Who Will Win The AL Central (Or, Why This Weekend Is Huge For Four Teams)

With four teams fighting for supremacy in the American League Central facing off this weekend, now is the time to wonder just who will come out on top in the race for October baseball.

The American League Central is a mess. The Royals are out of it, but the fourth-place Twins are just six back and facing the division-leading Tigers this weekend -- and at the same time that the half-game-out, second-place Indians take on the third-place White Sox. These two series won't answer all the Central's questions, but they could change the dynamic in a hurry. 

The Twins looked dead in the water, not long ago. Despite expectations they would contend, injuries to key players and ineffectiveness from others dropped them to 17-37 on June 1, 16-1/2 games out of first place. Since then, Minnesota has gone 29-15.

Alexi Casilla, who struggled early, has hit .281/.337/.404 during that stretch to stabilize second base. Joe Mauer hasn't hit for power (.370 slugging), but he's batted .324 with nearly a .400 OBP since June 1. The real star on offense for the Twins has been Michael Cuddyer and his .342/.426/.596 line. He has been the centerpiece for an offense that hasn't hit nearly as much as it was expected to, thanks to Mauer's problems and little production from Justin Morneau.

It's the pitching that has brought them back into this, though. The highest Run Average since June 1 is Nick Blackburn's 5.36, but everyone else is contributing: Carl Pavano (3.37), Francisco Liriano (4.13), Brian Duensing (3.42) and ace Scott Baker (2.57) have been strong. The bullpen has also been solid, especially now that Joe Nathan has his velocity and control back.

The Twins have a legitimate chance in the Central. That just goes to show you how wide open the division is.

The Indians have gone in the opposite direction since June 1. They were 33-20 then, but have gone 18-26 since. This isn't a shock, as Cleveland never looked like they had the horses to stay in this race. Look no further than their starters for proof: the rotation is Justin Masterson (2.97 RA, 2.5 K/BB, and the lowest HR/9 in the league courtesy of 56 percent grounders) and then ... well, nothing. Fausto Carmona hasn't been dependable since 2007. Even with a 1.1 BB/9, Josh Tomlin's ERA+ is jut 92 -- an increase in free passes would mean disaster for an already below-average hurler. Carlos Carrasco may be the team's second-best starter, and that's because he's the only one besides Masterson within striking distance of the league-average K-rate. Mitch Talbot? Well, he's Mitch Talbot.

Those 51 wins are already in the books, though. The way the Central is going, .500 ball the rest of the way might be enough.

The White Sox are betting on that strategy, too. Their offense is as awful as Cleveland's pitching, but they have arms to lean on. Jake Peavy's injuries and 5.19 ERA make him look like a waste, but his peripherals are solid (3.4 K/BB); if he can stay on the mound, there's plenty to like. The White Sox are first in the AL in Fair Run Average.

They have mostly hovered around .500, but a seven-game losing streak in mid-April helped push them to 11 games under .500 on May 6. They are 36-29 since, a pace that could be good enough to win the division on the strength of their pitching alone.

The team most likely to come away with the division crown is the one leading it today, though. The Tigers have the fourth-highest TAv in the majors, and are above-average by wRC+ as well. The offense has some holes, but their productive hitters have been fantastic:

Rk Pos G PA 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+
1 C Alex Avila* 82 314 19 3 10 .279 .365 .487 139
2 1B Miguel Cabrera 98 414 23 0 20 .315 .432 .561 179
4 SS Jhonny Peralta 88 343 17 3 15 .317 .364 .533 151
8 RF Brennan Boesch* 90 375 24 0 14 .297 .352 .491 136
9 DH Victor Martinez# 83 334 24 0 6 .318 .365 .456 131
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/22/2011.

Throw in that Brandon Inge (38 OPS+) has been pushed to the minors after the Wilson Betemit trade (110 OPS+) and the offense figures to be even better down the stretch.

The Tigers also pitch well enough to win with that offense. They are middle-of-the-pack in FRA, but have Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer to lead the rotation. Scherzer's peripherals indicate he is better than his poor 4.53 ERA, but Brad Penny (3.8 K/9, 1.4 K/BB) and Rick Porcello (5.2 K/9, 2.1 K/BB) haven't inspired the same confidence in a second-half rebound. The fifth spot has been troublesome, too, with Phil Coke, Charlie Furbush, Andy Oliver, and now Duane Below all getting shots in the slot. As long as they continue to hit, they should be able to overcome that, but wrapping up the division would be easier if they could depend on more than two starters each time through the rotation.

Between their high-powered offense and average pitching, the Tigers seem the easy pick for the Central title. The White Sox are the only other team with a stellar component, but their pitching has to make up for an anemic offense, while the Tigers' hitting just has to carry an average staff, giving Detroit an edge over the rest. They have a chance to widen the lead this weekend, with all four of these clubs facing each other, and if they start to pull away, they might never look back.

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