The Bizarro AL Central Division

Coming into the 2011 season, most people probably expected one of two teams to contend in the AL Central division; the Minnesota Twins or the Chicago White Sox.  The Detroit Tigers were the vogue pick of some, but most had them finishing behind the big two.  And then there were the Clevelands and the Kansas City Royals.

For both of these teams, 2011 was about rebuilding.  The Royals, for all their inability to build a winning team in the major leagues over the past two decades, seem to have finally figured out how to draft and develop premium young talent and as a result have the best farm system in the game.  The Clevelands, they have, well, Carlos Santana.  Either way, neither team was expected to win many games, and many including myself thought they would be the worst two teams in baseball.

On the other side of the coin, the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers have all been bad.  The Twins especially look damaged beyond repair. The loss of many role players and pieces in their bullpen may not have seemed like big deals at the time, but the players they’ve been replaced with have yet to show that they are capable of doing so.  As well, Justin Morneau doesn’t look like the same player since coming back from the concussion that cost him the second half of last season, Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka looked lost before going down with a leg injury, and Alexi Casilla has been a giant gaping hole at short.  Don’t even get The Common Man started on Drew Butera.

AL Central through May 3rd W-L GB
Clevelands 20-8
Royals 16-13 4.5
Tigers 13-17 8.0
Twins 10-18 10.0
White Sox 11-20 10.5

All of these observations, and the fact that the standings are currently the inverse of what most people thought, need to be taken with a grain of salt.  We are, after all, only a little over a month into the season, but at what point do we start to take these teams for what they are?

I’ll take a deeper look at the two biggest surprises in Minnesota and Cleveland.

Are the Clevelands for real?

It’s still too early to tell, but there are some positives emerging for Cleveland.

First off, I haven’t been able to catch a ton of their games, but when I have, I’ve been very impressed with manager Manny Acta.  Acta seems to be more of a new school thinker than many of his contemporaries.  He employs smart lineup construction and he seems to be keenly aware that stolen bases are useful when executed in the proper time and fashion, but he isn’t overly aggressive despite having some players on the team who can run.  He’s also shown excellent bullpen management this season, playing with matchups and using his best relievers in the highest leverage situations

On the player side of things, the return of Grady Sizemore to health and productiveness has been a huge boon for the team.  Coming into last night’s game against Oakland he was thrashing the ball at a .340/.389/.740 mark and had four homers in only 54 plate appearances.  It’s promising, but there’s always the chance that he gets hurt again.  If he manages to stay healthy, it’s obvious that he’s still a very good player.

Another factor in Cleveland’s success has been the re-emergence of the project-donkey Travis Hafner.  Hafner is off to a terrific start, looking like his old self (His OPS from 2004-2006 was over 1.000!).  But there are some red flags.  His ballooned slash line of .342/.393/.566 is helped by a unsustainably high .407 BABIP.  The thing to keep in mind about Hafner is that even in his bad years, he wasn’t that bad; he just wasn’t close to being the player he was in his prime and he’s certainly not worth his very large contract.  Remember when Vernon Wells got off to that great start last season?  I’m guessing it’s the same sort of thing here with Hafner on a slightly lesser scale.

Other hitters who probably won’t sustain their current high level of play are Jack Hannahan, who already has a 1.1 WAR, and Orlando Cabrera who will eventually start to look like the declining veteran middle-infielder we’ve seen for the past couple years.

On the plus side, rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo has looked ordinary this year and has still managed a 0.9 WAR.  Once he heats up, he’ll go back to being one of the top outfielders in the game (provided he stays off the hooch while behind the wheel).  And Carlos Santana, widely considered one of the top young catchers in the game is hitting just .191, although his advanced approach has still led to a 104 OPS+ this season.

Then there’s the pitching staff.  Somehow a rotation that includes Josh Tomlin, Justin Masterson, and Mitch Talbot sat 3rd in the AL in ERA heading into last night.  Personifying the success of the Cleveland starters has been Tomlin who has a 2.45 ERA in five starts.  The problem is that he’s given up a lot of homeruns and doesn’t miss a lot of bats.  His ridiculously low .179 BABIP will eventually catch up to a contact pitcher of his ilk and an ERA closer to his 4.67 FIP is sure to follow.

As a staff, the Indians have the third lowest BABIP in the AL, the second-lowest HR/FB ratio, and have a middling 4.04 xFIP which all suggest that a massive regression to the mean is in the cards.

Overall, I’m not sure Cleveland is as bad as we thought they were, but it would seem their Major-League-best 20-8 record will trend downward eventually.  A .500 season no longer seems impossible, however since it would require only a 61-73 record from here on in; that certainly seems doable.

Is the Twins’ dominance of the division a thing of the past?

The Twins are one of those teams that always seem to play above their talent level, but it appears as though that’s finally catching up to them in 2011.  Justin Morneau returned from his concussion, but he appears to be a mere shell of his former self, at least so far, and catcher Joe Mauer has been out with leg weakness (that can’t be good).

On the pitching side, Francisco Liriano, even with last night’s no-hitter, has not looked good this year after being one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2010, while the bullpen has looked out of sorts all year.

The Twins are last in baseball in ERA at 5.06 and only Baltimore has a worse FIP than their 4.72 mark, which doesn’t provide a ton of hope.  They are also last in baseball in runs scored at just 85, equalling out to a meagre 3.04 runs per game.

Of the 16 pitchers who have seen action this season, 11 are at or below replacement-value.  Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano are a combined -0.6 WAR so far.  Of their hitters, only Denard Span (1.3), Jason Kubel (1.1), and Delmon Young (0.3) have been even mildly productive, with every other hitter being basically at or below replacement-value.

All of this means that if Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are going to be non-factors for part or all of this season, the Twins better find some players who can help them win ballgames, because at the moment, Alexi Casilla, Michael Cuddyer, Drew Butera, and Carl Pavano simply aren’t cutting it.

I’m not quite ready to write off the Twins entirely, but it’s getting close and I’m not sure how they can dig themselves out of the hole they’re in with their current roster.  For them to even come back to the .500-mark this season, they would have to go 71-63 from here on out; does anyone see that happening if Morneau, Mauer, and Liriano aren’t contributing at their normal level?

Right now, the AL Central is the most intriguing division in baseball.  If the Royals can remain relevant until part of their crop of uber-prospects can hit the bigs, they may also have a shot at the division in 2011; the Tigers are probably what we thought they were, but in this division that doesn’t exclude them; and what the b’jesus is wrong with the White Sox?  Seriously.

That race should be a fun one to watch.

Travis Reitsma is normally the Fantasy Baseball guru here at Getting Blanked, but he’s taken a week off of that to give you some AL Central goodness.  You can also find his work at Baseball Canadiana and you can follow him on Twitter.