AL Central up for grabs as race for top heats up
Divison's four contenders to square off in pair of pivotal matchups
Tigers starters not named Justin Verlander are 27-27 with a 4.70 ERA, and their bullpen has the second-highest ERA in baseball. But they're still in it.The White Sox's prized offseason acquisition, Adam Dunn, is threatening to post the lowest season batting average of any qualifier since 1893. But they're still in it. Two of the Indians' best players, Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore, are hurt, and those two have batted a combined .241 when healthy. But they're still in it. The Twins were 20 games under .500 and 16 1/2 games back of the division lead on June 1. But they're still in it. Welcome to the ridiculous division known as the American League Central, where four of its five teams are still alive (hey, the Royals have 2012 All-Star Game-hosting duties to prepare for) and every one of them is deeply flawed in some fashion. That's kind of the beauty of it, actually. "I don't pay attention when people call our division weak," Tribe manager Manny Acta said. "I'd rather be in a division where just about everybody has a chance to win it. I think it's great when you see a division like ours or the NL Central, where you have Pittsburgh now in it. It's just great for the game. I'd rather be in that type of situation than be in one of those where teams are buried by the halfway point." Well, it stands to reason that Acta wouldn't be complaining if his Indians were running away with the division. And for the season's first two months, it actually looked like they might do just that. The Tribe's division lead was seven games on May 23. But ever since the Tigers erased that deficit and caught the Indians on June 11, the two teams have traded places or shared the top spot on an almost daily basis, with neither taking more than a 1 1/2-game lead at any point. And the White Sox and Twins, meanwhile, have kept hanging around -- the White Sox basically playing .500 ball since June 1 and the Twins winning about two-thirds of their games in that span to climb back into relevance. Through Wednesday, the Indians and Tigers were knotted up in the top spot with identical 51-46 records, while the White Sox (47-51) were 4 1/2 games back and the Twins (46-51) were five back. With the Wild Card again looking likely to come from the East (through Wednesday, the Yankees held a seven-game advantage on the Tigers and Tribe), it's a division title or bust for these four clubs. Now comes a weekend that could have serious Central implications, coming as it does shortly before the July 31 Trade Deadline and the inevitable evaluation said deadline brings about. The Tigers and Twins begin a four-game series Thursday night at Target Field, and the Indians and White Sox begin a three-game set Friday night at Progressive Field. "This," said Sox second baseman Gordan Beckham, "is an important week, for sure." Important enough, perhaps, to determine whether the Twins and Sox are going to be buyers or sellers before the deadline. Both the Tigers and Tribe are undoubtedly in the "buy" category (and the Tigers landed third baseman Wilson Betemit from the Royals on Wednesday) but the Sox and Twins are probably on the fence. Both clubs set franchise records for player payroll this season (the Sox at $127 million, the Twins at $112), so there's little, if any, financial wiggle room to take on a contract. But both could deal from its depth to acquire a helping hand, with the bullpen a possible target for each team. For the Twins, the rising payroll total was a product of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer all making eight figures (with Mauer's salary jumping from $12.5 million to $23 million), and that meant general manager Bill Smith had to get especially creative in constructing a roster around his core. But with the Twins bitten hard by the injury bug all year (Mauer and Morneau have combined to play fewer than 100 games and both have been a shell of their former offensive selves), Ron Gardenhire's club has had to get creative in terms of how it wins games, too. It took a stretch of 15 wins in 17 games in June for the Twins to climb out of the cellar, and it would likely take another similar stretch to get them over the .500 hump and into the top spot. An exhausting proposition, to be sure, but not an impossible one, especially if you're familiar with the Twins' history under Gardenhire. "If we can stay under 10 games [back] into August and then climb to .500, you have a shot," Gardenhire said. "You have a month and a half or almost two months to catch up. The hardest thing to do in this game is climb back to .500 when you've been that far under." The White Sox haven't been quite that far under, but they've never really been hot, either. Their longest winning streak this season is four games, accomplished twice. Their bullpen blunders did them in early, but the most damaging aspect in the season at large has been the inconsistency of the offense, which has received almost zero input from Dunn and Alex Rios. Yet the mediocrity of the division has allowed the Sox to stay in the hunt in what is, for them, an "all-in" campaign, and lately there's been talk that they've considered dealing from a position of strength in the starting rotation (possibly dangling Edwin Jackson) to shore up their weaknesses. Whatever the trade course, though, the Sox obviously need Dunn and Rios to wake up or Dayan Viciedo to come up from Triple-A and provide a spark. "You can't win the division without beating the teams in it," Beckham said. "That was our main problem last year. I think we were like 5-13 against Minnesota, and that doesn't add up. So we've got to beat teams in our division and that starts now." The Tigers are 19-10 against the Central, and that's no doubt part of the reason why Baseball Prospectus' playoff-odds report gives them a 56.8-percent chance of winning the division (the Indians, at 20.5 percent, come in second). Verlander is the axis on which the Tigers spin. They are a different team without him on the mound, but, nonetheless, they are still a team that has shown the talent to contend. They are also a team with a lot of decisions to make in the next few months regarding president and general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland, as each is in the final year of his contract. The sense of urgency being felt by the Tigers revealed itself when Rick Knapp was removed as pitching coach before the All-Star break -- a move that flew in the face of Leyland's history of loyalty to his coaches. More urgency is being shown before the Deadline, as, in addition to Betemit's arrival, the Tigers have been rumored to be in pursuit of just about every starting pitching option on (and, in some cases, not on) the market. In four of the past six years, the Tigers entered the break with the Central lead -- just as they did this season -- and they were unable to capitalize and claim the crown each of those times (they won the Wild Card in '06). Naturally, there is fear in Detroit that such a situation might unfold again, but Leyland and Co. are confident that won't happen. "August and September, that's the fun time," Leyland said. "We're in the mix, and this is supposed to be starting to get a whole lot of fun. I don't think anybody's tired, that's for sure. They shouldn't be." The Indians have to be tired of watching key contributors hit the disabled list, as they were considered thin before the season even began. But their starting pitching has been stronger than anticipated, and they've been resilient in not letting a June swoon become their new norm. Now that both Choo, who broke his left thumb and might not be back until late August, and Sizemore, who injured his right knee a year after having microfracture surgery on his left and then had surgery for a sports hernia that will cost him four to six weeks, are out of the picture, the pressure is on for the Tribe to add a bat. And with the back end of the rotation proving unpredictable and Alex White, a top prospect who made his debut in May, on the shelf with a finger issue, another starting pitcher might be in order, as well. But the club will be cautious not to sell off any valuable pieces of its future and, therefore, could ultimately be quiet at the Deadline. The Deadline could be a formidable factor, sure, but the Central will ultimately be won on the field. "I think all the teams are playing each other a lot in the second half, and I really don't see a dominant team," Tribe closer Chris Perez said. "I think it's going to be a lot of back-and-forth. One-game lead. Two-game lead. Nothing more than that, probably." Remember, this is the division that required a 163rd game in both 2008 and '09 to determine its champ. "It's probably going to come down to at least two teams and maybe three that last week," Sox slugger Paul Konerko said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it comes down to some sort of double playoff." Hey, in the eccentric AL Central, such an ending would be all too appropriate.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.