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Wednesday, May 9, 2012
State of that other division, the AL Central

By Christina Kahrl

We’re almost a fifth of the way into the season, and many of the expected storylines in both leagues have gotten the usual attention. The East divisions get the attention because both provide full five-team tangles of contenders and pretenders, with heightened expectations raised higher still with the addition of two more wild-card entries this postseason. The NL Central has bad blood and historic rivalries. And the Wests have the L.A. teams riding their respective highs and lows. The Rangers have a pair of pennants. The NL West gives you a surprise team every season.

Who’s missing from all that? The AL Central, and perhaps it’s easy to see why. The division is home to baseball’s two worst teams, the Twins and the Royals, by any standard you might care to measure such things by: record or run differential. Only a simple Pythagorean interpretation of the Royals’ runs scored and allowed gets them out of their duet with the Twins at the very bottom of the majors, but even that might be generous, because however many runs the Royals sporadically get, it’s tough to outscore one of the only two rotations that can’t generate a quality start even a third of the time. And the other starting staff that is that bad? The Twins -- what, you needed to ask? -- even after Scott Diamond’s masterful shutdown of the Angels on Tuesday night.

But you can’t just blame this dud-ly duo at the bottom of the standings. The three teams competing for a playoff slot that’s theirs as a matter of geographical destiny aren’t blowing the league away in the early going. The Indians, White Sox and Tigers are a combined three games over .500, and have a combined run differential of zero. Taken collectively, they’re three teams around .500 that are supposed to be .500.

Now sure, that’s fun with math, because the Indians have slipped out to a modest early lead with their 17-12 start. However, that just echoes last year’s 30-15 season-starting run: Cause for celebrations on the banks of the Cuyahoga, and healthy skepticism everywhere else.

Can the Tribe be taken any more seriously this time around? Maybe if Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson get a handle on their early-season control problems, that would help, but their front five doesn't match up well with the best rotations.

On offense, they’re currently 10th in the American League in ISO or isolated slugging; it’s hard to identify where they’re going to get a major power boost as the season progresses. Johnny Damon hasn’t been a moderately useful power source for an outfield corner or DH since he left the Yankees after 2009. Grady Sizemore would be if and when his latest comeback gets under way. ‘Soon,’ ‘June’ and ‘when the cow jumps over the moon’ all seem like reasonable answers given his track record. Casey Kotchman isn’t hitting; he rarely does.

Which suggests that the Indians’ best fix on offense is currently outside the organization. First base is usually a good spot to find a free agent-to-be on a non-contender and trade for him as a two-month temp at the deadline, but next winter’s crop of free agents at first base is mostly appalling: Aubrey Huff? Carlos Lee? But how about Kevin Youkilis, as Gordon Edes has pointed out? Indians fans can certainly hope, but GM Chris Antonetti doesn’t have a ton to work with.

What of the White Sox? In all their early celebrations over Adam Dunn’s resurrection and A.J. Pierzynski popping a quick five homers, there’s still Gordon Beckham's and Brent Morel's slack bats. Homegrown Dayan Viciedo has fit right into that brand of ghastliness, struggling to post an OPS above .600. And with their whipsawing Chris Sale moving from the rotation to the pen, it’s clear they haven’t entirely figured what they can do with the working parts they do have.

So barring the Indians making some sort of game-changing deal, this really should still be the Tigers’ division to win. That might sound like a declaration of faith in the famous people, but propositions that start with names like Verlander, Miggy or Prince involve happier endings than those that rely on Pronk or Becks.

They aren’t perfect, of course, and a lot of that is because of the rest of Jim Leyland’s crew. I don’t blame you if you’re a Brennan Boesch skeptic -- has any other 27-year-old corner outfielder with a .424 career SLG ever inspired so much faith he’s going to be something more? -- or unconvinced that Delmon Young is ever going to really break out. But eventually Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder and Alex Avila will have more to work with than they have had in the early going.

At least in the rotation Doug Fister’s already back, and if Drew Smyly pans out, maybe he’s the third starter that Max Scherzer hasn’t been or Rick Porcello isn’t ready to be. But it says something that you have to already count on Fister as a sure thing as their No. 2, something nobody would have said about him on anybody’s team a year ago.

This early, though, project them over 162 games and the Tigers still look like the one team in the division with a legit shot at 90 wins. So I’d suggest Tigers fans keep the faith. They may feel letdown by initial expectations that they’d romp from day one, but a couple of long months beating up on the Twins and Royals will help. Barring an in-season overhaul for the Indians, it’s still Detroit’s division to win.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
AJ Pierzynski
A.J. Pierzynski may well be wondering, did Momma say there'd be days like this?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.