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July 5, 2000

AL Central Notebook

Is This Really Happening?

by Joe Sheehan

Is This Really Happening?

Chicago White Sox    53-29  --
Cleveland Indians    41-39  11

Are you kidding me?

The Indians, the only champion the American League Central has ever known, are closer to the cellar in the division than to its peak. The Chicago White Sox, who haven't been in a divisional race since the strike season, have the best record in baseball. Exactly how did this happen?

For starters, the White Sox are a young team. Their position players are by and large in the part of their careers in which they are improving or at their peak. Only Frank Thomas is in his thirties, and Thomas is actually having his best year since 1997. The Indians, on the other hand, have just a couple of players in their twenties and a lineup built around guys who have already seen their best seasons.

Young teams are the ones with the potential for dramatic improvement, and that's one of the things we're seeing here, combined with the natural decline of an older team. This is happening in other places--the other two AL divisions, to cite one example--but the occurrence is highlighted in the AL Central.

A season like this requires a fair amount of luck, and the White Sox have had theirs. Both James Baldwin and Cal Eldred have been surprisingly effective, providing above-average innings in support of an offense that has been among the best in the league. Both pitchers have far outperformed expectations. That, too, is an ingredient that surprise teams need: pitchers who overachieve.

Behind the two right-handers, the Sox have gotten good years from Jim Parque and Mike Sirotka. In fact, only Kip Wells has been ineffective. A stable rotation providing quality outings has fed into a bullpen that has bounced from good to dominant, led by Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry and Kelly Wunsch.

Finally, the White Sox have been healthy, suffering only one minor injury--to catcher Brook Fordyce--all season. That health may be the biggest difference between the two teams. Where Chicago has had a stable rotation and an effective bullpen, the Tribe has suffered a number of pitcher injuries. Ace Bartolo Colon missed a few starts, but more damaging have been the losses of Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright. Wright's injury is particularly galling, as Charlie Manuel may have overused him in a couple of early-season starts. In the pen, Paul Shuey's month-long absence created a problem, but the injuries to Ricky Rincon and Tom Martin have been just as important.

The Indians have also suffered injuries to their starting lineup. Sandy Alomar's ill health hasn't been a surprise, but losing Manny Ramirez for six weeks opened a gaping hole in the lineup. Travis Fryman and Roberto Alomar have been dinged up, the latter's hurts having an impact on his performance. And while the comeback of Kenny Lofton garnered positive publicity, his efforts to make Opening Day may have hurt his production in 2000.

There's no magic bullet here. The White Sox have outplayed the Indians by 11 games for a variety of reasons; they've been better, sure, but they've also been luckier. The relative team ages have been a factor, but that doesn't explain the seasons of Baldwin and Eldred or the injury to Ramirez.

The more important question: is this race over? To outplay a team by 11 games over the course of half a season is a daunting task. The Indians are better than a .500 team, and it's unlikely that the Sox will keep playing at a .640 clip. The teams should move closer to each other. But for Cleveland to actually catch Chicago is going to require some breaks. The Indians will have to get the top of their lineup healthy and on base, and hope that the Sox pitching returns to earth a bit. The Indians also must have Manny Ramirez back, and probably need to upgrade the back of their rotation with at least one pitcher.

I don't think this race is over, not by a long shot, but I also believe that the Sox, given their 11-game cushion, have more than enough to stay ahead of the Indians. Cleveland will make them sweat, but in the end, they're playing for a wild-card berth.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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