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.

Don’t look now, but pitchers and catchers report next week! With the start of spring training right around the corner, I thought we’d take a look at some of the prominent free agents who will be changing uniforms this year…

Yankees
The Yankees are having a bit of a rough offseason. They lost out on ace Cliff Lee at the last minute to the Phillies, their longtime steady All-Star pitcher Andy Pettitte decided to retire and then they were raked over the coals by Derek Jeter to sign him to an extension. Meanwhile, the Red Sox went out and brought in a ton of talent mainly Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Bobby Jenks to name a few.

So what did the Yanks do to compensate? Well besides locking up Rivera and Rafael Soriano for their bullpen, they went out and signed Andruw Jones, Bartolo Colon, Mark Prior and now Eric Chavez. These pickups would have been great if the year was 2004 and not 2011. Three of these deals are minor league deals, but wow could they be anymore desperate for starting pitching. If one of the following, Colon-Prior-Chavez, stick I would be shocked.

Rays sign some idiots
The Rays reunited outfielders Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez from their days in Boston, signing them both two one-year deals. Both players are winding down their careers and are not the same players they once were, but it will be interesting to see how their veteran presence will be on a young team that lost Crawford, Garza and Soriano in the offseason. They don’t have the power they used to process as Manny hit nine total compared to Damon’s eight last year. If one of the two can rebound from a mediocre 2010, it’ll pay dividends for Tampa.

Rangers give six years to Beltre
Texas used the money saved for Cliff Lee to pickup Adrian Beltre in a six-year, $96M deal. Didn’t the Rangers learn their lesson on the A-Rod deal that strapped them for years down the road. Beltre had a sterling season last year (.321/.365/.553), there’s no doubt about that. But it was a big improvement from 2009 when he struggled with the Mariners. Plus, Beltre will be 32 in early April, and I’m not so sure giving a 32-year-old with Beltre’s track record a six-year deal is a great idea. Besides the Rangers need pitching, not hitting at this point.

Dunn to White Sox
Adam Dunn signed with the Chi Sox for a four-year, $56MM deal. Dunn’s a player that has hit an average of 40.3 home runs each year since 2004. Now, he moves to an extreme home run hitter’s park in Chicago at the age of 31, Dunn may absolutely rake in the lineup that features Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin.

Quick hits:

Vlad and Lee sign with the Orioles: Minus the postseason, Vladimir Guerrero had a terrific 2010 season with the Rangers, hitting .300/.345/.496 with 29 home runs. His decline in the postseason is a worry for the O’s, but I think Vlad will at least be productive this year though not to 2010’s standards. As for Derrek Lee, he will be looking for a bounce back year in new scenery in Baltimore after seeing his home run total drop from 35 in 2009 to 19 in 2010, including just three dingers after being dealt to Atlanta in August.

Matsui lands in Oakland: Hideki Matsui ended up being one of the most consistent producers for the Angels last year and should provide some much-needed power and experience for the A’s in 2011. If he stays healthy, 20-25 home runs shouldn’t be a problem.

Cubs land Pena: Along with upgrading their rotation with a trade for Garza, the Cubs signed Pena to a one-year, $10MM deal. Pena will provide some power the Cubs need, but I don’t care how many home runs he hits, he better cut down some strikeouts and improve that .198 average.

Javier Vazquez returns to the NL: Vazquez is coming off probably his worst season in the majors since his rookie year. He posted a 5.32 ERA while his strikeouts decreased and his walks went up with the Yanks. Signing a one-year, $7MM deal with Florida, he hopes to turn some magic back in the NL where he’s been extremely more effective throughout his 13-year career.

I was just about to work on a post on the biggest move this offseason being that of the White Sox signing slugger Adam Dunn when the Red Sox go out and acquire Adrian Gonzalez in a trade with San Diego.

The whole Gonzalez trade rumors have been discussed for a couple of years now at every trade deadline, but a move was never made until now. The Padres surprising success this year had something to do with them holding onto him throughout the season. But now he is a Red Sox, and we finally get to see what he can do is a ballpark outside of Petco.

Details on the trade are not official yet, but obviously the Red Sox will have an immediate return with a A+ power bat to plug into the lineup next to Big Papi and Kevin Youkilis. I just can’t wait to see what Gonzo can do going from an extreme pitcher’s park to a hitting haven like Fenway Park. Let’s break down Gonzalez’s career in San Diego…

In his five years with the Padres, Gonzalez hit a total of 161 home runs, an average of 32 bombs per year. This was coming out of a park that is considered one of the worst hitter’s park for homers in the league. Out of the 168 home runs in his career, 64 percent of those have come on the road. Plus, his average is 40 points higher away from Petco.

According to park factors.com, Petco Park is a -74 rating (76R, 72 HR), meaning that in the years 2007-2009 Petco produced 76 runs for every 100 runs scored in an average MLB park and 72 home runs for every 100 home runs. Petco’s ranking is dead last among all ballparks. On the flip side, Fenway plays close to neutral with a +101 rating (111R, 90HR).

Not only is the ballpark change going to be a huge factor, but Gonzalez rarely had any protection whatsoever in his seasons with the Padres. Add that up with him being in his prime (29 years old next year), and we could see a ridiculous 2011 season for Gonzalez in Fenway.

Berkman and Dunn signings
In other news, Dunn signed a four-year deal with the White Sox worth $56MM. This deal isn’t much of a surprise considering it’s no secret that the Sox have wanted Dunn for a while now. They went as far last year to acquire Edwin Jackson from the Diamondbacks in hopes that they could flip him to the Nationals for Dunn. There were plenty of rumors in July at the trade deadline of the White Sox front office being furious with the Nats for apparently backing off of a deal for Jackson after telling them they would deal Dunn for Jackson. Maybe if the White Sox acquire Dunn, their second half of the season would have been different, but anyway they have him on their roster now for four years. Speaking of park factors, Dunn moves into an absolute launching pad at Chicago’s US Cellular Field (+118 rating, 109R, 126HR) so expect to see his home run totals climb at a high rate.

Last up for today is the news that the Cardinals signed Lance Berkman to a one-year deal for $8 million. I’m not sure how much the 37-year-old slugger has left as he’s coming off his worst ML season (.248/.368/.413). He still gets on base a ton, but his power looks to be in serious decline. The weird thing about this pickup is there’s talk that the Cards will put Berkman in the outfield. Who would allow Berkman to touch the outfield? He hasn’t played it since 2007, and while I don’t live by some of the advanced defensive sabermetric statistics, his numbers in the outfield were pretty horrid.

With one week remaining in the 2010 regular season, the majority of fans are geared up to see who earns a playoff berth with five playoff spots still up for grabs. I’m obviously interested in that, but I’m also looking forward to those second place finishers that do not qualify for the playoffs. And why is that exactly? Because MLB awards teams for not making the playoffs as well! According to MLB’s postseason bylaws, it states that the four 2nd place teams (the non-wild card clubs) who do not make the postseason still receive 1% of the playoff shares.

I honestly didn’t even know this myself until a friend emailed me about it the other day. So even with some teams being out of the pennant race, they can still battle it out for a decent bonus paycheck at the conclusion of the regular season.

Take a look at 2008, where the Minnesota Twins received $511,593 for finishing in second place, which each player that received a share pulled in $11,078.97. Not a shabby bonus for finishing as the runner-up in the division.

So with the final week upon us, people will be excited to see who pulls the AL East out. Please. I’ll be watching the Tigers-White Sox in the AL Central to see who gets the 1 percent shares. Or how about the AL West where the A’s lead the Angels by two games. Suddenly that battle for second place doesn’t seem as pointless. Hey, there’s money on the line. Hang on Oakland!

After a short hiatus, let’s jump into an update on each pennant race going on around baseball. There are only two divisions pretty much wrapped up out of the six total, so it should be a very entertaining final month in Major League Baseball.

NL Central: A month ago I was pretty confident that the Cardinals would eventually beat out the Reds for the NL Central division title. Well, scratch that. Suddenly the Cards can’t win and the Reds can’t lose. The Reds 6-1 victory over the Red Birds Saturday gave them a nice eight game lead over St. Louis. Eight games?? Forget it, this race is OVE-VA! Who in their right mind had the Reds winning this division prior to the season? Oh wait, I had them as a surprise team in our 2010 outlook series. I need to take credit for something because I also had Baltimore in that list…whoops.

NL West: Another surprise team I had was the San Francisco Giants, who are currently just two games back of the sinking Padres. It’s actually amazing to think that the Padres have dropped nine straight and still lead the NL West by two games. The Giants stable of arms may have enough to leap past the falling Padres in this final month of the season. Plus, the Rockies are still hanging around as usual…5.5 games back in the division. A five-plus game difference is tough to make up in the final month, but the Rockies seem to find ways to go on a ridiculous run late in the year. This could be the closest race between more than two teams to watch in September.

AL East: Let’s head over to the AL East, where the Yankees are doing their thing—becoming a machine down the stretch that is immensely difficult to catch. The Bombers have won eight straight, and despite the Rays doing everything they can to keep pace, they remain 2.5 games behind New York. The Rays still have seven games this month against the Yankees, and if they don’t win five out of seven, we could be looking at another Yankees division title. In the end, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot because the runner-up in this division will end up with the wildcard.

AL West: Here’s how good it looks for the Rangers to be playing postseason baseball come October. Even if the A’s went on a tear and played .700 ball the rest of the way (19-8), the Rangers would have to go 10-17 in their final 27 games to lose the division to Oakland. Considering Oakland isn’t that good and the Rangers are pretty good, this isn’t going to happen. I’m excited about seeing what Cliff Lee/CJ Wilson tandem can do in the playoffs with this hitting behind them.

AL Central: Last year, it was a three-team race in September, but this year it’s only the Twins and White Sox battling to the end as the Tigers fell out of it a while back. The Twins are up today 3.5 games on the White Sox, but Chicago has been hot, winning five straight and seven of their past ten games. These two teams only meet up three more times this month in Chicago, but the Twins schedule is set up for them to win this thing. In their final 22 games that don’t include the White Sox, the Twins face the Royals six times, the Indians six times, the Tigers three times, the A’s three times and the Blue Jays three times. The Royals and Indians six times?? What a nice way to end it. If they end up blowing this 3.5 game lead, they only have themselves to play.

NL East: The Braves are clinging to a one-game lead as the Phillies are turning red-hot with their team getting healthy at the right time. This division looks like a clone of the AL East where the runner-up may be in the playoffs no matter what by earning the wildcard. If I had to pick a team to win the division though, I think the Phillies will still pull it out for another division title. The teams have six games remaining against each other with what could be a huge three-game series to end the season in Atlanta.

It’s the first of August and that can only mean good news for the Yankees, White Sox, Rangers, Braves, Cardinals and Padres. Historically speaking, the numbers show that teams leading their respective divisions on August 1 are pretty good bets to be winning that division at the end of the season.

Don’t believe me? Well let’s just take a look at the numbers. Since 1995 when MLB went to its six-division format (actually began in 1994, but there were no playoffs due to the strike), teams leading their division on Aug. 1 end up winning the division 82 percent (74-for-90) of the time. I’ll be honest, I knew the numbers were in favor of it, but until I researched it I never thought it was that high.

Breaking it down by league:

American League teams win the pennant 78% (35-for-45) of the time.
National League teams hold onto the division lead 87% (39-for-45) of the time.

Here are some other interesting notes:

– Two AL division leaders on August 1—Seattle in 2000 and Detroit in 2006—did not go on to win their division, but they still made the playoffs by earning the wildcard. So that adds two more teams to the numbers of division leaders making the playoffs.

– Speaking of the wildcard, the team that holds the wildcard spot on August 1 ends up as the wildcard 47 percent of the time. That’s decent news for the Giants and Rays, who currently hold those spots in each league.

– A very interesting finding is that it’s rare to see teams that are leading the wildcard race on August 1 come back to win the division at season’s end. There’s been only three in 15 years, which is 30 tries (10 percent) with both leagues. Oakland did it in 2000 when Seattle was the division leader and fell to the wildcard in October. The Diamondbacks did it in 2001, which was the year they won the World Series, and Cleveland made up the ground in 2007 to win the AL Central pennant.

– The National League had a bit of a run in the late ’90s. Every Aug.1 division leader ended up winning the division in the final two months from 1996 through 2000. The same occurred from 2004 through 2006 for the NL. The AL was generally more inconsistent with its biggest streak coming two straight years in ’98-’99.

– Last note is that the last three teams in the AL to blow the division lead in the final two months after leading in early August have all been the Detroit Tigers. The ’09, ’07 and ’06 Tigers all lost their divisions, including a blown 7.5 game lead over the Twins in ’06. Ouch.

So does this mean the division leaders today are shoe ins for the playoffs? Absolutely not. Anything can happen especially with the plethora of close division races currently taking place. The largest division lead is Texas over the A’s by 8.0 games in the AL West. The next closest is the Braves 3.5 lead over the Phillies while the Cardinals-Reds and the White Sox-Twins are each within a half game of each other. The Yankees hold a two game lead over the Rays in the AL East, and the Padres only have a 1.5 lead on the Giants. But historically speaking, it may not be wise to bet against 80 percent of them making the postseason.

There were numerous deals throughout the league on Friday. Let’s recap in the order that they were announced:

White Sox Acquire Edwin Jackson from Arizona
The Diamondbacks fire sale continues and believe it or not, but they may have picked up a better return for Edwin Jackson than they did for Dan Haren.I’m not sure what the D-Backs franchise plan is at the moment, but they seem to love trading for mid-rotation starters and then trading them away.

Jackson was traded for the fourth time of his career for pitcher Dan Hudson (No. 66 top prospect according to Baseball America) and low-level minor leaguer David Holmberg. Hudson is a great pickup for Arizona, but I’m not certain that they didn’t have more with Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth when they traded the two of them to Detroit last December for Jackson. I still think they should have held onto Scherzer. Despite throwing a no-hitter earlier this year with about 45 walks, Jackson isn’t having a very good season with a 5.16 ERA, 7.0 K/9 and a 4.0 BB/9. Forgetting about the deal last year, this stand alone deal was a good one for Arizona. Jackson will provide the White Sox some rotation depth with the loss of Jake Peavy as they battle the Twins for the AL Central title, but I can’t help thinking they gave up way too much in this deal. Though there’s also rumors going around that their plan is to flip Jackson around to the Nationals for maybe Adam Dunn? Crazy shit going down right here.

Rangers pick up Jorge Cantu and Cristian Guzman
Yesterday, the Rangers dealt for Marlins first baseman Jorge Cantu for two Double-A pitcher (Evan Reed and Omar Poveda) and today they added speedy infielder Cristian Guzman. Texas will send another couple of Double-A pitchers in Ryan Tatusko and Tanner Roark, which begs the question of who’s left at Double-A Frisco?

Guzman could have waived his 10-and-5 rights, but agreed to the trade. Guzman is hitting .282/.327/.361 while playing shortstop, second base and right field. Cantu has 10 home runs, 54 RBI and a slash line of .262/.310/.409 in 97 games. The Marlins may also not be done dealing as it looks like Cody Ross is also available. Neither of these guys (Cantu and Guzman) are going to single-handily win a division title for the Rangers, but they provide the team depth, experience and someone to play first base.

Yankees Bring Berkman to the Bronx
First the Yankees acquired Austin Kearns for a player to be named later from Cleveland. They like his right-handed bat. Ah, whatever. The next deal will make headlines. The Yankees continued to wheel and deal, trading for long-time Astros slugger Lance Berkman. In exchange, the Astros got reliever Mark Melancon and low-level minor league infielder Jimmy Paredes. Apparently after years and years of thinking they were still in the hunt, the Astros have finally given up the fight and are selling, selling, selling.

For some reason the Astros are sending about $4MM to cover part of Berkman’s salary for this year. Isn’t one of the prominent reasons to trade with the Yankees is that they have no payroll and will pay anyone and anything to play for them?

This trade will make big headlines in New York, but it would have been great had it been two years ago when Berkman was hitting like Lance Berkman. He’s currently in mist of a disappointing season with 13 home runs, 49 RBI and a slash line of .245/.372/.436 through 85 games. And I swear most of those home runs and runs batted in were against the Pirates this season. He’ll play DH for the Yankees and is an obvious upgrade over Colin Curtis, who has been playing there. Plus, the big guy still gets on base with 60 walks in 85 games for a .372 OBP. Berkman has the 10-and-5 rights, but waived his no trade clause in this deal, which he did when the White Sox attempted to get him.

There are the deals that went down today with possibly another one on the way with twitter blowing up right now on how the Dodgers are close to acquiring Ted Lilly from Chicago. Now does Paul Maholm go anywhere or Adam Dunn or Jose Bautista? Ah, the trade deadline. Don’t you just love it?