Commentary

Will Indians hold up and win AL Central?

Cleveland has run out to a sizable division lead, but the race is a long way from over

Originally Published: May 3, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We're not sure if we've mentioned in the last 30 seconds that gambling on baseball is a really, really, really shaky idea. But for once, we don't need to type the words "Pete" and "Rose" to make that case.

Nope. We just have to rerun the preseason odds to win the American League Central, as established by the normally intelligent folks at bodog.com:

Twins 3-to-2
White Sox 8-to-5
Tigers 2-to-1
Indians 20-to-1
Royals 25-to-1

OK, any more questions?

If you just flip-flopped the Indians and Royals in the AL Central standings right now, you know what you'd find? You'd find those teams listed in that exact order -- except for the slight technicality that they'd be listed upside-down. And that, friends, is first-week-of-May craziness at its finest.

Not so long ago, we spent a month and a half traveling around spring training. We don't recall a single person in baseball uttering the sentence: "That AL Central sure looks like a two-team race -- between the Indians and Royals."

So is what we're seeing now just one of those "It's early" phenomena? Or is it something more? Can the Indians hang on? And if not, who's going to catch them? Hey, excellent questions. So let's answer them now, by breaking down the AL Central.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians

Stat of the day: The Indians are the 23rd team in the wild-card era to start a season by going 19-8 or better, and the fifth to do it in the AL Central. Of the previous 22, 15 made the playoffs -- but only two of four in the AL Central. (The two that did: 2005 White Sox, 1999 Indians. The two that didn't: 2001 Twins, 2006 White Sox.)

Reason to believe: The Indians lead the league in runs scored per game -- and Shin-Soo Choo (.716 OPS) and Carlos Santana (.191 average) haven't even gotten hot yet. So the offensive upside here is scary.

Reason to worry: The Indians' shockingly good rotation is tied for the league lead in quality starts -- but 11th in the league in strikeout ratio. That suggests this group has had a lot of luck fall its way so far on balls put in play.

The prognosis: We've found plenty of people in baseball who believe in the Indians' ability to crank out runs -- and almost nobody who's sold on this pitching staff being quite this good. "I just don't see it from a run-prevention standpoint," one AL executive said. "If I'm wrong and they go on to win 95 games, God bless 'em. But I just don't see it yet."

Kansas City Royals

The Royals

Stat of the day: Tuesday night against Baltimore, the Royals have a chance to win their fourth game in a row -- for the third time this season. So how many times all last year did they win four in a row? That would be zero, of course.

Reason to believe: All of a sudden, these guys can score runs. They lead the league in doubles, triples, stolen bases and stolen-base success rate (35-for-41, 85 percent). And they have a better team batting average and on-base percentage than the Yankees -- so far, at least.

Reason to worry: Is there ever a night in which you look at the starting-pitching matchup and think the Royals ought to win? The rotation has a 5.11 ERA and has allowed the highest opponent batting average (.284), slugging percentage (.492) and OPS (.830) in the league, while compiling the worst strikeout rate.

The prognosis: The Royals are the youngest team in the league, and they're only going to get younger once they start calling up their never-ending cast of phenoms as this season rolls on. So even if they don't win, "They're not designed to win in 2011," one executive said. "The way they're lined up, they should be competitive in 2012. And they should be awfully good in 2013 and '14. So they're going good right now. But I don't see the six-month staying power."

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers

Stat of the day: This team is in total disarray. Outside of their sweep of the White Sox on April 22-24, the Tigers have won two of their last 12 games, have gotten outscored by 44 runs in the 10 losses and just did something no team did all last season -- get swept at home by the Mariners.

Reason to believe: They have to hit sometime, right? Alex Avila (.309, with a .937 OPS) and Brennan Boesch (.300/.368/.420) seem as if they've taken big steps forward. Miguel Cabrera (.350/.469/.631) has been his usual ridiculous self. And Victor Martinez should come off the disabled list this week.

Reason to worry: Way too many players they were counting on have been huge disappointments so far. Magglio Ordonez has one RBI all year. Austin Jackson has 40 strikeouts and 22 hits. Brad Penny has a 6.11 ERA. And their big bullpen addition, Joaquin Benoit, has already given up more runs (11) in 13 appearances than he gave up all last season for Tampa Bay (10).

The prognosis: The return of Martinez to the cleanup hole has to help Cabrera, who got intentionally walked twice in the FIRST INNING in Cleveland this weekend. And at some point this team has too many good hitters not to score. The questions are whether Penny and Phil Coke will be the answers at the back end of the rotation and whether they can stabilize a bullpen that ranks 29th in the big leagues in ERA. "For me, it's always about whether their pitching staff will be good enough to support their offense," one exec said. "They're an offense-first club."

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox

Stat of the day: It took the White Sox 29 games to fall 10 games out of first place. And no White Sox team in history has ever roared back to win after dropping 10 back at any point of any season.

Reason to believe: Aside from Paul Konerko (.304, with eight homers and a .910 OPS), Carlos Quentin (six homers, 13 doubles and a .941 OPS) and Sergio Santos (13 IP, 7 hits, 0 runs, 16 K), NOBODY on this team has played the way you'd expect. And at least the two teams they were supposed to be battling -- the Tigers and Twins -- haven't exactly run away from them.

Reason to worry: Nice bullpen! Is Ozzie Guillen ever going to stop tweeting and establish some sense of order in a 'pen that has four different set-up men with ERAs over 7.00?

The prognosis: It wouldn't shock anybody if this was just a typical thrill ride on the White Sox's ever-present roller coaster. "Everything about that team is built for streaks, from the manager to the players," said an exec of an AL rival. "I fully expect them to rip off an 11-1 stretch at some point and be right back in it."

Minnesota Twins

The Twins

Stat of the day: The Twins managed to plummet to 10 games out of first in only 27 games. So here's what the Elias Sports Bureau can report to the Twins and White Sox: Only three teams in history have finished in first place after finding themselves 10 games behind before they'd even played 30 games -- the 1911 A's, 1914 Braves and 1987 Tigers.

Reason to believe: They're the Twins. They always find a way. Right? Just last year, they played the entire second half without Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan -- and still had the best record after the break in the American League. And as recently as 2006, they went 9-15 in April, got outscored by 51 runs and fell eight games back before May -- and wound up going 87-51 the rest of the way and winning the division.

Reason to worry: Rough, rough start for the stars on this team. Joe Mauer and Delmon Young are hurt. Morneau (.225, with one homer) has never looked like himself. Francisco Liriano has a 9.13 ERA. And Nathan has a 10.00 ERA.

The prognosis: If we knew what the future held for Mauer and Morneau, we'd have an easier time figuring this out. But it's amazing how many people in this sport expect the Twins to make a charge. "I think they'll hang in there," one exec said. "You have to remember they're a team built to win now, from both a personnel and payroll standpoint. The way they've built their business around the new park, it's hard for them to do anything but try to win. So they've got to give it a shot. And in their division, there's no reason not to."

So what have we concluded? That this race is a long way from over. That the teams at the bottom are still better constructed to win than the teams at the top. And that just about no one is ready to sprint for Las Vegas to bet the family fortune on the Indians.

"In other words," laughed one of those AL execs we quoted earlier, "see you in Cleveland at the World Series."

Ready to Rumble

• One more little-discussed ripple effect if baseball adds a playoff team in each league is the potentially dramatic impact it will have on what we often refer to as Those Other Three Teams in the AL East (Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles). In the 16 years of the wild-card era, either the Yankees or Red Sox have been the AL wild card a ridiculous 12 times. But adding a second slot changes everything for the other teams in the East.

"Now," one AL executive said, "with the extra team, your chances of sneaking in with 88 or 89 wins go up dramatically. And to me, that changes the business model for those teams fundamentally."

Under the current system, those teams need to build a roster to win 95 games or more, because that's what it generally takes to out-win the Yankees or Red Sox. But had there been a second wild card over the last decade and a half, 89 wins would have been good enough to earn a playoff spot 79 percent of the time. It's been good enough just ONCE, under the current system, in the last 15 years.

So in the past, those teams have only bumped payroll when they felt they had a window to win. With an extra wild card, their odds are so much better; you could see the Orioles and Blue Jays, in particular, go for it every year.

• But it wouldn't just be the AL East that would feel the aftershocks of adding a wild-card slot. Those waves could be felt through the entire American League. Under the current system, only four of 16 wild cards have come from the AL Central or West. But had there been a second wild card over the last decade and a half, those divisions would have wrapped up at least one of those two spots in 14 of the last 15 seasons.

"So now a team like Oakland can do everything it can do to get to 88-89 wins and have a helluva shot to get something from it," the same exec said. "And then if they win, could it give them a boost to get a new ballpark? It could. So this could really change the face of the entire American League."

• When other clubs have felt out the Mets early on about how interested they might be in dealing Jose Reyes or David Wright down the road, they get noncommittal answers. But when the topic turns to Carlos Beltran? Very different response. Unless the Mets get on a roll over the next few weeks, we get the feeling the Beltran outlet store could open as soon as next month.

Of course, Beltran will still have more than $9 million left on his contract in late June. But the Mets have made it clear they're willing to digest a significant chunk of that dinero. An official of one team said that when he asked about the Mets' willingness to eat Beltran's dollars, he was told that if they "can get something good back by taking money? Then yes."

• Early in the season, we quoted one scout as saying he wouldn't recommend trading for Beltran because "I don't want to get fired." But Beltran has looked so much better, both in the field and at the plate, the last couple of weeks that teams are rapidly losing that skepticism. One scout, who has followed Beltran lately, reported he's now very upbeat on Beltran's "look, at-bats and ever-present tools."

• When John Rocker offended everyone from gays to subway riders 11 years ago, baseball suspended him for all of spring training and the first four weeks of the regular season. So Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell is a lucky man that he was suspended for only two weeks for making "inappropriate" and homophobic comments to fans in San Francisco.

Why the difference in those two suspensions? From what we've heard, Major League Baseball took into account McDowell's otherwise-excellent history of good behavior. And McDowell's immediate willingness to apologize and take accountability for his actions made for quite the contrast to the absurd defiance of Rocker, who rationalized a lot but never did apologize to anyone. Nevertheless, McDowell deserved every minute of his suspension -- and then some.

• As for the Braves' other poster boy for bad behavior, Derek Lowe, driving under the influence isn't currently grounds for suspension. But don't be surprised if that's an issue that gets addressed in the next labor deal.

Ubaldo Jimenez
Jimenez

• Is Ubaldo Jimenez healthy? Lots of buzzing among scouts that he can't possibly be. Last year, according to Baseball Info Solutions, Jimenez threw more pitches (20) at 100 miles per hour or higher than any NL starter. In his start Sunday, he averaged a tick under 94 mph and topped out at 96. The Rockies have insisted repeatedly that he's fine. But several scouts continue to report that Jimenez is throwing as if his shoulder is bothering him. And four starts into his season, he's already given up more runs than he allowed in his first 14 starts last year. So keep your eyes on this one.

• To all those Braves fans who have been blaming Rumblings for jinxing Craig Kimbrel last week by naming him as our Reliever of the Month, we can only plead: guilty. Sorry. Kimbrel's next two outings after we lauded his unhittability: four hits, just one whiff in 1 1/3 innings pitched, one loss and a blown save. Oops!

"I think it's the best thing that can happen to him," a scout said. "Sooner or later, he was going to have to face adversity. And you'd better deal with it in that role. The problem I see is he comes in and he's high octane all the time, and guys are sitting fastball. The lesson from this is he's got to learn to at least show another pitch. That's got to happen sooner or later."

• Phenom of the week: The Orioles' No. 1 pick last June, shortstop Manny Machado is off to a .349/.462/.640 start, with more extra-base hits (13) than strikeouts (12). "I saw A-Rod at 18," one scout said. "And I think he might be better than A-Rod was as an 18-year-old. I've seen this kid do everything you'd want to see a superstar do."

• Maybe Kevin Millwood can find another taker after opting out of his deal with the Yankees. But an official of one team that monitored him reported he "might be done. … His stuff never got better. In fact, it regressed."

Bartolo Colon
Colon

• While we're on the subject of Yankees reclamation projects, one of the most mind-boggling stats of the entire season so far is that when Bartolo Colon shut down the White Sox for eight one-run innings last Wednesday he was able to do it practically with his fastball alone. Out of his 99 pitches, only nine of them could be defined as offspeed. He then came back and launched 90 fastballs out of 97 pitches in seven innings against the Tigers on Monday.

Best line we've heard all week on Colon and his unmistakable wide body comes from an AL executive who needs to remain nameless: "He's found the fountain of youth -- the chocolate fountain of youth."

Five Astounding Facts

1) Think that regal karma was in the air Friday? On the day of the royal wedding, the Royals won, a Marquis (Jason) pitched his first shutout since 2009 and a Prince (Fielder) hit the longest home run of the last two seasons (486 feet). Where were Zach Duke and King Felix when they needed them?

2) Hard to believe, but FIVE Cardinals relievers saved a game in April. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that's a feat pulled off by only two other bullpens in April since 1985 -- the 2000 Rockies (Jose Jimenez, Stan Belinda, David Lee, Julian Tavarez and Rick White) and the 2006 A's (Huston Street, Kiko Calero, Justin Duchscherer, Joe Kennedy and Kirk Saarloos).

3) How does Jonathan Sanchez do it? The always-action-packed Giants left-hander walked or hit seven of the first 10 hitters Saturday in Washington and wound up with six walks, two hit batters and a wild pitch -- and somehow allowed zero earned runs. Not surprisingly, that's a feat that's been duplicated only twice in the live-ball era -- by Bill Travers on July 21, 1976 and by Chris Codiroli on Sept. 1, 1990.

4) No wonder Brian Wilson is the perfect closer for Sanchez's team. On the way to saving that game Saturday, Wilson loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batter. That enabled the Giants to become the first team in the live-ball era to rack up at least nine walks and three hit batters in one game -- without giving up at least two runs. Has to be the beard.

5) Finally, let's check in with our favorite Zero Heroes. Vladimir Guerrero made it through the entire month of April 100 percent walk-free, in 104 at-bats. He joins Reyes (also 104 AB, in 2005) as the only players in the 162-game-schedule era to get that many at-bats in April without a walk. Meanwhile, Rays shortstop Reid Brignac keeps lining up single-file. His 63 at-bats without an extra-base hit were the most XBH-less at-bats by any player in any April since 1946.

Tweet of the Day

Once again, we check in with Nyjer Morgan's fabled alter-ego, @Tony_Plush, as he recounts his trip to Nashville with Zack Greinke for their respective rehab options last week -- and how they were greeted at the airport by Sounds manager Don Money:

Coach Money opened the door to his '98 Skylark. Greinke gingerly picked an empty McDonald's bag off the back seat. This was not The Show.

Late-Nighter of the Week

David Letterman reported:

"Allergy season here in New York City is awful. Here's how bad it was today: Cameron Diaz was feeding Alex Rodriguez Benadryl."

Headliner of the Week

And this just in from the lunatics at realfakesports.com:

MLB TO ADD ONE PLAYOFF TEAM
AS LONG AS IT'S EITHER YANKEES OR RED SOX

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com