Everything is upside-down in AL Central
Presumed contenders looking up at surprising Indians, Royals
Years ago, it was commonplace to mockingly refer to the American League Central as Comedy Central. But what we've seen in the division thus far in 2011 is more suitable for the SyFy Channel.Strange things are afoot at the Big K, in Kansas City, where the AL's most captivating series of the week begins Monday night. It's a four-gamer featuring the first-place Indians (11-4) and second-place Royals (10-5). I don't care how early in the year it is. That sounds bizarre. Shifting our eyes down the standings, we find the White Sox (7-8) and Tigers (7-9) struggling to live up to the hype that followed their aggressive offseason approaches. And then, finally, we have the Twins (5-10) -- the undisputed kings of the division over the past decade -- lonely in the basement. This might have been how you expected the Central standings to look -- if you were reading the sports page while doing a headstand in your yoga class. But to the rest of us, it definitely qualifies as a surprise. "Kansas City is playing pretty good ball. Cleveland is playing very well," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "I said [the Indians are tough] when we left Cleveland, and people laughed at me." No one's laughing now. The Indians are playing sound, fundamental defense to back stellar starting pitching and a highly productive offense now boosted by the return of Grady Sizemore. They look more and more real by the day. And the Royals? Everybody talked about what a good team they could have. In 2013. Nobody expected them to storm out of the gate this year. But they've done so with an abnormally potent and patient offense, highlighted by Alex Gordon hitting like the cornerstone player he was once purported to be. And to think, Kansas City still has a ton of talent on the horizon. It's early, of course. We are contractually obligated to mention that in every story from now until Memorial Day. And it also bears mentioning that the Opening Day payrolls of the Indians ($49.2 million) and Royals ($36.1 million) can be combined and still not equal those of the White Sox ($127.8 million), Twins ($112.7 million) or Tigers ($105.7 million). Depth issues can and will come into play in some capacity over the course of the 162-game season. But the play of this division's "Little Two" has certainly given the "Big Three" something to think about in the season's first 2 1/2 weeks. And let's face it. While the three favorites were and are favorites for a reason, their early concerns deserve more than just a passing glance, no matter what the calendar says. As it stands, the Twins appear the most vulnerable, and not just because of their current place at the base of the AL Central totem pole. Ron Gardenhire's club has overcome slow starts in the past and certainly could again. But given the injury woes and offensive ineptitude displayed thus far, it's fair to wonder where this season's headed for Minnesota. Joe Nathan made a classy contribution over the weekend, openly admitting that the lack of life on his stuff after a year recovering from Tommy John surgery is holding the Twins back. He gracefully stepped aside so that Matt Capps could take the closer's role. Capps immediately delivered in a save situation to preserve Sunday's 4-2 win over the Rays. But just because Nathan is out of the ninth doesn't mean he's out of the woods. The Twins still need him to recapture the form that, not too long ago, made him one of the most durable, dependable relievers in the game. At 36, it won't be easy to do. But a short stint on the disabled list, with a little rest and a few innings in the Minors, might be worth considering at this juncture. You knew going into the year that the Twins might have issues in their bullpen, given the massive overhaul it underwent in the offseason. But what you didn't expect was Francisco Liriano to be such an early burden in the starting five and the lineup to sag so considerably. The Twins' 45 runs scored are the fewest in the Majors. Tsuyoshi Nishioka's broken fibula, which has him out four to six weeks, and Joe Mauer's viral infection, which has him out indefinitely, aren't helping matters. And while Justin Morneau's lack of lingering symptoms from his concussion is good news, he's still searching for the swing that once made him the AL MVP. You would have to assume the offense will come around eventually. There's too much talent to insist otherwise. But Liriano's lack of movement and dip in velocity with his fastball (according to Fangraphs.com, it's down about two full ticks on the radar) is alarming, as is his 18.56 ERA and .448 average against from the fourth inning on. If Liriano is reverting to his 2009 self, as the early results indicate, then that drastically alters the outlook for a Twins rotation that dwells more in depth than dominance. The White Sox have had satisfactory starting pitching this season, and it will be intriguing to see what Jake Peavy adds to that mix when he returns, possibly at the end of the month. The Tigers got off to a bit of a shaky start in the rotation but appear to be trending in the right direction, especially after Rick Porcello's encouraging outing in Oakland on Friday. Still, both Chicago and Detroit still have other areas to address. It didn't take long for Guillen to grimly report "I have no closer" last week after watching Matt Thornton blow two leads and two saves in the span of seven days. Rookie Chris Sale and veteran acquisition Jesse Crain have also struggled, and the White Sox defense has been porous, to the tune of 15 errors in the first 15 games. The White Sox have the bats to mask a lot of mistakes, but we've seen time and again how a beleaguered bullpen can take a toll on the psychology of a team. Chicago has to hope it can patch its 'pen quickly or that the trade market will bear fruit this summer. The Tigers, meanwhile, have had bullpen issues of their own, with Joel Zumaya's absence greatly affecting the seventh-inning setup. And slow starts abound in the Tigers' lineup, which has yet to receive the top-of-the-order table-setting expected from Austin Jackson or the middle-of-the-order punch expected from Victor Martinez. But while those are merely slow starts and possibly nothing more, Magglio Ordonez's ongoing ankle issue could be a big one, if it lingers. Hey, by season's end, we might look at these topsy-turvy early results and say, "Remember when?" Nothing that's transpired to this point should be taken as the new norm. Not yet. But in the early going, none of baseball's six divisions has provided more surprise than the SyFy Central.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.