AL Central Report: Konerko Leads Chicago Surge

The Chicago White Sox have caught fire in the AL Central race. A three-game sweep on the road in Tampa Bay pushes the White Sox winning streak to eight games, lifts their record to 29-22 and has moved them into first place. With a nine-game homestand starting tomorrow against Seattle, Toronto and Houston there’s every reason to think Robin Ventura’s team can keep this going into June. How are they getting it done?

Close followers of baseball know how good Paul Konerko has been for a long time at first base, although either Mark Teixeira in New York or Adrian Gonzalez in Boston would normally suck up all the media oxygen. With the more well-known first baseman struggling, perhaps Konerko can start getting some more love. All he’s doing this year is leading the league in batting average at .381, and slugging .642. For much of the year he’s had to do it without much help, but now some supporting pieces are rounding into form. Dayan Viciedo, the young rightfielder, has opened up with his power. He hit four home runs in the past week and now has 11 on the year. Alejandro de Aza in center has a .363 on-base percentage for the season and A.J. Pierzynski is enjoying a productive offensive year at catcher, with a .345/.512 OBP/Slugging line. Then let’s add in that Adam Dunn is officially back at DH, after his horrible year in 2011. Yes, he strikes out a lot and his batting average is a meager .230. But he draws a ton of walks lifting his OBP all the way to .378 and he’s got 16 home runs. The offense was the best in the AL over the past week and keyed the surge.

>Starting pitching was supposed to be a Chicago strength, but it’s here I think Ventura has reasons to be concerned about what he can expect during the dog days of summer. While Chris Sale (2.34 ERA in nine starts) and Jake Peavy (3.07 ERA in ten starts) have been very good at the top, John Danks was first inconsistent and then hit the disabled list until July. Philip Humber had his perfect game, but otherwise has a 5.37 ERA, the worst of which came after his April perfecto, so any corner he might be turning is one going in the wrong direction. Gavin Floyd’s been a disappointment with a 5.02 ERA. The staff has gotten some good work in the last couple weeks form Jose Quintana, 23-years-old and has worked 15 innings and given up just three runs. I would expect Ventura will give him more starts, especially while Danks is out.

In the bullpen, Nate Jones and Matt Thornton are solid in the setup spots, while rookie Addison Reed is handling the closer’s role and has been tolerable, if not necessarily a source of comfort. But the White Sox appear committed to developing him in that role and in that light, his progress is good enough.

If you’re looking for negatives on the White Sox right now, you correctly note that no team will survive over a long period with starting pitching like that Chicago is getting. If you want the positive side you correctly note that Floyd has a track record that tells you he can pitch better, as does Danks when he gets back. If nothing else, it has to thrill the South Side that the starting pitching, the team’s presumed strength can struggle and the White Sox can still be in first place on the final day of May. For that, let’s make sure our next MVP conversations with fellow fans include Konerko.

Around the rest of the AL Central…

Cleveland (27-23): The Indians were another victim of the Chicago hot streak, losing three straight and then dropping two of three to Kansas City. The Tribe’s run through the division continues with a weekend home series against Minnesota, followed by road trips to Detroit, St. Louis and Cincinnati. With a staff ERA of 7.17 in the last week do we really need to say they must pitch better?

Detroit (23-27): I thought now was when Detroit would make its move and I guess I was right, although I thought the move would go in a completely different direction. Like the Indians, pitching has been terrible in Motown. If you watched Tuesday night’s Tigers-Red Sox game on ESPN, you saw Justin Verlander get roughed up a bit and the rest of the staff was lousy as well. Doug Fister was the worst of the crowd and as the #2 man he has to be a part of any Detroit revival. While the offense was only 9th in the AL in runs scored for the week, I’ll go to bat for them (no pun intended)—Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Alex Avila are all swinging the bat extremely well, so there may be some bad luck mixed in with that. The Tigers need Austin Jackson back in center, but although he’s eligible to come off the DL tomorrow, the team doesn’t like his progress from the abdomen injury and will keep the centerfielder and leadoff hitter sidelined a little while longer.

Kansas City (21-28): The push by the Royals that I’ve been waiting for has a chance to start now. Kansas City won consecutive series on the road in Baltimore and Cleveland, both first-place teams when the Royals visited. With home series ahead against Oakland and Minnesota the opportunity exists to keep the good times rolling. What KC needs is for more hitters on base. They’ve survived in recent games with power, as Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Jeff Franceour all slugging over .450, but it’s tough to maintain that without runners on base consistently, and Franceour, who’s been scorching hot of late, is the only one doing that.

Minnesota (18-32): Minny swept Oakland to bounce back after getting the broom taken to them by Detroit last weekend, and now a road trip to Cleveland and Kansas City presents the Twins the opportunity to move up.  Minnesota has called up another young pitcher, 27-year-old Cole DeVries, to join a rotation that’s already been infused with Scott Diamond and P.J. Walter over the past several walks. DeVries has made two good starts, going five innings per with an ERA of 2.70. And the core four hitters of Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham combined last week to go 33-for-108, with 12 of those 33 hits being doubles and seven more being home runs. The offensive core is coming around, the pitching staff is getting an injection of life and I still like my preseason hypothetical bet of this team to win at least 74 games before it’s over.