AL Central looking like a battle royale

Originally Published: May 14, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

You can tell the American League Central is baseball's chic division when Cleveland center fielder Grady Sizemore graces the cover of Sports Illustrated with a .256 batting average.

Grady Sizemore
Sizemore
Combine the SI jinx and the curse of Rocky Colavito, and Sizemore is lugging around more negative history than a budding superstar should have to bear. Four days after his cover appearance, he's mired at .239.

The Indians, on the other hand, were doing fine before hitting a rough patch late on their California trip. They won 13 of 16 games at one stretch, but managed to gain only two games on the suddenly resurgent Tigers.

That's a typical slice of life in the Central, which is living up to its reputation as baseball's deepest, most competitive division. Detroit and Cleveland rank among the top four in the league in runs scored, and the Central is 44-33 against the East and West. If the Yankees can't catch Boston and have to set their sights on the wild card, they'll be casting a lot of anxious glances toward the Central clubs in August and September.

As we approach the quarter pole of the season, here's a snapshot of life among the four contenders in the always interesting Central:

*****

Tigers

Detroit Tigers (23-13, first place)

The Tigers endured their share of early problems. They lost Kenny Rogers to a blood clot in his shoulder, and Sean Casey, Brandon Inge and Craig Monroe all failed to hit .200 in April. Gary Sheffield, who cost Detroit general manager David Dombrowski three young pitchers in trade, looked like a guy who woke up one day and suddenly realized he was 38 years old.

The Tigers endured a bigger body blow when setup man Joel Zumaya went down for 12 weeks with a finger injury. No one in baseball casts a bigger shadow from the bullpen, and Zumaya's absence will put some strain on a relief contingent that helped propel Detroit to the 2006 World Series.

But it's times like these when manager Jim Leyland thrives -- mixing and matching and coaxing maximum effort out of everyone. If Leyland could win with Bill Landrum, Stan Belinda and Bob Patterson in Pittsburgh, he'll find a way to survive with Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney and Jose Mesa in Detroit.

"I've seen some managers take the 'woe is me' approach when they lose a good guy," Dombrowski said. "He deals with injuries as well as you can from a managerial perspective. He brings such a positive mind-set to the club, and the players think they can withstand whatever happens."

Right Field
Detroit Tigers

Profile
2007 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
35 7 34 28 .437 .344

Telling stat: The Tigers lead the American League with a .303 batting average and .500 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position. Magglio Ordonez is hitting .438 with men in scoring position.

Earning their pay: Mike Maroth and Chad Durbin, Detroit's Nos. 4-5 starters, don't have tremendous numbers. But the Tigers have won 11 of their 13 starts.

Needs to step it up: Casey, acquired from the Pirates last summer to give Detroit some left-handed balance and sock, has a .300 slugging percentage and is homerless in 110 at-bats.

On the way: Lefty Andrew Miller, Detroit's top pick in the 2006 draft, just earned a promotion to the Double-A Eastern League and pitched lights-out in his first start for Erie.

*****

Indians

Cleveland Indians (21-14, second place)

A lot of people (ESPN.com included) figured the Indians were due for a rebound after they outscored opponents by 88 runs last season and somehow managed to finish six games under .500.

The biggest question was whether GM Mark Shapiro could upgrade the bullpen without throwing massive amounts of money at the problem. The answer generally has been positive -- although when closer Joe Borowski implodes, he certainly makes it memorable.

Victor Martinez has been the one constant offensively, while Sizemore has yet to find his stride and Travis Hafner is hitting .169 in his last 17 games. Among the 30 big league clubs, only Florida, Tampa Bay and San Diego have struck out more than Cleveland.

The Indians are 17-7 against right-handed starters and 4-6 versus lefties. Jhonny Peralta, Casey Blake and Jason Michaels need to join Ryan Garko and the switch-hitting Martinez and give manager Eric Wedge some more consistent production from the right side.

Telling stat: Last year the Indians ranked 25th in the majors with a .981 fielding percentage. So far this season they're 25th with a .980 fielding percentage. At least they're consistent.

Earning his pay: Fausto Carmona was a human blowtorch as the Indians' closer. But he's won four straight decisions as a starter and helped Cleveland weather the absence of Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee to injury. Lee is back from the disabled list now, and when Westbrook returns in June, Carmona is more likely to remain in the rotation than Jeremy Sowers.

Second Base
Cleveland Indians

Profile
2007 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
31 1 13 13 .244 .212

Needs to step it up: Josh Barfield, acquired from San Diego, is hitting .212 at second base. That's not so bad when you consider that Kevin Kouzmanoff, the player Shapiro traded to the Padres for Barfield, is batting .121.

On the way: Adam Miller, Cleveland's top prospect, is 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA for Triple-A Buffalo. But lefty Chuck Lofgren is generating the biggest buzz in the farm system. He carried no-hitters into the sixth and seventh innings in consecutive starts for Double-A Akron last week.

*****

White Sox

Chicago White Sox (18-16, third place)

The season's high point? Mark Buehrle throwing a no-hitter against Texas on April 19. The low point? With this offense, it could happen any night.

The White Sox rank last in the league in batting average, on-base percentage and runs scored. No one expected that from a club that tied a major league record in 2006 by hitting 200 homers for the seventh straight season.

"Going in, if you were to pick one thing we should be concerned about, it wouldn't have been the offense," said Chicago assistant GM Rick Hahn. "We all would have been pretty shocked to see this level of production six weeks into the season."

All that flailing led to speculation that hitting coach Greg Walker's job was in jeopardy, but GM Kenny Williams recently quashed the rumors. Jim Thome will return in a week, and that should give the offense a boost.

Chicago would be in far worse shape if not for some pitching reminiscent of its 2005 championship season. Even as the Sox lost 11-1 to Kansas City on Sunday, Javier Vazquez turned in the team's 19th straight start of six innings or more.

Designated Hitter
Chicago White Sox

Profile
2007 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
19 5 10 12 .553 .340

Telling stat: The White Sox miss Thome's patience as well as his power. In their first 21 games, the Sox averaged 4.6 walks per game. Since Thome went on the disabled list, the Sox have averaged 1.8 walks per game.

Earning their pay: Reliever David Aardsma, acquired from the Cubs in a December trade, is living up to his reputation as a former first-round draft pick. He has 26 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings, and opponents are batting .183 against him.

Needs to step it up: When Juan Uribe leads the team's regulars with a .255 batting average -- 51st best in the American League -- a lot of people need a wakeup call. Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye, batting a combined .397 (.203 and .194, respectively), immediately spring to mind.

On the way (out)? As long as the Sox are in contention, the always intrepid Williams will look to upgrade his roster and make a run for it. But if the team slips, it's worth noting that Dye, Buehrle and Tadahito Iguchi are eligible for free agency in November.

*****

Twins

Minnesota Twins (18-19, fourth place)

The Twins had three homers in 335 at-bats before busting loose for four in a 16-4 laugher over the Tigers on Sunday night.

GM Terry Ryan always is concerned about the team's lack of depth, and the Twins have a challenge making do with catcher Joe Mauer out 2-4 weeks with a quadriceps injury and left fielder/DH Rondell White on the disabled list with a torn calf muscle.

Minnesota simply is outmanned at designated hitter. With the exception of a few rest breaks for Mauer and a Torii Hunter cameo, manager Ron Gardenhire has used Mike Redmond, Jeff Cirillo, Jason Kubel, Jason Tyner, Josh Rabe and Luis Rodriguez. It's no wonder that Minnesota's DH spot has yet to produce a homer in 132 at-bats.

The Twins typically compensate with shut-down pitching, astute baserunning and flawless defense. But they've experienced some uncharacteristically sloppy moments in the early going.

"We've made some mistakes and run ourselves into some outs," Ryan said. "We'll be good at it. But we haven't been so far."

Telling stat: The Twins are 10-13 at the Metrodome this season. Last year they went 54-27 at home and didn't lose their 13th game until July 29.

Earning their pay: Joe Nathan and the Minnesota bullpen rank third in the American League in ERA.

Right Field
Minnesota Twins

Profile
2007 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
32 3 24 20 .324 .281

Needs to step it up: Justin Morneau and Hunter have 17 of Minnesota's 23 homers. The Twins need more power production from right fielder Michael Cuddyer, who's been less than full strength because of a bruised back.

On the way: Now that the Twins have sent Sidney Ponson packing, Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey or Scott Baker will get the call from Triple-A Rochester for a Saturday start against Milwaukee. Can Garza be this year's answer to Francisco Liriano?

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer