The AL Central doesn’t appear to be it’s usual stout self this season with just one team playing better than .500 baseball. Lucky for us, that team is the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers own a 2.5 game lead over the Twins. However, considering the prowess of the division over the last few years, forgive me if I’m extremely worried about a team in the division catching fire. Since 2005, every team in the AL Central has made it to the playoffs with the exception of Kansas City. Since 2007, the Tigers are 74-90 against the AL Central and 116-93 against everyone else. Even when the Tigers led the division by ten games in August ’06, Minnesota went 71-33 over the last 2.5 months of the season to steal the division. As long as there are games to be played, the fear of some random AL Central team blowing up will always be on my mind Willie Nelson-style.
So, without further ado, here is my fear factor for each AL Central team and its prospects of foiling Detroit’s surprise run at the division (from most to least fearful):
1). Minnesota Twins
ESPN forgot to tell us before the season that Babe Ruth himself was going to be playing catcher for the Twinkies. If you have been following baseball, then you already know that Joe Mauer is currently putting together one of the greatest seasons in MLB history. Granted, it has only been a little over 100 at-bats. Still, his OPS+ is 262. Barry Bonds allegedly injected his way to a record 268 but nobody else has even come close to that number. Mauer has 12 home runs through 110 at-bats. His previous high was 13 in 2006 but that took 521 at-bats. He’s also hitting .436—and it's June! If Mauer has truly found his power swing—and this isn’t some sort of Ruthian spirit possessing his body for a month or two—then he could be a once in a generation player. He is well on his way to winning his third batting title—as a catcher no less. Oh yeah, and the guy who hits behind him--Justin Morneau--won the AL MVP in ’06 and came in second last season. This team can rake. Plus, they’re the frickin’ Twins. They’re always good. Francicso Liriano being absolutely atrocious makes them slightly less terrifying but not enough to keep them out of my nightmares. It would take intervention at the highest level to keep the Twins from winning the division. They are really, really scary. Like, a 10-year old watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -scary.
2). Chicago White Sox
The White Sox are the heaviest team in MLB. They are one of the oldest teams in MLB. Pitchers all across baseball—well, maybe just two—are vetoing trades to the South Side. This team started deteriorating the minute it won the World Series in 2005. Or, at least that’s what everyone thought. Despite being universally projected to finish no better than third in the division, the Sox won the AL Central last season. They were projected to be even worse this year and still have managed to hover around .500. Apparently “old and fat” doesn’t prevent a team from being good. The ChiSox have dominated both the Tigers and the rest of the division in recent years. Since 2005, the Sox are 51-26 against the Tigers and 186-129 against the division. In that same time frame, Chicago is only 189-197 against everyone else. They have truly been a bully to the division and to the division only. The reason why I’m not as fearful of the Sox as I am the Twins is that a). they don’t have Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and b). they don’t seem to beat up the rest of the American League in the same way they torture the Tigers and the AL Central. Still, the Sox are a dangerous team. Kenny Williams is feverishly looking for a top-of-the rotation pitcher. If that happens, look out. Until then, the fear factor here is more like a psychological thriller. There's a lot more trepidation than action. Think The Silence of the Lambs just not nearly as good.
3). Cleveland Indians
Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner are two of the deadliest left-handed hitters in baseball. Fortunately for the Tigers, they can’t stay healthy. Things have been downright brutal for the Indians ever since they jumped out to a 3-1 series-lead over the Red Sox in the ’07 ALCS. The Indians, of course, lost three straight to Boston which went on to win the World Series. If that wasn’t bad enough, C.C. Sabathia was shipped away, Fausto Carmona became the worst pitcher in the American League, and Travis Hafner has only played in 74 games. The offense was expected to carry Cleveland this season but Sizemore is out for two months and Hafner hasn’t played since April 28. Poor Cliff Lee is pitching admirably but even the 2008 AL Cy Young winner hasn't been able to pitch Cleveland out of the basement of the division. The fear factor here reminds me of, Scream. The Indians are good for a few isolated scares but they're a spoof and everyone knows it.
4). Kansas City Royals
The scariest part about Zack Greinke isn’t his 1.10 ERA through 11 starts; it’s the fact that he’s figured out the pitching matrix at 25 years old. Even Greg Maddux didn’t put it all together until he was 26. Greinke is very likely going to waltz to the AL Cy Young this year. Anyone thinking this is all a fluke might want to reconsider. Flukes don’t throw down a .90 WHIP and a 407 ERA+ (!!!) through 82 innings. Greinke is the real deal and he’ll likely keep KC afloat at least for a little while. However, Randy Johnson proved that all-time great pitching seasons don’t necessarily have to coincide with good team seasons. The Big Unit went for 245 innings with a 2.65 ERA and a .90 WHIP in 2004. He also threw down an incomprehensible 10.6 K/9 and a 1.6 BB/9. Even though he didn’t win the Cy Young that year, he was easily the best pitcher in the National League. Still, the D-backs only mustered 51 wins in one of the worst seasons in MLB history. KC is obviously better than that Arizona-team but my point is that Greinke’s brilliance alone won’t be enough to put KC into the playoffs. Thankfully, Greinke doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of help. KC led the AL Central on and off through May 15. However, the Royals have plummeted since going 5-19 in their last 24 games. Aside from Greinke, KC’s rotation has been absolutely atrocious posting just 17 quality starts in 41 starts. Offensively, the Royals have been offensive. KC is second to last in runs scored per game and has only scored more than four runs once in its last 13 games. The fear factor here is straight from, Killer Klowns from Outer Space. As a chic pick to win the division, the Royals were supposed to be scary but actually turned out to be kind of funny.
Thankfully, this post wasn’t “AL East Fear Factor.” I think that would’ve been too scary to write. Fortunately, the Tigers are in the AL Central and, as a result, actually have a chance of playing October baseball. Now I just need to tell my wife to wake me up immediately if I start mumbling something about “Joe Mauer” and “a 15-game winning streak."