AL CENTRAL STANDINGS (as of May 2nd)

Indians        19-8        —
Royals         15-13     4.0
Tigers          12-15     6.5
White Sox  10-19    9.5
Twins            9-18     9.5

Yes, I know…it’s early. It’s only May 1st, but the Indians winning while the Tigers, White Sox and Twins lose has become a common occurrence in this early season. It’s been so common that the Indians are threatening to run away with a huge division lead. They finished the weekend by sweeping the Tigers right out of Cleveland to move to 19-8.

So do the Indians actually have a legitimate shot at winning the title. YES.

It has just as much to do with this Indians team as it does with the way the rest of the division is playing. Did you know that the Tribe currently leads the American League in offense? Probably not, but they are first with a .272 batting average and first in runs with 141. The lineup had the potential to be solid, but I’m not sure if anyone saw this coming. Young guys like Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley are healthy and producing while Travis Hafner is having a resurgence of a year. Grady Sizemore has also returned and given the Tribe a boost with a .379/.429/.822 slash line.

The surprising part about Cleveland so far this year is its pitching. They are fourth in the AL with a 3.49 ERA. The Tribe’s worst starter to date has been their ace to start the season in Fausto Carmona, who sits with a 5.15 ERA. But they are receiving stellar pitching performances from Josh Tomlin (4-0, 2.45), Mitch Talbot (1-0, 1.46) and Justin Masterson (5-0, 2.18). Masterson was always a high prospect of the Red Sox and showed shades of brilliance last year, but looks like he may be finally putting it all together. The question for this team will be can Tomlin/Talbot put together a full, solid season and can Carmona bounce back from his early struggles.

So there’s the breakdown of why the Indians are winning, but another reason they have a real shot at the AL Central title is because the rest of the division is floundering at the moment. The Tigers are looking like just an ordinary .500 team with not enough offense, starting pitching and a sketchy bullpen. The Twins seem to have run out of some of their magic and the White Sox are in the process of burying themselves early again. When a team is struggling early, you just can’t allow yourself to get buried in April and May, but the White Sox and Twins are already nine games below .500.

Last year, the White Sox started off 24-33 (nine games down as well), they did rebound to end up with 88 wins and a battle for the pennant, but they also went on a ridiculous run where they went 26-5 in a stretch of 30-plus games in June and July. Can you rely on something like that again? I’m not so sure. I think they will eventually turn it around, but I don’t know if they can get back and compete for the division.

That leaves the Royals, who like the Indians are a surprise team so far this season. Along with the Indians, they are the only other team above .500 in the Central though they haven’t been quite as exciting as the Tribe. The Royals have a lot of young talent that will hopefully help turn the corner of baseball in Kansas City, but I just don’t see this team hanging in a division hunt down the stretch.

Coupled with this talented Indians team and how the rest of the division is playing, I think the Tribe have a great shot at challenging the division. Pundits will still go with the “it’s still early” line and think the Twins and White Sox will still battle for this division. They is definitely possible, but at some point you can’t continue to use the early line and need to start stringing together some wins and actually look like a Major League team in the process, which the Twins and White Sox have not looked like so this year.

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Some random thoughts two weeks into the season…

The Jeter fascination is annoying. In the many nationally televised Yankees games already this month, I’ve grown tired of listening to the announcers feel the need to defend Derek Jeter at every step because of his down year in 2010. It basically goes something to this effect: “Everyone talks about what a bad year Jeter had last season, but who wouldn’t take a shortstop that scores 100 runs, hits .270 and wins a Gold Glove.” If I hear that line again, I may puke.Here’s my simple answer: Uh, that’s nice and all but I wouldn’t be paying this guy $20 plus million, which is what Jeter’s salary was last year, for that especially when his Gold Glove is a joke.

People will always defend him because of the greatness of his entire career, but let’s face it the guy has lost a step and is currently overpaid. He only hit about 50 points below his career average in 2010. It’s like “Holy cow! We can’t just say he had a bad year because he’s an awesome player and a nice guy!” We’ll see what year he puts together this season, but he’s already off to a slow, mediocre start.

The upside AL Central. While the Twins are struggling at 4-10 and the Tigers and White Sox are hovering around .500, the Royals and Indians are killing it in first place with a 10-4 record. I’m not sure I saw a preseason prediction that included the Royals and Indians anywhere but the basement. It’s a nice start, but at the same time it’s just a nice start. It’s April 16th. I hope both teams actually stay in the hunt, but I don’t see that happening. I liked the Indians lineup in spring training, but the pitching was going to be the question. Well so far, guys like Josh Tomlin, Mitch Talbot and Justin Masterson are pitching the lights out. If one of these surprise teams stay above .500, I see it being the Tribe than the Royals.

Fun fact: The Indians are the first team in the AL to win eight straight games after starting 0-2.

Craig Kimbrel. The Braves new closer is nasty. He nailed down his fourth save of the season today in Game 1 of a DH against the Mets. And he’s been pretty much unhittable since coming up last year. Check out these gaudy numbers: in 26.2 innings pitched in his career, Kimbrel has struck out 50 batters…that’s a 16.9 K/9 rate. Whoa. Kimbrel features a sinking fastball in the mid-90’s along with a devastating slider that hitters haven’t begun to figure out to date. This young kid is making Braves fans quickly forget about retired closer Billy Wagner.

Rockies rolling at 11-2. The Rockies are off to their best start in franchise history. And they are doing it without Ubaldo Jimenez, who is sidelined with an injured thumb. The Rox have certainly been impressive, but it should be noted that they have benefited from playing the Diamondbacks, Pirates and Mets already this season. They are just beating the teams that are scheduled in front of them, but I’m interested to see how they fare against the Phillies, Giants and some of the better teams in the NL.

Oh, and how big was Troy Tulowitzki‘s series against the Mets where he had 10 hits, four HRs and eight RBIs? He’s the first player to pick up numbers like that in one series since Vlad Guerrero smoked the Rangers in September of 2004 with 12 hits, five HRs and nine RBIs.

Charlie Morton has “good stuff.” And he may be finally showing it. The sinker was sinking all over the place Friday as Morton tossed a complete game in a victory over the Reds. He came within one out of the shutout before allowing a Jay Bruce home run. This is all significant because the Pirates had only one CG in 2010 when Paul Maholm fired a CG SO on July 18. Morton already matched their one CG in just two weeks into this season. After his disastrous 2010 season, Morton is off to a stellar start already: 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in three starts. NL Cy Young anyone?

We’ve reached the All-Star break of the 2010 season, and I wanted to post a breakdown on the crazy division that is the AL Central.

In my preseason predictions for each division, the AL Central was one that I labored over the most. Wanting to pick the Twins, but scared of the injury to closer Joe Nathan and thinking the Tigers were relying on too many rookies at once, I opted for the White Sox to win the division. I immediately regretted that decision about a month into the season when Chicago looked awful and off to a 14-21 record in mid-May. The AL Central had suddenly turned into only a two-team race as the Sox were fading fast. Well, as it turns out, the division is still pretty much whatever everyone thought it would be—a three-team race that most likely will be undecided into the final week of the season.

Only a little over a month ago, the White Sox were nine games below .500 and the Central standings looked like this on the morning of June 9:

Minnesota   34-24     —
Detroit          30-27    3.5
Chicago         24-33    9.5

The White Sox pounded the Tigers that evening 15-3 and went on an absolute tear to force themselves back in the picture. The Sox went on a blistering 25-5 pace in the next month that included winning streaks of 11 and a current one of eight to find themselves in first place at the break. A big reason for the turnaround has been (as usual) the home run for Chicago (third in the AL with 100), including the resurgence of Carlos Quentin, who is hitting .529 (9-for-17) with six home runs in his past five games. Whoa. Today, the standings read:

Chicago          49-38       —
Detroit            48-38      0.5
Minnesota      46-42     3.5

As I write this on July 12, I honestly have no clue how this division will eventually play out. The White Sox will have to come back down to earth after this ridiculous 25-5 run, but they’ve made up for their poor start and are right back in the hunt. All three teams are ranked in a row in the AL in ERA with the Sox having the slight edge with a 4.01 ERA over the Twins (4.09) and Tigers (4.29). On the other hand, the Twins and Tigers both have a higher batting average and on-base percentage than Chicago, but the Sox make up for it with the long ball and pitching. Head-to-head, the Twins have the advantage going 10-7 against the Tigers and Sox in the first half while the Tigers have not fared well against their two division rivals with a 6-10 record. The Tigers and Twins have already met a lot in the first half, but the Tigs and Sox still have 13 games remaining against each other.

I believe all three teams will be right there, because the Twins, Tigers and White Sox are all good teams. The problem is, none of these three teams are great teams. While the division race will be fun to watch down the stretch, none of them are a great team, and therefore whichever team wins the pennant, I don’t see them doing much damage in the playoffs when facing powerhouses like the Yankees, Red Sox or the Rays.

Moving right along with the 2010 outlook, I’ll take a look at the National League Central and American League Central divisions—always fun divisions to try to predict in March.

NL CENTRAL
1. Cardinals
2. Reds
3. Cubs
4. Brewers
5. Astros
6. Pirates

It should be clear that this is the Cardinals division to lose. If the Cards aren’t sitting on top of the NL Central come October, then something when drastically wrong in the injury department. St. Louis took the division last year by 7.5 over the games in 2009. In their 2010 projections, Baseball Prospectus has the widest gap between first and second place with the Cardinals predicted eight games ahead of the Cubs. And why not? The Cardinals were able to hold onto Matt Holliday in the offseason, who could have a monster year hitting in the same lineup as Albert Pujols for an entire season. Pujols is coming off a 47 homer, 135 RBI season with a ridiculous OBP of .443, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t do it again because all he’s done in his career is put up superstar numbers. On the pitching side, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter look to be in the prime of their careers as they finished 3 and 2 in the running for the Cy Young in 2009, respectively.

The rest of the division is sort of spinning its wheels with the exception of the Reds, which could be a surprise team this year. The Reds threw a lot of money at Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman with hopes that he can be another piece in what could become a solid rotation. Joey Votto is on the cusp of taking the next step to the elite hitters while Jay Bruce needs to rebound for this team to challenge the Cardinals. I still like them in second place, but the 2-4 teams can be group in any order as they could all be within a couple of games of each other at season’s end. I’m not sold on the Cubs this year considering they weren’t very good last year, so I’m predicting a step back from them with guys like Alfonso Soriano appear to be breaking down.

The Brewers have two studs in the lineup in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but the rest of the starting nine is a bunch of a question marks. Can Braun and Fielder carry this team back to the postseason? As for the Astros, I think they will end up in last place (at least I hope), but they always seem to perform better than my expectations every single year so I have no idea what to expect from them. I have the Pirates in last place and will have more on that in a separate Pirates preview post later this week.

AL CENTRAL
1. White Sox
2. Twins
3. Tigers
4. Indians
5. Royals

I thought about this one for a while—Twins or White Sox? This AL Central will be another tight race, which is what we have come to expect from this division. Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit will once again come down to the wire, but as much I hate to write it, I think the White Sox will this division title.

I’m high on the Twins lineup, their moves this offseason and their pitching staff, but when it came time to make a decision the loss of Joe Nathan stood out for me. To think that a closer committee can fill the kind of production and consistency that Nathan provided the Twins over the years is illogical. This is a huge loss and can’t be overshadowed. And the White Sox will pitch, they have plenty of capable arms in a rotation stocked with the likes of Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd plus the bullpen is solid as well.

In Motown, there was a lot of attention paid to the Tigers cutting payroll especially with the Granderson trade, but I think the Tigers could actually be better this year than in 2009. Max Scherzer is primed for a breakout season in his third season and teamed with ace Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello, this could be a formidable rotation for years. A couple of questions I have with the Tigers is starting two true rookies (Austin Jackson in center field and Scott Sizemore at second base. Only four teams in MLB history have made the postseason with a rookie starting in CF. The numbers don’t lie, it’s just hard to win with rookies starting especially one that is slated to lead off and play center field. They will definitely be in the hunt though.

As far as the rest of the division is concerned, they’ll be on the outside looking in. I think the Indians will be better than most people expect to see. Grady Sizemore will rebound, Asdrubal Cabrera is primed for a breakout campaign and a couple of other young players in Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta will have chances to stand out for the Tribe. The pitching will struggle and that will likely be the downfall of the Indians in 2010. The Royals will be improved and they won’t go into too many slumps with Zack Greinke on the mound every fifth day, but they just don’t have enough fire power to contend this summer. A positive sign for 2010 and the Royals future would be Alex Gordon to shrug off a disastrous, injury-filled 2009 season to break out and be the complete hitter the Royals thought they were getting with the second overall pick in 2005.