An impartial observer might take a snapshot of the American League Central and conclude that the race is an exercise in wheel-spinning. But that’s not entirely correct: The four teams at the top just have no idea if they’re coming or going.
The Twins were treated to a combination wedgie and noogie in a 20-6 loss to Texas on Monday and are now 47-55. But they seem strangely resistant to entertaining offers for free agent-to-be Michael Cuddyer, a solid righty bat, terrific clubhouse guy and crafty situational reliever in blowouts who might net them a decent prospect haul in return. It’s nice to be loyal and cling to hope based on some recent fast finishes, but you have to wonder if Twins general manager Bill Smith is missing an opportunity to capitalize on a valuable asset here.
The Indians, who beat the Angels 3-2 on a walk-off single by rookie second baseman Jason Kipnis, have an AL Central-best run differential of plus-2. They began the season at 30-15, but injuries to Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore and an overall lack of lineup depth have stalled their momentum and left fans wondering when the magic ends and the reality check begins. Meanwhile, GM Chris Antonetti continues to look for a bat on a limited budget.
The White Sox, the American League’s answer to the enigmatic Reds, are always a stinker away from an Ozzie Guillen expletive-fest. And general manager Kenny Williams, a guy who lives to make waves at the trade deadline, seems genuinely conflicted. Amid rumors that he’s talking to St. Louis about a deal for young outfielder Colby Rasmus, Williams appeared on ESPN Radio in Chicago and said he might “turn over the entire roster’’ if the White Sox don’t make a move here shortly.
That leaves us with the division leaders in Detroit, where Justin Verlander might or might not have enough help in the rotation to get the Tigers to the postseason, and GM David Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland might or might not be on the spot with owner Mike Illitch in the final year of their contracts.
It was only fitting that when the Tigers and White Sox met in a big AL Central showdown Monday night at U.S. Celluar Field, all the division’s warts were on display. Between home runs by Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, the Chicago crowd was treated to botched pop flies, a muffed pickoff, a near-collision between Juan Pierre and Alex Rios in the outfield and a wild pitch that careened off Pierzynski’s shinguard and was turned into an out at second base by reliever Jesse Crain.
The Tigers ran out four pitchers -- Duane Below, Chance Ruffin, Charlie Furbush and David Purcey -- with a combined 215 2/3 innings in the big leagues. The vast majority of those belong to Purcey. And White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, miracle of miracles, actually issued a leadoff walk in the fifth inning.
Is this any way to run a pennant race?
Take an informal survey of people in baseball front offices, and their predictions for the division generally fall along the same lines. Just about everyone favors Chicago’s pitching staff, but the White Sox are going to have a hard time winning if Adam Dunn (.159 batting average) and Rios (.301 slugging percentage, 23 RBIs) continue to look this pathetic at the plate. If Dunn plans to hit .200 this season, he better have some Ted Williams-caliber mashing in store for August and September.
Offensively, the Tigers win the Best in Show award. Detroit ranks fifth in the league in runs scored, and Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch and Victor Martinez all have an OPS north of .800.
The Tigers have been trolling for a front-end starter. But with Ubaldo Jimenez and James Shields pretty much un-acquirable, they might have to stand pat or settle for a back-end guy to complement their top four of Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Brad Penny.
It could be worse: Scherzer, although up-and-down this season, has generated a swing-and-miss percentage of 9.3 -- better than Matt Cain, Jered Weaver and David Price. And Porcello has quietly gone 4-0 with a 3.33 ERA in July. He’s still 22 years old, remember?
In a race this chaotic, the schedule can make a difference. While the Tigers are finished playing Boston and New York this season, the White Sox welcome the Red Sox and Yankees to Chicago for seven games starting Wednesday. As for the feisty Indians, they have 10 games against Boston, Texas and Detroit in early August. That’s their sink-or-swim stretch.
“It’s a weak division,’’ said a National League personnel man, “but I’ve liked the Tigers all year. Never underestimate a team with a good offense and an ace [starter]. You just don’t have long losing streaks.’’
And who cares about labels? Dunn can’t step to the plate these days without another out-of-town broadcaster referring to him as “the struggling Adam Dunn.’’ But as he told Yahoo! Sports in a recent interview, he still enjoys playing, “Even though I suck.’’
Say this for the Big Donkey: He’s come to the right place.
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