After only making additions to the 2016 roster that won the AL Pennant, the Indians weren’t just the favorite to win the AL Central going into the season, but were picked by many to repeat as AL Champions and some to win the World Series. Outside of the Indians, most considered the rest of the division to tank with possibly the Tigers and Royals on the outside of the Wild Card race. When the Indians swept the Rangers to start the year, it only confirmed these opinions for many, but when they lost consecutive series to Arizona, Chicago and Detroit, some doubts grew. A sweep of the Twins moved the Indians from last place in the Central to first, however and now the entire division within a single game.
Now, the question is has anything really changed?
Cleveland Indians: 8-7
Run Differential: +3
Pythagorian Record: 8-7
The Indians expected to have above average assets in the rotation, bullpen, line-up and defense with the only perceivable weakness being the outfield, both offensively and defensively. Instead, the first time through the rotation saw poor starts from three of five starters and the second time saw even worse starts from Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. It wasn’t until the third time through that, aside from Corey Kluber, everything really came together. In the bullpen, things have been much better and they rank 5th in MLB in fWAR with the three main pitchers, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller and Bryan Shaw, being near perfect. Based on previous production, the bullpen performance should be expected to continue while the rotation should be somewhere between the second and third time though more so than the first.
Defensively, the Indians currently rank 7th in baseball and they should improve with Jose Ramirez moving to third and Jason Kipnis returning to second. Lonnie Chisenhall‘s recent return should also have a positive net effect as Tyler Naquin is now in AAA with the better defender, Abraham Almonte, still on the team. Offensively, the Indians started slow, but have been making up for that quickly and already rank 7th in baseball in WAR and tenth in total runs scored.
In all, the Indians got started a little slower and expected, but have turned things up of late and played well against Detroit despite losing two of three and even better against Minnesota. Their biggest set back was against Arizona, a team who has surprised many by playing like they were expected to going into last season. The DBacks are now in first in the NL West with a run differential of +15. It’s possible the Indians underestimated the Diamondbacks and even with poor starts from Tomlin and Bauer, still nearly pulled out the third game.
Detroit Tigers: 8-7
Run Differential: -21
Pythagorian Record: 6-9
After two postponed games to start the year against Chicago, the Tigers won series against Boston, Minnesota and Cleveland before being swept by the Rays. The Tigers were expected to have a solid offense with a questionable rotation and poor bullpen and defense. Instead, the offense has been league average as has the rotation while the bullpen and defense have been as bad as expected.
With that combination, the Tigers have been very successful in low scoring games and have won four of five one run games. However, they allowed five runs or more in all three games against Tampa, 13 in one game against Cleveland and 11 in games against Minnesota and Chicago, all losses.
Both Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann have poor numbers, but their peripheral stats make a turnaround to more expected levels seem imminent. In all, the Tigers are a much better team than their -21 run differential would make them seem, but they may not be a whole lot better than slightly above .500. Expect the offense and rotation to recover, but not the bullpen unless some changes are made. They are who we thought they were.
Chicago White Sox: 7-7
Run Differential: +0
Pythagorian Record: 7-7
After trading Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, the White Sox came into this season with practically no expectations. Overall, they are second to last in baseball in starting pitching, but 5th in bullpen. They are also towards the bottom of the league in offense while being league average defensively.
The White Sox have only played AL Central teams until their series with New York that just ended and that has likely effected their win-loss record. Going with pre-season expectations, this would essentially mean that they have only played one realistic play-off team (the Indians) and against them, they only had one strong win, 10-4 in game three.
Currently, the White Sox are relying on the offensive production of Matt Davidson and Geovany Soto, some things that are unlikely to continue. While Todd Frazier, Jose Abreu, Cody Asche and Tim Anderson are likely to improve, it is unlikely to provide a significant enough boost to back up their lack of pitching depth. Right now, Jose Quintana has been the worst Sox starter, but just like Kluber with the Indians, expect that to completely flip before long and with a dominant bullpen, they should have a great chance to win each time he and Miguel Gonzalez pitch. How long Quintana stays with the team is another question as the Sox still shouldn’t be expected to compete for any play-off spot and could be sellers before too long. They are pretty much who we thought they were.
Kansas City Royals: 7-7
Run Differential: -5
Pythagorian Record: 6-8
The Royals started the season with a sweep from the Twins, then lost three of four to the lowly Athletics in their third series of the season. They’ve received surprisingly positive starts from each of their starters, but the bullpen has been dreadful (excepting a few stand outs) as has their defense and offense.
The Royals defense and bullpen have been their biggest strengths in recent years, but trades of Jarrod Dyson and Wade Miley have hurt their depth at both. An aging team has hurt the defense as well and it would be more surprising to see them return to greatness than to see the current trend continue. Offensively, they have scored the least runs in the division at less than three per game and only their incredible rotation has them at .500. Since Jason Vargas is unlikely to maintain his current 0.44 ERA, there’s a much greater chance of the pitching falling off than the offense improving. In anything, they’re worse than we thought they were.
Minnesota Twins: 7-8
Run Differential: +10
Pythagorian Record: 9-6
After winning their first four games of the season, the Twins have now lost four in a row and seven of their last nine. Like Vargas with KC, Ervin Santana is not going to finish the season with a 0.41 ERA while Phil Hughes and Aldalberto Mejia have been playing nearer expectations. It was the success of their pitching staff that lead the Twins where they are now, but they’ve also scored 60 runs, largely thanks to the resurgent season of Miguel Sano as well as solid play from Robbie Grossman and Max Kepler. Given what happened over the last two seasons, it’s completely believeable that these players could continue to be successful while Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer should continue to improve.
The Twins might not be as good as their +10 run differential through just 15 games, but they also aren’t bad enough to be the last place team in the AL Central. I wouldn’t be surprised if they quickly surpassed both Kansas City and Chicago before the end of the season with one of the best mixes of veterans and rookies in the division. They have a solid defense and a good enough bullpen that once they get a lead, they should be able to keep it (even though it didn’t work out that way yesterday against Cleveland). They are a little better than we thought they were.