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Zuba: Baseball’s Opening Act

| Wednesday, April 22, 2015

And the award for most interesting division race before any MLB team has played 20 games goes to … the American League Central.

Calling it a “race” might be a stretch because there is still a marathon’s worth of games left to play. There’s a lot of time for teams to fade, and there always seems to be a streaking team that makes a final-week push to the playoffs.

But so far, the AL Central has put on the best show with two of MLB’s top records in the 11-2 Detroit Tigers and 10-3 Kansas City Royals. No division has a better 1-2 combination right now.

The Tigers have stumbled only twice, in a 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 13 and in a 12-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Saturday.

The Tigers have won because they’ve performed extremely well both offensively and defensively. Detroit’s pitchers have combined for five shutout wins already, and the Tigers lineup has scored seven-plus runs six times.

The Royals have been similarly consistent. They’ve notched seven-plus runs five times. They haven’t managed a shutout yet, but they’ve allowed two runs or fewer six times.

That both teams are winning isn’t a surprise, exactly. Detroit won the AL Central with a 90-72 record. Kansas City snagged second in the AL Central and advanced all the way to the World Series.

One easily wondered how good both teams will be this season, however.

The Tigers made the playoffs last season, but they exited quickly as the Baltimore Orioles swept them in the AL Division Series.

And as Kevin Helliker pointed out in The Wall Street Journal last week, after the Royals lost in the 2014 World Series, many dismissed them as “a mediocre squad that got hot at the right time.”

But this evidence is misleading. The Orioles clobbered the Tigers in game one of the ALDS, but games two and three were decided by one run each. And for the Royals: Hot streaks don’t carry over several months into a new season.

Most importantly, both teams have dropped strong hints early this season they’re for real. They’ve won at brisk clips that might not be sustainable, but they’ve done it with a solid balance of offense and defense. Kansas City’s 7-0 start might not be regularly repeatable, but both teams look capable of consistency — the quality that really carries a team through a season.

Added to the intriguing AL Central mix are the Chicago White Sox.

Admittedly, they sit in third with an uninspiring 5-7 record, but the team has potential with a rotation led by Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija and a revamped lineup built around first baseman Jose Abreu.

Acquiring first baseman Adam LaRoche in the offseason and the return of right fielder Avisail Garcia from injury make this team more interesting than last season’s squad, which finished fourth in the division with a 73-89 record.

On Monday, the Sox eked out a win against the Cleveland Indians, 4-3, with a four-run bottom-of-the-ninth. That’s the kind of game Chicago didn’t win last year, and it’s the type of game a contending team has to be capable of pulling off.

As for the Indians, they finished third with an 85-77 record in 2014, just four games behind the Royals. Cleveland hasn’t amazed yet this season as they sit in last in the Central with a 4-8 record, but having manager Terry Francona at the helm is usually a good sign.

The Twins complete the AL Central after finishing last in the division this past season with a 70-92 record. It’s tough to tell how much they’ll improve this season, but they do have longtime fan-favorite Torii Hunter back patrolling the outfield for the first season since 2007.

All in all, even though the AL Central hasn’t been known for its strength in the past decade, it has improved over the last few seasons and will be one of the better divisions to watch.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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