There’s something wrong with the Detroit Tigers, and it’s been coming for a couple years now. As they head to Cleveland for a weekend three- game series they find themselves in a rare position for this current core, looking up at someone else in the division standings. Though it’s only a half a game back and it’s an unbelievably hot Royals team that stands above them, even the last place Twins, bereft of top flight pitching and riding a gaggle of streaking bats to the 32 wins they do have, are only six games behind. For a team that’s supposed to be the best in the American League, it’s unfamiliar ground.
Since 2011, when the Tigers started their World Series push and have owned the division, they have made a routine of just poking along somewhere above .500 in the first half before mashing the gas down the stretch and locking it up. They won the division by a game last year but that was as much because the Indians went crazy in September as it was their easing back in preparation for October. They have the best hitter in the game and the rotation has gotten stronger every year till this one, they’ve had that luxury. So this is all probably just premature celebration of the king being dead. Which, to be honest, I’d be against because the Royals are garbage.
All the same, there’s a lot of issues on the Tigers for a team with championship aspirations. They’ve been there from the start. Last year’s October run showed that they lacked speed and athleticism in the middle of the order with Prince Fielder alongside Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera. Plus, Torii Hunter was having a hell of an “eff you” season, but the guy was 38-year old. The Fielder for Ian Kinsler deal was supposed to fix that with Cabrera moving back to first and Nick Castellanos getting to the Show, and Kinsler’s bat plus defense has done a great job of replacing what they lost in Fielder and then some now that Prince is out for the year. Austin Jackson is a fun player to watch. But despite the league-leading OPS and slugging they’re seventh in runs scored and they have a 34-34 Pythagorean record. Their rate stats are buoyed by having three or four great hitters but there’s a lot of underwhemingness going on there. Of the 10 players on the team with more than 100 plate appearances only three have an OPS+ over 100, with Rajai Davis at 96 and Hunter at 97. Sure Davis isn’t there for his bat, but Torii was a major contributor for the offense a year ago when he shouldn’t have to have been and his defense isn’t what it was. This top-heaviness in the offense has been with them since the start and as Ilitch shelled out money for free agents and Dave Dombrowski wheeled and dealed it only got worse.
Then there’s the bullpen, perennially the Achilles heel of this squad. As terrifying as their rotation has been the pen has been a source of solace for opponents. It took months last year before Joaquin Benoit became the closer and at that point it was by default. He’s gone now and Joba Chamberlain is their best reliever. He was very good early in New York before the aborted conversion to starter ruined him, then his elbow blew, it’s just hard to lean on that. Joe Nathan is 39 and though his numbers have been pretty all career I’ve never been one to call him a lockdown closer. He’s better than Jose Valverde and that’s what Dombrowski and Co. were hoping for, but that’s just damning with faint praise. Ian Krol might be good but we won’t know until he’s been truly tested. I’d rather they have him on the Tigers than Doug Fister, though (that dude ate the Indians up). It’s got to wear on the rotation that they have to go deep every game and the offense has to score five or six runs every game just in case the implosion happens. After three years under that kind of pressure, perhaps that’s what’s happening to Verlander.
The Tigers aren’t done with the division, that would be a fool’s thought. Even if everyone is contending or “contending”, Detroit is still the strongest team. But their grip isn’t as tight as it once was. One injury to a key player and suddenly it’s Miggy and one other guy having to do all the heavy lifting on offense, and as I’ll get to in a bit Justin Verlander is a shadow of what he has been for them the last six or seven years. Their defense is better now that the corners aren’t both manned by large concrete blocks, it’s just a major loss to have Jose Iglesias down for the season. He was a wizard out there even if he couldn’t hit a lick. Cleveland hosting for the second time in a row is good news, the home cooking has been good for them. It’s not that i expect a sweep again, but for the first time in two or three years it’s not out of the realm of possibility.