45 games into the season the Detroit Tigers are in the middle of a tighter than expected AL Central race. Detroit enters play on Friday trailing the upstart Cleveland Indians by a half game. Kansas City is five games behind the Tribe with the White Sox only a ½ game behind them. The Minnesota Twins, as expected, are bringing up the rear at 18-26 and eight games back.
So is this 2011 all over again? Will Cleveland’s hot start sputter and stall once more as the Tigers overwhelm the rest of the pack with their superior roster and lofty payroll?
Let’s go team-by-team to see how this thing is going to shake down come late September. We’ll do this in alphabetical order:
Chicago White Sox
They seem to be missing just enough in every key area to not be a true contender this year. Their offense lacks excitement and elite firepower. Paul Konerko can only do so much. He will need big time seasons from all four of Alex Rios, Alexei Ramirez, Adam Dunn, and Dayan Viciedo to give this team a shot. The odds of that happening are mighty slim.
On the mound the Sox have as good of a 1-2 punch as most teams in baseball with Chris Sale and Jake Peavy. However, the season-ending injury to Gavin Floyd seriously depleted the depth of this rotation. In the end the Sox will simply not have enough juice and will finish 4th in this division.
What a difference a Terry Francona can make. He is firmly entrenched in the top-tier of managers in the game and has the Tribe believing that they can push the Tigers to the brink. Oh, and adding Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, and Drew Stubbs to the lineup has already paid huge dividends. Only one team has plated more than the 238 runs Cleveland has put on the board and that’s Detroit with 245. With Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana coming into their own and Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis forming a nice middle infield combo with offensive pop, the Indians are going to be able to hit with anyone this year.
But can they get enough outs? Justin Masterson is having a huge season, but can it continue? Probably not at his current pace. Zach McAllister is pitching above his head. And then you have the rest of the group that includes the inevitably disappointing Ubaldo Jimenez alongside Corey Kluber and Scott Kazmir.
Fortunately, Francona has a very good bullpen, especially with Vinnie Pestano back in the mix. This shortens up the obligations on the starting rotation but in the end, it will be the 5-man rotation that keeps Cleveland from winning the division. Despite all of the mojo and chemistry, they will finish 2nd and have to duke it out for a Wild Card. Give Francona two more elite arms at the deadline though?
All business, all the time. That’s your 2013 Detroit Tigers. In fact, they are so business oriented that their silly routine after a big hit is when they pretend to adjust their non-existent tie. Offensively, you have Miguel Cabrera on pace to break some major records, including most RBI’s in a season. Pair him up with Prince Fielder and they are challenging Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s all-time mark for a duo. The true beauty for Jim Leyland’s offense so far has been the resurgence of Jhonny Peralta (.323 avg.) and the professional hitting of Omar Infante (.323). Together, these two have shored up the bottom of the order that was so weak a season ago. Once Victor Martinez is all the way back and Austin Jackson is healthy the Tigers will have no alternative but to continue their assault on opposing pitching.
So far, Jose Valverde has a 0.82 ERA and has saved five of his six opportunities. He may not be elite but he’ll do just fine in his back-end support role of one of the league’s best pitching staffs. When people are grumbling more about Justin Verlander than they are about Rick Porcello, you know things are going to be ok. And yes, Verlander will be just fine. Max Scherzer might be the most dynamic of the bunch though and having Anibal Sanchez at the top of his game with the steady Doug Fister means that you can start planning for how to afford those playoff tickets. Sorry, Cleveland, Detroit is still the lead cat.
Kansas City Royals
Oh how I wish this team could get it together. I love how they have constructed their roster but the simple fact is that two guys that they were counting on for major contributions both this year and last have fallen well short of expectations. Mike Moustakas (.174 avg.) and Eric Hosmer (.270 avg. 1 HR) need to figure it out fast. With Alex Gordon and Billy Butler anchoring the offense and up-and-comers Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez tearing the cover off the ball, this team is literally Moustakas and Hosmer away from competing. And it’s not going to happen this year for the two youngsters.
James Shields has been as good as advertised in the rotation and Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie are exceeding their projections. If that continues and the offense can somehow get hot as a group for long stretches of the season then this team can push Cleveland for 2nd place. I just don’t believe in the total offensive product enough. KC finishes 3rd.
The Twins stink. We knew this going in and they have not disappointed. It’s not their offense, which has some nice pieces in the middle of that order. It’s the pitching. Minnesota’s starting rotation has combined for a 5.67 ERA on the season, worst in the AL. Until they can get some of those young arms that they acquired in the offseason ready to roll Ron Gardenhire’s team will continue to give up runs in bunches and finish dead last in this division.
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