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Cleveland Indians: AL Central Favorites

On Tuesday, Dan Szymborski utilized his ZIPS projection system and the standings as of Monday night to re-cast the projected standings for the end of the season in a piece for ESPN Insider. In those standings, the Detroit Tigers were still listed as the projected winners of the AL Central, nudging out the Indians by a two game margin with their projected final total of 87 wins.

Since that article was posted, the Indians completed a three game sweep of the Tigers, even beating Detroit with Justin Verlander on the mound this afternoon. The sweep widened the Indians lead to six games (with 118 to go), and made the Indians the new favorites to end the year as the division winners.

The Tigers are still likely a slightly better team than the Indians, as their 20-24 record is due in part to under-performances from Miguel Cabrera (130 wRC+ after a 177 last year) and Prince Fielder (119 wRC+, 162 last year) on offense and poor results from Max Scherzer (5.73 ERA, 3.32 xFIP) that almost certainly won’t continue at this pace. Just getting better performances from those three will solve some of the Tigers problems, and should allow them to make up some ground over the remainder of the season.

If they need motivation, the Tigers can point to this time a year ago, when they were in almost exactly the same situation. After 44 games, they stood 22-22 and trailed the Indians by six games – they went 73-45 the rest of the year and ran away with the AL Central title. Certainly, this sweep didn’t end the race or put any nails into the Tigers coffin.

However, they are climbing now an uphill battle, and one that won’t be easy to win. If the Indians just play .500 ball the rest of the way, they’ll finish with an 85-77 record. To win the division by just a single game, the Tigers would have to finish 66-52, a .559 pace over the rest of the season. Can they do it? Sure – most people thought the Tigers were a 90+ win team headed into the season, so it’s not an unreasonable projection. But it’s also quite possible that the Indians play better than .500 ball over the rest of the schedule, forcing the Tigers to need to play .575+ baseball in order to close the gap before the end of September.

Even if we didn’t adjust our expectations for this Tigers team down at all due to their slow start, asking them to play at a 93 win pace is no small task, and realistically, some of the struggles the team has had reveal flaws that suggest that Detroit isn’t as good as they were thought to be before the season began. Without Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta hitting at All-Star levels, this offense just isn’t the juggernaut that it was expected to be, and the pitching is getting betrayed by lousy defensive support.

The Tigers can still win the AL Central, but the early advantage that the Indians have built suggests that they should no longer be expected to come out on top. Cleveland is now the team to beat in that division.