Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Central Themes
By Ben Valentine

If someone had told you before the season that the American League Central would have three of the best teams in baseball, people might have believed you. But it’s highly unlikely any would have guessed it would be the Detroit Tigers, not the Cleveland Indians, who would be making a run at the American League pennant.

Yet here we are, near the deadline, and the Tigers have the best record in baseball at 67 wins. Of course, while regular season record is necessary to get into the postseason; it becomes a crapshoot from there. Usually you like teams with hot pitching, which one has to love if you happen to be a fan of the team from the Twin Cities. But unlike the Tigers, they have to make the right moves to gain entrance into October. And then there’s the World Champions with their nutcase manager, who were busy today and might be even busier in the coming days.

It’s an interesting time to follow the AL Central. Let’s take a closer look.

Detroit Tigers, 67-32, 1st place – The team with the best pitching in the league by far, Detroit’s record might lure some into a false sense of security. They have 67 wins, but like the Seattle Mariners of 2001, should be looked at as a question mark come the postseason.

I don’t love the pitching, but heading into the postseason unless Minnesota gets in, Detroit will have the best starter of any team, with Jeremy Bonderman at the helm. Of course, Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander will probably push him back to game three. Verlander I’ve already commented on, but is solid enough to slot in behind Bonderman in an ideal world. The problem lies in Rogers, who should not be trusted at all in a big spot.

That’s why I suggest the Tigers do something radical; trade Rogers for a bat. Off hand, my suggestion is to swap him for the Reds’ Ryan Freel, who can play almost any position on the field and is a valuable speedster. With an OPS of .851, 22 stolen bases and a success rate of 79% he’s been much more valuable than 3rd baseman Brandon Inge who’s OPS is .789. The latter’s hitting .242 with an OBP of .303; his .486 slugging is the only reason he’s respectable. The drop in power would be mitigated by the fact Freel does everything else offensively better than Inge. Besides with Magglio Ordonez, Chris Shelton and Carlos Guillen, the Tigers have their share of power hitters.

Of course that won’t happen; the PR fallout would be a nightmare. A utility type player for the All Star Game starter? That’s just insane. But the fact remains Rogers’ prior history and current ability does not lend one to think he can get by on a big stage. If nothing else, a move like this would put the big games squarely in the hands of the guys most capable of winning them.

Other than that, Detroit could also swap one of their power arms for a big bat. That is more likely to happen; especially since this Soriano to the White Sox talk appears premature.

The Tigers look promising. But if they’re smart, they won’t be fooled into meaningless honors like “All Star Game starter” and put the best players out there come October.

Chicago White Sox, 59-39, 7.5 back of Tigers, 1st place in wild card- Earlier today it appeared they had snagged the big bat of the market, but Alfonso Soriano is still a Washington National. They did pull off a nice thing today, grabbing Mike MacDougal from the Royals in exchange for a couple of prospects.

The Chi Sox don’t need a bat however; it’s the pitching that needs an overhaul. Jose Contreras has had a nice season, but the rest of the rotation is in shambles. Mark Buehrle is terrible, Javier Vasquez continues to be an enigma while Freddy Garcia hovers between mediocrity and garbage. Jon Garland pitches his best game of the season, and nearly gets attacked by Ozzie Guillen for not getting himself ejected. It’s been that type of year for those starters. Why exactly should Brandon McCarthy want to get into this group?

If G.M. Ken Williams is to be believed, then the Chi Sox are making the right decision in dealing not McCarthy. It makes a deal with the Nats less likely, but that’s okay. The Sox addressed part of their bullpen woes, now, if they were really shrewd, they’d try to turn free agent to be Buerhle into a young pitcher who could contribute right away either from the rotation or pen, then slot McCarthy in to his spot. More realistically, they’ll try to acquire Soriano by dealing someone like Vasquez and try to get another arm for their pen, especially if they cannot net the Nats’ outfielder.

Minnesota Twins, 57-41, 9.5 back of Tigers, 2 back of Chi Sox- The Twinkies were in terrible shape a month and a half ago. Now they’re the hottest team in baseball and closing fast on the wild card. The spark plug has been Francisco Liriano who completes the best 1-2 punch in the majors with Johan Santana. The bats have come to life as well, as Justin Morneau, Luis Castillo and co. finally have given some help to MVP candidate Joe Mauer.

The middle of the Twins rotation isn’t anything special, but the first two are so good it doesn’t matter. Come the postseason, teams will have to win four games against those two without losing to anyone else; not an easy task should Minnesota make it. The Twins need offensive upgrades to get there however.

Their outfield is a complete mess with injuries to Shannon Stewart and Tori Hunter. However, the Twins have not been heard from much in the Soriano hunt, despite the fact they usually have some pretty decent prospects. It’s more likely they try to swap Hunter to a team who needs a centerfielder and then acquire another outfielder. Scott Baker has shown enough over the last couple of years to get back a decent offensive player and since the Twins don’t seem to want to use him this year, it wouldn’t be a bad move to get someone who could help them this year, especially if that player will not be a free agent this off season. They could use help pretty much everywhere except second, catcher and first, thus almost any bat would do. Phil Nevin, Jeromy Burnitz, Craig Wilson are all cheap options as free agents to be. Preston Wilson and Jason Lane from the Astros also could be had, and considering where both have fallen, probably not for much. The bonus for a guy like Lane is that he is still a while away from free agency.

The Twins and A’s have the best reputations as being second half juggernauts. With the wild card race as tight as it is, Minnesota will have to live up to their reputation in order to make the playoffs. With a couple of moves to bolster than lineup and those two aces at the front of that rotation, they could become the team no one wants to face in the first round of the postseason.

Think about it; game one- Santana, game two Liriano, and game five, Santana. The American League East winner is already shuddering thinking about it.

Speaking of that division, that’s where we head next to wrap up the needs of the American League teams.

Part 1- The NL Contenders

Part 2- The NL Long Shots

Part 3- The AL West

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