The AL Central was supposed to be the least interesting division in baseball. And why shouldn’t it have been? The Tigers were going to just roll over the entire American League. They’ve got a big-time payroll, and a lineup that features stars like Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter. Their pitching staff comes fully loaded with a trio of staff aces in Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. The rest of the AL Central doesn’t even have half the star power combined. So why haven’t the Tigers distanced themselves yet?
Only five games separate first place from last place. The reason, in large part has to do with both the Tigers underperforming and everyone else completely selling the rest of the division short before the season began. First off, Detroit’s a good team, but as we’ve seen in cases like the Angels and Yankees, talent doesn’t always equate success. Detroit has a gaping hole at shortstop, a rookie who’s bound to take his lumps at third base, an aging left fielder who hasn’t transitioned as gracefully as his right-field counterpart, and a center fielder still searching for the consistency that once made him a sought-after commodity. They also have no idea who their closer is anymore after the Joe Nathan disaster and now find themselves with Joba Chamberlain serving as the primary setup man. In essence, this is a talented team with holes that simply cannot be patched over in one year.
But this isn’t to say the Tigers are doomed. After all, you don’t have to be great to win that division. Shucks, you don’t even have to be that good. You just have to be the least bad because the other teams have holes in their rosters that equal that of Detroit’s.
Cleveland lost a ton of talent last offseason (namely, ace Ubaldo Jimenez) and now find themselves with Josh Tomlin and T.J. House permanently in the rotation. Things are looking up for the Indians though. They just got Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis back, and Lonnie Chisenhall is making good on all that potential he has. If Trevor Bauer is truly ready to assume his destiny as staff ace, it would be awfully difficult to bet against a team managed by Terry Francona, a lights out bullpen and a one-two punch like Corey Kluber and Bauer.
In Kansas City, it’s now or never. They finally have a rotation and bullpen worth talking about and the necessary talent in the field to make a run. If Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Sal Perez, Alex Gordon and Nori Aoki all start clicking at the same time (which isn’t a guarantee), this team could easily charge to the front of the standings. Credit Dayton Moore, who’s clearly fighting for his job in assembling a rotation with the right combination of veteran presence and youngster with upside to compete.
The White Sox may not have much in the way of pitching after Chris Sale, but they are good at hitting the long ball and will keep themselves from sinking too far back in the standings. Not many teams could match up with Dayan Vicideo, Jose Abreu and Adam Dunn – at least when all three are healthy and not striking out three or four times a night.
Finally, the Twins are looking to copy Oakland’s success by building a contender from a lot of names you aren’t familiar with, headlined by the suddenly awesome Phil Hughes. If before the season began, you were completely familiar with Danny Santana, Eduardo Escobar and Oswaldo Arcia, you’ve been paying more attention to baseball than is healthy and should probably go outside and play with the dog, kids, wife or whatever it is that’s out there.
It’s really anyone’s guess as to who wins. There’s no denying the Tigers are the best team in the division and if you were forced to bet, they’d be the safest wager. But there’s also no denying that team is very flawed and can be beat. As for the rest of the division, keep an eye on the Indians and Royals. Given the strength of the rest of the AL, Wild Card seems completely out of the question for this division. And thus, I will leave you with the ultimate suitable quote from the movie Highlander, “There can only be one.”