AL Central seeking starting pitchers

BY foxsports • July 18, 2012

Tuesday night, it became apparent that the three American League Central contenders have the same trade-deadline need.

A starting pitcher.

In Detroit, Jacob Turner — the Tigers' top pitching prospect — surrendered seven earned runs over two innings in a disastrous outing against the Los Angeles Angels.

While the Angels were battering Turner, the Tampa Bay Rays — with one of the meeker lineups in the AL — scored three first-inning runs against Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin. He surrendered four runs in all and failed to complete the sixth inning in a 4-2 loss.

Earlier in the day, the first-place Chicago White Sox placed Gavin Floyd on the disabled list with right-elbow tendinitis. At present, their rotation includes two All-Stars (Chris Sale and Jake Peavy), two rookies (Dylan Axelrod and Jose Quintana), and Phil Humber, who has a 7.02 ERA since throwing a perfect game in April — even after his win over Boston on Tuesday night.

Can the acquisition of one starting pitcher help to swing a division race? Absolutely. It happened in the AL Central last year. The Tigers led the Indians by only three games before Doug Fister's first start with the club Aug. 3. The Tigers had the best record in the AL from that point forward, including 9-2 in Fister's starts. Detroit won the division by 15 games.

This year, the White Sox, Tigers and Indians are likely scouting many of the same trade candidates. One starter who would fit nicely for all three teams — Minnesota's Francisco Liriano — pitches for a division rival.

Liriano returned to the Twins' rotation May 30 after a brief spell in the bullpen; his 2.83 ERA since then is among the top 15 for major-league starters during that span, according to STATS LLC. Liriano, 28, would have particular appeal to the Tigers and Indians, who lack a left-handed starter in their rotations. (The White Sox have two, Sale and Quintana.)

As for the complication of trading within the division: The Twins dealt Delmon Young to the Tigers last year, and Liriano will be eligible for free agency after the season, anyway.

The White Sox have had the division's best rotation this year, but they stand to gain the most by acquiring an established starter. As brilliantly as Sale and Peavy are pitching this year, they have surpassed the number of innings they threw in the majors last season. That raises concerns about their durability in the second half.

Frankly, manager Robin Ventura can't be too sure about what his other starters have left to offer, either. Quintana has a 5.68 ERA over his last three outings; Axelrod has only two quality starts this season; John Danks hasn't pitched since May because of a left-shoulder injury, and there's no guarantee he will return this year.

The White Sox farm system is among the most barren in baseball, but that hasn't stopped general manager Kenny Williams from making big deals before. Williams is known for taking chances on talented players at the low ebbs of their careers (A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Quentin, Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez and most recently Kevin Youkilis.)

Among available pitchers, Colorado's Jeremy Guthrie best fits that description. He's having a horrible season at high altitude, but his July ERA is a respectable 4.32. While Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field is hardly a pitcher's haven, Guthrie may be more comfortable there than at Coors Field.

The Tigers' need for a starter is particularly acute, given Turner's clunker. He was filling in for fellow rookie Drew Smyly, who is on the disabled list with a right intercostal strain. It's hard to imagine manager Jim Leyland will allow Turner, 21, to continue as Smyly's replacement after appearing so overmatched. "He's not ready yet," Leyland said of Turner.

Adding to the intrigue, the Smyly/Turner spot comes up again Sunday in the finale of a highly anticipated series between the Tigers and White Sox at Comerica Park. It's possible the Tigers could have a new pitcher by then — whether Liriano, the Mariners' Jason Vargas, the Cubs' Ryan Dempster, or another outside option.

If the Tigers were waiting on Smyly alone, there wouldn't be such urgency behind their search for a pitcher. But they have had little reliability after ace Justin Verlander this year; veterans Fister and Rick Porcello have been particularly inconsistent lately.

The Tigers are averaging 5.77 innings per start, down from 6.12 last year. That amounts to a drop of one out per game. It may not sound like much, but Leyland acknowledged the difference has been "huge."

The Indians, meanwhile, are faced with an intriguing decision. Last year's big splash at the deadline — Ubaldo Jimenez — has underperformed expectations. Jimenez has been with the club for roughly one calendar year and is 12-12 with a 5.09 ERA in 29 starts. The numbers sound more like a No. 5 starter than an ace.

So the question for GM Chris Antonetti is whether it's prudent to trade for another veteran to compensate for Jimenez's lack of impact. One way or the other, the Indians' rotation must improve for them to have a chance at catching the Tigers and White Sox. Manager Manny Acta has two starters with ERAs in excess of 5.00 (Jimenez and Tomlin) and two more (Justin Masterson and Derek Lowe) trudging through mediocre seasons.

Zach McAllister, barely 60 innings into his big-league career, has been the Indians' best starter in recent weeks. That sounds like a call to action in the AL Central, where three contenders are after the same precious resource.

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