Tuesday, July 26, 2011

N.L. Central, A.L. Central: Contenders Wanted

Remember that time, not so long ago, when the central divisions ruled the baseball world? From 2004 to 2006, there was at least a team from either the A.L. Central or the N.L. Central represented in the World Series, with a strong Cleveland team choking in the 2007 ALCS that should have went. Twice, in 2005 and 2006, both teams in the fall classic were from their respective central divisions. In 2006, the A.L. Central was so good that the Chicago White Sox finished with 90 wins and ended up in third place in the division. But, times have changed in America's heartland.

For the past few seasons, the Central divisons have been trending toward mediocrity as the balance of power in the MLB moves inexorably east. In 2008 and 2009, the A.L. Central was won with 89 and 87 wins respectively, and both years the division was decided in a 163rd game. The Twins won the division in 2010 with 94 wins, but this was hardly a victory as they got beat in the first round by an AL East team, just like the last two central winners. The N.L. Central has not been much better over the same period. The Cubs won 97 games in 2008, but got swept out of the first round. The next two division champs each won 91 games and were also swept out of the first round.

Not much has changed this season. Detroit is only 6 games over 500 and is somehow in first place, followed closely by the Indians and Sox, with the Twins at 7 back. Pittsburgh, yes that Pittsburgh, is sitting in a tie at, you guessed it, 6 games over 500. They are follewed closely by the Brewers and Reds. As the season winds on, does any team in the mix, in either division, have what it takes to advance against their East coast counterparts?

That answer is not easy, with the trade deadline so close and so many teams hovering around the division lead. Every team has weaknesses that they must address. On the A.L. side, Detroit has a lot of star power upfront carrying the team. But, depth is an issue. If they do not acquire another quality starter, look out down the stretch. Cleveland is near the bottom of the A.L. in hitting and ERA, and it is hard seeing such a young team staying in the race. The White Sox can pitch with anyone, but have serious hitting problems. With no cap room to spare, Kenny Williams has to get creative. If either the Sox or Detroit make the right moves, they have the capability to be dangerous in October.

On the N.L. side, I have to pop the Pirates balloon. They are just too young. For the most part, the Reds lack quality pitching. The division should come down to the Brewers and Cardinals. It is hard to ever count out the guile of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan, but the Brewers are an extremely talented team, especially with the addition of K-Rod. This one is a tossup, but either team has the star power to at least compete with the best.

The Tigers, White Sox, Cardinals, and the Brewers all have the pieces to make a deep run into October. They have also been, at times, mediocre at best. Will any these teams rise above their shortcomings and bring respectability back to America's heartland? If recent years are any example, don't hold your breath.

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