Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 26, 2005
Two on Two: AL Central Preview
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Season previews come in all shapes, sizes, and color. Divisions will be analyzed up and down and around between now and the beginning of the year. In an attempt to stray from the norm, we decided to make our previews a bit different here at Baseball Analysts. Beginning with today's column, we will tackle one division each week, discussing the 2005 outlook with two other Internet writers. We hope this combination of perspectives proves to be informative and entertaining.

To avoid the usual format, we will discuss the divisions by starting in the middle, then moving to the West, and finishing with the East. In week number one, we break down the AL Central.

Two on Two: Rich Lederer and Bryan Smith of Baseball Analysts meet up with Aaron Gleeman and Brian Borawski of The Hardball Times. Gleeman also writes about his hometown Minnesota Twins through, while Borawski covers the Detroit Tigers at his TigerBlog.

Grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, and enjoy.

Bryan: For three years, fittingly the streak in which the Twins have taken the division, the AL Central has been hailed as the worst division in baseball. This has probably been a fair accusal, in my opinion, but a notion that soon will be dying. Do you think criticizing this division was fair in 2002-2004?

Aaron: Criticizing the division is absolutely fair, because it has been a horrible division pretty much since it was created back in 1994. I wrote a column about how horrible the AL Central has been a little while back, but the short version is that the division has rarely had a combined winning record against non-Central opponents and has rarely produced an elite team.

Rich: I think they may have named that BBC show -- "The Weakest Link" -- after the AL Central. The Twins had the fewest wins for a division leader in two of the past three years (the exception being the Cubs in the NL Central in 2003). And it's not just that the best team hasn't been all that great. The team finishing last has had the worst record in the majors in two of the past three years as well. Say no more.

Brian: I'm going to agree with both of you. Perennially, the worst team in the league (outside of maybe Tampa Bay) has been in the AL Central. Compound this with the fact that the Central has never had a Wild Card team, and it goes to show that the best team coming out of the Central is usually not the best team in the league.

Aaron: I have also maintained -- while trying to remain eligible for Twinsfandom -- that the Twins would probably still be looking for their first post-1991 trip to the postseason if not for the fact that they are in the AL's worst division. Stick them in the East and they have no chance; stick them in the West and they have a shot, but I think we'd see just how quickly these 90-win seasons erode when you play a tough schedule.

Bryan: So, the worst team has been the worst, and the best team is the least best. Yikes. But optimistically, I feel that the Central is starting to gain some solid depth and might avoid the same judgments in the future.

Brian: I agree that the division is getting deeper. I'm not sure about the Indians' and White Sox's prospects, but the "homer" in me wants to believe the Tigers are going to be right there with the Twins this year.

Aaron: The obvious opinion is that the division is improving, simply because the Twins figure to be good again and the Indians have a lot of really intriguing young talent. However, what happens if the White Sox decline a bit (which I expect them to do) and the Indians improve -- then isn't the division right back where it has been over the last few years, with the Twins at the top, one other solid-but-unspectacular team in second place, and a mediocre club in third?

Rich: Yes, I don't think much has changed. I see the Twins finishing first and the Royals last. Who winds up in second, third, and fourth place is anyone's guess.

Bryan: It sounds as if -- and Las Vegas agrees -- that the Twins are the obvious favorites to win the division. Call me a skeptic, but I just don't see it. Just judging by my own eyes, it seemed as if Carlos Silva had to be the most overachieving pitcher in the majors last year. I don't see him sustaining his level of performance at all.

Aaron: I'm not sure why Silva would qualify for that distinction. He gave up 17.7% line drives last year, which is exactly league average. He doesn't strike anyone out, which will obviously keep him from being a great pitcher, but he also doesn't walk anyone (35 BBs in 203 IP) and he gets a ton of ground balls. He now has a career ERA of 4.04 in 374.1 innings, after ERAs of 3.70 and 3.83 at Single-A and Double-A. I'm not saying he's a lock to repeat his 2004 performance, but I don't see why he can't toss another 180-200 innings with a league-average ERA in 2005.

Bryan: Yeah, my thought process there is simply by seeing him a couple times against the White Sox. Seemed like fringy stuff, but I also don't know that it's the best way to evaluate a pitcher. Anyway, this whole rotation seems a bit mediocre to me. I think a level of decline is likely from Brad Radke.

Brian: As long as Radke and Johan Santana do their job, they can probably play .500 ball with the rest of the starters in there and still be right at or near the top of the division in September.

Aaron: I agree that Radke is likely to regress, since he's 32 and coming off arguably his best season. Still, the Twins didn't exactly dominate in his starts and he went just 11-8.

Bryan: I think the weight of this rotation lies squarely on the shoulders of Kyle Lohse and J.D. Durbin. If they pitch poorly, they could pitch Minnesota to third.

Brian: I think if you look at the Twins rotation as compared to the rest of the division, they're right where they need to be. You might not have a lot of confidence in Lohse and Durbin, but the Tigers are throwing out Jason Johnson and Wilfredo Ledezma.

Aaron: Lohse is the biggest question mark. I would bet on him improving, simply because he has proven he can be a decent middle-of-the-rotation guy in the past and, considering what he's making from arbitration this year, he won't be around in 2006 if he doesn't.

Rich: Overall, the Twins starting pitchers are certainly not the caliber of the Cubs, Red Sox, or Yankees, but any team with Johan Santana as its ace ain't half bad. Heck, a rotation of Santana and the four of us would be better than what a lot of teams are likely to put out there.

Bryan: I don't know, Rich, there isn't really a precedent for pitchers as far over the hill as you. Aaron, who will be at the end instead of Mr. Lederer?

Aaron: The fifth spot is Joe Mays' if he's healthy. I wasn't a big believer in Mays back when he was healthy and pitching well, so I'm not optimistic about him having a good year. If he struggles, the Twins can either turn to Terry Mulholland (yuck) or one of their prospects like Durbin and Scott Baker. Is the Twins' rotation great? No, but as long as Santana is, that'll be plenty in this division.

Brian: Not to skip away from pitching, but Justin Mourneau's condition sounds pretty worrisome. If he's not fully recovered from pneumonia, it could be a huge set back because he's their best bat.

Bryan: That's a good point, Brian. The Twins are relying on Morneau and Joe Mauer probably more than any two hitters this year, and both have legitimate health concerns. If either falters, the offense suddenly is a lock to be the fourth best in the division. The training staff and Mother Nature just might be key to the Twins season.

Aaron: Health is going to be huge. They already lost Jason Kubel, who would likely have been their rightfielder for the entire year. Mauer is a major question mark and now, seemingly out of nowhere, Morneau's health is a big concern. On the other hand, their offense stunk last year and it's hard for me to imagine it getting significantly worse.

Rich: I know we're not talkin' Mantle & Maris here or Mays & McCovey, but those M & M boys could be a pretty damn good tandem this year and for years to come. Well, at least until they become free agents.

Bryan: I think the main question with this team is, in what area are they significantly better than the Indians and White Sox? And, of course, the age-old question with the Twins, can they continue to out-do their Pythagorean record?

Brian: I don't think they're significantly better, but Aaron's point about them never having a good offense is valid. When you have one of the best starting pitchers in the game, that gives you a nice advantage, and I haven't been really impressed with the moves the White Sox and Indians made. El Duque and Kevin Millwood, in my opinion, aren't going to put them over the top.

Aaron: The Twins won last year, and the year before, and the year the real question is "In what way have the other teams significantly closed the gap?"

Rich: Don't look at me, Aaron. That's a question for the Brians...err, Bryans -- ahh, forget it -- to answer.

Bryan: Rich, The only way to spell BrYan is with a "Y." It's funny, the White Sox almost made themselves more Twins-like this offseason, going with a fast, better defensive team. The hope by Ken Williams, I think, is to make them stop doing worse than their Pythagorean record expects them to.

Aaron: I love that the White Sox are going to try to out-Twin the Twins, because frankly I don't see that happening. I've been watching the Phoenix Suns a lot this NBA season and it is always amusing when opposing teams decide they will try to run and fastbreak with the Suns.

Rich: I'm confused here. Are the Suns in the AL Central?

Brian: I'm projecting the White Sox to finish fourth. Paul Konerko can't seem to put together back-to-back solid seasons. Unless Frank Thomas gets back, I don't seem them being in the mix.

Bryan: The problem is that through all these moves, he's put a considerable weight on Aaron Rowand's shoulders, especially while Big Frank sits on the DL. If he falters, this offense might be forced to steal home with runners on third.

Rich: I imagine Thomas would be a considerable weight on anybody's shoulders. As far as Rowand is concerned, put me in the skeptical camp. No way he finishes seventh in slugging this year. He has some talent but his walk-to-strikeout ratio makes me think he could easily lose 30 points off his batting average. I say he winds up under .300, under .350, and under .500 this year.

Bryan: The club is filled with a lot of players that go up and down a lot, with Konerko, Rowand, Jermaine Dye, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia...I could go on all day. The ball will have to bounce pretty perfectly for them to take the division.

Aaron: I'd be shocked if they finished lower than third (sorry, Brian), but I don't think they are in better shape now than they were last season.

Brian: Do you think I'm nuts for thinking the Tigers have a chance? First, their pitching should be at least a little better. Kyle Farnsworth and Troy Percival (injury risks aside for the moment) should prevent us from blowing games in the later innings. But yeah, it's all going to come down to their starters.

Bryan: I think, from a fantasy sense, Jeremy Bonderman is going to be huge this year. His second half -- and particularly September -- numbers were spectacular, and it's time he took ahold of this rotation.

Brian: Ledezma is supposed to have nearly as much upside, depending on who you listen to. Nate Robertson showed some flashes, too.

Aaron: I love Bonderman. I also like Ledezma, but their 2-5 in the rotation is a bunch of #4/5 starters, at best.

Brian: Second, it looks like Magglio Ordonez will be ready for opening day. While he'll never live up to his contract, if he hits 25-30 homers and hits .300, that will be a huge addition to the lineup.

Bryan: Yeah, they got a .731 OPS from right fielders last year. That's on the way up for sure.

Rich: If Maggs is healthy, I believe the Tigers could surprise a lot of folks this year. On the other hand, if he stays off the DL and doesn't produce, the bigger surprise will be if Dave Dombrowski keeps his job after this season because Detroit will be forced to pay an aging player no less than $75 million over five years.

Aaron: I like Detroit's offense quite a bit, particularly if they get smart and ditch Alex Sanchez.

Brian: I was pretty disappointed he was signed, even for a million. You know Tram is going to bat him leadoff, too. I'm hoping Curtis Granderson is playing in July.

Aaron: Also, what's Carlos Guillen's health status?

Brian: Well, the injury is definitely a concern. While nobody is saying when he'll be back, it seems doubtful he'll be ready for opening day.

Aaron: I'd be surprised if Guillen put together another great year, but people said that about Melvin Mora. If Guillen is going to take that deal with the devil into a second year, he'll need the use of his knee.

Bryan: It might not even matter. I looked into Guillen a while ago, and it's weird how closely his season matched the breakout years by shortstops Rich Aurilia and Hubie Brooks. I can't help but think that he's going to go right back to the .700 OPS range that he came from.

Aaron: Ramon Martinez is the backup shortstop, right? Martinez isn't horrible...he'll out-hit the Twins' shortstop.

Bryan: It seems like the Indians almost have the market cornered on middle infield depth. I mean, I really think the club has six players that can play up the middle and hit better than than the Twins' shortstop and second baseman. Shapiro did a masterful job building depth with this team.

Aaron: Even assuming Brandon Phillips has fallen off the face of the earth, the Indians are stacked in the infield. What I wouldn't give for Alex Cora or Jose Hernandez...

Rich: Wow, I never thought Cora or Hernandez would be so coveted. Maybe I better rethink my position on the Twins.

Brian: A lot comes down to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez repeating what they did last year.

Bryan: I don't see why the Indians aren't the frontrunners of this division...I really see them winning it by five games or so. with the Twins declining a little bit (reasonable expectation, probably) -- and given the massive number of injuries that the Indians took last year -- it's not out of line.

Aaron: They lost by 12 games last year...I don't know that they are 17 games better than they were. That's an awful lot of games, particularly since they improved by 12 the year before. Who have they added that is an impact player? Millwood? How many wins is he worth, really?

Brian: Is Cliff Lee the wild card of the team? And can Jake Westbrook repeat what he did last year?

Bryan: Well, between Lee and Westbrook, you had a 4.31 ERA last season. I think Westbrook will decline a bit this year, but if they can post a 4.31 again this year, then Millwood and C.C. Sabathia makes a nice top four.

Rich: Mark my words, Lee's numbers will get better and Westbrook's will get worse.

Aaron: I like Lee a lot, but he really fell apart in the second half. I also like Scott Elarton for some strange reason...their rotation should be pretty solid.

Brian: Arthur Rhodes could turn into a nice pickup as well if he can get back into his old form.

Aaron: Rhodes and David Riske setting up Bob Wickman is pretty good, potentially. Throw in Rafael Betancourt, Kazuhito Tadano, Bobby's a deep group.

Rich: Well, I can see where the Indians might Wedge their way into second place. But I think it's a stretch to expect anything more than that.

Bryan: I'm going to go out on a limb here. Call me crazy, but I think we have a consensus on the last place team in this division. Am I right?

Aaron: Yeah, are the Royals still in the Central? I like Zack Greinke. I'm trying to think of nice things to say.

Brian: Who will end up with Mike Sweeney, and will he put together a full season? I like David DeJesus, too.

Aaron: Yeah, that's true, DeJesus is solid. And...the ballpark is very nice.

Bryan: The return on Carlos Beltran was just not enough. I know he had to be dealt and that was probably the best offer, but then it means they should have dealt him the winter before.

Rich: Given the situation, I believe the Royals did about as well as they could with Beltran. They had no chance of resigning Carlos so giving up a half season of Beltran for three decent prospects -- John Buck, Mark Teahen, and Mike Wood -- is a pretty good tradeoff in my book.

Aaron: Here's all you need to know about the Royals: Over at, their depth chart has Terrence Long starting in both outfield corners.

Rich: The Neifi Perez of outfielders.

Bryan: I'll say this: if Tony Pena starts Ken Harvey over Calvin Pickering, it will be the worst possible thing the team can do. Pickering is their second-best hitter right now, if not better than Sweeney.

Rich: Did I hear someone mention Sam Horn?

Aaron: It's a good thing they moved the fences back though, because their pitching staff could be really ugly. Imagine if Kauffman would have been a hitter's paradise last year!

Bryan: How about this question, do they have any hope of not finishing last in the Majors? Is there a worse team than the Royals right now? Or are they our official favorites for the Andrew Miller race?

Brian: I'd say Pittsburgh, but they actually have some young talent. But it should be a long season for Royals fans.

Aaron: Well, KC has the advantage of playing in the AL Central. They went 26-60 outside of the division last year.

Bryan: OK, I can't talk about this team anymore. There has to be something else with the other four...

Brian: Has anyone looked at the schedules? I looked at the Tigers, and April is almost all AL Central, 6 games against the Twins, 6 against the Indians.

Aaron: Twins finish with 4 vs KC and 3 vs DET, at home. The White Sox finish with 13 of their final 17 vs MIN and CLE.

Bryan: So it looks like no matter where the White Sox finish in the division, their September performance could determine the winner. Alright, man up, let's get some predictions here...

Brian: Twins-Tigers-Indians-White Sox-Royals

Aaron: Twins-Indians-White Sox-Tigers-Royals

Rich: Twins. Hmmm...Indians-Tigers-White Sox. Royals.

Bryan: Indians-Twins-White Sox-Tigers-Royals

Brian: How many wins will the division winner have? I was thinking high 80s.

Aaron: 88-92. I'm pegging Minnesota at like 90, Cleveland and Chicago at like 85-88.

Rich: I can't remember the last time a first-place team finished with less than 88 wins so I gotta think the Twins will win at least that many. Don't forget, they get to play these other four teams more often than anybody else. However, I don't see how the Indians and the White Sox can both win that many. I mean, that's just too many victories coming from this division.

Despite the conversation turning into one of weakness, we thank the strong-minded Aaron and Brian. The official Baseball Analysts consensus calls for the Twins to finish first, the Indians second, with Chicago and Detroit fighting it out for third, and the Royals very, very far out of the picture. Maybe, for Bryan, the title should read "Three on One."


I feel that one of the biggest failures, in evaluating the Chicago White Sox, is the recognition of how awful they were at some positions last year and the improvement that they've made at those positions.

The first, and most glaring, is the fifth starter spot. We're talking about a position which posted a 9.08 ERA in 25 starts with a 5-15 record. The pitcher signed to upgrade that position, Orlando Hernandez, represents a significant upgrade over that atrocious 5th starter spot of last year. Even if he only manages 100 or so innings and Hermanson or McCarhy are called on for the other 70-80 or so, the White Sox are going to be preventing a lot more runs from this position in 2005.

The second is in right field. While Magglio did play for the first month and a half of the season, he was gone by May 25th for all intensive purposes. His replacements consisted of Timo Perez and Joe Borchard. These two players shared one thing in common: They were the two worst Right Fielders by VORP in 2004. Because of this, the sum of the VORPS at RF last year was negative (-7.5). Say what you want about Jermaine Dye, but I can't picture him (or Everett if he got hurt) being that awful in right field (23.3 VORP 2004).

Additionally, Iguchi represents an improvement over Harris at 2nd base. Harris's absolute lack of power proved to be a problem last year. I have heard Iguchi described as a Japanese Ray Durham, and almost every projection I've seen of him (except Aaron Gleeman's who failed to account for the fact that his other samples played in hitters' parks while Iguchi played in a pitchers' park) seems to match up with that; therefore, we have another huge upgrade here.

Now we'll look to the catchers' spot. Last year's crew included Jamie Burke, Alomar, Davis and Olivo; not exactly the greatest group around, but decent on the whole. However, if AJ Pierzynski can return to his 2003, or even his 2002 version of himself, we have another fairly significant upgrade.

As far as Konerko is concerned, if you look, his rate stats have been very constant over his career. The surge in homers simply came from the fact that US Cellular Field dramatically increased HR totals last year, as about 2/3 of those 41 homers came at the Cell. Besides that ridiculously awful year-long slump in 2003, there isn't a ton of variation.

The only real downgrade over where the team was last year I see is in Left Field where Lee had a career year last year and we go to Podsednik. I think it's not out of the question to at least see some bounceback from Podsednik. One thing you'll notice is that he fared much better on the road in both of his ML seasons, that that's a reason to be a little bit more optimistic about Podsednik than you might normally be.

Overall, I just cannot understand how one could predict the White Sox to finish 4th and to regress from last year. There really isn't much regression that can occur. A lot depends on the park effect of the Cell next year, but even if the power goes down, it's because the pitching is simultaneously giving up less homers and thus is improved.

I would like to see Aaron explain this comment: "I don't think they are in better shape now than they were last season" in light of what I presented.

Now I admit that I might be on the optimistic end of things as I am an avid White Sox fan, but I also think that a lot has been missed in the assessments of the White Sox that I have seen, including this one. Kenny Williams has done an excellent job this offseason and almost every close watcher of the White Sox (aka eveyone at White Sox Interactive) agrees on this (and we're talking about a critical bunch here).

I would like to see Aaron explain this comment: "I don't think they are in better shape now than they were last season" in light of what I presented.

Ask and you shall receive (whether you really wanted it or not) ...

Everything you said is certainly well reasoned and very possible. I do think, however, that you are falling into the trap that many fans do regarding their favorite team, which is saying, "If this goes right, and this goes right, and this goes right ... we'll be way better than last season." It is something I do myself, so I'm not picking on you, just pointing it out as a possibility.

As for some of the specific points you raised ...

Whatever you think of Willie Harris, the White Sox got a combined .268/.324/.412 out of their second basemen last year, which is reasonable production and not very far off from what I think can be expected of Iguchi.

They also got a combined .256/.315/.414 from right field last year. While Jermaine Dye is a great bet to beat those numbers, I'm not sure that he'll beat them enough to make up for the production lost in the Lee-for-Podsednik swap. Chicago?s leftfielders hit .297/.358/.495 last year, while Podsednik batted .244/.313/.364. Actually, in looking at the numbers, Podsednik did a lot worse than Chicago?s rightfielders in 2004 and Dye isn?t a lock to post an .850 OPS to match their leftfielders, so I?m not sure they are in a better position in the corners at all.

Chicago catchers hit .267/.316/.403 last season, and while Pierzynski and his backups are likely to beat that, I don't think it'll be by a huge amount. Pierzynski himself hit .272/.319/.410, which is nearly identical (though he obviously did it in a far worse park for offense).

Also, you are very optimistic about people and positions being improved in 2005, and perhaps rightfully so in each case, but you don't even mention the possibility of guys like Rowand, Uribe, Gload, and Takatsu regressing/declining. I would say all those guys had career years in 2004, so to say that so many positions will be better without even mentioning that is perhaps misleading. In Rowand?s case, he was arguably the most valuable player on the entire team.

It is the right of every fan to be optimistic during spring training, and I know I personally fall into the "everyone will improve, no one will decline" line of thinking with the Twins plenty. It's tough not to sometimes. On the other hand, I've also been guilty of overestimating the White Sox over the past two seasons, for which I've received plenty of heckling from my fellow Twins fans.

This time around, I'm looking at a White Sox team that made some very solid offseason pickups, but also traded perhaps their best hitter for a slap-hitting speedster and had some career-years from surprising sources. I absolutely think the White Sox can win the AL Central, I just don't think they will.

By the way, everyone at the Twins message board I frequent thinks that the White Sox got worse over the winter and the Twins got better, and just like you guys over at the White Sox board, they?re a critical bunch too. :)

"Brian: I'm going to agree with both of you. Perennially, the worst team in the league (outside of maybe Tampa Bay) has been in the AL Central."

Brian, let me remind you the the DRays finished ahead of the Orioles and the Blue Jays. You must of gotten thrown off course due to what happened over the offseason by the Alex Gonzalez signing to play third base. The DRays payroll is the problem

Does Vegas have an over/under on how many outs the White Sox will run into on the basepaths in 2005? I'm guessing at least 100.

Thank you for taking the time to respond Aaron. I agree that there are a lot of "What if?"s with the White Sox this year; more so than most teams in the majors. This is a team that might win 75 games if everything goes wrong or a team that might win 100 games if everything goes right (and there's a lot that can go right with this team). It's really hard to pin down what to expect because you have guys like Uribe and Rowand making big steps in years that you might expect them to do so, total enigmas like Jose Contreras and to a lesser extent, Joe Crede, and lots of guys with health questions like Dye, Everett and Thomas. There really seems to be no pinning down this team. I think it's going to be a "wait-and-see" season for the most part. Big changes have occurred since opening day 2004: more than half of the starters are going from then. It's going to be a season where we find out how those changes work out.
Once again, thanks for taking the time to respond.

This is a team that might win 75 games if everything goes wrong or a team that might win 100 games if everything goes right (and there's a lot that can go right with this team).

I think it is much more likely that the White Sox win 75 games than 100. In fact, I would say that Chicago's chances of winning 90 games is about the same as winning 75. Yes, they could win more than 90 but, by the same token, they could win fewer than 75, too.

You might be right, Rich, but I think we're looking at a much better team than we've seen in the past. Just a difference of opinion. It's definitely the most balanced team they've had since 1994. Obviously Frank wont be posting one of the best seasons in baseball history like he did then, but I still think we've got a darn good team on our hands.

The question becomes, is Minnesota's current run the least impressive division dominance in history?

At least a few of the mid-1990s Cleveland teams were legitimate elite teams.

" I can't remember the last time a first-place team finished with less than 88 wins."

May I introduce to you the 1987 World Champion Minnesota Twins, who won the AL West with a record of 85-77.

What "intensive purposes" are those, Mr. Karno? Or did you mean "all intents and purposes"?

On the subject of lousy teams and divisions, I still like Jon's piece, "The Stooge Division", outlining the only (?) time a team with a losing record won a division. It happened in the strike-shortened year of 1994 when the Rangers won the division with a 52-62 record.

" I can't remember the last time a first-place team finished with less than 88 wins."

the 2000 NY Yankees which won 87 games.

Wow. I'd forgotten that. The East was really weak that year - and the Central had two 90 win teams. Of course, the Yanks DID win the World Series.

When the Twins went 85-77 in 1987, didn't they end the season with a five-game losing streak after wrapping up the division? Sure they had some holes (like the entire rotation except for 1-2) but they were hardly an embarrassment to the division, as they showed in the postseason.

Sorry Rob for my poor grammar. I always get confused as to whether it's "intensive purposes" or "intents and purposes."

Yep, they lost six straight to close the 1987 season after clinching. They were far from an embarassment, for sure! :) While they had very little starting pitching after Viola and Blyleven, they had 3 30 HR guys and a fourth (Kirby Puckett) who hit nearly 30.

Those 1987 Twins had a couple other distinctions. They were outscored by 20 runs by their opponents, so they beat Pythagoras by 6 wins. Even the Miracle Mets managed to outscore their opponents by 20. Also, the Twins had the highest home/road differential of any pennant winner up to that time. (I'm not sure if anyone has surpassed them since, but I doubt it very much.) They were an excellent 56-25 at Dome (.691) and a horrible 29-52 (.358) away. And of course they were a perfect 6-0 at Dome in the postseason, 2-4 away (including 0-3 in the World Series).

I can't remember the last time a first-place team finished with less than 88

Ignoring grammatical errors (that should be fewer than, Mr Lederer), it wasn't even as long ago as 1987:

Your 2000 world champion New York Yankees, anyone?

Not as recent as the 2000 Yanks, but the 1997 Cleveland Indians won the Central with 86 wins. They also won the pennant, and should have won the World Series. Think of it! Three relatively recent divisional winners under 88 and they all won the pennant. Two of the three also won the World Series. (There might be more, but I'm not going to check.)