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Assessing the Market: Part 5 - AL Central

We now move on to one of baseball's strongest divisions, the AL Central, complete with 3 legitimate playoff-caliber teams and a fourth on the cusp of it.

And I never, ever expected to say that in 2005.

Chicago White Sox: What's not to like about the White Sox this year?

They've improved by 10 games from last year. They're on pace to win 107 games, even after getting swept by the A's. They've been remarkably consistent throughout the first half.

I can't talk about the White Sox without being at least mildly alarmist.

       RS   RA  DIFF
2004  462  403   +59
2005  413  339   +74
They've seen a significant loss of offensive capabilities. Their R/G has dropped from 5.50 to 4.80. The run distribution aside, that's not a formula for sustained winning.

Their success, of course, has come from strong success in one-run games, favorable run distribution, and their incredible pitching.

The White Sox are going to need to add another bat for the stretch run, even if it doesn't seem that way. The obvious point for upgrade is at third base. Joe Crede just hasn't put it together, and he's hitting .242/.300/.427, which isn't all that far off from his career line of .254/.303/.433. You have to wonder where they could acquire a third baseman for the stretch run. The two that came to mind were one of the Brewer extras and the gamble, Mike Lowell, even in the face of a disastrous year.

As good as it has been, they could stand to add one more arm to the rotation. I'd lay odds at even money or better that Jon Garland suffers significant regression in the second half, and if that happens, all of a sudden, the spectacular rotation is no longer quite as spectacular, where it's Buerhle (a legitimate top-flight starter), Garcia (an OK 2 or 3), and whatever you can get from Hernandez (health-wise) and Contreras (consistency-wise). Their bullpen, even without a so-called dominant reliever, has been very solid to date, even with a shaky year from Takatsu.

I'll end with these:

1995 AL West, 8/6/95

Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB
California Angels               93   57   36  .613     -
Texas Rangers                   93   47   46  .505  10.0
Seattle Mariners                93   46   47  .495  11.0
Oakland Athletics               95   44   51  .463  14.0
1951 NL, 8/11/51
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB
Brooklyn Dodgers               107   70   36  .660     -
New York Giants                110   59   51  .536  13.0
Philadelphia Phillies          110   58   52  .527  14.0
St. Louis Cardinals            105   51   53  .490  18.0
Boston Braves                  107   51   55  .481  19.0
Cincinnati Reds                108   49   58  .458  21.5
Chicago Cubs                   106   46   59  .438  23.5
Pittsburgh Pirates             109   44   64  .407  27.0
I doubt a repeat from those infamous seasons, but it's not over. They have some tough competition, and 23 games against the Twins and Indians ensure that there's still a division to be had.

The Verdict: They have to be looking to upgrade at this point because their team is not a 107-win team, as it is built now. The .500 watch pegs them at 94-66, which could still be enough to take the division. But with the right moves, this could be a very special season in Chicago, and baseball's least-talked about franchise of futility might just turn some heads in October.

Cleveland Indians: Sometime towards the end of May, the Indians woke up from a season-long slump from a lot of their top players. Since May 21, they're 29-18 and have been one of the league's toughest teams.

Very quietly, Travis Hafner is making a case as the AL's MVP. He has a .319/.425/.595 line for a team that is relatively lacking in big seasons, and since May 21, he's put up a .359/.456/.699 line and took home June's AL Player of the Month honors.

Jhonny Peralta is also building a case to be Rookie of the Year. After a very good year in AAA in 2004 (.323/.382/.489), he's carried that to the bigs, putting up a .297/.345/.528 line this year.

Their rotation has been very balanced. The best ERA among starters is Kevin Millwood's 3.58. Their worst? The immortal Scott Elarton, who is still pitching and has a 4.72 ERA.

They're another team that could stand to add a starter and a bat (this has been a recurring theme among the contenders, it seems, and there are so few options in terms of selling). They could use an upgrade at corner outfielder, and they could use another starter. One problem for the Indians - they're already chock-full of second and third tier starting pitchers. Adding another one probably won't make too much of a difference. To really have an impact, the pitcher would have to be an ace or darn close to one (Schmidt, Burnett are the two that came to mind).

The Verdict: I don't see the Indians adding anything too significant this year, but if they did get involved in the market, they'd be best served to trade one of their surplus relievers. Matt Miller, Rafael Betancourt, Arthur Rhodes, Bob Wickman, David Riske, Scott Sauerbeck, and Bob Howry have been extraordinary out of the pen, and with so many teams having questions there, they could probably net a useful player or two.

Shapiro's making the 5-year plan work, and patience has been the name of the game. It's going to be extremely tough to take the division this year and almost as tough to take the wild card, but the Indians are in the pennant race. Good for them.

Detroit Tigers: Much like the Blue Jays, the Tigers' very nice season has been squelched by the teams surrounding them. There's a very nice ballculb in Detroit, though, and they have been doing very well.

Look underneath the surface, though, and you can see that it's not all that different from last year.

       RS   RA  DIFF 
2004  466  454   +12 
2005  387  375   +12
They're also all of a half game better now than they were last year at this time.

The Tigers are going to be the class of this division at some point, as long as they spend wisely. Peter Gammons noted on Baseball Tonight that the Tigers will be able to spend money and up their payroll into the $90 million range. Assuming he's right, if you couple that with some very nice pitching prospects and the emerging young ace in Jeremy Bonderman, there's a very good chance here for the future.

Patience must be the watchword in Detroit. They're so close... but it's not time quite yet.

The Verdict: Sell. Placido Polanco has probably increased his trade value by playing some very solid baseball for the Tigers. Dmitri Young's in the final year of his deal, as is Rondell White. All three could immediately become very valuable commodities on the market, and, in a year where the buyers are going to be competing for very limited resources, why not get in on the selling?

Kansas City Royals: The Royals have run out of trade chips.

Yep. Outside of Mike Sweeney, is there anyone that people particularly covet on the Royals?

Mike MacDougal might also garner some interest, but it seems like Sweeney's going to be the guy. Supposedly, they want both financial relief and prospects, and I've heard that it's pretty difficult to get both in the same deal.

The Royals are a mess.

As a Met fan, though, I feel that it's necessary to laud Allard Baird for a very savvy move to get into the Kris Benson deal. Considering what the Pirates got, the Mets conceivably got a steal for Kris Benson, who they resigned and who has been a very solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. But Baird somehow squeezed Justin Huber out of the Mets, and Huber has been hitting very well for AA, and he won the Larry Doby MVP at the Futures Game this year.

If Baird pulls off another one of those, his team might really have something.

The Verdict: This is Sweeney's year to move because of all the guys they have who could play 1B/DH, but he's weak defensively, and I don't know who will take him. Money will be the key issue; he has two more years left on his deal, and, if he's traded, the contract goes up to $12.5 million. $25 million is a big committment, so the Royals will need to pick up some of the slack to get real offers.

It's tough to be a Royals fan, and it's tough to be optimistic about their chances at any point soon. Think 2008 or 2009.

Minnesota Twins: There are a few things that I think are self-evident about the Twins.

  1. They don't walk anyone. At all.
  2. Johan Santana strikes out a lot of batters, but the longball is hurting him this year.
  3. Their rotation and pitching staff are playoff-caliber.
  4. Their lineup is not.
I suspect that Morneau will surge in the second half and finish the year with numbers a bit better than his currently "OK" .267/.331/.477. The real problem, though?

The Twins are hitting .254/.324/.380 against lefties. The prime offenders are Morneau, Lew Ford, and Jacque Jones, who, together, have hit .224/.273/.324 against lefties in 250 ABs.

I think that Morneau probably needs more time; he's still young and has loads of potential. Unfortunately, they absolutely need a platoon partner for Jacque Jones, who has proven countless times in his career that he just doesn't have the ability to hit lefties.

Vs. Lefties: .241/.299/.350
Vs. Righties: .303/.342/.514

It's just a matter of keeping him away from lefties to get the best out of him, but it's killing them in those games.

Any offensive help would be appreciated, but it'll be difficult to upgrade. Boone could turn it around, but I don't see him doing much more than Punto.

Jason Bartlett doesn't seem to have the power to play everyday in the majors; he's hitting .316/.385/.425 at AAA-Rochester. He could probably be a bottom of the lineup bat, but the solution to the Twins' offensive struggles is not there.

The Verdict: Any offensive help would be nice, but the Twins aren't in very bad shape. They've underachieved a bit offensively at times, but that could fix itself. Adding someone who can mash lefties would be a key addition and could go a long way, but the Twins are pretty well-built for the next few years. Any team built around guys like Mauer, Morneau, and Santana can contend year in and year out. This might not be a playoff year for the Twins, but that wouldn't be the end of the world.