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7/11/2007 10:42:00 AM

AL Central: Midseason Grades

By Joe Lemire

With four preseason contenders (sorry, Kansas City), the American League Central was set to be baseball's most competitive division. In just the past two years, Chicago had won a World Series, Detroit had reached a World Series, Minnesota had won the division and Cleveland was one unfortunate late-season collapse away from the postseason.

But, as the story goes, a funny thing happened on the way to the All-Star break: Minnesota's been middling, and Chicago's been catastrophic.

That leaves a two-horse race down the stretch. Cleveland trails by a game in the standings, though two in the loss column. The Indians hold the head-to-head lead at 6-4 but won the first five meetings before Detroit went on its seven-game, mid-June winning streak and seemed to find its groove.

The Lake Erie neighbors have the AL's top run-scoring offenses, but both rank in the bottom half of the league in runs allowed, not to mention the game's two shakiest closers.

The Tigers would appear to hold advantages in starting pitching and lineup depth, but the Indians, for now, have a better bullpen in front of Joe Borowski than the Tigers do in front of Todd Jones. Still, no lead will be safe.

This scribe's prediction: Cleveland edges out Detroit by two games in the division, though the Tigers snare the wild card.

Detroit Tigers
Record: 52-34, 1st place
Runs Scored: 512 (1st in AL)
Runs Allowed: 407 (T-8th in AL)

What went wrong: Not much, save the bullpen. Joel Zumaya remains on the DL recovering from finger surgery, Fernando Rodney is 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA and Todd Jones is, well, Todd Jones. That means he's effective (22 of 26 save chances) despite being scary (1-4, 5.20 ERA, 1.57 WHIP). Ivan Rodriguez has walked only five times in 301 plate appearances. Gary Sheffield had a horrible start -- a .193 BA and .265 SLG in his first 23 games -- but that's a distant memory, as he rebounded very well and might have been the biggest All-Star snub. He's up to a .303 BA, .410 OBP, .560 SLG, 21 HR, 58 RBI and even a team-leading 12 SB.

What went right: A three-game sweep of the Red Sox, who sport the majors' best record, means the Tigers entered the All-Star Game on a five-game winning streak and in first place of the division. Detroit has scored 512 runs this season, the most in MLB by 41 (over the Indians). Magglio Ordoñez is the first-half AL MVP, with preposterous numbers: .367/.446/.604, 35 2B, 13 HR, 70 RBI. Kenny Rogers has been dominant in all three starts he's made since beginning the season on the DL -- he's 3-0 with an ERA (1.04) almost as small as his tiny WHIP (0.98). He joins Justin Verlander (10-3, 3.14 ERA) and Jeremy Bonderman (9-1, 3.48) -- with supplemental help from Andrew Miller and Nate Robertson -- to form the most post-season ready starting rotation.

What's next: It'll be a dogfight with Cleveland in the second half, with the runner-up likely taking the wild card. The Tribe took six of ten from the Tigers in the first half, but they still have nine more meetings to go. Detroit begins with a tricky seven-game road trip to Seattle and Minnesota. As for its grade, the bullpen is still a question mark, and I'll try to resist that grade-school teacher temptation of weighing improvement too much over the whole body of work.

Grade: B+

Cleveland Indians
Record: 52-36, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 471 (2nd in AL)
Runs Allowed: 414 (10th in AL)

What went wrong: Jeremy Sowers and Jake Westbrook have made 21 starts, going 2-10 with a 6.65 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 109.2 innings. Third base prospect Andy Marte is batting just .180 in 50 at bats. And that horrible early-season snow storm forced the Indians to play three home games in Milwaukee.

What went right: For a team that crashed and burned despite high hopes last year (78-84, fourth place in the Central), it's hard to find fault with Cleveland's place in the standings: not just second in the division, but first in the wild card by 1.5 games over Seattle. The most pleasant surprise of the first half -- anywhere in the division -- is Fausto Carmona. After suffering one of the worst weeks in baseball history last season as a reliever, Carmona has been terrific as a starter: 10-4, 3.85 ERA and a 2.77 ground ball-fly ball ratio. He and C.C. Sabathia have been a great one-two punch. Though Trot Nixon has provided next-to-no pop (.335 SLG, 3 HR, 26 RBI), the three-headed combo of Ben Francisco, Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Michales are doing a more than ample job of holding down left field and supporting Nixon in right. Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez continue to rake, with Travis Hafner a little off his normal pace, and still the Indians have an AL-best 109 homers. For now, Joe Borowski continues to defy logic, saving 25 of 27 opportunities despite a 5.35 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. And that Rafael Betancourt, he's really, really good.

What's next: Continue chasing the Tigers. Cleveland starts with six home games against divisional doormats Kansas City and Chicago and follows that up with four at Texas, so it gives the Indians a chance for a fast second-half start. They still have eight games with the Tigers and, should, the wild-card standings hold, circle Sept. 25-27 on your calendar. The Indians will be playing four games in three days in Seattle, with one of those games originally having been slated for Cleveland before the aforementioned April snow.

Grade: A-

Minnesota Twins Record: 45-43, 3rd place Runs Scored: 436 (6th in AL) Runs Allowed: 399 (5th in AL)

What went wrong: Jason Kubel (.250 BA/.302 OBP) and Nick Punto (.211/.313) are still everyday starters. Scott Baker, Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Kevin Slowey have made a combined 33 starts with a combined 5.82 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. Carlos Silva hasn't been a whole lot better (6-10, 4.58 ERA, 1.40 WHIP). Joe Mauer has missed 32 games. And they've been unlucky. Based on the Twins' Pythagorean winning percentage, they should be 48-40, trailing Cleveland only by a game.

What went right: Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau have been nothing short of spectacular, steadying that otherwise inconsistent offense. Their top six relievers, per innings pitched, all have sub-4.00 ERAs led by closer Joe Nathan (2.17 in 37.1 IP), Pat Neshek (1.70 in 42.1) and Matt Guerrier (1.70 in 53.0). Johan is Johan. (Quick aside: Santana was the AL's seventh-inning reliever last night. How amazing is that?) Oh, and just for the heck of it, Minnesota has the best fielding percentage in the league.

What's next: A second-half team, Minnesota could make a surge and reach the playoffs, even if Baseball Prospectus only gives that a 6 percent likelihood. Chasing both Cleveland and Detroit in the division and also Seattle in the wild card race might be too much.

Grade: B-

Chicago White Sox
Record: 39-47, 4th place
Runs Scored: 354 (14th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 420 (11th in AL)

What went wrong: Not much. Easily the division's biggest disappointment, the White Sox have scored not just the fewest runs in the AL but in all of the majors. General manager Kenny Williams threatened a fire sale. Jermaine Dye's batting .214 (.271 OBP). Jim Thome has missed 25 games. Scott Podsednik missed more than two months. Joe Crede batted .216 (.258 OBP) in 47 games before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Jose Contreras is 5-10 with a 5.19 ERA. As a team, the Sox are batting .241 with a .314 OBP. Ouch. Chicago has a 7-12 record in one-run games -- the only Central team not at .500 or better -- and only avoided a failing grade thanks to a 10-5 stretch entering the break. Making matters worse, the Cubs are suddenly playing a lot better and no longer share half the city's negative headlines.

What went right: Mark Buerhle threw a no-hitter and signed a four-year contract extension. Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez are working on solid seasons, and Bobby Jenks, the club's lone All-Star, has been decent. And that's about it.

What's next: Thirteen games out of first place -- and 12 out of the wild card -- playoff hopes are on life support, so Williams is at a critical juncture: blow the team and get younger at the trade deadline and try to keep the core together for one more fun next year?

Grade: D

Kansas City Royals
Record: 38-50, 5th place
Runs Scored: 402 (11th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 437 (12th in AL)

What went wrong: It's hard to fault any one or two players on a team void of exceptional talents. Compile a roster of mediocrity and get mediocrity in return. Über-rookie Alex Gordon batted .327 in June -- but it's the only month he's been above a .200 average. K.C. has saves in 24 of their 38 wins -- but have blown 12 chances. The Royals have also been decimated by injuries.

What went right: The Royals are in last place but only 15 games out of first and two out of fourth; they were nine out of fourth and 27.5 out of first at this point last year. They have an AL-leading 28 triples. Joakim Soria has emerged as a reliable reliever. Gil Meche was an All-Star, and not quite so flagrantly because of the rule requiring a representative from each team. The $55 million man hasn't had much run support, thus explaining his 5-6 record, but his ERA (3.54) and WHIP (1.30) are solid, though a little short of spectacular. Catcher John Buck, with 15, has more than twice as many home run as his teammates, but his average (.245) and RBIs (29) are not as sparkling.

And let's not forget the the seventh-innings stretch song derby. In narrowing the competition to a final four, the fans wisely weeded out overplayed tunes like Cotton-Eyed Joe"and Sweet Caroline and are now choosing among Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, ABBA's Dancing Queen and two songs called Kansas City -- one by The Beatles and one by Wilbert Harrison. My vote's still with Cash.

What's next: More playing time for the kids. Keep giving Gordon and Billy Butler at bats, hold major-league auditions for any prospect who seems deserving and make it a goal not to finish last, as they have the last four seasons.

Grade: C

Labels:

posted by SI.com | View comments |  

Comments:

Posted: July 11, 2007 2:47 PM   by Anonymous
Hey, when you're a Royals' fan, every little bit helps! We've finished last the past THREE seasons, not four. Good goal though for this year. Check this out everyone.

First 37 games = Royals were 11-26
Last 51 games = Royals were 27-24

Easy to see the improvement to anyone watching them on a regular basis. I feel as though they are going to win around 75 games and not only escape losing 100, but they'll even escape losing 90! Don't laugh people, we're employing the "crawl, walk, run" theory here, and we've been crawling for TOO LONG...I sense that we're about to enter the walking stage, lookout AL Central!
Posted: July 11, 2007 4:00 PM   by professor doom
Let's see, the Tigers get a B+ for being a game ahead of the Indians, who get an A-. What kind of curve are we grading on?
a b+ for my detroit tigers? have you watched any baseball this year? the tigers have done it with an offense second to none and a tremedous defense you moron, the pitching staff has had numorous injuries. maybe you should try another sport, maybe hockey is more your idea of a sport.good luck, see you at the worlds series
Posted: July 11, 2007 9:02 PM   by leagueofgentlemen
I find it odd that you didn't mention Minnesota being closer to the division lead this year at the break than they were last year. Everyone seems to be counting them out, when they really don't have has as much work to do as they did in 2006. Don't think they can't do it, because you know Detroit isn't forgetting about them.
Posted: July 11, 2007 9:21 PM   by Anonymous
This article seems to me to be a perfect example of the work of an alleged "baseball expert" who gets their stories not from actual research and insight but from rehashed sound bytes and talking heads. In my opinion, this article is devoid of insightful analysis. It seems to me to be little more than another article that says "Royals suck again HAHAHAHAH!" and to me it appears to be the work of someone who has not been paying attention. The poster who showed the last 51 game record of the Royals provided this page with more insight in their little blurb, than this author did in the entire article. Please do research before you haphazardly hand out D grades. The Royals have had a hard enough time turning the corner to respectability without some armchair blogger who hasn't done an ounce of Royals research since last season harping on them.
Posted: July 11, 2007 9:31 PM   by Anonymous
How can you say that Gil Meche, with a 3.54 ERA, has only been solid when you say that Carmona has been terriffic with a 3.85 ERA.

Meche has been so much more valuable to the Royals than a win total or an ERA can show. He is a sign of the Royals turning a corner and he is a building block for future Royals success. It gives us Royals fans some kind of tangible hope.
Posted: July 11, 2007 10:22 PM   by Anonymous
Biggest question for the AL Central in the second half is whether the Tigers learned their lesson last year before coughing up the division after the 162nd game. Cleveland has been hot — even while Haefner has not — but beyond Sabathia, it's hard to say how that rotation will hold up with a division on the line. The Twins, however, have to be the odds-on favorite to threaten Detroit for the title. GM Terry Ryan might want to pull the trigger on a trade — ahem, Mark Teixera? — but this team is far from down-and-out. The most important thing is not one player in that clubhouse believes the season is a lost cause.
Posted: July 11, 2007 10:31 PM   by Anonymous
the reason that the tigers have a lower grade than the indians is because the indians are a surprise team!!!!! everyone expected detroit to be good, but NO ONE expected the indians to come out fighting.
Posted: July 11, 2007 11:08 PM   by Anonymous
HA-HA It's just like a Detroit fan to get so angry that a Cleveland team is ranked above them that they call people names. Kind of sounds like when the Cavs beat the Pistons. Oh, and I know that Detroit is ahead of Cleveland in the standings right now. Just saving you the the trouble of writing a comeback and calling me a moron. GO TRIBE!
Posted: July 11, 2007 11:30 PM   by Anonymous
tigers are going to be world series champs and u only give them a B+ they are better than they were last year offense wise and thats scary good.... their bullpen will improve and they will win at least 96 games... call me a genius in october when they beat the mets in the world series in 6 games
Posted: July 12, 2007 12:19 AM   by Anonymous
I'm a Royals fan too and I can tell you that they are on the rise. Now that Sweeney has suffered his requisite injury, Billy Butler will be able to slide into the DH spot and start producing runs. Did you see his 6 RBI game? With him and Gordon hitting stride they will actually be fun to watch in the second half. That's more than I've been able to say in a long time.
Posted: July 12, 2007 7:40 AM   by Anonymous
OK so you should go ahead and leave hockey out of this...it's more of a sport than baseball is anyways.
Posted: July 12, 2007 8:17 AM   by chris
you're not right in the noggin. indians won 6 of 10 when the tigers easily blew 3 of those games. 6 of 10 is hardly dominant, only 1 game better than 50%. tigers have a hard july but then coast the rest of schedule. if by August 1st, the tigers are 2 games back, they win this division by 3 games, easily.
Posted: July 12, 2007 8:57 AM   by Anonymous
the sox are gonna make an amazing playoff run....watch out
Posted: July 12, 2007 10:11 AM   by Anonymous
Fisrt off a lot of people picked the Indians to go far this year (and last but they choked). Second I would be quite pissed off too I had to live in Ohio but especially Cleveland. When was the last time any tema from Cleveland won anything?? That city sucks and always will, hahaha losers!
Posted: July 12, 2007 10:46 AM   by Anonymous
who the red sox?? If you mean the White sox I feel REAL sorry for you pal
Posted: July 12, 2007 11:08 AM   by Anonymous
re: twins. that pythagorean dealio was interesting and confirms something i've been thinking of late. if back in march you showed me a twins stat sheet at all star break i would have been pleased. pretty much all the guys we needed to perform in order to have a shot have performed. i'm holding out hope that some luck might turn and the twins will get back in this race. that said, it's a tougher division than last year. cleveland is better and detroit has surely learned from last season. plus they've added sheff, who knows a thing or two about september and october baseball.
Posted: July 12, 2007 11:10 AM   by Anonymous
re: guy who says cleveland sucks. not only that, but the weather is horrible. spring, summer, fall, even winter.... i swear it's always 50 degrees and cloudy.
Posted: July 12, 2007 11:11 AM   by Anonymous
gotta say, as a minnesotan i'm loving the resurgence of midwest baseball. great to see classic midwest teams winning world series past couple yrs. if twins aren't gonna get back in the race i'm definitely rooting for cleveland or detroit to win the series.
Your logic in grading Cleveland higher than Detroit makes little sense, but apparently an unquestionably worse offense, rotation, and bench means you're a better team. I get it. No, really.
Posted: July 12, 2007 11:43 AM   by Anonymous
hey Jon - don't overlook that Konerko was a player of the month candidate for June and not coincidentally the Sox' hitting and run production has gone up dramatically since. 'Cept for ol' Jermaine. OLD Jermaine?
Posted: July 12, 2007 12:40 PM   by Anonymous
I think every Royals fan on the planet commented to this blog.
Posted: July 12, 2007 6:59 PM   by Anonymous
Tigers are the best team in baseball-an offense that is out of this world, a great starting rotation, and a rapidly improving bullpen (Brad Lidge/Eric Gagne?). Even the Red Sox don't have all of that going for 'em. Tigers win division and World Series relatively easily.
Posted: July 15, 2007 3:39 PM   by Anonymous
a rapidly improving bullpen (Brad Lidge/Eric Gagne?).
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
um... neither brad lidge or eric gagne are on the tigers' staff...
Posted: July 15, 2007 7:00 PM   by Mike R.
Cleveland is a better team than the Tigers without question. They led the division for most of the first half, which explains the A- grade. Their offense is just beginning to catch fire, with Hafner starting to hit after signing his extension. C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona(combined record of 25-8) are a better 1-2 punch than anything Detriot has to offer. Also the Indians bullpen has been better than the Tigers has. GO TRIBE
Posted: July 16, 2007 3:11 AM   by Anonymous
wow all of you Detroit fans came from nowhere. 3 years ago you couldn't find a fan of your Tigers. Now their good and everyone is a fan. The weather might suck in Cleveland but at least our fans our the best in all of sports. Go Tribe. WS07
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