"Long stormy spring-time, wet contentious April, winter chilling the lap of very May; but at length the season of summer does come."
April has now come and gone. The AL Central has remained fairly tight throughout the month and some trends are starting to take shape. Certainly most of these trends are barely out of the embryonic stages of development as the hackneyed phrase "small sample" can be attached to almost everything that has happened.
We know the Tigers have had a rough month schedule-wise with off-days polluting the daily routine of baseball with weather issues and scheduled days off. The Twins retooling of their rotation is looking iffy while their offense has surprised some folks. The Tribe has a star player struggling mightily at the plate while he assumes a new position. The Royals have an Ace-in-Training emerging a bit more each time he takes the mound. Meanwhile the White Sox have seen an offensive force explode with a historic debut-month.
Let's take a look around the AL Central to see what's happened with the Tigers competitors and where things are heading.
Chicago White Sox (14-15, 4th Place)
The Story: Obviously Jose Abreu is front and center. His power display has made Ken "The Hawk" Harrelson need a cigarette several times this year. Abreu has slammed 19 extra-base hits and has looked menacing. He has quickly become a guy where you start to calculate when he's coming up next and how many men might be on-base when that happens. The next step? How does he do once major league advance scouts really start to dig their teeth into his game...the league is relentless with adjustments. Abreu will need to cope.
The Surprise: Tyler Flowers is hitting .354. That's the good news for a fellow who hit .195 last season. Flowers has been a big part of the offensive production on the South Side so far. The bad news? A .560 BABIP (!!) isn't even worth a discussion about holding up. Flowers walk and strikeout rates are very similar this month to the seasons where he struggled. He should enjoy this while it lasts.
The Concern: Chris Sale has spent most of the month on the Disabled List. The fact that the Sox have mashed their way to staying afloat in April is fine, but this club has no real shot at staying near the top if their Ace isn't available from here on out.
Minnesota Twins (12-12, 3rd Place)
The Story: Twins GM Terry Ryan attempted to patch his rotation over the winter to bolster the sad-sack bunch they have run to the mound in recent seasons. The early returns aren't very good. It's still a low-octane group that can't punch out hitters even in today's high-K environment. Kyle Gibson has shown small flashes perhaps but walks a batter for each he strikes out. Phil Hughes had a nice start against the Tigers recently but sports a 5.14 ERA. Rickey Nolasco isn't missing bats on his way to a 6.67 ERA. Kevin Correia and Mike Pelphrey are cashing MLB checks and nothing more.
The Surprise: The Twins offense has been fairly productive. I was going to call it "pesky" but they've been better than that. They lead the American League in on-base percentage at an impressive .353. Joe Mauer is posting a .388 OBP and should see his batting average rise once he straightens out whatever is leading to a career high 24.1% strike out rate. The Twins are getting good production from the tandem of Josmil Pinto and Kurt Suzuki behind the plate and Trevor Plouffe is posting a .409 OBP. Jason Kubel has shown he has a pulse. Brian Dozier has clubbed seven homers. This club can score some runs and might continue to do so.
The Concern: Aaron Hicks is getting another shot to claim the Centerfield job in Minnesota and, thus far, round two has looked a lot like round one. Hicks ends April with an unsightly slash of .188/.321/.275. Give him credit for a solid walk-rate and good defense. But the power isn't there and he's still striking out in a quarter of his plate appearances. It's still very questionable if the former first-round draft pick is going to establish himself before uber-prospect Byron Buxton makes his way Minneapolis.
Cleveland Indians (11-17, 5th Place)
The Story: The Tribe isn't hitting. It's as simple as that. When David Murphy has been your best offensive player for a month, it might not have been a great month. Carlos Santana hasn't gotten his wake up call for 2014, posting a frightful .151/.313/.280 slash in April as he learns to be an everyday 3B. Michael Bourn is in "blah mode" and Nick Swisher, frankly, looks cooked. Asdrubal Cabrera has continued his descent into being the forgotten man when Francisco Lindor is deemed ready for MLB service. The bench, which was fabulously productive last year, has settled into being "just another bench" low-lighted by Ryan Raburn hitting .164.
The Surprise: Relief pitching hasn't been the issue in Cleveland to this point. Bryan Shaw, John Axford, Cody Allen, Josh Outman, and Scott Atchison have formed the core of a very effective group. Allen and Shaw, in particular, have been dominant in the early going. Shaw's walk-rate is a under two per nine innings. Meanwhile Allen is striking out 13.5 batters per nine innings. It's Axford that may be in peril of some of regression. A very low BABIP of .207 is soon to go the other way. Coupling that BABIP heading north with a rather high walk-rate may conspire for some rocky ninth innings soon.
The Concern: The Indians aren't really a big budget team, so when they make sizable investments they need to see a payoff. Last year they committed years and cash to Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. Despite winning 92 games and making the wildcard round, neither player was all that impressive in year-1 of their deals. Now year-2 has kicked off and things, if anything, look worse. Bourn is striking out five times for every time he walks and is sporting a paltry .300 OBP. Injuries are slowing him as well. Swisher is sporting a slash of .211/.287/.330 and is looking far from the power source he was signed to be. Being a good dude in the clubhouse only goes so far, Bro.
Kansas City Royals (14-12, 2nd Place)
The Story: Starting pitching is carrying the Royals through April. Many expected a step back when Ervin Santana left via free agency. Instead James Shields is leading the way for a group giving the Royals a steady diet of solid starts while their offense feels their way forward. Rookie Yordano Ventura has KC fans very excited with his easy gas that he's pouring into the strike zone. Ventura's workload might be limited at times, but he's bolstered the talent level to a height in KC they haven't seen in some time. Jason Vargas' signing was met with yawns, if not derision, around the game but Vargas has gotten off to a very solid start as well by limiting his walks and gopher balls.
The Surprise: Alcides Escobar was perhaps the worst hitter in the American League last season. He posted the lowest OPS among those who qualified for the batting title. It was an ugly campaign and he was a hole in the Royals lineup. Things have turned around so far in 2014. He's doubled his walk-rate and flashed some good doubles-power in building a slash-line of .287/.347/.414. He's not an offensive "force" perhaps, but that slash will keep the Royals euphoric if he can sustain it when combined with his glove skills.
The Concern: Mike Moustakas is closing in on 1600 career plate appearances and things aren't going in the right direction. The clock was already likely ticking before this season started but his performance in April must have GM Dayton Moore mulling his options. Despite leading the Royals with four homers, Moustakas is again showing that his career is one big slump. Slashing along at .149/.219/.333 it might be time to say designate him as a "change of scenery" candidate. If the Royals stay in contention as July approaches, expect the Royals to be in the mix for a hot corner addition at the trade deadline. Moustakas just hasn't shown many signs that his high draft status and minor league power binges will ever translate to a productive major leaguer.