Race for the Pennant: AL Central

The All-Star break is a great time for evaluating where a team stands. Last week, Joe looked at the long-term prospects of some cellar-dwelling teams. This week and next, we’re previewing the race for the postseason within each division. Monday I discussed the American League East; today’s topic is the AL Central. The content is organized by current standing:

Detroit Tigers
55-42 | division lead

The Tigers offense is firing on all cylinders. Currently they are second in the league in OBP with a .332 mark. They rank 4th in runs scored with 453, and 2nd in batting average at .278. Victor Martinez is batting .322, and Miguel Cabrera is batting .311.

While the offense is doing its job, however, the pitching has struggled this year. Justin Verlander has struggled to find his form so far, posting a 4.88 ERA, (1.3+ runs above his career average) while the team’s 4.00 ERA is 23rd in the majors. Some of Verlander’s peripheral stats indicate he may be having some bad luck, but even his FIP (fielding independent pitching) is above 4. Also of worry is the Tigers’ home record, which is hovering around .500.

Despite the pitching problems, the Tigers currently sit in first in the division, five and a half games ahead of the Indians. Look for the Tigers to extend the lead down the stretch.

Predicted Finish: 1st in AL Central, 94-98 wins

Cleveland Indians
51-49 | 5.5 games back

The Indians have been sitting right behind the Tigers for most of the year. While their season series against the Tigers has helped to close the gap between the two clubs, they still sit five and a half games back with less than half the season to play.

The offense has been great, scoring 441 runs, which is good enough for sixth in the majors (and just two behind the Tigers), but pitching is also a problem for the second-place team in the AL East. The staff has an ERA of  3.93, which is 20th in the majors.

Cleveland certainly has a lot of room for improvement. Nick Swisher is currently batting .215 with a .290 OBP, both far below his career numbers. Asdrubal Cabrera is also batting 23 points below his career average at .247. Justin Masterson posted a 5.51 ERA before going on the DL with a knee injury, but is close to returning to the rotation. If he returns to form upon reactivation, that will be an instant boost.

The Indians’ chances of making the playoffs are going to depend upon whether their stars can turn around their individual seasons. If they can, look for the Indians to be in the chase for the playoffs until the very end. If they don’t, it will be a long second half of the year.

Predicted Finish: 2nd in AL Central, 85-89 wins

Kansas City Royals
49-50 | 7 games back

It would be fair to characterize the Royals’ season as a roller-coaster year. The team started the season just okay, with a 30-32 record on June 6, before proceeding to run off a 10 game win streak to climb into contention. Since then, however, Kansas City has struggled, falling to seven games behind the Tigers in the AL Central.

Despite recent troubles, Kansas City has many reasons to be encouraged. They are currently 4th in batting average, with a team average of .264. Alex Gordon has a triple slash line of .274/.356/.426. While the team has no .300 hitters, five batters are currently averaging .270 or better.

Also, the relief pitching has been lights-out, with set-up man Wade Davis leading the way with a 1.08 ERA in 42.1 innings. Closer Greg Holland similarly boasts an ERA of 1.77 and a WHIP of  0.98 while saving 25 games in 26 opportunities so far.

Unfortunately for the Royals, their up and down play probably puts them out of range of a playoff spot, especially with the Angels and the Mariners holding tight to the Wild Card spots. While this doesn’t seem to be their year, keep an eye on the Royals in the future as they continue to build a strong team that will be able to make several playoff runs.

Predicted Finish: 3rd in AL Central, 80-84 wins

Chicago White Sox
48-53 | 9 games back

The White Sox have not had a good year. They haven’t been on the right side of .500 since June 11. Since then, they have gone 15-20 to bring them to five games below .500 and 9 games back from the Tigers in the division.

Both the batting and the pitching have had significant trouble this year. The team ERA of 4.20 is 5th worst in the majors and the team batting average is 17th in the league at .251. This is compounded by four starters batting under .240, including Adam Dunn and Gordon Beckham, both with an atrocious average of .227. There are two bright spots for Chicago, however. Starting pitcher Chris Sale is currently 9-1 with a 0.86 WHIP and a 2.03 ERA, while averaging over a strikeout per inning.

Jose Abreu has been a revelation for the Sox this year. Since we wrote about the Cuban slugger earlier this year, he has only gotten better. Abreu has a triple slash line of .292/.341/.619, with 29 home runs and 74 RBIs. His batting average has soared in July, as he has batted .343 in 17 games this month.

The White Sox won’t be able to come back from their current deficit. However, expect big things from them in coming years, and make sure to keep an eye out as Abreu chases Mark McGwire’s rookie home run record through the end of this season.

Predicted Finish: 4th in AL Central, 74-78 wins

Minnesota Twins
45-54 | 11 games back

The hosts of this year’s All-Star Game have been anything but entertaining to watch. Minnesota views the playoff race from a distance, without a clear way back into the picture anytime soon.

Pitching is the biggest problem for the Twins right now, as they rank in the bottom five of the MLB in ERA, quality starts, WHIP, and BAA. The lowest ERA for any starting pitcher is Phil Hughes, who has a whopping 4.06 ERA. Ricky Nolasco, currently on the DL with an elbow strain, watched his July ERA balloon to 7.78 and his season ERA rise to 5.90.

But while the pitching has been nothing short of terrible, it cannot take the full blame for the Twins’ woes. Besides Kurt Suzuki’s .312 batting average, the only three other batters the Twins have that qualify for the batting title are batting .271 (Joe Mauer), .243 (Trevor Plouffe) and .239 (Brian Dozier). The team has a combined batting average of only .246 this year, and ranks 27th in slugging percentage at a miserable .373.

The Minnesota Twins are not going to make the playoffs this year. Their rotation woes, combined with weak hitting, suggest they will be picking early in next year’s draft. With no notable players in the pipeline, the Twins may have troubles for a long time to come. It will take a good long-term strategy to get this team back into contention.

Predicted Finish: 5th in AL Central 65-69 wins

Tim Hanna is a contributing writer of Three for Ten Sports.

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