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Matchups Key to AL Central Race

Don’t look now, but the baseball season is almost three-fourths over, and the AL Central is a two-team race. According to the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Odds Report (the folks that said there was a 99.89 percent chance the Mets would win the NL East in mid-September last year), there’s less than a three percent chance that the Detroit Tigers will come back and win the division, so we’ll ignore them for the sake of this analysis. Either the Minnesota Twins or the Chicago White Sox will win the Central, so let’s break this sucker down by position and see who’s got the upper hand.

I’m going to use slash stats to compare hitters, so if you’re not familiar with that notation, it’s batting average / on-base percentage / slugging percentage. To simplify the comparisons, I’m making an educated guess on who will play the most games at a given position down the stretch. For starting pitchers, they’re ranked by innings pitched. Also, the stats are current going into last night’s games, because there’s no way I had enough time to update them this morning. Sorry, but I hope this will suffice.

Joe Mauer (.316/.409/.444, 7 HR, 56 RBI)
A.J. Pierzynski (.286/.317/.418, 9 HR, 48 RBI)
While A.J. is an asset to the club and an All-Star agitator, this one’s really no contest. Mauer’s been able to stay healthy all year and has reclaimed his rightful place among the top catchers in baseball. Advantage: Twins

First Base
Justin Morneau (.308/.388/.508, 18 HR, 92 RBI)
Paul Konerko (.220/.322/.368, 11 HR, 38 RBI)
Even since the addition of Ken Griffey, Jr., to the lineup jumble, Konerko’s still been on Ozzie’s lineup card most of the time despite his poor performance. Morneau has turned in a season worthy of mention in AL MVP conversation, so this one is pretty lopsided, too. Advantage: Twins

Second Base
Alexi Casilla (.313/.351/.424, 4 HR, 39 RBI)
Alexei Ramirez (.308/.326/.469, 10 HR, 42 RBI)
This is a pretty close race if Casilla is able to return from a thumb injury in the next week or two, as has been hinted recently. However, if it’s Ramirez vs. Nick Punto, Casilla’s backup, then the Sox win in a landslide. Advantage: Sox

Third Base
Brian Buscher (.316/.347/.426, 3 HR, 30 RBI)
Joe Crede (.255/.323/.474, 17 HR, 54 RBI)
Crede’s been out for three weeks or so with a back injury, and the Sox have been desperate enough to turn to Juan Uribe in his absence. Buscher has been a pleasant surprise, stepping in after Mike Lamb played himself out of a job, but he’s no match for a healthy Crede, both at the plate and in the field. Advantage: Sox

Brendan Harris (.265/.322/.390, 6 HR, 40 RBI)
Orlando Cabrera (.267/.325/.349, 6 HR, 47 RBI)
This one is much closer than I would have guessed before looking at the numbers. Adam Everett has been cutting into Harris’ playing time lately, but Everett’s defensive reputation is much better than his actual skills at this point in his career, and I’d guess Harris will get more reps down the stretch. Advantage: Push

Left Field
Delmon Young (.285/.332/.388, 5 HR, 46 RBI)
Carlos Quentin (.284/.382/.565, 32 HR, 90 RBI)
Young has held his own this season, but Quentin has turned heads all year long and is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s on the MVP short list and plays decent defense as well. Advantage: Sox

Center Field
Carlos Gomez (.255/.292/.345, 5 HR, 35 RBI)
Nick Swisher (.234/.354/.409, 16 HR, 54 RBI)
Swisher has done what he’s always done in his first year with the Sox: hit for a low batting average with lots of walks and some power. That’s enough to give him the advantage over Gomez, who’s shown flashes of excellence between lengthy stretches of struggling. Advantage: Sox

Right Field
Denard Span (.314/.401/.459, 2 HR, 18 RBI)
Jermaine Dye (.300/.358/.562, 27 HR, 70 RBI)
Span has filled in admirably for Michael Cuddyer, who has missed most of the season with a variety of injuries. After languishing in the minors for six-plus seasons, he’s outperformed that track record and provided a great spark at the top of the Twins’ order. However, Jermaine Dye has had a quietly excellent season, making up for his statue-like defensive play in right with a great all-around season at the plate. Advantage: Sox

Designated Hitter
Jason Kubel (.264/.327/.466, 16 HR, 58 RBI)
Jim Thome (.255/.376/.521, 24 HR, 68 RBI)
Kubel has finally established himself as a solid major league regular this season, giving the Twins a weapon at DH for the first time since the days of Chili Davis, it seems. Still, Thome has put together a year that is slightly off his normal performance level, but still plenty good enough to win this matchup. Advantage: Sox

#1 Starter
Nick Blackburn (9-6, 3.60 ERA)
Mark Buehrle (9-10, 3.94 ERA)
Buehrle has shaken off a poor April to produce a respectable season. Blackburn came somewhat out of nowhere to enter to AL Rookie of the Year discussion. It’s neck and neck, with the nod going to Buehrle, owing to his experience and grittiness. Advantage: Sox

#2 Starter
Scott Baker (7-3, 3.78 ERA)
John Danks (9-5, 3.18 ERA)
Danks took a no-hitter into the seventh on Monday, but ended up losing the game. He’s been a rock for the Sox in a rotation full of flakes. Baker’s been good when healthy, but Danks’ body of work this year is superior. Advantage: Sox

#3 Starter
Glen Perkins (9-3, 4.07 ERA)
Gavin Floyd (12-6, 3.84 ERA)
Both of these guys have been pleasant surprises. Perkins capped his excellent campaign with eight innings of shutout ball against the Yankees on Monday. Floyd has had some very high peaks, but he’s been a complete crapshoot from start to start with a couple of stinkers in his last two. Advantage: Twins

#4 Starter
Kevin Slowey (8-8, 4.07 ERA)
Javier Vazquez (8-10, 4.74 ERA)
Vazquez is a complete mystery to me; it seems like he should win every time out with his stuff, but he always seems to underachieve. I’d say he’d be a great project for Dave Duncan in St. Louis. Slowey’s not going to get any fans too excited, but he’s quietly effective. Advantage: Twins

#5 Starter
Francisco Liriano (2-3, 6.55 ERA)
Clayton Richard (0-2, 10.38 ERA)
I’m reading that this spot may be taken by Lance Broadway for the Sox, but it doesn’t really make too much difference. Even though he’s clearly not back to his 2006 form (let’s be optimistic and add “yet”), Liriano is still capable of impacting this race in a big way. Advantage: Twins

Middle Relievers
Matt Guerrier, Craig Breslow, Jesse Crain, Brian Bass, Dennys Reyes
Boone Logan, Scott Linebrink, Octavio Dotel, Matt Thornton, Nick Masset
If we’re just talking about home games, the Twins group has looked like world-beaters (ERA around 2.00), but they’ve been awful on the road (ERA over 6.00). The Sox have been quietly competent, and that’s enough to take this category. Advantage: Sox

Joe Nathan (1.09 ERA, 31 Saves)
Bobby Jenks (1.91 ERA, 24 Saves)
As good has Jenks has been, Nathan is having the best season of his career and is the only reliable reliever in the Twins’ bullpen. Advantage: Twins

Twins Schedule
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Griffey’s certainly got the most upside of this pair, and if utilized, he’d probably be effective. If Konerko were to go down with an unfortunate “injury,” the Sox would probably improve. The Twins have looked like a different, much worse team on the road, and they are playing away from the friendly confines of the Metrodome for three weeks during the Republican National Convention. Advantage: Sox

Ron Gardenhire
Ozzie Guillen
Guillen seems to have a knack for pushing the right buttons with his team to up their level of play at opportune moments. He also can act as a distraction when things don’t go well. Say what you will about Gardenhire’s strategic moves, but what he’s done with the Twins’ collection of ill-fitting parts this year has been nothing short of amazing. Advantage: Twins

When you add them all up, the White Sox lead 10-7, with one push, so I guess that means the Sox have the advantage heading down the stretch. We’ll see how it plays out, but this race promises to provide a lot of drama as the calendar turns to September.

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