The Lost Letters: v5.0

I’ve decided that I want to publish what went unpublished at Baseball Prospectus while I was their AL Central columnist.

For those unaware, I submitted five columns, which consisted of about 20 hours of work for me, all of which went unpublished.

Today is the last of five columns in this series.

First Impressions
slated to run 4/20/11

It’s impossible to avoid. Every time we meet someone for the first time, or every time we see something we haven’t seen before, we make snap judgments that may or may not be fair to the party in question. Baseball is no different. In fact, the small gaggle of fans outside of Progressive Field in Cleveland that are waiting for postseason tickets to come available may in fact prove that baseball fans are the most heinous offenders when it comes to misjudging first impressions. (Columnist note: I guess I should have known.)

So what do first impressions mean? For some, like Carl Crawford, it means that a player is going to have to work like hell to overcome a sluggish start to post respectable stats on the season. For others, like Chris Shelton in 2006, a hot start simply masks an otherwise subpar season for a corner infielder. So what do the starts of each of the American League Central clubs truly foretell about their futures? Let’s take a look.

The Chicago White Sox entered Tuesday’s slate of action with a 7-9 record, good for fourth place as the divisional standings have adopted a mid-90s look with the Twins bringing up the rear. There’s really nothing easy to peg on the pitching or the hitting in terms of blame for the mediocre showing, as the club has scored 80 runs and given up 81. The pitching has been slightly worse than the hitting, as only Sergio Santos and Jesse Crain have proven competent on the back end of a bullpen that was supposed to rival Oakland and New York among the best in the league. The starters, on the other hand, have been pretty good, tossing to a 3.73 ERA while remaining steadfast in the hope that Jake Peavy will rescue them from Philip Humber. That should come sooner than later, but with Peavy, anything is truly possible.

The offense is holding its own, having scored the fourth most runs in the league with a triple-slash of .263/.325/.409, but the buzz I’m hearing is the hitting is in spite of a few of the guys just haven’t gotten going yet. It’s no surprise Adam Dunn has scuffled a bit; emergency appendectomies can prove hazardous to donkeys and humans alike. Still, Juan Pierre has fewer stolen bases (four) than times caught stealing (five), Alex Rios is sporting an OPS under 600, and every other infielder, starting at catcher A.J. Pierzynski, is hitting well below their career norms. This offense resembles a bomb scare, and is just waiting to be phoned in. That’ll probably be Mark Teahen’s job.

The Indians are off to a 12-4 start. Don’t adjust your monitors. With a potent offense and a stingy pitching staff, the Tribe have been able to scorch their way to the front of the pack here early in the 2011 season, generating plenty of buzz on blogs, airwaves, and on television as well. So how much of this start has been smoke and mirrors? Well, probably a considerable amount. When Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt LaPorta are checking in with OPS+ marks around 150, and Travis Hafner’s is nearly the same number as his weight, there’s a good chance there’s something more at work here than a rejuvenated Pronk or LaPorta filling those Sabathia-esque shoes, though that still remains possible as he’s only 26.

What doesn’t work in Cleveland’s favor, however, is taking a glance at their schedule. Their four losses have come at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Chicago White Sox, two clubs slated to at least contend for their respective division crowns. The Indians have managed to take advantage of a then-anemic Red Sox team, a Seattle Mariners squad that could “really use Nelson Cruz”, and a Baltimore Orioles club that has now dropped eight straight after starting 6-2. From those three teams, the Indians have nabbed nine wins, all via sweeps. Additionally, the starting pitchers have dealt to the tune of a 3.32 ERA, good for seventh in the MLB while trotting out a quintet of Carlos Carrasco, Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, and Mitch Talbot. No rotation comprised of number three starters can manage to carry a 3.32 ERA all season, so even while the staff probably won’t be almost a run and a half worse like they were in 2010, the chances of carrying a sub-4.00 ERA is slim-to-none. As for the bullpen, they’ve also been very good, carrying a collective 2.68 ERA and an AL-best 1.08 WHIP. One guy in this group of relatively unknown hurlers to keep an eye on is Vinnie Pestano, who’s had remarkable strikeout numbers at every level he’s pitched at since joining the Indians as a 20th round pick in 2006. He mixes a 93-mile per hour fastball with a slider, and keeps the longballs and free passes in check.

No, this Indians team isn’t going to win more than 70 games or so in 2011, but it’s become obvious that they don’t belong in the “worst team in the majors” discussion either. Thanks, Orlando Cabrera!

The Detroit Tigers remain a complete and total wildcard in the Central race. With the three most viable teams vying for the division crown languishing in the bottom three spots, the Tigers, who check in at 8-9, have left fans wondering if they’re poised enough to wrestle it away from the Sox and Twins. The team is hitting a Brandon Inge-esque .243/.316/.392, with a fair amount of longballs, and the team ERA of 4.74 places them twelfth in the 14-team league, which would seem to indicate the lack of depth that made folks skeptical when selecting their preseason division winner.

On the offensive side, Miguel Cabrera has been absolutely incredible, blasting five home runs while managing a slash-line of .317/.440/.633. Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta have been pleasant surprises, as both have managed OPS numbers well above their career marks with Peralta perhaps teasing some newfound plate discipline. I’d remain skeptical, but he’s still got a great shot to be one of the five best shortstops in the AL. Worrisome out of the gate for the Tigers has to be Austin Jackson, who thus far has fulfilled my “next Carlos Gomez” 2011 prophecy for him by triple-slumping his way to a .164/.239/.262 line. It wasn’t the kind of pick I can rest my reputation on, but if he’s going to steal 40 bases this season, he may have to find a way to steal first, first. In terms of pitching, with the rotation it’s predictably been the Justin Verlander show, with Max Scherzer signing backup vocals. Both pitchers have done a terrific job punching opposing batters out, though Scherzer is giving up a few more hits than Jim Leyland would like. Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde have been lights out at the back of the bullpen, combining to allow a single earned run in just over 14 innings of work, but the rest of the staff has been largely forgettable. They need to step up if they want to tag along with the Twins and White Sox the rest of the way.

It’s a shame the MLB isn’t more like the NFL*, because the Royals would be AFC West champions with the 10-6 record they’ve started out with.  The key for the Royals has been pretty much solid all-around play, as the club ranks second in the AL in runs scored and sixth in ERA. The offense has been paced by Billy Butler, who’s off to a ridiculous start with a 1037 OPS and a silly 4-13 K/BB rate. Jeff Francoeur is still swinging at everything, but as he’s shown over his career, when he makes contact, he can be a one-man wrecking crew. The 883 OPS surely won’t last, but if his 2-1 K/BB rate can, he’s got a chance to at least fetch something useful if the Royals intend to flip him at the deadline. Wilson Betemit and Alex Gordon are also scorching hot, but if it feels like déjà vu, well, there’s a good reason why. Betemit’s parlayed his 2010 deal with the devil into further great play this season, but how much different of a hitter is he from the guy who entered 2010 with a .258/.324/432 triple-slash? Probably not much, considering his .361 BABIP in 2010 and his ultra-sweltering .464 mark so far. He hit fewer line drives and more fly balls than ever in 2010. Sell, and sell fast Mr. Moore!

To this point, the pitching staff is markedly improved from 2010. Jeff Francis, Bruce Chen, and Luke Hochevar have done a fairly good job as three threes at the top of the Royals rotation, with Francis certainly benefitting to a slight degree from getting away from Coors. Again, nothing is really expected out of these guys, so if they can achieve, they can get Moore some value at the deadline, as I don’t anticipate the Royals doing much better this season than the Indians, perhaps in the 70 win range.

What’s been truly fun for me to watch as an AL Central aficionado (credentials pending) has been the young, smoke throwing, mostly mohawked  trio of Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, and Jeremy Jeffress which leads to the Mexecutioner, closer Joakim Soria. Collins’ fastball checks in the slowest, averaging 92-miles per hour, but all three have gotten strikeouts in droves in their professional careers, so with little left to prove in the minors, the Royals’ brass is letting the youngsters sink-or-swim in the bigs, and so far the results have been mostly good, with Collins’ spotty command notwithstanding.

*No, it really isn’t.

Finally, the Twins have stumbled to a 6-10 start, and similarly to the Royals, resemble their NFL counterpart. Jim Thome has been Brett Favre-esque, with fleeting moments of brilliance and more than his share of whiffs. Key players Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are still trying to shake nagging illness and injuries, though they were both OPS’ing in the 500s to begin with. The lone adequate offensive players on the Twins offense that is dead last in runs scored, home runs, slugging average, and OPS in the AL are Denard Span and Jason Kubel, who are both showing nice rebounds from their mediocre 2010 seasons. At least STEVE HOLM is fun to say, right Arrested Development fans?

The pitching staff is completely backwards right now, as strikeout pitchers Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker currently sport the two worst ERAs in the rotation, while the “pitch to contact” disciples Brian Duensing, Carl Pavano, and Nick Blackburn all check in at 3.60 or lower. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, Joe Nathan told Ron Gardenhire he didn’t think he should be the closer anymore; he was right, his command has been spotty and his velocity is about three ticks off his usual rate. He may end up going to Rochester after a brief disabled list stint, but nothing is set in stone at this time. Glen Perkins still hasn’t given up an earned run, and is pitching largely in seventh and eighth innings. Let that sink in.

This isn’t a Twins club doomed to be this bad, but they need to make a few wholesale changes in some key spots (Jim Hoey to the bullpen was possibly a step in the right direction), like perhaps dealing for Marco Scutaro to play shortstop, if they’re going to make this race anything more than a yawner with the winning club pulling in 85 wins and a “thank you sir, may I have another” style beating in the American League Division Series.

About Brandon Warne

Sportswriter trying to make it.
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