The Detroit Tigers are doing it again. For the second straight year, the Tigers are the heavy favorite and clearly the most talented team in the American League Central, and for the second straight year they find themselves in a tight division race for the summer.
Last year it was the Chicago White Sox, this time it’s the Cleveland Indians who are making life a little uncomfortable in Motown. Is there anything to worry about in Detroit, or is it just a matter of time before the Tigers take over and run away with the AL Central? Today’s MLB coverage seeks to answer that question.
THE BULLPEN UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
Relief pitching is the most commonly cited cause of the Tiger woes. Although I suppose I should use the word “woes” lightly, given that we’re talking about a team that’s still in first place by 3 ½ games. But the bullpen is seen by the mainstream media as the culprit for why Detroit hasn’t been able to shake the competition. And that view is correct.
The Tigers’ rank 10th in the American League in bullpen ERA and the closer’s role has been a problem all year. The team has officially cut the cord with Jose Valverde and given up on the idea that he’ll ever find his form. Joaquin Benoit is having a good year, saving all four of his chances with a 2.01 ERA and the veteran will likely keep the ball in the ninth inning until he pitches himself out of the job.
Detroit is also getting quality work from young arms like Drew Smyly, with a 1.75 ERA and Luke Putkonen has a 2.19 ERA in just twelve innings of work.
Phil Coke, along with Valverde has been the problem. Coke, the veteran lefty who took the closer’s job last October, has been awful, with a 6.14 ERA. Does manager Jim Leyland also give up on him? I’m not suggesting cutting Coke, but do you give his innings to a Putkonen or an Evan Reed, younger arms that are more effective?
I would do just that. Bullpens are often rescued by just this type of live, young arm and you never know—maybe you find your future closer in the process. In either case, Al Albuquerque is the other veteran besides Benoit who has been consistent.
A ROTATION FLIPPED UPSIDE DOWN
If the bullpen straightens out, this Tiger team is essentially unstoppable. They have the best starters’ ERA in the American League, and that’s even with Justin Verlander being a little off this season. The ace has a 3.90 ERA in 16 starts—and considering how pitcher-friendly Comerica Park is, that ERA is worse than it looks on the surface. Doug Fister, the #2, is also on 3.90.
But the depth of the rotation has come through. Max Scherzer is having an outstanding season, highlighted by his last six starts, where he’s 5-0 with a 2.20 ERA. Anibal Sanchez had been enjoying an excellent year before a shoulder strain put him on the disabled list. Its good news for Tiger fans that Sanchez is expected back on July 1 when he’s eligible to come off. Even Rick Porcello, who has basically done nothing for four years, is starting to get better, with a 2.73 ERA in last five stars.
When you have the best starters’ ERA in the league and your top two pitchers aren’t even sharp that says something pretty good about your staff.
A GOOD LINEUP THAT CAN BE EVEN BETTER
The offense is no less outstanding, ranking third in the AL in scoring runs, in spite of the vast park they play in. You don’t need me to tell you Miguel Cabrera is having another big year, or that Prince Fielder remains a valuable sidekick in the middle of the order. But also be aware that shortstop Jhonny Peralta is swinging a very good bat, with a stat line of .383 on-base percentage/.485 slugging percentage. Austin Jackson is getting on base consistently and setting the table, and the Tigers are getting some nice subordinate contributions from second baseman Omar Infante, who’s batting .300 and Tori Hunter in right, with his .346 OBP.
Just like the starting pitching, the lineup can get even better. There’s no reason the players who are doing well can’t keep reasonably close to their current levels of production, while Leyland can expect a lot more from Victor Martinez (.285/.337), along with Alex Avila (.271/.288) when the catcher gets off the DL. Avila starts a rehab assignment this weekend.
I picked the Tigers to win 101 games and win the World Series and the start of the season. They’re 42-32 right now, a 91-win pace, so I think I should back off on the 100-win call. But I won’t back down on the notion that they will pull away and win the AL Central with minimal September stress, and that they’ll win the Series.
The reason is that the strengths—the rotation and the lineup—are already strong and can get even better. And I think Leyland can get this bullpen at least to respectability with the pieces he currently has. It was just a question of establishing what he had (or didn’t have) in the case of Valverde and the young arms. Now that decisions are being made, the manager can get pitchers slotted into roles and create some steadiness. If the front office swings a deal for a Jonathan Papelbon—pending what decision the Phillies make regarding their chances—so much the better.
AROUND THE AL CENTRAL
Cleveland (39-36): Terry Francona’s got some bullpen problems of his own. The Indians have only closed 13 of 24 save chances, a 54 percent clip that’s ten points behind Detroit’s, and both are below the league average. Chris Perez begins his rehab today and the closer can’t come back from the DL too soon.
Kansas City (35-38): The Royals are getting great pitching and still not winning. At what point does the front office finally say enough is enough when it comes to manager Ned Yost?
Minnesota (34-38): It seems hard to believe the Twins are this close to .500.
Chicago White Sox (31-42): The city’s Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup thanks to a potent offensive attack. Could they share some of that offense with the South Side baseball team, who’s the worst in the AL at scoring runs?