- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

Last year, the Cleveland Indians cruised away with a division everyone had ceded to the Detroit Tigers. Two years ago, the Minnesota Twins spent exactly one day of the season in sole possession of first place - the last one - and claimed the division title over two other teams with at least 90 wins.

And three seasons ago, the Chicago White Sox made a 16-win improvement, dropping exactly one playoff game and winning their first World Series in more than 80 years.

If there’s a lesson to be taken from all this, it’s that the AL Central, at least in recent years, is always good for some entertainment.

That doesn’t appear to be any different this season. A division that most experts (including the purported pundits at this newspaper) had all but handed to the Tigers has gone a decidedly different way and again should yield one of the most competitive races of the season.

The White Sox have recycled a contender from last year’s 72-win team, while the Twins (who spent the winter waving goodbye to Torii Hunter and trading away Johan Santana) are close behind. And everybody’s preseason favorite, Detroit, has rebounded from a disastrous start to reach .500 going into the All-Star break.

With Cleveland all but conceding the defense of its 2007 division title by trading CC Sabathia last week, the race appears to be down to Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit.

And here’s where it’s going to get interesting: All three teams have distinct needs heading into the latter half of July. But only two have typically shown the willingness to fill them.

If the Twins - the traditional skinflint of the bunch with miserly owner Carl Pohlad writing the checks - were going to break from their traditional philosophy and add a piece near the trading deadline, this might be the year they could do it. Their payroll is just $57 million, roughly what it was in 2005 and down more than $14 million from last season.

They have no major contracts coming due and could have the wiggle room to add a reliever, veteran starter or extra bat. But a team that has been loathe to part with prospects could be even more unwilling to do so now that its farm system has thinned slightly.

Logic would say the White Sox and Tigers have the mentality and the wherewithal to take risks the Twins won’t, but both of those teams have holes that could cause trouble down the stretch.

Chicago’s lineup is made up of streaky, high-strikeout types who conceivably could go cold for an extended period of time, while Detroit’s bullpen looks like as large a liability now as it has all season.

But that’s usually what makes the AL Central so entertaining - it’s typically home to teams that are good enough to get to the playoffs but not complete enough to do it in mundane fashion.

And the race stands entering the second half of the season (Chicago holding a scant lead over Minnesota, with the Tigers still in striking distance and unsure how quick they’re capable of closing), it’s perfectly set up for another round of good theater.

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