AL Central not going according to plan
Expected contenders must solve problems before it's too late
Back when we all thought we knew what was going to happen in the 2011 season -- that is to say, before a pitch had been thrown -- it appeared that the two Central divisions might provide baseball's most compelling races. Each featured several talented but flawed teams, teasing the possibility of wide-open, multi-team pennant races.
The National League Central has, after an odd first week or two, delivered as promised. The three favorites, the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers, are locked in a close race that could well last for six months. The American League Central, though ... is just odd.
Cleveland has been baseball's best story, running out to a big lead after being written off by, well, just about everyone. The Royals have likewise been a pleasant early-season surprise. Meanwhile, the three teams expected to battle it out at the top have instead sunk to the bottom. The Tigers, White Sox and Twins have the three worst records not only in the division, but in the AL. They have the league's three worst run differentials as well.
The best of them, Detroit, trails the division-leading Tribe by eight games. There's a lot of season left, but eight games is a daunting hill to climb. Minnesota stands fully 10 games out of first place. Being five games under .500 in early May, as the Tigers are, does not automatically spell doom. Being 10 games out of first place, though, that's not nothing.
The odds are that at least one of the three will rally, but not all of them. It helps that even an optimist must admit that it's tough to see the Indians playing .700 ball all year long. We still don't have enough information to make definitive statements on what these three teams are going to be, but we've seen enough baseball to start getting reads on them.
What's distressing for all of these clubs is that in no case is there one simple cause, one thing they can point to and say, "Fix THAT, and we're fine." There's a lot going on, in every case.
Minnesota is surely in the most difficult spot. The Twins are alone in last, they've scored the fewest runs in the AL, and they've allowed the most. It's rare for a last-place team to have a worse Pythagorean record than actual record, but that's the Twins' situation. They're 9-18, and their run differential suggests that even that is fortunate -- their expected record is 7-20.
"We still believe in our system and we believe in what we do," manager Ron Gardenhire said recently. "We just haven't gotten it done.
"Throwing the ball over the plate, catching the ball, running the bases. ... All the things we pride ourselves in, like a lot of other organizations, it's a work in progress."
Some things should get better. Surely Francisco Liriano won't carry a 9-plus ERA all year, and Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano should pitch better, too. But that might not be enough to get this team where it needs to be. Minnesota's offseason bullpen drain has proved costly, as have some defensive downgrades.
Twins pitchers always pitch to contact, and this year is no different. They're striking out fewer hitters than any AL team. Yet they have the third-worst defensive efficiency rating in the AL. That's a very dangerous combination. If the pitchers aren't getting punchouts, it's imperative for defenders to turn those batted balls into outs. The Twins fielders aren't, and there isn't much indication that they're going to start.
The offense should get a boost when Joe Mauer returns from his leg problems, but it seems to be anyone's guess when that will happen. And Justin Morneau is starting to warm up a bit, but he's still nowhere near the hitter he used to be. Hitters hit, as a general rule. But Morneau is not just any hitter, and until he shows he's back to what he was before his concussion, nothing should be assumed.
There's a history in Minneapolis of late-season runs, a fact that has to encourage the faithful. But the odds may be longer this year than they've been in quite a while.
The White Sox are the most puzzling. They are, for the most part, healthy. They're just not producing. Adam Dunn has an OPS in the low .600s. Mark Buehrle has an ERA north of 5.00. Alex Rios has 16 base hits for the entire season.
Some of these things, surely, will right themselves. Dunn is too good a hitter to struggle like this all year. Buehrle must be better than this. If the biggest problem is established stars not performing at their established levels, it's a good problem to have. Good players will, eventually, return to being good players. Yet you have to wonder when, since we're no longer talking about a week or two.
Like the Twins, the Sox also have some defensive issues, and their bullpen is very much in flux. Yet the pieces are in place for a better team. Chicago's good players should start playing well. If they don't, though, it's going to be a long year.
It's the Tigers, though, who are in the best position. For one thing, they're the closest to contention. Their best players are playing well. Miguel Cabrera is once again putting up MVP numbers. The top of their rotation hasn't been dominant, but it's been very strong. And the back of the bullpen is getting the job done, save for new acquisition Joaquin Benoit.
Where Detroit is lacking is beyond the top of the roster. Complementary regulars like Austin Jackson, Brandon Inge and Will Rhymes simply have not hit, and this might just be the year when Magglio Ordonez gets old. The infield defense has been a problem. That won't affect someone like Justin Verlander all that much, but for Brad Penny, it's an issue.
Yet help is on the way, in the form of Victor Martinez. Even if Ordonez is in the twilight of his career, he'll surely hit better than he has. And just a week ago, the Tigers were above .500. They look more like a team in a slump than a team having a bad year.
"I think that you just know you have a good team and you know it's going to play good," manager Jim Leyland said. "I don't know if it's going to be tonight or tomorrow or the next day, but this team will play good. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind. We have too many good players. This team will play good."
The road is decidedly uphill for all three of the expected contenders. But if anyone is best positioned to make that climb, it's Detroit.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.