Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers: Who Has the Edge in Battle for AL Central

James Kries@@JKriesContributor IJuly 20, 2012

Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers: Who Has the Edge in Battle for AL Central

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    With the AL Central race heating up, the division-leading White Sox travel to Detroit to take on the second-place Tigers this weekend with only 1.5 games separating the two teams.

    The Tigers drew closer to the White Sox on Thursday, winning their eighth out of their last 10 games. The White Sox dropped a heart-breaker in Boston when Addison Reed gave up a three-run homer in the ninth to Cody Ross, spoiling Jose Quintana's eight innings of scoreless ball against the Red Sox.

    The White Sox lost their series with Boston, dropping three out of four games, and now must face the defending AL Central champions in their home stadium.

    The White Sox and Tigers have split their season series in 2012, and will face each other 10 more times this year. The Tigers surpassed the Cleveland Indians in the standings this week, and will look to overtake the upstart White Sox this weekend.

    Despite taking two of three in Kansas City this past week, the White Sox offense has stalled since the All-Star break. The White Sox have failed to score more than three runs in five of their first seven games since the break.

    White Sox pitching has also been inconsistent since the break, with poor starts from Jake Peavy, Jose Quintana, and rookie Pedro Hernandez.The bullpen has also been shaky at times, including last night's ninth inning collapse when Matt Thornton and Addison Reed failed to secure the win for Quintana.

    The Tigers come into their battle with the White Sox red-hot after taking three of four from the Los Angeles Angels. Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera hit his 21st home run of the season Thursday, helping pitcher Max Scherzer and the Tigers topple the Angels 5-1.

    The White Sox have held on to first place in the AL Central for nearly a month, and with a late flight into Detroit from Boston last night, the team will play in their most important series of the year.

    Here is a look at who has the edge during this critical weekend battle for first place.

Starting Pitching Edge: Chicago White Sox

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    This important three-game series features two evenly-matched pitching staffs. The White Sox and Tigers' staffs are ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, in the American League.

    Both starting rotations have endured some peaks and valleys this season.

    The Tigers' ace, Justin Verlander, has not been as dominant this season as he was during his Cy Young Award-winning season last year. Verlander is still one of the best pitchers in the game, however, winning 10 games so far this season while posting a sparkling 2.43 earned run average.

    Verlander will match up against fellow American League All-Star, Jake Peavy, in the series opener Friday.

    Peavy has bounced back this season, posting a 2.85 ERA prior to the All-Star break. Peavy did get roughed up in his first start since the All-Star Game, losing to the Kansas City Royals last week.

    While Friday's opener looks to potentially be the pitcher's duel of the series, Game 2 will showcase one of the game's rising stars in Chris Sale.

    The left-handed Sale has been exceptional this season for the White Sox, winning 11 games with a current ERA of 2.11.

    Sale will be opposed by Rick Porcello on Saturday. The 23-year-old Porcello has been inconsistent this season with an ERA of 4.66, the second-highest of the Detroit starters.

    On Sunday, the Tigers will go with Jacob Turner, who is currently filling in for the injured Drew Smyly. The 21-year-old Turner got roughed up against the Angels on Tuesday, giving up seven runs in just two innings.

    The White Sox will have Philip Humber on the mound Sunday, pitching in his second start since coming off the disabled list last week. Humber, who had an ERA of 6.01 prior to his stint on the DL, pitched well in his comeback start, holding the Boston Red Sox to just two runs in six innings and giving the White Sox their only win against Boston this week.

    The Tigers will face off against two of the White Sox's best pitchers in Sale and Peavy. Humber, who pitched a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners back in April, will also be a formidable test for the Tigers if Humber pitches as he did during his April masterpiece and during his stellar first half in 2011.

    The White Sox's toughest test will obviously be against Verlander. The White Sox have enjoyed moderate success against Verlander during his career. He is 12-10 with a 4.13 ERA against the White Sox.

    The White Sox are fortunate to be missing Tigers starters, Doug Fister, and Max Scherzer. Fister has averaged nearly eight strikeouts-per-nine, while Scherzer has averaged 11 K/9 this season, the highest ratio in the American League among starters.

    With Chris Sale pitching like this season's Cy Young Award winner, the White Sox will have the edge in Game 2, countering Verlander's start in Game 1.

    With a slight edge in this series, the White Sox starting pitchers should get the job done against the Tigers.

Team Defense Edge: Chicago White Sox

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    One of the big hurdles for the Detroit Tigers in repeating as division champions this season is their team defense.

    The Tigers are built to score runs, and strike out batters. With the addition of Prince Fielder in the offseason, the Tigers' infield defense took a hit with Fielder manning first base, and slugger Miguel Cabrera moving over to third base, a position he hasn't played regularly in years.

    While Cabrera has been decent at third this season, Detroit ranks near the bottom in most defensive categories, including total errors and fielding percentage.

    The White Sox have continued to get it done on defense, and even shored up their infield defense with the addition of Kevin Youkilis last month.

    Youkilis could have come in handy during the White Sox's tough loss Thursday against Boston. Eduardo Escobar, who was spelling Youkilis because of a tight hamstring, botched a potential double play in the ninth, giving the Red Sox another out before Cody Ross ended the game with a three-run homer.

    The White Sox outfield has also improved significantly over last year with Alex Rios playing well in right field, and Alejandro De Aza holding down center.

    If the White Sox and Tigers are locked in some close games during the three-game series, look for some defensive plays to turn the tides for either team.

    The White Sox have a clear edge in the team defense category, and despite their troubles in Boston, they should bounce back against Detroit and field well, as they have all year.

Bullpen Edge: Detroit Tigers

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    One of the surest things in baseball last season was Detroit Tigers closer Jose Valverde. Valverde converted 49 saves in 49 chances, helping the Tigers win the AL Central.

    Valverde has regressed a bit in 2012, however, already blowing four saves in 21 chances.

    Valverde can still get the job done most nights in the ninth, despite an ERA of 3.96, his highest since 2006.

    The Tigers have some great arms setting up Valverde, with Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel and Bryan Villarreal lighting up hitters in the late innings. 

    Benoit, Dotel and Villarreal have averaged more than 11.5 K/9 in 2012.

    The White Sox bullpen has improved greatly since 2011. Last season, the White Sox struggled to find a decent closer until Sergio Santos emerged mid-season as the team's ninth-inning guy. Santos was traded this offseason, however, and rookie Addison Reed has emerged as the team's closer, as expected.

    Reed hasn't made it look easy this season, but has been solid, converting 15 saves in 18 chances.

    The rest of the White Sox bullpen is dotted with rookies, with Nate Jones emerging as the best of the bunch.

    While the White Sox bullpen has been solid this season, games like Thursday's disappointing loss in Boston might be a sign of things to come, as veteran Matt Thornton and Reed failed to get it done on the eve of the team's most important series.

    Detroit has a clear edge in the battle of the bullpens.

Team Offense Edge: Even

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    One of the biggest surprises this season is how the Chicago White Sox have been hanging on to first place. The team's strength coming into the 2012 season appeared to be their starting rotation.

    While the starters have been brilliant for most of the year with Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and Jose Quintana consistently keeping the White Sox in ballgames, the White Sox offense has been doing the heavy lifting.

    Adam Dunn and Alex Rios (two major disappointments from 2011), have bounced back this season. Dunn made the All-Star team, while Rios has quietly been one of the most consistent hitters in the AL Central, carrying a solid OPS of .872 into Friday's series opener.

    Paul Konerko has continued to be the team's center, keeping his on-base percentage north of .400 for most of the season.

    Catcher A.J. Pierzynski has had a career year this season, knocking out 15 home runs in the first half.

    The Detroit Tigers and their vaunted offense were expected to run away with the AL Central from day one, yet they have struggled under enormous expectations after the offseason signing of slugger Prince Fielder.

    Fielder and Miguel Cabrera make up one of the most intimidating 3-4 combinations in baseball, and for the most part, they have not disappointed this season. The two have combined for 35 home runs and 143 RBI this season.

    While catcher Alex Avila and shortstop Jhonny Peralta have struggled for most of this season, the rest of the offense has been bolstered by solid performances from Austin Jackson and Delmon Young.

    The White Sox offense is currently ranked fifth in the AL, while the Tigers are ranked sixth. With little separating these two solid offenses, no discernible edge on offense is apparent for the series.

Intangibles Edge: Detroit Tigers

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    Despite holding down first place for nearly a month, the Chicago White Sox are not yet the class of the AL Central. The Tigers are still the team to beat, and after cutting their deficit to less than two games Thursday, the Tigers are looking to reclaim first place this weekend.

    The White Sox, who have far exceeded expectations this season, might start to feel the heat as they step on to Comerica Field. The Tigers were expected to run away with the division, and now with the first of 10 remaining games between the two teams beginning Friday, the White Sox will have to prove that they belong in first place, and in the playoff hunt.

    The White Sox are already behind the eight ball before the first pitch is thrown by Justin Verlander Friday night. Having lost three of four games in Boston, and suffering a heart-wrenching meltdown Thursday, the White Sox must travel late, and embark on this all-important series on the road.

    Not only did the White Sox bullpen implode against Boston during the 3-1 loss, but rookie manager Robin Ventura, who has seemed to make all the right moves this season, faltered by choosing to go with Matt Thornton in the ninth.

    Thornton has struggled in recent years when called on in the ninth, and despite favorable matchups in the ninth on Thursday, he could not hold down the victory for starter Jose Quintana.

    Detroit manager Jim Leyland has the Tigers playing great baseball at just the right time. The Tigers, who have been lurking in third place for quite some time, have been piling up the wins in July, and are currently 11-4 for the month.

    With their home crowd expected to swell during this important three-game set against the White Sox, the Tigers will try and build on their solid 25-21 home record.

    The Tigers, who experienced some postseason success last year, are ready for another run at the AL Central, while the White Sox with their young bullpen, may feel the heat during this tough test.

    Despite some favorable pitching matchups this series, the White Sox's troubles in Boston coupled with recent injuries and an inconsistent bullpen, may be too much to overcome against the rising Detroit Tigers.

    The teams will meet again with seven more games between the two division foes after this weekend's series. While it's not win or go home quite yet, this series is critical to the White Sox and their confidence if they want to take the steps needed to be crowned division champs in October.