In past years, the AL East owned the most interesting divisional race in baseball. And while the Yankees and Red Sox are at it again this year, they won’t be the race to watch. The AL Central race is simply fascinating, as the Tigers and the White Sox have the top two records in the majors and will battle until the end. But which team will emerge as the divisional champions? And which has the better shot at walking away with the title? Both are excellent, but one team has the edge. Before we get to my pick, we have to remember where these two teams came from.
Nobody gave the Tigers a shot in the preseason. Everyone thought that, as usual, they would be among the bottom teams in the entire AL. After all, this is a team just a few years removed from a horrific 43-119 season in 2003. But the Tigers shocked everyone by starting out the year as one of the top teams in the AL Central.
But even then nobody thought they could stay near the divisional lead. The Chicago White Sox, fresh off a 2005 World Series run, were back in business with an improved, slugging lineup. But the Tigers stayed right on the tails of the Sox, and the two teams emerged as the teams to beat in the AL Central. Detroit eventually passed Chicago, and after a huge winning streak captured the majors’ best record. Now the teams have had the two best records in the majors for a while, becoming so good that the third place Minnesota Twins were 10+ games out even after a 17-2 run last month. Managers Jim Leyland and Ozzie Guillen have led their team so superbly that they are both in the race for Manager of the Year. The Tigers and the White Sox are ready to battle the rest of the year, and each has a significant chance at capturing a World Series championship. But which has the advantage? Let’s break down each major area of these two teams to find out which is truly better.
The White Sox’s lineup is not only the best among these two clubs, but also the best in the majors. They lead the American League in both homers and runs scored, with most of the power coming from a devastating middle of the order. Jim Thome, the Sox’s most dangerous and consistent threat, leads the way with 31 homers and 80 RBIs. Paul Konerko is on pace for a third straight 40-100 season, while Jermaine Dye is having a career year. These three combine for the best 3-4-5 punch in baseball, as each made the All-Star team. While the Tigers have some good power-hitters themselves, they just can’t match those three superstars. The White Sox also feature depth that the Tigers lack with players such as Joe Crede, AJ Pierzynski, and Tadahito Iguchi performing better than expected. And Scott Podsednik is having another great leadoff season, with a .280 average, .359 OBP, and 29 steals. This lineup, overall, is simply the best in the AL. No doubt about it.
While the Tigers don’t feature many superstars on their lineup, it can still be very effective at times. They rank among the AL’s top teams in batting average (.275) and homeruns (122). Their best hitter is outfielder Magglio Ordonez, who made the All Star team with an impressive .308-16-63 line. Their other All Star is catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who is hitting .312 with 41 runs driven in. Detroit is also getting overachieving seasons from Curtis Granderson, Chris Shelton, and Marcus Thames. These players will be the key to the Tigers’ run down the stretch, as they are the only variables on an otherwise solid ballclub. So while the Tigers may not match the veteran studs the White Sox have, they have a pretty good offense themselves. But still, Chicago is just much better in this area.
Advantage: Chicago White Sox
The White Sox had the best pitching staff in the majors last year, and that contributed largely to their World Series title. But this year, the White Sox’s starters have faded while Detroit’s staff has been injected with an influx of young studs. Rookie Justin Verlander leads the way for the Tigers, with 11 wins and a 2.83 ERA. Kenny Rogers, who has 11 wins, started the All Star game. And get this–Rogers has the highest ERA among the 5 starters (4.10)! Jeremy Bonderman is a dark horse Cy Young candidate with a 9-4 record and a team-high 119 strikeouts. Nate Robertson and Zach Miner, who have combined for a 14-7 record and 14 quality starts this year, round out this solid 5. Even more impressively, Detroit’s starters are performing like this without usual starter Mike Maroth, who had a 3.56 ERA in 9 starts before a serious injury sidelined him.
The White Sox’s starters, by their standards, have actually struggled this year. Jose Contreras has been an ace, with a 9-1 record, but the rest of the staff can’t match Detroit’s. Mark Buerhle started the season good as usual but has been plagued with bad starts recently. He is now 9-7 with a 4.46. The remainder of the staff–Freddy Garcia, Javier Vasquez, and Jon Garland–have all declined from last year and all have above a 5+ ERA. So last year it would have been no question whose staff was better–the White Sox compiled the major’s best ERA. But this year, the tides have turned and rookies have led Detroit to the best record in the majors.
Advantage: Detroit Tigers
There is no question who has the best closer among these teams. Chicago’s Bobby Jenks is an All Star, with 26 saves and a 3.19 ERA. He is a young flamethrower who should be a solid closer for years. On the contrary, Detroit’s Todd Jones is a no-star. He has struggled the entire season and possesses a 5.5 ERA, though he does have 24 saves.
However, the middle bullpen is a different story. The Tigers’ Joel Zumaya has been an 8th-inning standout this year with 21 holds and over 11 strikeouts per 9 innings. Jamie Walker has also started contributing with a 1.04 ERA and .77 WHIP in 29 appearances so far. And Fernando Rodney has been solid with 11 holds, 7 saves, and 3 wins.
The White Sox’s middle bullpen isn’t as good, though it does feature some decent players. Neal Cotts has 12 holds and a 2.82 ERA, and Matt Thornton has performed well too. But Cliff Politte’s horrendous play has hurt the Sox. In 30 appearances, Politte has logged a 8.70 ERA.
So while the White Sox have the much better closer among the teams, Detroit’s middle bullpen is one of the more solid units in the majors. I’ll call it even on this one.
It is a very, very tough call to say which of these two teams is better. They have accomplished their superb records in two distinctly different ways. While Chicago has scored the most runs in the majors, Detroit has allowed the fewest. Each team is so good, but right now Detroit has a 4.5 game lead. Don’t look too much into that, because while the Tigers just beat the Royals 3-1 in a four game set, the White Sox got swept by the Yankees. So right now the gap between the teams is more about scheduling than play.
So the most important question is how the teams fare against each other. They have 13 games against each other the remainder of the year, including a 3-game set starting on Tuesday. While the White Sox owned a 5-1 edge against the Tigers in the first half, that did included a sweep in early April before the Tigers realized just how good they were. I think that when they meet in the second half, the tides will turn. Detroit, due to their superior pitching, team play, and solid management, will have a winning record against the Sox. Chicago’s success is due to their unbelievable hitting, and I think Detroit is the only team that can shut them down. The only thing the Tigers need is a closer, but their middle relief is so stacked that it will be incredulous if they can’t find another closing candidate. Their lineup, though it features many no-names, is vastly underrated and will be able to crack Chicago’s inconsistent starting pitching.
So the Tigers will have a winning record against Chicago the second half over the four series the teams play against one another. And if they can beat the White Sox, they can beat anybody. Detroit Tigers, World Series Champions? Though it might have sounded far-fetched before the season started–or even right now–don’t be surprised if Leyland’s club shocks everybody in October.