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August 2, 2012

On the Beat

A Tale of Two Cities

by John Perrotto

The Indians, if for a fleeting moment last Thursday night, seemed to have seized the type of momentum that might vault them to the top of the American League Central standings. Trailing the visiting Tigers and Justin Verlander, 3-1, in the seventh inning, the Indians struck for four runs, including back-to-back home runs from catcher Carlos Santana and designated hitter Travis Hafner, two players Indians manager Manny Acta said needed to increase their production during his pre-game meeting with the media, and went on to a stunning 5-3 victory.

"Our best win of the season," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said, and it was hard to argue. The win drew the Indians within 2.5 games of both the Tigers and White Sox, who were tied for the AL Central lead.

Yet Acta warned not to get too excited about one victory. "With the way we've played this season," Acta said, "we're fortunate to be in the position we are in. We're going to have to play better the rest of the season if we're going to win this division."

The Indians didn't exactly heed Acta's word. They followed their stirring victory with five consecutive losses, getting swept in a three-game series by the Twins in Minneapolis, then losing twice to the Royals in Kansas City.

The Indians now find themselves seven games behind the White Sox and four games behind the Tigers in the division, and also six games out in the AL wild-card standings. While the Indians didn't tear apart their club by dealing players like closer Chris Perez and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo at Tuesday's non-waiver trading deadline, they also did not make any roster upgrades.

The lack of movement was not surprising. In days leading up to the deadline, general manager Chris Antonetti said, "Any moves we make will be designed to help us in both 2012 and 2013." So with it beginning to look like it is “wait until next year” for the Indians, the White Sox hold a three-game lead over the Tigers in what figures to be a two-team race in the AL Central.

The contenders are certainly a study in contrast. After capturing the crown by a whopping 15 games last season, the Tigers were the overwhelming favorites to win the division. Then they signed free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract in the offseason after learning designated hitter Victor Martinez would be shelved until at least the end of August. The White Sox were considered to be in retooling mode—if not a full-blown rebuilding situation—following an offseason in which they allowed reliable left-hander Mark Buehrle to leave as a free agent, traded right fielder Carlos Quentin and closer Sergio Santos, and hired the unproven Robin Ventura to replace Ozzie Guillen as manager.

While the Chicago being in first place rates as one of the season's biggest surprises, Detroit manager Jim Leyland says he isn't surprised. In fact, Leyland insisted in spring training that the White Sox would be a factor in the division race this season.

"The White Sox always have a good team," Leyland said. "I don't know why it is, but it seems like a lot of people count them out every year but they're always there. When I looked at that team coming into the season, I saw a contender."

White Sox general manager Ken Williams thrives on being the underdog and trying to prove the media—including Baseball Prospectus—wrong. According to right-hander Jake Peavy, the us-against-the-world mentality helps the team thrive.

"I know there weren't a lot of people who expected us to be very good this season but we never looked at ourselves as a rebuilding team," Peavy said. "We lost a few pieces but we also felt if some players performed the way they were capable of performing after having off years last year that it would compensate for the players we lost. We always believed."

Peavy is among three White Sox players who have greatly improved their performances in 2012. The righty has produced 2.7 WARP this season with a 3.15 FIP, his best totals since registering 4.2 and 2.85 marks in 2008 with the Padres.

Like Peavy, right fielder Alex Rios is also playing like it is 2008 with a 4.0 WARP and a .310 TAv in 413 trips to the plate. Four years ago, he had 5.0 and .285 for the Blue Jays.

Designated hitter Adam Dunn isn't exactly an MVP candidate at 1.8 WARP. However, it's a far cry from last year's -3.1 mark due to a horrid .159/.292/.277 triple slash accrued in 496 plate appearances. Dunn has a .211/.348/.501 triple-slash line this season in 446 PA.

"I'll say this about the White Sox: They're not going away," Leyland said. "I can't imagine they won't be there at the end."

But can the White Sox hold off the Tigers and pull off the upset in the AL Central? Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report thinks so, giving the White Sox a 75.5 percent chance of finishing first and rating the Tigers' chances at just 23.6 percent. A scout from another AL Central organization who covers the division regularly gives the White Sox the edge and has reservations about the Tigers, who are 27th among 30 major-league teams in defensive efficiency and in the middle of the pack in runs scored (13th) and allowed (17th).

"I just like the White Sox so much more each time I see them," he scout said. "Getting rid of Ozzie and replacing him with Robin is the best thing that could have happened. All the drama is gone. They just go out and play. They won't overwhelm you when you watch them, but they play good, solid baseball day in and day out. Man-for-man, the Tigers have more talent, but they're just too erratic. There is something missing with that club."

---

A few minutes with Cubs manager Dale Sveum

On the Cubs have one of the worst records in the major leagues in his first season as manager: "We knew coming in—Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and myself—that this was probably going to be a year where the organization took a step back. We had hoped to be competitive, but we knew we were probably going to have to sacrifice some wins at the major-league level to try to start getting the organization where it needs to be so we can become competitive year in and year out. We're hoping taking one step backward is going to result in a lot of steps forward in the future, and eventually a world championship. That's the goal."

On still enjoying his rookie season as a manager: "The players have been great, they really have. I couldn't ask for a better group of guys. They bust their butts every day. We're two-thirds of the way through the season, and there has only been one instance where a guy didn't bust it down the first-base line. That's pretty impressive, especially when you consider our record."

On shortstop Starlin Castro: "I think people expect him to be Superman every day and forget he's still a kid. He's still learning the game. He's still learning the effort and concentration it takes to play at a high level every day of the season. He's a very talented player, and as he gets older and more mature he has a chance to be really special.

On rookie first baseman Anthony Rizzo: "He has a lot of pop, but I like his overall approach as a hitter. He has a really good two-strike approach and will shorten up his swing with two strikes and concentrate putting the ball in play. He has a real good plan at the plate, the kind you don't always see in a young hitter."

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Scouts' views

Rangers right-hander Ryan Dempster: "He's a good pitcher, and that little cutter he's added this season has made a big difference, but I'm not ready to anoint him as the Rangers' savior. Pitching in the American League after spending so many years in the National League is going to be culture shock. It's a different ballgame."

Padres third baseman Chase Headley: "He's a good player, but the Padres value him as a great player, and that's why they weren't able to trade him. I wouldn't give up the ranch to get him because he's a good complementary player. He's not going to carry you to a pennant."

Marlins center fielder Gorkys Hernandez: "He can really go get it in center field and he might win a Gold Glove. However, I'm not so sure he'll hit enough to where you can carry him in the lineup."

Royals reliever Greg Holland: "I’m really curious to see how he does as the closer. I like him a lot and think he has a great arm, but his inconsistency has always been a red flag. He's getting a huge opportunity, one that could change his career if he takes advantage."

Cardinals left-hander Kyle Lohse: "He has been as consistent this season as I can ever remember. He hasn't received a lot of hype, but he is a big reason why the Cardinals at least still have a chance to get to the postseason."

Indians right-hander Derek Lowe: "As good as he was early in the season is as bad as he is now. He doesn't give them a chance to win. He's 39, and you can't help but think he's at the end of the line."

Braves left-hander Paul Maholm: "This was a great pickup. He's been pitching as well as I've ever seen him. I know there is some trepidation because he's never pitched in a pennant race, but he has really good mound presence, and that tells me he'll handle the pressure."

Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova: "He's been erratic all season. If I'm the Yankees, I'm not so sure I trust him to start a post-season game as my No. 4 starter."

Giants right fielder Hunter Pence: "He's exactly what they needed, a right-handed hitter with pop. I love how he plays the game. He's going 100 mph all the time, and that's going to be infectious for the entire team. You reach that point in the season now where everyone is dragging, and he is going to liven everyone up."

Rays right-hander James Shields: "He was in all kind of trade rumors, but it would be weird to see him in a different uniform. He's not the ace anymore, but he's a real glue guy on that pitching staff and in that clubhouse."

Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg: "Everyone knows how great he is as a pitcher, but I like how he handles the bat. He really takes good at-bats, and he's not an easy out by any means."

Mariners left-hander Jason Vargas: "I'm a little surprised somebody didn't make the Mariners an offer they couldn't refuse for him at the deadline. He's having a good year, and he could have helped a lot of teams in a pennant race."

Dodgers left fielder Shane Victorino: "He's always been an energy player, but he seemed disinterested all season in Philadelphia. Some guys get distracted when they're in the last year of their contracts, and maybe he's one of them. I'm not so sure I would have traded for him."

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Front-office types' views

Angels: "I love what Jerry Dipoto has done since taking over. He isn't afraid to make bold moves, and he did it again with the trade Zack Grienke. Jerry's done a heckuva job there, and he's given the Angels what they need—a real GM rather than a Mike Scioscia marionette."

Astros: "I really feel bad for Brad Mills, who is a good baseball guy but has never had a chance to win there. Now, he's managing a Triple-A team for the rest of the season, and I'd say there's no chance he survives."

Athletics: "I'll give Billy Beane credit. He was in on everyone leading up to the deadline. As great of a story as they've been, I don't think they can get to the postseason without a little more help, though, especially offensively."

Blue Jays:  "I don't see Steve Delabar and Brad Lincoln being difference-makers in a pennant race. What they did at the deadline tells me they haven't totally given up on this season but think they have a better chance of making the playoffs in 2013."

Brewers: "They are kind of at a crossroads. They thought they could still be a contender without Prince Fielder this year and they were wrong. I'm not so sure they'll contend next season, either. It'll be interesting to see what they do in the winter."

Mets: "They really could use some more young talent, but Sandy Alderson's hands were tied at the deadline. He couldn't trade R.A. Dickey because he's a folk hero now. Johan Santana is hurt and Jason Bay can't play anymore, so he really had no one to move."

Orioles: "I'm a little disappointed they didn't do something at the deadline. They haven't been to the playoffs since 1997. You’d think they would have made an effort to do something."

Phillies: "Tuesday had to be a very tough day for Ruben Amaro. He's been the master of the deadline deal the last three years, and it had to be tough to wrap his head around the idea that he was selling off parts."

Pirates: "I don't know what to make of what they did at the deadline. Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez have potential, but they've also spent most of the year in the minor leagues. They aren't the types of players contending teams trade for. Those guys are going to make Neal Huntington either look like a genius or a fool between now and the end of the season."

Red Sox: "I think Ben Cherington handled his first trade deadline perfectly. He didn't mortgage the future because he knows his team doesn't have a great shot at the playoffs, but he also didn't hold a fire sale and completely sabotage his team's chances because you can't totally count them out."

Reds: "They have put themselves in good position to win their division, but I really felt they needed to get a leadoff hitter. They have the boppers in the middle of the lineup to generate a lot of runs, but they really need someone to get on base in front of them."

Rockies: "It can only be a plus to give Bill Geivett more power in that front office. He's a bright guy, a really good baseball guy. It's amazing to me that Dan O'Dowd has lasted as long as he has as the GM. He just keeps BSing ownership there with one grand plan after another."

Twins: "I know Terry Ryan is taking a beating for not unloading his veterans at the deadline, but sometimes it's better to trade guys in the winter when you can get more teams involved in the bidding. He's got a couple of pieces in Denard Span and Josh Willingham that will definitely generate interest and give him some pieces to start building around."

---

Why have the Royals been such a disappointment this season? Maybe it's because they are too darn friendly, according to this story by FoxSportsKansasCity.com's Jeffrey Flanagan in this week's Must Read.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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