The AL Central might be staging one of the quietest pennant races in recent history. Cleveland entered the All-Star break only 1½ games behind Detroit, closer than any second-place team except Pittsburgh in the NL Central, yet the Tigers, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, remain the second-most likely division winner in baseball, after Atlanta.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland is well aware that his defending American League champions are being stalked.
“There’s too much talent in this division for anyone to run away with it,” Leyland said in June. “We see these guys in our [division] every night. We know how tough it is to win.”
The Twins know it, too. They went into the break at 16-21 in the Central, and face another 39 games within the division. With that in mind, here’s a look at the biggest issue facing each Central rival, and the player to watch in the second half:
Issue: Will the bullpen sabotage the pitching staff? The Tigers score more runs than any A.L. team, and their starting staff allows less than anyone. But the lack of a reliable ninth-inning option has forced the rest of the pen to handle different roles, and the result is the division’s fewest victories and highest ERA in the pen.
Player: Miguel Cabrera. Somehow, he’s improved upon the first Triple Crown season in 45 years. He entered the break with the league’s highest batting average by 43 points, and while he trailed Chris Davis by seven home runs, last year he was nine behind the homer leader at the break, then surged in the second half.
Issue: Can they beat the Tigers head-to-head? The Indians, despite a grizzly 3-16 stretch in late May and early June, would be in first place if not for their 3-9 record against Detroit. Cleveland pitching has given up 78 runs (and has a 6.03 ERA, with the Tigers batting .296) in those 12 games, putting too much pressure on an inconsistent offense.
Player: Nick Swisher. “We’re starting to get a little cocky,” Swisher told the Akron Beacon Journal after the Indians won five of their last six before the break, but the Indians need more than attitude from their strongest personality. He had only nine home runs and 31 RBI in the first half, far below the run producer the Indians thought they were buying for $56 million over four years.
Issue: Is this a launch or a fizzle? The Royals are playing better than in any season since 2004, but they’re still only on pace for 76 victories. It sounds strange, but the Royals, with so many of their top prospects on the roster, had higher expectations than this, especially after trading for James Shields. But he’s being wasted by an offense that has outscored only the White Sox and Astros.
Player: Mike Moustakas. The Royals expected a huge step from their third-year third baseman, and they got one. Backward. With the exception of first baseman Eric Hosmer, the infield has been miserable at the plate, but none more so than Moustakas, who is batting .215, with a useless .271 OBP.
Issue: Is it time for the wrecking ball? The White Sox believed their pitching staff and infusion of young bats might carry them into one more pennant race, but they appear to be about a year late in saying goodbye to their core. Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, and Jake Peavy figure to be gone soon, and the White Sox have made it clear that valuable bullpen pieces like Jesse Crain and Addison Reed could be had, too.
Player: Jake Peavy. Back from a cracked rib, the White Sox need a strong start or two before the trade deadline in order to receive something of value for a former Cy Young winner who has never been able to stay healthy in Chicago.