual standards. Mark Teixeira’s notorious April slumps have now extended into mid-May and Robinson Cano has yet to heat up. Derek Jeter’s been as valuable to the Yanks this season as ever, and the reason they’re still on a pace to win 90 games and would make the wild-card game if the season ended today. Still, it’s difficult to see this team, as presently constructed exceeding the 90-win level.
Toronto (19-18): It’s no surprise to see the Jays a little over .500, but if they don’t make the playoffs this year it’s a real missed opportunity, given the problems in New York and Boston, and given that Toronto is getting good starting pitching, with Brandon Morrow and Henderson Alvarez being excellent, and Ricky Romero doing his usual solid job. But they have got to get some guys hitting. Hot young prospects like Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia have to realize how much the team needs them to reach their potential. The same goes for Colby Rasmus, who’s been a disaster since coming over St. Louis (Note to self: If I ever again disagree with a future Hall of Fame manager like Tony LaRussa on a player, it’s a good bet that I’m the one who’s going to be proven wrong). Edwin Encarcion is the only one who’s hitting and Jose Bautista is getting the Bonds treatment and being pitched around. And Bautista’s not doing anything with the pitches he does get, batting only a buck-98. The moment is there for Toronto to step up into the playoffs and even compete for the AL East title, but these hitters have got to perform.
Boston (17-19): A recent mini-surge against the AL Central and Seattle has enabled Boston to keep themselves afloat, but the starting pitching is a big problem. Clay Bucholz has been an absolute disaster with an 8.31 ERA and the reality is that Bucholz may not make it back, at least this season. Remember, the kid broke a bone in his back last year. Even if it’s healed, how did that affect his mechanics or his comfort level at turning it loose? I’m not saying he’s done, but he might need more than spring training to get himself really comfortable again. The bullpen’s struggles are much better documented, although that’s gradually starting to stabilize—it’s hardly a team strength, but the complete chaos that ensued from the seventh inning on during April looks to be a thing of the past as Bobby Valentine settles on roles.
Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard have pitched reasonably well at the back end, but without Bucholz, with Josh Beckett being inconsistent and Jon Lester looking more like a middle-of-the-rotation guy, the Red Sox have not had the 1-2-3 punch at the top that was supposed to be the focal point of the season and I don’t take it for granted that any of that will come around at a level higher than it is right now. But know this—if it does, the Sox are still scoring runs like they did in the heyday, with only Texas being more proficient in the American League. And that’s with young players like Will Middlebrooks and Danny Nava stepping in for the wounded Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis.
Cleveland (20-16): Manny Acta’s pitching staff has to do a better job, and quickly, because even in a soft division, being 10th in the American League in ERA won’t cut it. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jiminez have ERAs over 5. The bullpen that gave such good depth a year ago has been shaky this time. And what’s worse for the Tribe is how much can you really count on summer improvements? Sure, Masterson will pitch better, but Jiminez has had three good months in the course of his career—the first part of 2010 when he dominated in Colorado. And even given Masterson the benefit of the doubt, we have to also factor in that Derek Lowe’s 2.05 ERA will inevitably rise. So where does the overall team improvement come from? The Indians were projected by Las Vegas as a 79-win team at the start of the season. They might lead the pack right now, but I don’t see a reason to think that long-term assessment is all that off. Especially when you have bats like third baseman Jack Hannahan’s also destined to cool off.
Detroit (18-18): I think the worst is past the Tigers for now. Doug Fister, their #2 starter is back from the disabled list and looked very good in his first two starts. Rookie Drew Smyly has been great, and even if he comes down to earth, something else that will come down is Max Scherzer’s ERA of 6.26. Then there’s some guy named Verlander who keeps getting the ball every fifth day. The bullpen’s still a concern, but no more than last year when they eventually pulled away from Cleveland. And on offense, after an early part of the schedule where Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson were the only ones that hit, we’ve started to see some gradual warming up for Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila. I smell a big run by the Tigers here between now and the All-Star break to open this division up.
ChiSox (17-20): If they can get some offensive help for Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, the White Sox can push over .500 and stay in contention. Dunn may strike out a lot, but his power and ability to draw walks has returned. Alejandra de Aza has stepped up with a good year the plate, and the .363 on-base percentage needs to continue, while other players in the lineup start getting batting averages over .200. If that happens, Jake Peavy’s pitching well again, in spite of Monday’s disaster against Detroit. And I would expect John Danks to come around. Why? Because I just gave up on Danks in my Fantasy League and cut him, meaning he’s about to get picked up by some other owner and rip off five straight wins. But seriously, he and Gavin Floyd could both get it going. Then Philip Humber just has to return to being the pitcher he was prior to his perfect game, which was a steady underrated arm who could stabilize a rotation. Since that historic day in Seattle in April, he’s just not pitched well. But if you’re looking for a team that could really give Detroit a run, the White Sox are a better bet than the Indians. I don’t necessarily believe in the SouthSiders, but the starting pitching potential at least gives them an upside.
Kansas City (15-20): This is another team not to go to sleep on. They overcame a horrific 0-10 homestand in early April, have steadied the ship and have Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Billy Butler all swinging good bats. Even with the loss of Joakim Soria, manager Ned Yost has put together a bullpen that can finish games. As usual, the issue is starting pitching. Danny Duffy had gotten off to a nice start and then hit the disabled list with an elbow problem. At least he’ll be back in a couple weeks. Luke Hochevar continues to disappoint, as does Jonathan Sanchez, who hit the DL himself. Within the everyday lineup, the Royals need first baseman Eric Hosmer to acclimate himself to big-league pitching as well as Moustakas on the other side of the infield has.
Minnesota (10-26): My early-season prediction that the Twins beating the Las Vegas number of 73.5 wins was the surest bet of March is looking like the single most foolish prediction I’ve made this year…and this in a year where I picked Long Beach State to reach the Final Four. Josh Willingham has been a quality pickup from Oakland, hitting for both power and average. Joe Mauer at least his ability to get on base back, if not his own power stroke. Denard Span’s had a pretty good year thus far. But Justin Morneau’s hurt, no one else is doing anything at all and other than recent call-up Scott Diamond, the pitching has been a complete disaster. Minnesota’s last in the AL in runs scored, last in ERA and they’ve made that formula work to a pace that will them at 45 wins by year’s end. It’s unfortunate for Ron Gardenhire, who’s done a good job here for a long time, but I’ll be surprised if he’s in the dugout for Opening Day next year (and as a Red Sox fan, positively furious if the Sox don’t call him).
Texas (23-14): There is absolutely nothing this team doesn’t do extremely well. You’ve heard about Josh Hamilton and he deserves to be the MVP if the season ended today. But let’s also single out for praise Elvis Andrus, the shortstop who wields a sharp glove and has a .398 on-base percentage to set the table for Hamilton. Or for Adrian Beltre, who’s slugging over .500. Or Mike Napoli’s who’s carving up pitchers for both average and power. Or for the bullpen, where Alexi Ogando is the best of a group that’s deep and has a revitalized Joe Nathan closing. And for the starting pitching, where Yu Darvish has met the burden of the hype and with a 2.84 ERA in a hitter’s park, looks like the ace this staff needs.
Oakland (19-18): The A’s playing a bit over .500 is a nice early story, but I find it hard to see where it lasts. While the pitching is #2 in the AL in ERA, Brandon McCarthy is the only one who really looks the part. Bartolo Colon is hitting that spot in the year where he should pull a hamstring and he’s been mediocre as it is. Tyson Ross is pitching poorly and the bullpen hasn’t settled on roles yet. Offensively, Josh Reddick has been the complete package in right field, and the A’s might reasonably expect more from Yoenis Cespedes in center and Seth Smith in left, but not enough to substantially move their #13 spot in the AL. Their preseason Vegas win projection was 71.5, and the current pace is for 83 wins. I can see Oakland’s pitching being good enough to beat that preseason Over/Under, but not to put this team over .500.
LA Angels (16-21): I don’t know if you knew this, but Albert Pujols only has one home run this year after a long drought into May. I also don’t know if you knew this, but the odds say he gets on a good hot streak some time soon. See the brilliant analysis we come up with here at TheSportsNotebook, in the mold of Stephen A. Smith? The Angels have started to slowly better baseball this month and in addition to Pujols, Dan Haren has struggled in the rotation with a 4.41 ERA. If you just get these two stars to return to previous levels, then LAA can get hot. And in spite of their struggles, if they can answer Texas’ hot start with 6-7 laser-hot weeks of their own, the AL West is back to being a coin flip and the Angels would shoot past other contenders for the wild-card spots. That’s what I expect to happen.
Seattle (16-22): King Felix and Jason Vargas have given the Mariners solid starting pitching at the top of the rotation and Hernandez can win another Cy Young Award this year. Third baseman Kyle Seagar is slugging .475, showing some nice pop and liberating M’s fans from watching Chone Figgins take the field anymore. Second baseman Dustin Ackley has started to hit after a slow start. Brandon League is a solid closer. But after that? Inconsistency in the starting pitching, instability in the bullpen and nothing on offense. The current pace is for 68 wins. I suppose I could see the number rising into the low 70s, but the Mariners are not about to surprise anyone.
MAY MULLIGANS: In my preseason picks, I had the Yankees, Tigers and Angels winning the divisions, with the Rangers-Jays for the wild-card game. I’m not throwing in the towel on the Angels just yet. We’ll revisit it at the All-Star break. The only area I’m taking a May Mulligan on is the AL East, where a combination of Rivera’s injury and Tampa’s own bullpen answering my concerns means I’m vaulting the Rays into the division winner slot, and dropping the Yanks to third, where they join the rival Red Sox in missing the playoffs. LAA’s still the pick to win the pennant and ultimately the World Series—don’t laugh, they’re closer to first place right now than the Cardinals were to the wild-card at the end of last August.