One Month In: Key Players of the AL Central


Prior to the season I put up a couple of pieces here on MCB outlining the 3 or 4 key players who were expected to help their (non-Detroit) teams, didn’t help their teams and need to help their teams in 2012 for those teams to hope to contend. Remember that these aren’t necessarily the best (or worst) or most important players on those teams, but rather the guys most ‘to blame’ for their subpar finishes in 2011.

Now, with a month of season under our belts we can look back and see some early returns. Not proof, but at least suggestions as to whether these guys have turned the corner.

For the Kansas City Royals my 3 keys were Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Joakim Soria. Soria, who was terrible last year in terms of clutch pitching, is out for the season. That’s obviously a big blow. It hasn’t looked all bad though, for those Royals – Mike Moustakas has hit very well at a .315/.375/.534 clip and while that’s probably partly due to an unsustainable BABIP the Royals have to be pleased about an isolated power score twice what he had in his disappointing rookie year. Duffy is number one on the Fangraphs list of velocity increasers (Rick Porcellow is number two) – leading to more than 10 Ks per 9 thus far and an ERA and xFIP both under four. To say that the Royals needed that would be a gross understatement – the team is still well under .500 (though this has been due in large part to bad ‘luck’ in the clutch).

For the Cleveland Indians my 3 Keys were Shin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore and trade deadline acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez. Like Soria, Sizemore is injured (again) and doesn’t look like he’ll be contributing anything to the tribe this season. Ubaldo Jimenez has been no better than in 2011 thus far in 2012 – he might actually be worse. First of all – Jimenez BABIP currently sits at a probably unsustainable .266 and his ERA is a well-deserved 5.02. He’s striking out fewer guys than he’s walking, getting very few ground balls for a guy with his repertoire and letting balls fly out of the park. A similar story can be told for Shin-Soo Choo: his BABIP is fairly high, but his overall production is fairly low. Why? He’s striking out a lot, not hitting for power and not playing the stellar outfield defense that had come to be expected of him. The Indians as a whole have done fairly well this April – but these three guys aren’t responsible. They’ve gotten great production from some guys I wouldn’t have expected a great deal from: Jason Kipnis, Shelley Duncan and Travis Hafner. Nonetheless – if they don’t get anything at all from Choo or Jimenez, it’s hard to imagine them as more than a .500 team.

Those weren’t the two teams that stuck out as massive underachievers in 2011 (though both did finish 15 games or more behind Detroit) – simply because of low expectations. The White Sox and Twins had the big-money guys that just didn’t pull their weight and everybody knew who to blame for their failures. For those two teams I picked four key underachievers as opposed to three:

For the White Sox: Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Matt Thornton and Jake Peavy. These results will be a little disconcerting for Tigers fans, because each and every one of those guys has seemingly bounced back completely to what was expected of them in 2011. Peavy is – apparently – finally healthy again: after 5 April starts he has a 1.72 ERA and a K/BB rate over 6. Matt Thornton – who frankly wasn’t all that bad last year following some blown saves last April – has allowed one run (and no walks) in 12 April appearances.

Dunn is doing what Dunn was always supposed to do: contributing to the team in a big way through home runs (5) and walks (18) despite a .222 batting average. His April OPS was .864 – very close to his career average. Alex Rios is again playing plus defense in the outfield and has a slash line of .295/.345/.423 – again not far from his career averages. In case the long offseason has put this out of perspective: last year Dunn’s OPS was .569 and Rios’ was .613. The White Sox have only been a .500-ish team so far in large part due to bad luck, their OPS allowed is far lower than their own OPS. This team looks likely to be a contender.

The Twins’ four keys were Francisco Liriano, Matt Capps, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. First off the bat – Liriano has been pretty awful and may not even keep his spot in the rotation for long. After 5 starts his ERA is 9.92 with more than 6 walks and 2 home runs allowed per 9 innings. There isn’t much positive to be said about closer Capps either – who wants a pitch-to-contact closer? This latter-day Todd Jones has only 3 Ks in 8 appearances and an ERA of 5.64 – it’s worth wondering if he will finish the year with more strikeouts or home runs allowed…

Justin Morneau is injured again – though this time it seems completely and entirely unrelated to the post-concussion symptoms that he has been battling since dinosaurs roamed the earth. He played about half a season in 2011, but when he was on the field he was pretty awful – so awful in fact that this year’s .230/.313/.459 looks pretty darn good. To the extent that his .255 BABIP this season is luck induced (but the homers and walks aren’t) the rest of the season could look solid for Morneau, if not quite MVP caliber. Mauer, alone among the Twins 4, looks very much like his old self – provided that you expected an on base machine (which he has always been) and not a slugger (which he was in 2009 and 2009 only). Mauer’s slash line is .313/.406/.422 – from a position in which good offense is rare. Sadly (for the Twins) so far it looks like predictions were accurate that the team simply no longer had the top-to-bottom talent on the roster to be a playoff team even with a healthy and productive pair of Mauer and Morneau. Subtract those two and the Twins might have the worst roster in the AL – actually they might have the worst roster even with them if guys like Liriano and Capps (and Valencia and Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit and Glen Perkins and Jason Marquis and…) can’t turn things around.

That series of posts didn’t mention the Tigers side of things (since that, more or less, is what we do here at MCB in everything we write). The Tigers had their fair share of big time underachievers: Ryan Perry, Max Scherzer, Magglio Ordonez, Ryan Raburn and Brandon Inge. Of those most are gone, obviously Scherzer and Raburn don’t seem to have figured anything out quite yet. More to the point – the other guys failed because key cogs failed. The Tigers succeeded in large part because they got production they weren’t looking for from guys having career years. Doug Fister – hurt. Jhonny Peralta – scuffling. Alex Avila – a BABIP a hundred points below last year’s unsustainable .366.

The Tigers currently sit at .500 – but still in the thick of the chase – in part (but only in part) because of those expected reversions from key guys that couldn’t possibly keep up what they had done in 2011. It would be wise not to expect this pennant race to be over early – though I still feel that Detroit will come out on top in the end. The White Sox needed a few things to go their way to revert to 90-win form – they have. Beware.