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9/18/2007 02:15:00 PM

AL Central: Status Report

By Joe Lemire

Ever see that movie Sliding Doors? Nah, me neither.

But from what I remember of seeing the coming attractions, the premise was great. Gwyneth Paltrow lives parallel lives with two vastly different outcomes, separated by a seemingly mundane, everyday activity -- making or missing a certain subway car.

Well, after Cleveland's extra-inning walkoff win over Detroit last night, extending the Indians' lead to cutting to 5.5 games -- and cutting their magic number to seven -- the division can be called by everyone and not just over-eager bloggers.

So the history books might remember the Tribe running away with the division down the stretch, but I think the American League Central could just as easily have gone in a very different direction. I know I cite Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds pretty regularly. Obviously, predicting the future, especially over a long baseball season, is a very inexact science, but BP's odds are a good gauge of realistic expectations.

To wit, the Indians were at their lowest on April 19, the day Joe Borowski blew a four-run lead in the ninth to the Yankees on Alex Rodriguez's walkoff grand slam. Oh, the carnage.

What, to me, might have been more important about that day -- after all, Borowski's a veteran who has a knack for bouncing back from horrifying performances -- is that Fausto Carmona, in his second start of the season, made a quality start, holding the Yankees to two runs in six innings. As I detailed earlier this year, Carmona entered the season as very damaged goods. A few bad outings, such as the six runs he allowed in 4.1 innings to the White Sox in his debut, could have ruined the confidence of the temperamental, young pitcher for good.

Instead, Carmona battled in that game through a few a dicey situations. In the first inning, with two on and one out, he struck out A-Rod and induced a groundout from Giambi. In the third, with one run already in and a runner on with one out, Carmona again struck out A-Rod and then got Giambi to fly out.

Suppose A-Rod homered in either the first or third innings, rather than saving his heroics for the ninth. Sure, it'd still have been one loss for Cleveland either way, but the Tribe might not have even given Carmona any more chances this season to prove his worth. That start proved to be the first of eight consecutive quality starts for Fausto. Hence, my Sliding Doors analogy. Now Carmona sports a 17-8 record with 3.07 ERA. As John Donovan points out, since the All-Star break, C.C. Sabathia and Carmona "have allowed a combined 158 hits in 188 innings pitched and together have a butt-kicking 2.44 ERA"

For the visual learners in the group (you know who you are), BP also provides this neat color graph showing the fluctuating playoff expectations of the AL Central teams.

It may be harder to pinpoint a Sliding Doors experience for the other teams in the division, but none of the teams is where, at the beginning of the season, I'd predicted they'd be at this point in the season.

White Sox

Where they are: Celebrating Jim Thome's 500th home run (a walkoff) like it were the World Series. Chicago has been so bad and so far out of the playoff race for so long, that they have little else to cheer. Despite the disappointing year, the ChiSox extended manager Ozzie Guillen through 2012.

Where I thought they'd be: Out of the postseason race, yes, but just barely. Sure, the main sluggers in that lineup are old, but who could have predicted this much of a decline? I expected Josh Fields to be up with the big club and learning left field, to accommodate a lineup with him and Joe Crede, but that's about all I had right. No one could have anticipated such an historically bad bullpen.

Twins

Where they are: An unexpected also-ran. Firmly entrenched in third place for the most of the year, never too far out of but never really in the pennant race either, the Twins never quite the lineup production they needed. Joe Mauer missing some 40 games with injury certainly didn't help, but Nick Punto's .262 on-base percentage at a corner infield position probably hurts more. If it seems like I've belabored Punto's offensive struggles a lot this year, then you're right, but it's not without good reason: I pegged him for a late-round fantasy sleeper, and he has endlessly disappointed me on a personal level. That said, manager Rod Gardenhire still favors him as the starting second baseman next year.

Where I thought they'd be: In possession of Terry Ryan as their general manager and fighting to the last day of the season to slip into the playoffs, likely as the wild card. The Ryan news was a shocker to everyone -- but not quite as shocking as Twins CEO Jim Pohlad thinking Minnesota might be better off without him.

Tigers

Where they are: In second place, staring at an insurmountable divisional deficit. Trailing New York by 3.5 games in the wild card isn't a fun prospect either. They heeded my challenge from last week, rolling off five straight wins, but it doesn't help if the Yankees continue to play like they'll never lose again. Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney couldn't replicate last year's bullpen magic, Jeremy Bonderman got hurt down the stretch and Kenny Rogers couldn't stay healthy all season long.

Where I thought they'd be: I thought there might be an AL pennant hangover for the Tigers and that they'd have finished in fourth place, though in record fashion. So little seemed to separate the top four teams in the division, and I certainly never saw Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffied and Placido Polanco having quite the seasons they did to keep them in the race.

Royals

Where they are: Only a half-game behind Chicago for fourth place. And the two are playing each other this week, with banishment to last place at stake. They have an anemic offense in which catcher John Buck leads with 18 HR. Alex Gordon leads the team in RBIs ... but with only 59, tied with Emil Brown. That's not very good. Brian Bannister is a leading candidate (along with Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Hideki Okajima) for AL Rookie of the Year.

Where I thought they'd be: Even farther back in last place. I knew they'd have a Rookie of the Year candidate, but like everyone else I thought it'd be Gordon and or even Billy Butler, not Bannister. The way the Royals splurged on Meche, they need to do the same on a veteran hitter or two for next year, if they want to make more progress for next year.

With Thome hitting that magical 500 milestone -- historically a ticket into the Hall of Fame -- baseball writers are beginning to ask, Does Thome's career merit induction? Tom Verducci says Thome will need more than 500 homers, as his career has lacked any stretch of true dominance. ESPN's Rob Neyer says he'll need 600 home runs.

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posted by SI.com | View comments |  

Comments:

Posted: September 20, 2007 5:57 PM   by Anonymous
So where did you see Cleveland finishing and where are they now?
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