There have been massive expectations heaped upon this Detroit Tigers team, and they have not lived up to them so far this season. With the signing of Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera coming off of an MVP-caliber year, and Justin Verlander coming off of an MVP and Cy Young award winning year, the Tigers were expected to be one of the best teams in the MLB.
They are instead, not even the best team in their division, trailing the White Sox by two games. There's plenty to be gleaned from this start though. Some of it is positive, some of it is negative, but all of it is helpful to us fans as we try to figure out what kind of team the Tigers actually are. Here are 10 such takeaways.
The Tigers need Doug Fister. Fister teams with Verlander to provide a 1-2 punch that is among the best pitching duos in the American League. When Fister went down with a strained left side, we saw the contingency plan for the Tigers: Adam Wilk.
Wilk started three games, lost all three of them, never lasting more than 5 innings, and he currently sports an 8.18 ERA. Wilk struggled to get into the 90s with his fastball and lacked the pinpoint control necessary for him to be a successful pitcher in MLB.
Fister, meanwhile picked up right where he left off before the injury, pitching 7 sparkling innings against the Mariners on Monday before Octavio Dotel gave up 3 runs and the victory in the bottom of the ninth. With Fister in the lineup, the Tigers have one of the better starting rotations in the AL. Without him, they have Adam Wilk.
Austin Jackson is off to a rampaging start. The center fielder, known more for flashing the leather than pounding the ball, is batting .324 with 4 home runs already.
His OBP is fantastic at .395 and he has 6 multi-hit games in his last ten. Simply put, Jackson is finally realizing the potential that everybody saw when Detroit shipped Curtis Granderson to the Yankees.
If Jim Leyland was a little more willing to run (the Tigers ranked dead last in stolen bases last year), Jackson would easily swipe 40 bags a year. Combine that with the early production we've seen from him this year and his superb fielding, and you have quite the lead-off hitter.
While Jackson is almost certainly due for a regression as the season continues since his strikeouts are still pretty high, he's given the Tigers a glimpse of the future. If he can continue this production, the Tigers will be that much more potent on offense.
I was admittedly hoping to see Jacob Turner in a Tigers uniform as the fifth starter this season and was more than a little disappointed to see that I would have to wait for the Tigers' next power pitcher. However, Drew Smyly has made his case for staying in the big leagues, and boy, is it a good one.
Through 5 starts, he has a 1.61 ERA stifling the Rangers for 6 innings and absolutely dazzling the Yankees over another 6 innings. He's lasted 6 innings in every start except his first and has 7 strikeouts in 3 of his starts. The Tigers are 4-1 in his starts this season.
Smyly is in line for a regression even more so than Jackson once the rest of the league gets a second look at his stuff, but until then he gives the Tigers another lefty with a good fastball, a solid slider, a cut fastball and the occasional changeup.
Right now he is pitching like a front-line starter and even when he regresses, he should be a solid fifth starter in the discussion for AL Rookie of the Year.
Jose Valverde has lost his mojo. As good as he was last season, and he was plenty good as he recorded saves in all 49 of his opportunities during the regular season and both opportunities in the postseason—he has been that bad this season.
Valverde blew a save in the first opportunity of the season wasting a masterful start from Justin Verlander. He already has 2 blown saves this season after recording 3 in the two previous seasons combined.
His location has been spotty, and he seems to be relying too much on his fastball. He has a dreadful K/BB ratio of 11:11 and even when he has finished games he's allowed hitters to get into good counts, which has resulted in a lot of base runners.
His 5.27 ERA is bad for a starter let alone a closer, and if the Tigers are to have any chance at a World Series this season, he'll have to lower that significantly. He'll also have to find his mojo and return to form as one of the top closers in the league.
The power that Mike Ilitch paid $23 million a year for seems to have eluded Prince Fielder. Until recently, he'd been just an average hitter slapping mostly singles with only 3 home runs and 2 doubles to show for his efforts. Sure, his .300 average is nice, but it's not what he was paid for.
Luckily, Fielder is a notorious slow starter and has shown signs of life over the past three games, collecting six hits, two home runs, a double and three RBIs. The resurgence of Prince's prodigious power can only mean good things for a Tigers' offense which has struggled to put up runs this season despite massive expectations.
Many expected the field to be an absolute disaster with the shift of Miguel Cabrera to 3rd base and the insertion of the notoriously poor fielding Prince Fielder (an ironic coincidence, don't you think?) at first.
Most of the scrutiny was focused on Cabrera's shift where he was displacing a pretty good fielder in Brandon Inge. According to coaches though, Cabrera worked his tail off to relearn the position he hadn't played since his days with the Marlins, and it appears to be paying off.
Sure, there have been hiccups, but that is to be expected, and Cabrera has been a general success with a fielding percentage of .961. He's committed three errors this season, but he won't sustain that pace as he gets better. He's no Brandon Inge with the glove, but he's a much better fielder than Inge was a hitter.
Following his amazing 2010 season with the Tampa Bay Rays that saw him sport a 1.34 ERA and baffle hitters, Joaquin Benoit signed with the Tigers in 2011. He endured a disastrous start in his first season with the Tigers and recovered to post a very respectable 2.95 ERA, combining with Jose Valverde to create one of the better back ends of a bullpen in the AL.
This season, he hasn't quite picked up right where he left off with a 3.38 ERA and a rough display from April 21st to May 2nd that saw him allow 3 earned runs in 5 appearances. He still leads the AL in holds with 9 though and has looked dominant over his last three appearances.
Given his history, it's not surprising that he isn't lights out right now, but outside of the aforementioned five game stretch, he has been better than average and I expect that to continue. I expect him to post an even better ERA than last year and continue to hold down the 8th inning. If Valverde doesn't shape up, Benoit would be my choice to supplant him as closer.
Andy Dirks is hitting .339 with five doubles, two triples and two home runs this season. He's proved his worth as a hitter, and deserves to be in the lineup everyday. He is a better fielder, a better person and currently, a better hitter than Delmon Young.
While Brennan Boesch's power and ability to hit lefties will keep him firmly entrenched in RF for the foreseeable future, Young has done nothing this season to keep his position. Dirks is a player known for playing the right way, and he is a positive influence in the clubhouse.
I'd rather have an overeager and productive Andy Dirks in left field than a hesitant Ryan Raburn or an anti-semitic Young. Dirks is making Delmon Young expendable.
Unfortunately, Delmon Young is making himself less attractive to other teams. Dirks has always possessed the demeanor to be a regular fixture in the Tigers' clubhouse, and now he's got the production to be there as well.
As I've mentioned earlier in this slideshow and in other articles, Detroit can have one of the best starting rotations in the league. This was a pretty common sentiment among fans and experts in the preseason, and it hinged on the production of Max Scherzer more than anything else.
We've seen Scherzer's potential as he finished the 2010 season on a tear, posting an ERA below 2.00 after the All-Star break that year. However, since that stretch, Scherzer has been a mystery. One game he will be the stud that goes seven innings with seven or more strikeouts and one earned run, and the next he'll be awful, lasting only four innings and giving up six or seven earned runs.
Max was decent in the playoffs and gave us a glimmer of hope that this season might be the one he finally turned into the ace he has the potential to be. Instead, we've seen him post a 6.32 ERA and a 1-3 record. If Scherzer pitches well, the Tigers will be better, no doubt about it; they just shouldn't expect him to.
Given the success of last season and the huge offseason acquisition of Prince Fielder, many fans (and perhaps even the players) thought that a playoff appearance and a second consecutive ALCS were a foregone conclusion. As we've seen in the first 31 games though, that's simply not the case.
Every team wants to win in this league, and no team will roll over simply because the Tigers roar. This team undoubtedly has the talent to win, but when does the desire meet that talent? When do the Tigers start beating the teams they should beat?
There's hope in Detroit, and with good reason. The Boys just have to remember one thing: Nobody gives it to you. You have to take it.