The Detroit Tigers are a mystery, maybe the most head-scratch inducing team in baseball this year. They enter the month of August in first place by 2.5 games. While this is a positive, a quick glance at their roster would make one think that they should be further ahead.
After all, they are in the weakest division in baseball. Despite leading the AL Central, they are only fifth in the AL and are a full seven games behind the current Wild Card leader. They hover around the break-even point in runs scored vs. runs allowed.
The team is about to enter its last 50 games of the season. At this point, what can be expected and what will the Tigers need to overcome in order to be a legitimate threat once the playoffs start?
Leyland has had a successful career as a manager. He ranks 19th all time on the managerial win list. He boasts a World Series ring, is a three time manager of the year and has won two pennants. Despite that, he has a below .500 career record with 1550 wins to go against 1568 loses.
This season, Leyland seems to be struggling, and one has to wonder if it is time to make a move. Now all managers get blasted over pitching calls. Either they leave a pitcher in too long or pull them too early. It is one of the moves for which managers are most likely to get blasted. To nitpick each one is pointless, but Leyland seems to have had more of these than most managers.
His most blatant “what was he thinking” moment occurred against Chicago last month. The White Sox were slowly gaining ground on the Tigers and this was to be an important series. In this game the Sox had just tied it up, the bases were loaded and for whom does Leyland make a call to the bullpen?
Chance Ruffin. Ruffin had just been called up to the big leagues and this was to be his major league debut. To throw a kid into a bases-loaded situation in his debut is just cruel, especially in such an important game.
Ruffin gave up a double, then later a home run. While he needed to get his chance at some point, you don’t feed him to the wolves.
The Tigers have struggled with Leyland during the second half of every season he has been in Detroit. This year, since the All-Star break, they are 8-8. While not great, sadly that is an improvement over past seasons.
The biggest knock right now on Leyland is his lineup and how he juggles it. He doles out playing time as though it’s a kindergarten team. He tries to keep things even. While it is important to give players a break from time to time, Leyland goes overboard.
What makes it even worse is how he will sit two All-Star players then belligerently claim that he is putting out the best team that night? Resting players is fine in moderation, but stop trying to pass off the sub lineup as the best team. He did this repeatedly while insisting on playing Brandon Inge and his sub .200 batting average night after night.
It is almost comical to hear a press conference when he gets so angry at the simplest of questions. In several conversations with reporters he gets irate over questions on the lineup or batting order. He has even offered to let any of the reporters fill out the lineup
ESPN.com writer Dan Szymborski recently wrote about the most polarizing lineups in MLB history. The Tigers ranked No. 1 on the dubious list which ranked the difference between a team’s top four and bottom four hitters based on OPS. It seems that if Leyland stuck with the crazy idea of actually playing the best players, then the team would be much better.
If the Tigers are going to win, they may have to do so in spite of the skipper. Regardless of his moves, they should make the playoffs. One would hope that come playoff time he would quit resting players.
Justin Verlander is wicked good. He has been on the cusp of greatness for several seasons. He was almost teasing people as he would show flashes of greatness but never quite make that final step. Make no mistake, he has put together some very good seasons, but with his arsenal of pitches and that arm, it was obvious he could do more. This season has learned and made that final step.
On four occasions this year he has taken a no hitter into the seventh inning, completing one of them. His one near miss just came against the Los Angeles Angels, who were starting Jered Weaver. Weaver is the closest person to Verlander in the Cy Young race so for Justin to dominate them was very impressive.
After Verlander the pitching staff has question marks all over it. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are roller coasters. They are each capable of pitching a great game or a stinker and there is no rhyme or reason to it. Scherzer has had a rough stretch lately in which over his last four losses, the Tigers have only scored more than one run once.
Porcello appears to be turning it around as he has won his last five games and six out of seven. Beyond the wins, he has looked good in that he has only walked five batters while striking out 24 during the win streak.
The Tigers made a move at the trade deadline and while on the surface it may not seem like that big of a deal, it may prove to be one of the better moves that any team made. They bring in Doug Fister and David Pauley. Fister’s 3-12 record will have people screaming about the trade but a deeper look shows how misleading that record is. His 3.33 ERA puts him second among the Tigers starters, almost a full run below Scherzer in third. In Seattle he had the worst run support among starting pitchers in the AL. In only five of his starts did the team score more than two runs. Runs should not be a concern when he pitches for Detroit and his won loss numbers should greatly improve.
Adding Fister to the team greatly improves the rotation. If, Porcello and Scherzer can produce some quality starts on a consistent basis then they team will be in good shape.
The Tigers bullpen era is the second worst in the majors. Despite that, they do have Jose Valverde who leads the AL in saves. They also have Al Alburquerque who has proven to be a solid contributor the team.
Their main problem is lack of quality depth. Hopefully David Pauley will help in this area but there is not that big of a difference between and Charlie Furbush, who he is replacing.
The woeful Phil Coke starting experience finally ended and he has been moved back to the pen. In the past, he has been a solid bullpen pitcher and since the move he has shown signs of regaining his form.
Joaquin Benoit had a rough start with the team but has steadily improved as the season has progressed. Over his last 15 games he was only given up two earned runs. During that stretch he has struck out 13 and walked only two.
If Coke and Benoit can continue to improve then the bullpen will finally have some depth allowing this to be a strong part of the team.
19 of their 72 errors belong to two players Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn. Inge has been demoted to the minors and Raburn is a bench player. While you will not find gold glove caliber defenders here they are a pretty solid group.
The one concern is the lack of range at several positions. Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez and Jhonny Peralta are not known for blazing speed or a wide range. Despite that they are all above .985 fielding percentage.
One has to wonder if the lack of range will get to them at some point but it seems that as long as Leyland actually plays the starters then they should be adequate defensively.
Four position players made the All-Star game this year. As a team they rank in the top ten in the majors in just about every major stat. But it seems that only a few players are carrying the team. Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Miguel Cabrera and Brennan Boesch have played great all season and the team will need them to continue to excel as the season goes on.
Carlos Guillen has been solid since his return from injury. Wilson Betemit, despite not lighting the world on fire, is still a huge improvement as he is hitting over 100 points better than Inge .
Alex Avila had a career first half of the season but July was a forgettable month. He only had one RBI and watched his batting average drop for .303 down to .277. He needs to stop his slide in order to help his team. He is a very capable defensive catcher and the offensive output that he started the season with was a pleasant surprise. While getting back to .300 would be great, the team could survive with a solid .280 plus out of him.
Their bench is rather thin so heath is essential. The return of Guillen to the lineup has been important as it means we see less of Rayburn. Their biggest hitting concern is the season long slump that Austin Jackson has been in. He has the speed to be a good leadoff hitter but the .249 batting average and 116 strikeouts means that he should be at the end of the order. His improvement is important to the team.
The team will benefit from being in the weakest division in the baseball. The teams chasing them really don’t scare anyone. The Twins and White Sox cannot stay healthy enough to really mount a serious challenge. Despite the Indians trade for Mr. Overrated Ubaldo Jimenez unless he start batting everyday then he will not help the team. Their offense is horribly bad right now. In July their runs per game dropped to 3.8 and over their past ten games they are only scoring 2.1 runs. The division is the Tigers to lose.
They need to focus on how they compare to other teams that will be in the playoffs. Players like Ordonez and Guillen will need to maintain their health. Also Avila, Jackson and Coke will need to rise out from their slumps. This is a team that could surprise others but they will need to improve and quickly in order to do so.
While it is doubtful that they would be the favorite to win any playoff series, if they play to their abilities then they could do some damage.