The Detroit Tigers are in the midst of a pennant race that they are currently leading.
They have the best pitcher in the game, one of the top five hitters and a core of young players that are poised to succeed. They have the best offensive shortstop and arguably the best offensive catcher. Their rotation just got bolstered by the addition of Doug Fister, and they have a closer that hasn't blown a save all year.
That is the good news.
The bad news is that there are still a handful of important players that are not stepping up the way they should.
Additionally, manager Jim Leyland seems poised to never run his best nine players out on the field together for more than one game at a time.
The Tigers are still on the inside track for the AL Central Division, but here are five players that need to bring their A-game in order for them to achieve what they are capable of.
Phil Coke has been in a season-long funk that has not improved with his demotion back to the bullpen.
Last year, Coke was money. He nailed down lefties with ease, and even made things tough on righties.
But since he came back to the bullpen, his confidence has failed to reappear.
Last week against the Angels, he had two terrible outings where he gave up at least two earned runs in each game.
In two games against Texas since those disasters, he has thrown a total of three pitches. It is hard to tell what is wrong with him since Leyland appears to not trust him at all.
What the Tigers really need is a blowout, and to let Coke run for a solid two innings to get his confidence back.
If Coke can't return to form, the Tigers will be in trouble.
Last season, Austin Jackson was a pleasant surprise. As the centerpiece for the Tigers in the Curtis Granderson trade, the hope was that, over time, he would become someone that could replace the popular Granderson. Instead, he started strong and finished as the most impressive offensive rookie last year.
To top it off, he flashed some wicked leather in center field.
Last year, Jackson hit just below .290 with an on-base percentage of .345. For your leadoff hitter, that is just about where you want his batting average to be, although the OBP could be a little higher.
The biggest problem that Jackson had was that he struck out too much for a non-power hitter (170 K's), but the consensus was that number would go down.
Usually, players that do exceptionally well as rookies experience some form of a sophomore slump. Jackson started out terribly, hitting .178 in April with an anemic .252 OBP.
Sure, he has improved since then, with his June totals around more of what was expected of him (.290 BA, .355 OBP.). But his July numbers were down, and so far in August, he is back around his April numbers.
What have remained constant, sadly, are the strikeouts. He is on pace for 177 this year, which is ridiculous for a light-hitting leadoff hitter.
So, what's the problem? A wrist injury can only be blamed for so much. The problem is his approach. He has been trying to get his leg kick to synchronize with the pitch speed, but his timing is way off.
For those that follow Oakland GM Billy Beane's "Moneyball" school of thought, Jackson is a train wreck. He swings at bad pitches, has the strike zone of Vlad Guerrero and cannot get on base consistently.
The job of a leadoff hitter is to see as many pitches as possible and get on base. Once on base, his job is to score runs. As a rookie, Jackson scored over 100 runs. This year, he is on pace for fewer than 80.
Jackson needs to stop striking out, plain and simple. Otherwise, Leyland needs to move him to ninth and start hitting either Alex Avila or Jhonny Peralta in the leadoff spot.
You just cannot have someone with an OBP of .315 as your leadoff hitter. And, while leading off with your catcher or one of your best home run guys is unorthodox (not to mention Leyland wants that pop in the bottom half of the lineup), you have to have someone that can get on base batting first.
Right now, the Tigers are wasting their big RBI guys because the leadoff hitter keeps striking out.
It is safe to say that the Joaquin Benoit signing has not gone exactly to plan.
At times, he has looked uncomfortable on the mound.
Lately, however, he has seemingly calmed himself down, with an ERA in June of 2.61 and 1.17 in July.
That being said, he did get roughed up Aug. 2 against Texas to the tune of three earned runs.
The Tigers need to be able to depend on the back end of the bullpen, so Benoit needs to become a hold machine once again.
Otherwise, the Tigers are going to want to give David Pauley or Al Alburquerque a shot.
When Guillen first arrived back in Detroit, he gave the lineup a boost. He had hits in his first eight games, and went on to average .280 for the month of July.
While that was great and all, his OBP was still terrible, sitting at only 16 points higher than his average.
Over the last seven days, however, Guillen is hitting only .176.
The Tigers need better production out of their second baseman. Namely, Guillen needs to shorten up his swing and try to play more like he did earlier in his Tigers career, when he was content to hit doubles the opposite way rather than go for the long ball.
Interestingly enough, Ryan Raburn has begun his second-half surge, getting hits in six of the last seven games he has batted.
If Guillen struggles, Leyland may have to platoon the two, with Guillen hitting lefty and Raburn going against left-handed pitchers.
Some might argue that Brad Penny has done just about exactly what the Tigers want from a fifth starter. He has been healthy all year and has given them a decent amount of innings.
I would argue that he needs to step it up or risk being replaced by Jacob Turner down the stretch run.
This pennant race cannot be taken lightly, and right now, every game is important—even the fifth game.
Overall, Penny hasn't been horrible, but over his last four starts, he has given up at least four earned runs three times.
I'm not saying that Penny needs to throw shutouts, but he does have to put this team in a position to win, and giving up seven runs will doom a team every time.
I would watch this situation closely, as the September call-ups are only a month away and Turner would look really good in a pennant race.