AL Central the best ... so far

AL Central the best ... so far

CLEVELAND -- Welcome to the American League Central, current home of the two teams with the best records in Major League Baseball.

You knew this would be a difficult neighborhood in which to advance, with the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox making offseason improvements to the best team in baseball. What you couldn't have known was that on Memorial Day 2006, the Sox would be merely the second best team in the Majors, because of the fast start of the Detroit Tigers, which has been equal parts surprising and impressive. And the longer the Tigers persist, the more they become impressive and the less they remain surprising.

Then there are the Cleveland Indians, who put together a stunning second-half run last year. And the Minnesota Twins, who, on paper at least, should have pitching that can compete with anyone. The Kansas City Royals cannot be fairly included in any discussion of achievements, significant or otherwise. In the midst of this group, somebody has to take it on the chin, but not more than 75 percent of the time.

The White Sox came to Jacobs Field on Monday and triumphed with holiday ease, 11-0, behind an early barrage against Cliff Lee and the highly effective work of Javier Vazquez, who shut out the Indians on two hits over six innings.

The Indians have been disappointing again during the first two months of this season. On the other hand, their current 24-26 record is almost exactly the record that they had last year at this point (25-25). Will they play up to their second-half 2005 form as this season progresses?

One of the people not among the doubters on this issue is White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Asked on Monday if he expected the Indians to pick up the pace, Guillen responded:

"Don't worry about them, they'll be right there. People keep saying they struggled at the start. It's not the way you start, it's the way you finish.

"And with the ballclub they have, the ballclub Detroit has, the ballclub the White Sox have, they're going to be there all the way to the end. It's just a matter of when they get hot. Because they did it, they did it before. With the team they have, I don't see why not. With that ballclub, don't look back, they'll be right there. They will be.

"It should be an interesting pennant race because we're all going to be right there."

This led Guillen naturally into the thought that his club was competing in baseball's best division. His reason for that contention was based on the quality of pitching that four of the five clubs possess.

"The Central Division of the American League is the best division in baseball," Guillen said. "I think there's no doubt. That's what I keep saying, some people don't believe me.

"Even the Minnesota Twins, check the pitching staff they have. This division has the most effective pitching staffs in the game right now. Every time you go to Cleveland, you're going to face Lee, (C.C.) Sabathia, that nasty sinker guy, (Jake) Westbrook. Every time you go to Detroit, you're going to face (Mike) Maroth, and all those guys.

"Then you go to Minnesota and (Johan) Santana is waiting for you and (Brad) Radke. Then you face the White Sox, you're going to see (Jose) Contreras and (Freddy) Garcia.

"A lot of people would ask me last year: 'Why aren't you guys hitting well?' Because we had to face good pitching every day."

On balance, Guillen, as usual, has a valid point. The AL Central can stand up against any other division, even though both the Indians and the Twins have not pitched as well as they could have reasonably expected.

The AL Central is certainly better at this juncture than the AL West. The NL West is not the punch line that it was last year, although none of its clubs has played as well as either of the top two clubs in the AL Central.

The AL East has three good clubs, but not the depth of pitching throughout the division. In the NL East, only the New York Mets have consistently performed up to expectations, although the Atlanta Braves are showing many of the usual signs of rounding into form.

That leaves the National League Central. This division contains the NL's best team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Four other clubs have at least demonstrated pitching potential, and the Chicago Cubs would, in theory, pitch much better if all their pitchers were healthy. This could happen, although it very rarely does. So this could be baseball's best division, but at the moment, it isn't.

We have not yet reached the two-month mark of the season and these arguments take the full six months to resolve. But calling the AL Central "the best division in baseball" at this point is not an unreasonable boast, even if the manager in question may not be a completely objective observer.

This division, after all, has the two clubs that have played the Majors' best baseball over two months. And it has two other clubs that should pitch better and perform better over the long haul. It also has the Royals, but you cannot blame the other four clubs for sharing a division with them.

There are 112 games worth of twists and turns left for each of the top four teams in the AL Central, but you can say this much for certain even now: Whoever wins this division will have demonstrated the kind of pitching prowess that should make it a postseason favorite. That kind of pitching was the winning formula for the White Sox in 2005. Nothing less will be required from the AL Central winner in 2006.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.