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August 2, 2013

What You Need to Know

The AL Central Gap Grows

by Daniel Rathman


The Thursday Takeaway
Were it not for the wholeheartedly rebuilding Astros, whose record is 36-70 but whose future gets a few watts brighter with every trade, no division would have a greater gap between first and last place than the American League Central, where the Tigers are at the top and the White Sox are at the bottom. That gap has grown wider in recent days, as the Tigers, Indians, and Royals have surged, leaving the Twins and White Sox in their dust.

The top three teams in the Central have won a combined 22 consecutive games—the Tigers five, the Indians eight, and the Royals nine. The bottom two have dropped 11 straight—the Twins four and the White Sox seven. Thus the Tigers are now two up on the Indians, who are 4 ½ up on the Royals, who are nine up on the Twins, who are 5 ½ half up on the White Sox. The gap from first to last is 21 games, exceeded only by the 26 ½-game chasm between the Athletics and Astros, but the margin between the contenders (generously counting the Royals, whose odds of reaching the playoffs are south of five percent) is as large as it is in any division, with the possible exception of the National League East, where the Nationals’ freefall has given the Braves a clear path to October.

With the Twins awaiting the fruits of what Jason Parks believes is the league’s top farm system and the White Sox working to stock their pipeline with the pieces that will turn their fortunes around, that gap figures to keep growing between now and the end of the regular season. It could grow significantly if the Indians and Royals sustain their success. And within their active winning streaks, there are reasons to believe that they might.

As the clock ticked down to the non-waiver trade deadline, the Royals snagged outfielder Justin Maxwell from the Astros for pitching prospect Kyle Smith. A powerful hitter whose overall numbers have been dogged by a bloated strikeout rate, Maxwell has a strong track record of performance versus left-handed pitchers; his career triple-slash line against them is .253/.370/.455. The 29-year-old, who is under club control for three-and-a-half more years, will share right field with David Lough, where the two should jell to provide vastly superior production than the Royals received from Jeff Francoeur, who had the position to himself in 2011 and 2012.

The Indians found their right-handed-hitting studs during the offseason and have been reaping the rewards all season long. Detroit sent Ryan Raburn packing after a dreadful 2012 season, during which he batted .171/.226/.254 and was worth 1.9 wins below replacement, but the Indians were intrigued by his pre-2012 production and inked him to a minor-league pact in mid-January. Yan Gomes, a strong minor-league performer who boasted singular positional versatility, came to Cleveland with infielder Mike Aviles in the trade that sent right-hander Esmil Rogers to Toronto. The 26-year-old saw time at catcher and three other corner positions for the Blue Jays in 2012, but has been used almost exclusively as the primary backup to Carlos Santana behind the dish so far this year.

Both were critical to the Indians’ sweep of the White Sox, which the Tribe completed behind Justin Masterson on Thursday. The home team got on the board in the bottom of the second inning, when Santana reached on a one-out single, advanced to second on a knock by Gomes, and scored on a single by Mark Reynolds. Raburn, up with a man on and one away in the third, padded the lead to 3-0 with a two-run blast to the opposite field off Chris Sale. He chipped in a run-scoring single in the fifth, the third of three consecutive one-bag knocks by the Indians, and then countered the White Sox’ lone tally of the day with a solo shot in the seventh.

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