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Don’t count Indians out in battle for division title

Courtesy of MCT

In the first half of the 2011 MLB season, a young Cleveland Indians team took a commanding lead of the American League Central Division and held it into the month of July.

But in the end, they were too good to be true.

The high-powered Detroit Tigers came storming back in the second half and eventually won the division crown by a convincing 15-game margin as the Tribe, for the most part, fell off the map.

As the Tribe has gotten off to a fast start and division lead again this season, the general sentiment around the league, and even among some of the Cleveland faithful, is “Here we go again.” With the mighty Tigers a near unanimous pick among experts to win their second-straight division title, many think the same fate awaits the Tribe.

But there are three big reasons why the 2012 Indians can prove the doubters wrong and grab their eighth Central Division title.

1. Much Improved Rotation

At the start of the 2011 season, the Indians’ rotation was headed by the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona, followed by an unproven Justin Masterson and an aging travel man by the name of Mitch Talbot. After an OK first half, the rotation came undone down the stretch.

This year, the story is very different. The 2012 version is led by Masterson, whose coming-out party last year established him as a force on the mound. Behind him is Ubaldo Jimenez, acquired in a blockbuster deal at the trade deadline last year, Derek Lowe, a veteran who has been nothing short of spectacular in the early going, and Josh Tomlin, another young gun who emerged as a solid starting pitcher for the team last summer. Besides Lowe, all three have underperformed and should only improve, meaning this team can only get better.

2. The lineup is a year more experienced, year better

Last April, the Indians’ young lineup carried the team to a franchise-record 18 wins in the season’s opening month. Blistering starts by center fielder Grady Sizemore, designated hitter Travis Hafner, catcher Carlos Santana, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera gave the Indians the lift they needed to grab the early lead in the central race. But after injuries to Hafner and Sizemore, along with starting left fielder Shin-Soo Choo, the lineup started to fizzle and was unable to hold on.

This year, the same core remains, but they are a year older and more experienced. Cabrera is off to another red-hot start, hovering around the .350 mark all year. Hafner and Santana have shown flashes, and young players such as second baseman Jason Kipnis and center fielder Michael Brantley have proven they are ready to take the next step in their maturation process. While no huge stars are present, the Indians have one of the deepest lineups in the league.

3. Detroit’s Illusion of Invincibility

Behind the Los Angeles Angels signing of first baseman Albert Pujols, the biggest off-season acquisition of any team was the Tigers’ signing of former Milwaukee Brewers’ first baseman Prince Fielder. The move seemed to all but guarantee the Tigers’ the top spot in the division once again in the eyes of many.

With Fielder and slugger Miguel Cabrera in the lineup and last year’s American League Cy Young winner Justin Verlander in the rotation, three of the biggest names in the game share the diamond in Detroit. But the question is: Does the “Big 3” give this team the illusion of invulnerability?

The best hitter in the lineup behind Cabrera and Fielder is a toss up between shortstop Jhonny Peralta and outfielder Delmon Young. Wait … who?

And behind Verlander, the likes of Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are the next best options. While Porcello and Scherzer both had solid 2011 seasons, they have gotten off to shaky starts to this campaign, and its unsure if they will be consistent contributors.

Finally, the back end of the bullpen was a sure deal for the Tigers in 2011, as closer Jose Valverde converted all 49 of his save attempts with a 2.24 ERA. This year through 33 games, he has already blown two saves and has an ERA of 4.91.

To say the Tigers are a sure bet is the stretch of all stretches at this point.

The 2012 Indians certainly have an uphill battle, but have tasted the pains of collapse and will battle to avoid that sour sensation again. 

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