The Detroit Tigers are hanging around in an AL Central race that was supposed to belong to the Cleveland Indians. The Tigers have won five in a row, are just 2 ½ games back of the Tribe and are poised to gain further ground when they go to lowly Cincinnati to start this week. But to say the Tigers have been met with skepticism is to succumb to serious understatement. Detroit is a huge 35-1 longshot just to win its own division.
You can write some of that off as simply a belief that the Indians will put it together. The Tiger record of 36-37 tells you that their contention is more about being in the one division doesn’t have a team (or two) playing at a 100-win pace. Cleveland has a demonstrated ability to do that and even the most fervent Detroit fan wouldn’t argue the Tigers have that kind of ceiling.
But what makes that 35-1 number so interesting is how it stands in contrast to the Minnesota Twins, who are 8-1. The Tigers are ahead of the Twins in the standings and at a point in the year where we can’t simply dismiss results as being short-term. There’s nothing to suggest the Twins are a sleeping giant in the way the Indians are. The fact Detroit is seen as substantially inferior is striking.
The question then is this—is it realistic for Tiger fans to hope for at least a winning season and to hang around the AL Central race so long as the Indians don’t suddenly kick into gear? I think there’s at least a reason for such hope.
Detroit has veteran pitching that’s capable of giving more than what they have so far in 2018. Michael Fulmer, the 2016 Rookie of the Year and staff ace has a 4.13 ERA in 14 starts. Mike Fiers, the 33-year-old veteran also has an ERA on the high side of 4. Francisco Liriano has pitched well, but is currently on the disabled list. And Jordan Zimmerman has been awful, with a 5.20 ERA in his eight starts.
I understand that’s not a who’s who of All-Stars that’s mucking along right now, but I do believe Tiger pitching can be better. Let’s start with the fact that Comerica Park is one of the three places in the American League that can be truly called a pitchers’ park (Oakland and Seattle being the others). In spite of this, Detroit ranks 10th in the American League in ERA and are actually worse at home than they are on the road.
Playing in the AL Central also means a steady diet of the worst division in the American League to this point—not only are there no heavyweight teams, but the White Sox and Royals are utterly putrid. That means it’s fair to have higher expectations for the staff. Fulmer is a prime candidate for improvement and the arm that simply must step up is Zimmerman.
Detroit signed Jordan Zimmerman on the free agent market prior to the 2016 season. Zimmerman had established himself in Washington as being just outside the top rung of starting pitchers. As a Boston fan, I was furious when the Red Sox opted for David Price over Zimmerman in that winter’s free agent sweepstakes. But as much as a disappointment as Price has been in Boston, Zimmerman has been nothing short of a train wreck. His ERAs have ranged from the high 4s and all the way into the 6s. He’s been injured and unreliable. And that needs to change.
The Tigers have some nice young players developing, notably third baseman Jeimer Candelario. They’ve got a good young arm in the bullpen with Joe Jiminez. But if they’re going to give management a reason not to sell at the trade deadline, it’s some veteran pitching that needs to perform and that starts with the guy who got paid 2 ½ years ago, Jordan Zimmerman.