AL Central Shaping Up Much Differently Than Thought

The home of the reigning American League pennant winner and World Series champions and the host division of several extremely active teams in the offseason, the AL Central was thought to be one of the most highly contested divisions in Major League Baseball this season.

Maybe that explains only two teams in the Central being above the .500 mark, but few would have forecast the present shape of the standings after nearly six full weeks of the 2016 regular season.

It has been a recipe that has aided the Cleveland Indians some in the early going. Injuries have deprived the club of a pair of outfielders, a top flight starting pitcher, and their backup catcher for stretches of the early season, yet at 16-15, they are only five games out of first place and two games out of a Wild Card spot. While the Indians have been playing at a steadily .500 pace for an extended stretch over the last several seasons, they are lingering in the top half of the division right now due to some unexpected performances by the rest of the league.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX (23-12 – first place)

Is there any slowing the Chicago White Sox? They remain perched atop the AL Central looking down at the competitors in a division that was surely expected to have more than two teams above the .500 mark at this point of the season. The Sox and their five-game lead over the Tribe is hardly insurmountable, but it does stand for the largest division lead in the AL and the second largest in all of baseball (the cross-town Cubs lay claim to a seven-game advantage in the NL Central).

How are the Sox getting it done? Namely, some timely offensive contributions and the efforts of three-fifths of their starting rotation.

Chris Sale is 7-0. He’s good. He’s really good. There’s been very little question of that for the last half decade. He has a 1.79 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP in 50 1/3 innings this season. Then there is lefty Jose Quintana, who at 5-1 has matched Sale’s six quality starts out of the gate. He has a 1.38 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. Probably the biggest surprise of the bunch would be Mat Latos, who is 5-0 in seven starts, earning a 3.40 ERA, a 1.34 WHIP, and registering four quality starts despite nearly even 19/15 strikeout/walk numbers.

Are Indians fans regretting that trade that sent Todd Frazier to the Windy City instead of to Cleveland? The rumored cost for the Tribe was ridiculous, but Frazier is enjoying his new home, hitting eleven homers and driving in 31, both numbers leading the team. If you’re looking for something to use against him, maybe consider the .222 batting average, .303 on-base percentage, or the five stitches he gave himself to the face after diving into the stands in the pursuit of a foul ball Wednesday.

On the plus side for Cleveland fans, the Sox dropped the last two of three in Texas during the week after sweeping the Twins and needed an extra inning grand slam from Frazier to earn their only win. They play the New York Yankees this weekend and are just 7-6 against the AL East this season.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS (16-18, 6.5 games in back in third place)

The Royals may be the disappointment of the league right now, even though they are just two games below even for the season. In their defense of their World Championship last October, they have struggled consistently. After a strong start, they lost two of three to Baltimore before being swept by Los Angeles, then dropped two of three to Seattle, Washington, and Cleveland before losing three of four to the New York Yankees.

They lost one of their top early performers, Mike Moustakas (.258, seven homers, 13 RBI) to a fractured thumb. Alex Gordon is hitting .239 with a team-high 41 strikeouts after his big contract in the offseason and All-Star Salvador Perez is hitting just .226. Kendrys Morales is lost under Mario Mendoza’s Mendoza line, hitting .190 with a .246 on-base percentage with five doubles, four homers, and 13 RBI.

Eric Hosmer has been the lone steady force for the offense, hitting .333 with seven doubles, one triple, six homers, and 16 RBI.

After Ian Kennedy and Edinson Volquez in the rotation, Yordano Ventura (3-2, 4.62 ERA, 1.57 WHIP) has not been effective and has fewer strikeouts (26) than walks (28). As if the rotation was not having enough issues, the club had to place their two other pitchers to start this season – Chris Young and Kris Medlen – on the 15-day disabled list with injuries.

They can save some face this weekend – they play the NL’s worst, the Atlanta Braves, for three straight over the weekend before hosting the Boston Red Sox.

DETROIT TIGERS (15-19, 7.5 games in back in fourth place)

Manager Brad Ausmus’s job may very well be in jeopardy. He has said so publicly and, given the performance of his club this season after big dollars were spent on starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, outfielder Justin Upton, and effort was given on rebuilding the bullpen, those rumors and speculations may very well be true.

The Tigers blew a 5-0 lead in a bullpen implosion on Thursday in their series opener against Baltimore in a 7-5 defeat, leading the manager on the hottest seat in baseball to state, “I don’t really know what to tell you, quite frankly. It seems like every day, it’s something different.”

Times are tough in the D.

The Indians have been a source of the Detroit struggles, as the Tigers have dropped two different three-game sets to Cleveland this season. They have lost nine of their last ten and have not won a series since sweeping the Twins in Minnesota before coming to Progressive Field and getting swept in three straight. They followed that series with a sweep at home to the Texas Rangers, then dropped two of three to Washington, including a historic  20-strikeout performance by their former ace, Max Scherzer.

Through the tough times, Victor Martinez has three straight three-hit games and Nick Castellanos has had a breakout season, tied at the top of the AL with Martinez with a league-best .362 with seven homers and 28 RBI.

MINNESOTA TWINS (8-25. 14 games in back in fifth place)

Poor Minnesota.

One year after a surprising breakout and a second place finish in the AL Central, they are now baseball’s worst team (to be fair, they are tied for that honor with Atlanta). The Twins have dropped seven straight and eleven of their last twelve, owning just a 6-2 win in the opener against Houston on May 3 in that span. Even when they have won over the last several weeks, they needed last at bat heroics at home against Cleveland to notch their only other wins over their last six series (and, their only two wins in 17 tries against Central rivals this season).

Newcomer Byung-ho Park leads the club with seven homers, but has just 12 RBI and is hitting .237. Brian Dozier, an All-Star last season, leads the team with 14 RBI, but has four homers and just a .222 average to his credit. Joe Mauer leads the Twins with a .301 batting average and has a .424 on-base percentage, but even he is slumping, with just two hits in his last 14 at bats over the Twins last two series and four hits in his last 24 ABs over the last three, dropping his season batting average 36 points.

They have already used eight different starting pitchers this season, hurt by several early season injuries, and their bullpen has fared little better. They are 26th in all of baseball in ERA (4.85), 28th in WHIP (1.47), and 29th in quality starts (11) and batting average against (.278).

They’ll open play in Cleveland on Friday night.

Photo: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

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