May 29, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Tony Paul

MLB Insider: No obvious competition for Tigers in AL Central, but White Sox come closest

Despite their recent struggles, Justin Verlander and the Tigers still lead the American League Central. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

The Tigers’ high point in this still-so-young season was May 18.

Before a national television audience, they trounced the Red Sox for a sweep at Fenway Park to move seven games up in the American League Central.

Then they slipped into their Zubaz — and apparently into a coma, too.

The Tigers lost seven of their next eight, often in embarrassingly lopsided fashion.

And their lead in the division — a division they’ve won three years running — slipped all the way to, um, OK, four games. That’s it. The Tigers got their eyes clawed out for more than a week, and all they lost was less than half their lead in the standings.

Welcome to the AL Central, where this year’s motto is: “Hey, at least we’re not the AL East.”

Since May 19, only the White Sox (7-3) have a winning record among AL Central teams. And, surprise, surprise, they picked up the bulk of their victories against other AL Central teams — three against the Indians and two over the Royals.

In that span, the Indians are 5-5 — despite a sweep over the Tigers — the Twins 3-6 and the Royals 2-7.

That’s certainly been the Tigers’ saving grace during a period in which they’ve been pummeled so mercilessly that one of their most effective pitchers has been a backup shortstop. The division, yet again, isn’t all that great. It’s a division the Tigers should again be sitting comfortably atop come season’s end.

They’re the most well-rounded team. They have elite starting pitching (allegedly), a versatile offense and a defense that’s better than years’ past.

Still, somebody’s gotta challenge, right? Somebody always challenges. Well, the last two years anyway.

Who might it be this year? Here’s my picks, in order of likeliest Tigers competitor.

White Sox

I’ve liked this team since Day 1. Don’t believe me? Seriously, you can look it up. They have an absolutely explosive offense, led by their dynamic Cuban Connection — rookie slugger Jose Abreu, the rejuvenated Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo. Between the three of them, they’ve homered way more than the Royals. Adam Dunn also is a force again, conveniently in his walk year.

Give this team props, too. They’ve missed their ace, Chris Sale (arm), for much of the season, and recently their top hitter, Abreu (ankle), too. Ex-Tiger Avisail Garcia (shoulder) also is out for the year. Sale’s back now, dominating the Yankees in his return, while Abreu should rejoin the club within a week.

But they’ve stayed afloat in all their absences, sitting at a game over .500. Impressive.

There’s enough of a roster here to make things interesting on the Tigers, but they still need more starting pitching. It’s not a real pretty picture outside of Sale, and maybe Jose Quintana. So expect general manager Rick Hahn to be actively exploring trade possibilities on this front leading up to the July deadline. One name to watch might be Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija, a free agent after next season. There’ll be plenty of competition for his services, no question, but it’d be a heck of a story if he stays in Chicago but just switches sides. Plus, it’s probably about time the Cubs pay the White Sox back for Sammy Sosa.

Win range: 78-90


They were the popular pick to give the Tigers fits, and why not? They already had the pitching, and they made upgrades to the offense.

Clearly, though, they didn’t add enough offense. They’ve scored just 197 runs, fewest in the AL — and better than just five teams in the National League, where I’m told pitchers still hit. Odd.

As a team, the Royals have hit just 21 home runs, or two fewer than Nelson Cruz — whom they could’ve signed this offseason for something in the neighborhood of $8 million bucks. The biggest mystery has been Mike Moustakas, who has a team-best four homers but also a pitiful .152/.223/.320 slash line. Manager Ned Yost could stand no more; Moustakas, once the can’t-miss kid, was sent to Triple A.

Good news: The pitching still is top-tier, especially with news that fire-balling rookie Yordano Ventura’s elbow MRI recently came back clean. The bullpen, even without Luke Hochevar, still rocks.

So it should be an interesting trade deadline for GM Dayton Moore, who is under tremendous pressure to make the playoffs now. Otherwise, that James Shields-for-Wil Myers trade two winters ago could go down as disastrous, if Shields, as expected, walks this offseason.

Win range: 74-86


File these Indians with my classic theory: After coming out of nowhere to make the playoffs one year, it’s so hard for a team to follow that performance up the next. Simply put, it’s easier to win when there are no expectations; when the pressure’s on, the same teams tend to get tight, and struggle to compete.

That’s not to say the Indians aren’t competing. They’ve already won four games against the Tigers, the same number they won in the series all of last season.

But they still have issues, one which could be seen coming. They relied too heavily on unproven pitchers. Now Danny Salazar is in the minors, who knows where Trevor Bauer will be in a month or two, and Zach McAllister’s flaming out. It doesn’t help that their ace, Justin Masterson, has been awful.

They’ve also got no closer again, having traded one dud (Chris Perez) for another (John Axford). And the injuries are piling up too; this week, Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana both went on the disabled list, joining Jason Kipnis (who since has returned), not that any of the three were hitting much anyway.

If there’s a bright side, it’s Corey Kluber, an ace in training.

Win range: 71-83


After making the playoffs six out of nine years, the Twins haven’t sniffed postseason baseball the last four seasons. Not so coincidentally, they haven’t made the playoffs since they played at the Metrodome. There’s rarely been a home-field advantage as powerful as the Hefty Dome, which the Twins roster always fit to near-perfection.

That said, they’ve had a nice start to this season, at least better than most expected. And surprisingly, it’s been the offense that’s typically carried the load, particularly the emergence of Brian Dozier (11 homers, 26 runs batted in) as a developing middle-of-the-order star.

But outside of Phil Hughes, a shrewd signing this offseason, the rotation has mostly gone boom. There are positive signs from youngsters Kyle Gibson and Sam Deduno, but the guys they really were counting on aren’t doing it, including Ricky Nolasco, the bigger-money signing who has been terrible. Easily, it’s the worst rotation in the division, which makes them an easy pick for the least-likeliest contender.

Their upcoming schedule also doesn’t help: They’re early in a stretch of playing 33 of 36 games against possible contenders, including the NL West-leading Giants, who just swept them — a big barometer.

Win range: 68-80

Three up …

1. Blue Jays vet Mark Buehrle isn’t finished yet, it would appear. He’s already just one win away from reaching double digits for the 14th consecutive season.

2. Retiring Yankees captain Derek Jeter is the leader in votes among AL shortstops, and rightly so. This game is for the fans. Batting .000, he’d be the perfect choice.

3. The no-hitter was a tremendous story. But even better for the Dodgers? Josh Beckett is looking like an ace again, and he’ll need to be in that tough NL West.

… Three down

1. He’s turned baseball into a $9 billion business, but retiring commissioner Bud Selig, 79, still hasn’t convinced owners his guy, Rob Manfred, should succeed him.

2. Dodgers fans were treated to one no-hitter and a bid the next night, but Vin Scully called neither. One wasn’t on his schedule, for the other he had a chest cold.

3. The Red Sox came off as whiny for griping at the Rays for stealing a base while up five runs. Funny; the next night, the Red Sox won a game after trailing by five.

Diamond digits

6 — Home runs in the last six games for Astros right fielder George Springer, the team’s first-round pick in the 2011 draft. He had three in his previous 31 games this season.

1,466 — At-bats it took Phillies outfielder Ben Revere to hit his first major-league homer. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the longest homer drought to start a career since the Pirates’ Frank Taveras, who went deep in his 1,594th at-bat in 1977.

5/28/95 — The Tigers and White Sox combined for 12 home runs in a 14-12 Detroit loss at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers hit seven of the homers; Cecil Fielder, Kirk Gibson and Chad Curtis each hit two, while Lou Whitaker added one.

He said it

“I’m a hustler not a Damn ball player. LMAO.”

— 50 Cent, famed rapper, posting on his Instagram account a day after he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Tuesday’s Mets game at Citi Field — and missed the strike zone about 15 feet wide.