June 21, 2007

Around the Horn: AL Central

Around the Horn goes through all the teams in a certain division, talking about what they've done right, what they've done wrong, and what they need to do to get better. Usually I'll get to about two divisions a week. Today: the AL Central.

Cleveland: The Indians have ridden baseball's second-best home record (24-11, second to the Angels) to a tie for first in the division despite playing just .500 ball on the road. They have had good run differentials in the past two years, though their win totals haven't been indicitive of that. Usually, a team's winning percentage will roughly match their run differential (a theory basically known as the Pythagorean Expectation); when that doesn't happen, it is usually the result of luck, and to a lesser extent, a bad bullpen. The Indians can't do anything about the former, but they've tried to fix the latter, with some success; closer Joe Borowski still seems to be a question mark, with a 1.52 WHIP and an ERA over 6, but middle relievers Aaron Fultz and Rafael Betancourt have been good. As for the rotation...Fausto Carmona's 3.12 ERA means that Jeremy Sowers is the odd man out of the rotation, at least for the near future. C.C. Sabathia is quite possibly the most underrated pitcher in baseball; he's an ace and a workhorse, yet he doesn't get the publicity that comparable pitchers such as Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter get. There's not much to say about the lineup...Victor Martinez probably only has one or two more years left as a catcher before he gets shifted to first base, but in the meantime, he's probably the best offensive catcher in the game. Grady Sizemore is one of the first players mentioned in any "best all-around player in the game" discussion, and he's only 24. Travis Hafner has an .833 OPS, and he's having a down year. And there are lots of other hitters on this team.

So, what do the Indians need to do? I don't think they really need to do much; in my mind, they're one of the top two teams in the game (side-by-side with the Red Sox and slightly ahead of the Tigers). But their bullpen could use a little help. They've been mentioned in talks about Eric Gagne, but Gagne has an odd partial no-trade clause that reportedly includes the Indians. That doesn't mean a deal is impossible, but it makes it a little harder to pull off. I haven't heard any other specific names, but I'd imagine they'd be in the hunt for almost any other reliever on the market, as they have a fairly good stash of prospects to deal from.

Detroit: The Tigers have played better than I had expected, but they're not really playing above their talent level - they're just a better team than I thought they were. Unlike the Indians, the Tigers have actually been fairly mediocre at home, but have baseball's second-best road record (24-15, second to the Red Sox). Baseball Analysts today put up a better overview of the Tigers than I could ever write, so I'll just direct you there. Magglio Ordonez is somewhat randomly putting up MVP-caliber numbers; his 1.122 OPS is the best in baseball. Everyone else is hitting, too, though I'm not sure Curtis Granderson can slug .569 all year. First base seems to be the lone problem area, as Sean Casey is barely servicable offensively for a first baseman. The Detroit rotation has been excellent all year; we all know about Justin Verlander, but Jeremy Bonderman is also great, and the rest of the rotation has been solid. The bullpen, considered a strength at the beginning of the year, now seems like a problem area; closer Todd Jones' ERA is approaching 6, and Joel Zumaya is on the DL.

The Tigers also don't have many holes to fill, and I'm guessing they mostly look for bullpen help as well. They've kicked the tires on Gagne also, as dozens of teams will probably do, but I don't expect a match there. They're planning on trying to deal Mike Maroth to an NL team once Kenny Rogers returns from the DL; Maroth could be a very solid back-of-the-rotation starter there, and they could probably get some relief help in return. They may look at Tampa Bay's Al Reyes, but he probably won't be traded.

Minnesota: The Twins are my favorite team, but even I could see they were going to finish third in the division this year. They just don't quite have the lineup depth to match the Indians' and Tigers'. Reigning AL MVP Justin Morneau is as good as usual, and Torii Hunter is playing out of his mind in his contract year, but there hasn't been much else outside of Michael Cuddyer. Joe Mauer missed more than a month of the season due to injury, and they just don't have reliable hitters in other positions (i.e., Nick Punto and his .288 slugging percentage). The Twins are one of only three or four contenders that doesn't need any bullpen help; they're perfectly content with Pat Neshek, Juan Rincon, Glen Perkins, and Joe Nathan. Johan Santana is, well, Johan Santana, and Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva have been decent in the #2 and #3 spots. The back of the rotation has been a disaster, as Terry Ryan (one of the game's best GMs) inexplicably decided Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz were the guys to fill those holes at the beginning of the season. Predictably, both guys were gone by June, but their combined 6.18 ERA has already done enough damage. Kevin Slowey seems set as their #4 starter, but Scott Baker might not be in the rotation much longer; it's probably only a matter of time now before Matt Garza gets the call up from Rochester.

The Twins don't really need to do much at the deadline - they most likely won't win anything this year, but there are very few teams with a better future (although, unfortunately, the Indians probably do within their division). They certainly would like a third baseman, but they probably won't find anything they like - Mike Lowell is too expensive, and apparently they aren't getting Ty Wigginton from the D-Rays. They could go the other way and deal off some veterans, such as Luis Castillo, but I wouldn't expect that either.

Chicago: No team is being watched more interestingly than the White Sox. They're a very disappointing 10 games under .500, although most statheads could have predicted that they wouldn't be in contention for very long. Jim Thome's really the only one who has been hitting, and he missed a pretty good portion of the season. Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye are struggling, and there isn't enough talent in the rest of the lineup to make up for it. Their rotation has actually been good, with Mark Buerhle and Jon Garland each owning ERAs under 4 and Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras each under 5, but they're too far behind to go anywhere at this point.

But the White Sox have been in the middle of practically every rumor out there. Both Buerhle and Dye are prime trade candidates; Kenny Williams is not a shy GM, so they will probably not be in Chicago by the time August comes around. Also, Williams has somewhat of a history of dealing long before the deadline; he dealt for Freddy Garcia in June a couple years back to get an extra month out of him. So you could see a Buerhle trade very soon, although it could just as likely be July 31st. The Mets have been the most-rumored destination, although those talks have died down somewhat recently. The Cardinals and Mariners are also possible trade partners for Buerhle, and today Jayson Stark mentioned the Braves as a place he could very likely end up. Dye is probably going to be harder to move, given his slow start, but there will still be plenty of interested teams out there; the Padres seem to be popping up a lot in Dye discussion. The White Sox's relievers aren't great, but someone might go after Mike MacDougal.

Royals: Do I really have to write about the Royals? Here's the good news: Catcher John Buck is hitting, hyped rookie Alex Gordon seems to (finally) be starting to hit a little, and Gil Meche's 3.21 ERA makes Dayton Moore's 5 yr/55-mill investment actually look wise. Here's the bad news: Everything else. This team is at least three years away from contending for a playoff spot, and they're in one of the toughest divisions in baseball.

There aren't really any fixes for the Royals on the horizon, unless they can petition Bud Selig to move them to the NL Central. They need to stop giving Mike Sweeny at-bats and install Billy Butler as the new DH; Butler has remarkably poor fielding skills, but he can hit as well as any young prospect out there. There aren't really any trade rumors concerning the Royals, mainly because they don't really have any players that anybody wants. Things don't really look good for KC baseball...

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