AL Central Report: Starting Pitching Holds Detroit Back

TheSportsNotebook’s AL Central report last week focused on how Detroit hadn’t pulled away from the division as expected, at least not yet. As the calendar gets set to turn into May, the Tigers are still slogging along at .500 overall and have lost eight of their last ten. Some of this is about schedule strength—seven of those games were against Texas and the New York Yankees. But that doesn’t explain losing three straight to Seattle at home. And for a team with World Series hopes, the pitching problems are serious.

Detroit’s recent woes are about pitching—even the Mariners’ offense scored 19 runs in three games—and the team had the second-worst ERA in the American League over the last month. And it’s specifically about starting pitching. In the short-term, the team’s numbers were hurt by the fact Justin Verlander did not pitch well last Friday in Yankee Stadium. In the long-term the Tigers have to be concerned about just how bad their rotation has been at its middle and back ends.

Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have had very bad first months, with ERAs of 7.77 and 6.45 respectively. Obviously these aren’t going to stay that bad, but nor is rookie Drew Smyly going to continue rolling along at a 1.23 ERA like he is right now, after collaring the Yanks  on Saturday. The individual pieces of this rotation will converge toward each other, but how much the overall picture changes remains to be seen.  Ultimately, manager Jim Leyland needs Doug Fister to get back from the disabled list. Adam Wilks got the first crack at replacing him, but three lousy starts led Leyland to tab Duane Below to open this week’s series against Kansas City. The Tiger skipper is reliant on a reliever and a rookie to keep his rotation upright on the nights when Verlander isn’t on the mound, and until that changes, the dynamics of the AL Central race won’t.

Detroit is at 11-11 overall. They stand tied with Chicago for second, while Cleveland is 11-9 coming into Monday. The White Sox and Indians are about to get real familiar with each other, playing seven games in the next ten days. Here’s a look at them, along with cellar-dwellars Kansas City and Minnesota…

Cleveland (11-9): The Indians’ first-place standing is more about Detroit not playing well, as the Indians are having problems scoring runs. Third baseman Jack Hannahan has cooled down drastically, while Travis Hafner wasn’t able to drive the ball with any consistency. Fortunately, #1 starter Justin Masterson had a good outing his last time to the mound after a bad start, and Derek Lowe’s strong recent starts suggest the vet is getting settled into the season. Ubaldo Jiminez needs to join them.

ChiSox (11-11):  Chicago joins Detroit in being on the downswing and not pitching well. They lost two of three in Oakland and then got beat three times in four in a home series with Boston. Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are both swinging very good bats right now, combining for five home runs in the past week and not letting that come at the expense of getting on base consistently. The rest of the lineup needs to give them some help, as does the starting pitching.

Kansas City (6-15): Keep an eye on this team, especially with no one in the Central able to get control. The Royals won three of five games last week against the Indians and Twins and they have an offense that’s starting to hit its stride. No one exemplifies that better than Alex Gordon who hit .333 and popped a couple home runs. The bullpen is sound and deep, and while I’m not saying the pitching is good enough to enable a hot 20-5 type run, Kansas City is good enough to play their way back to .500 in a hurry.

Minnesota (6-15):  Earlier today TheSportsNotebook published Twin Cities fan Isaac Huss’ lament on the state of sports in his hometown, so I’ll go easy on the Twins here. But we do have to put out one stat that summarizes the problems—their starters’ ERA last week was 9.68. Francisco Liriano, whose unfortunate career was a prominent part of Isaac’s piece.