Heading into the 2012 season, the Detroit Tigers were not only favorites to easily win the mediocre AL Central, but to compete in the World Series as well. So far, things have not gone according to plan in Motown.
Miguel Cabrera is putting up historic numbers, Prince Fielder has been worth the investment and the starting rotation has been mostly solid, but with a variety of under-performing players on board, the Tigers find themselves 2.5 games behind the Chicago White Sox.
These are not your 2011 Chicago White Sox, either.
With Alex Rios apparently finally reaching his long-awaited potential, A.J. Pierzynski having a career year, Adam Dunn making his return to form and Paul Konerko remaining consistent, the White Sox are not only capitalizing on the Tigers' struggles, but making a name for themselves in the American League.
Detroit is certainly still part of the conversation in the AL Central, but October is coming on fast and the days where the phrase "it's still early" once applied are long gone.
If Detroit wants to make the playoffs, and avoid the threatening wild-card game, these are the things they must do to storm back and take control of the AL Central.
After a torrid start post-call-up, Quintin Berry has fallen back down to Earth in the major leagues. However, he is an essential part of any success the Tigers are going to have and is more valuable in the lineup than Delmon Young.
Between the three outfield spots and the DH position, a combination of Berry, Dirks, Boesch and Jackson brings more to the table for Detroit than that same combination with Young added and Berry subtracted.
The reasons for that are abundant. The prime reason, however, is Berry's speed. Despite expectations for a big year, Young has vastly underperformed, and his measly power numbers do not outweigh the importance of Berry's athleticism on this team.
In 40 less games than Young, Berry has only 25 fewer RBI, and in 29 less games than Austin Jackson, he has six more steals.
Beyond that, he plays tremendous defense.
In the Tigers' ALCS loss to the Texas Rangers, it was evident that Texas had a clear advantage on the basepaths with Josh Hamilton, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler.
To make it into the playoffs and beat teams like Texas or New York, the Tigers will need the speed of Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry in their lineup.
Furthermore, Berry adds a spark and some heart to a team that Jim Leyland said he wished "had a little meaner streak in them from 7 to 10 p.m." (via Fox Sports Detroit).
Usually, to say that a player should be moved down in the order is a negative. However, Dirks' presence at the bottom of the order would improve the team's offense vastly.
Dirks, Omar Infante, Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry are all solid table-setters for Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. However, they don't all fit in front of the two sluggers at the top of the lineup.
Pair Dirks and Infante in front of Jackson and Berry at the top of the lineup, and you've got even more RBI opportunities for Cabrera and Fielder.
Also, with Peralta, Boesch and Young struggling, putting those four together in front of Cabrera and Fielder is the best chance the Tigers have at putting together more consistent hitting and bigger, more productive innings.
The Tigers' biggest issue this season has been an under-performing lineup. If they can find a way, much like this one, to produce consistent run support for their starting staff, they could make a huge run down the stretch.
Alfonso Soriano, while not what he once was, is what the Tigers got from Delmon Young in 2011, and what they wish they had gotten from him this year. Soriano is hitting for almost the same average as Young, but also has eight more home runs and 22 RBI.
Soriano is expensive and older than Young, but Mike Illitch has shown that he wants to win now, and Soriano gives the Tigers a better chance to do that than Young does.
Soriano has playoff experience and poses a legitimate threat behind Cabrera and Fielder.
On several occasions, teams have chosen to pitch around Cabera and Fielder to get to Young, and usually it has paid off. With Soriano batting fifth, teams would be less inclined to do that, and if they did, would potentially pay for it more often.
With Jason Beck, the Tigers' beat reporter, saying on Twitter today that the team has pulled the plug on the 2012 Victor Martinez comeback, Alfonso Soriano could be just what the Tigers need to get back into the swing of things.
What was once one of the biggest strengths for the Tigers has become inconsistent in 2012, especially lately. Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit, two staples of the Detroit bullpen, have been shaky lately and have cost the Tigers some games in the recent past.
The solution to that problem lies in an experienced reliever. Octavio Dotel, the Tigers' lesser offseason acquisition, has been solid for the team and has really solidified Detroit's bullpen in recent months, showing fans the benefits of an aging reliever.
Someone that could be perfect for the Tiger bullpen is Jon Rauch. The 6'11" right-hander is a consistent, skilled reliever who is also familiar with the AL Central, having pitched for Chicago, Minnesota and, more recently, the Twins.
Beyond that, Rauch has only allowed one earned run in August and July, whereas Coke and Benoit have allowed nine in that same amount of time.
According to James Schmehl of MLive.com, Al Alburquerque is close to a return, but he was shaky in the playoffs last year and may not be the glue that holds the bullpen intact down the stretch.
Rauch is more reliable at the moment, and can also close games, which could prove useful with Benoit struggling and the possibility that Valverde could be unavailable at times, given his tendency to endure long innings.
In the last two games, Alex Avila has been the newest "solution" behind Cabrera and Fielder. Though he is 1-9 with three strikeouts in that spot, he is their best option.
Recently, it seems that Avila is back to his old form, or at least closer to his 2011 form. Since the beginning of August, the 25-year-old catcher has raised his average from .241 to .260 in just 12 games and has produced seven RBI and four extra-base hits.
A variety of players, from Jhonny Peralta to Brennan Boesch, have tried to fill the hole behind Cabrera and Fielder in the wake of Delmon Young's poor year, but no player has truly succeeded yet.
Avila may be that guy. Avila's numbers may not be all that impressive, but his August has been, and if they are not going to go with Soriano behind their two big sluggers, Avila may be their best option for the time being, and for the foreseeable future.
It is not yet clear if Avila's 2011 campaign was a fluke or if 2012 is a fluke, but if Avila showed his true colors in 2011, hitting 19 home runs and 82 RBI, he is the man for the fifth spot. If not, the Tigers are in even deeper trouble.
Drew Smyly is young, but he is talented. At least, more talented than Duane Below and Luke Putkonen.
To begin the season, Smyly was one of the Tigers' more reliable starters before injuries forced him out of the rotation. With Anibal Sanchez on board now, it is unlikely Smyly would make it into the starting rotation, but he could still be an asset.
Sanchez will likely stay in the rotation, but he has been struggling, and the flexibility that Smyly would give Leyland cannot be overlooked. Duane Below has been solid, and his numbers are better than Smyly's.
However, Smyly certainly has more talent and the ability to go deeper in games should the Tigers lose a starter early, or something to that affect.
The Tigers need to upgrade or solidify their bullpen at almost every level, and Smyly could be one of the pieces in putting back together the bullpen that was so dominant last year.
Among these two, Castellanos is the bigger name, but may not be the right choice for this year's Detroit squad. Garcia, who has occasionally been compared to Miguel Cabrera, is more major league-ready right now and seems to be the better fit.
Castellanos is struggling in his last 10 games in Erie, while Garcia is hitting at a high level. Also playing in Erie, Garcia is batting .306 with five homers and 17 RBI.
If the Tigers want to add a bat from within, one of these two young outfielders may be their guy. Castellanos would create the bigger buzz, but Garcia may be the right choice.
A couple of 20-year-olds have already made their mark on MLB this year.
The Tigers have been significantly better at home than on the road, and they have a long stretch at Comerica starting today. They may be able to climb even with Chicago, or even surpass them.
All three teams are beatable, especially at home.
Furthermore, the Tigers could use a 7-2 or 8-1 homestand to propel themselves into another winnable series in Kansas City before facing off against the White Sox in Chicago. A team, and a fanbase, that may be unnerved by the Tigers' deficit would be comforted with an outstanding homestand.
And, in a relatively easy 12-game stretch before facing their rivals from the South Side, the Tigers could brush aside their competitors with a solid showing in Chicago, assuming they do well before they travel there.