With the MLB All Star Break looming in the days ahead, the Detroit Tigers continue to to march (no matter how unevenly) toward another AL Central division title. The last week saw the Tigers rebound from a disappointing home stand at the end of June to suddenly become road warriors by wrapping up a 7-4 journey with a series win in Cleveland.
Even after dropping a series to the lowly and downtrodden White Sox the Tigers maintained a 3.5 game lead over the Tribe with only three games to go until the break. Meanwhile the Royals are showing signs of life after a 21-16 month of June and a .500 beginning to July. The Twins are falling into the abyss day by day with the White Sox ready to cushion their fall by stationing themselves at the bottom of the division ladder.
This week's AL Central Review will take a look at each team's MVP to this point and what player need to step it up down the stretch.
1st Place: Detroit Tigers 50-41
Pythagorean Record: 54-37
AL Central Record: 20-13
First Half MVP: Miguel Cabrera
Revealing that Jim Leyland smokes would probably surprise more folks than this stunning revelation that the Tigers world circles around the sun that is Cabrera's offensive game. Chasing a third consecutive batting title and possibly defending the Triple Crown is all great...but it's the day to day reliability of Cabrera that continues to send Tigers fans searching for new superlatives. Homers that make pitchers duck, opposite field power displays, well-placed singles to drive a runner home, never looking concerned about having two-strikes, and taking a walk when necessary. He's the best man on this earth with a bat in his hands.
Second Half Player to Watch: Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander has been okay. But just "okay". He is 9-6 with a 3.71 ERA in 119 innings to this point and the vast majority of pitchers in MLB would sign up for that. But Verlander probably isn't willing to concede that this is the "new normal" and the Tigers probably know they need the former MVP and Cy Young Award winner to recapture at least some of his dominant form as the season wears on. Anibal Sanchez has a DL stint on his sheet already this year. Doug Fister is showing bit by bit that he's a mid-rotation guy who might lean more toward a "good #4" than a "legit #2". Rick Porcello is, frankly, all over the map. He's good, he's bad, he's in the middle. The Tigers simply are going to need Verlander to assume the lead again at some point. Max Scherzer is ably holding up the front of the rotation right now with his sterling 13-0 mark...but it's Verlander that has to find the All-World gear that he found in 2009 and maintained through 2012.
2nd Place: Cleveland Indians 48-44
Pythagorean Record: 48-44
AL Central Record: 19-18
First Half MVP: Jason Kipnis
Yeah...Jason Kipnis. The Arizona State product is having his break out year and manager Terry Francona has put the middle infielder in the 3-hole for good reason. Going into Thursday's action with a slash-line of .290/.375/.506, Kipnis is a middle of the lineup force who also has been able to swipe 20 bags (at an 80% success rate) while slugging over .500. So...can a club being carried by Jason Kipnis truly contend? To this point, the answer has been "yes". The suspicion is that this lineup needs Carlos Santana to take a big step ahead as an upper echelon offensive talent in order for this team to really explode offensively. Santana has actually been quite good but there seems to more there to be mined. The Clevelanders need Santana to take a step to match Kipnis.
Second Half Player to Watch: Ubaldo Jimenez
Perhaps the offense needs Santana to produce even more as previously mentioned, but the Tribe's rather ordinary (at best) rotation needs someone to assume command of another spot if they are truly going to test the Tigers into the autumn. Justin Masterson is basically matching Justin Verlander this year (in a down Verlander year...but still). Cory Kluber is showing signs of being solid and posts a fine K-rate. But he still sports a 4.23 ERA and an ordinary pedigree. That's not enough. The Tribe can kid themselves about Scott Kazmir a bit longer and they can pat Zach McAllister on the head for holding it together as long as he can with his low-octane stuff. But we're talking about one guy...
Ubaldo Jimenez has the big time arm and has shown stretches of brilliance and dominance in his past. Jimenez has to be the stud down the stretch to pair with Masterson. That's why he was acquired two summers ago and that isn't what he's been. He's been uneven and not a workhorse. (Masterson is the only Cleveland starter to log 100+ innings so far) If it's not Jimenez then the Tribe is going to definitely have to make the big splash at the trade deadline to bring in a Matt Garza and it's questionable if the Tribe truly believes in their chances to unseat the Tigers in order to make a move like that. If Jimenez can pitch well in front of the deadline the Tribe may feel better about adding back of the rotation depth instead someone to start Game 1 or Game 2 of a playoff series.
3rd Place: Kansas City Royals 43-46
Pythagorean Record: 44-45
AL Central Record: 19-15
First Half MVP: Ervin Santana
Most observers were confident that while the trade for James Shields could at the very least be debated quite heavily on the merits of swapping Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, there was little question that Shields was a good pitcher in the here and now. He was going to be a boon to the KC rotation.
But it was the commitment to an eight-figure payday for the enigmatic Ervin Santana that was the dice role for the Royals that left many scratching their heads. Santana was coming off a very poor, homer prone, year in Anaheim and there was no guarantee that the confines of Kauffman Stadium was going to be any different for him. However a change of scenery has been the ticket to this point. Santana has recovered the form that made him a reliable entity for many seasons for the Angels. In KC he has raised his K-rate, lowered his BB-rate, and dramatically slashed his HR-rate. This transformation has made him into one of the AL Central's most consistent pitchers in the first half of the season and he sports a 3.37 ERA because of it. Forget the W/L record...Santana has cranked out solid start after solid start and the Royals have stayed afloat with him propping up the rotation along with Shields.
Second Half Player to Watch: Eric Hosmer
Hosmer has been a disappointment to many Royals fans. He raised many hopes with a solid rookie debut in 2011 only to follow that up with a truly awful effort in 2012. This season started out with Hosmer looking more like an opposite field banjo hitter than a slugging first baseman. While he was posting mostly acceptable OBP rates, the power was simply not there to be found.
However, as happens with youngsters who are still 23, something seems to have clicked. Just when many Royals fans were adjusting their hopes for Hosmer from "the next Will Clark" down to "the next Casey Kotchman (if he's lucky)", Hosmer has hit 8 homers since June 13th to slug a nifty .541 for the month of June. He has followed that up by slugging .622 for the first half of July. If Hosmer is truly turning a corner the Royals will have another building block for their offense beyond Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. A semblance of an attack may start to take shape. (especially if struggling Mike Moustakas continues to at least show a weak pulse as he has lately with some signs of improvement) Much of the hype concerning the Royals budding young talent over the last few years has revolved around Hosmer. Will he continue to grab hold of what was ticketed to be his?
4th Place: Minnesota Twins 37-52
Pythagorean Record: 38-51
AL Central Record: 16-21
First Half MVP: Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer is having a Joe Mauer Year. He is a great and gifted ballplayer. The rest of the lineup stinks. The second best player on the club is Closer Glen Perkins. Enough said.
Second Half Player to Watch: Aaron Hicks
Hicks started off batting leadoff but started off slowly and has barely managed to crawl above the Mendoza Line at times though he currently sits at .199. The Twins however have committed to the young man. He is the first of the wave of young bats in the Twins system that will make or break the next shot this organization has at building a winner. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are getting the raves on the farm...but it's Hicks who is getting thrown to the wolves in the big leagues. Hicks is learning the ropes by taking his licks. Having no at-bats above Double-A entering the season, it was a fair bet that Hicks would struggle and he has. However he has also shown the ability to play a very solid center-field and displayed enough power to hit 7 homers and 3 triples to this point. The Twins appear to have committed to him no matter what he produces and to his credit, he is showing some signs of growth. The second half of the season in Minnesota will be about how much further along he takes his game and how that preps him for next season. Hicks is the future in Twinkie Town even while most of the coming headlines will be devoted to what they do with Justin Morneau.
5th Place: Chicago White Sox 36-53
Pythagorean Record: 38-51
AL Central Record: 11-18
First Half MVP: Chris Sale
Sale earned an All-Star berth even though he sports a 6-8 W/L record and this is truly deserving. Sale has been showing top shelf talent and also some durability which had been in question in some quarters. Sale's arsenal of pitches can baffle lineups when he's truly sailing along with his long lean frame whipping pitches from what must seem like first base.
Second Half Player to Watch: Gordon Beckham
Beckham was the 8th overall draft choice coming out of Georgia in the 2008 draft and quickly ascended to the majors. He posted a very tasty .270/.347/.460 slash-line right out of the gate as a rookie in 2009 and seemed destined to some level of stardom.
A sophomore dip followed however in 2010...and instead of a bounce back in 2011 he managed to slump through that season and all of 2012. "Bust" was being associated with his name and there weren't many arguments to make to the contrary. However, as with Eric Hosmer, a funny thing happened on the train to Palookaville. Beckham didn't get on that train. He has suddenly re-emerged as a player to be watched. Still just 26 despite over 2200 plate appearances, Beckham has roared out of the gate once re-inserted into the White Sox lineup and is cruising with a boffo batting line of .340/.362/.444.
Is it real? That's what the second half of the season is waiting to show us. Certainly the red flag right now is 5 walks in 153 plate appearances so far this year. That's a rate he needs to work on as its very likely he regresses of that .340 batting average.