The Detroit Tigers Are Rolling In The AL Central Playoff Race

The Detroit Tigers capped off an impressive four-game series with the Los Angeles Angels this afternoon, taking three of four. This follows up a Detroit series win in Baltimore, marking five wins in seven games against the teams that led the wild-card race coming out of the All-Star break. Nor is Detroit’s strong play just a post-All Star phenomenon. Prior to the break, the Tigers swept Kansas City, split four with Minnesota and took three of four from Tampa Bay. All told, Detroit has won 13 of its last 18, is just two games back of the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central playoff race, and even more significantly is now in the lead for one of the wild-card spots. If the season ended today, they would play the Angels in the one-game shootout. TheSportsNotebook looks into Detroit’s strengths and weaknesses, and what’s working so well for them in July.

Based strictly on raw numbers the Tigers are a team whose build leans a little bit to the offense, ranking sixth in the American League in runs scored, while being just eighth in ERA. But when you consider those numbers take place primarily in pitching-oriented Comerica Park, both the quality of the offense and the problems with the pitching staff come into even sharper focus. Detroit gets runners on base as consistently as anyone, and has Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera to pick them up. On the nights Justin Verlander doesn’t pitch, the rotation is wildly inconsistent and the bullpen ranks a lowly12th in the AL when it comes to closing out save chances. Those are season-long numbers. While rankings have naturally picked up during the July surge, the basic outline of the team remains the same—it’s the offense that’s carrying the load, while the pitching gives just enough to survive.

Fielder and Cabrera were already hitting well enough to merit inclusion in the MVP discussion, and Cabrera in particular has lifted his game into the stratosphere this month, slugging .679. Detroit has gotten increased power from shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and better consistency getting aboard from catcher Alex Avila. But in no case is there a sharper contrast between pre-July production and what’s happened this month than rightfielder Brennan Boesch. After three months playing at a level that had “Triple A” written all over it, Boesch has produced a .425 on-base percentage and .684 slugging this month, and while the hitting of the rightfielder isn’t necessarily more praiseworthy than that of Fielder, Cabrera or centerfielder Austin Jackson, those three have been doing it all year. Boesch ‘s production is what’s unique and therefore the biggest reason or the Tigers’ success

Verlander is on track to win another Cy Young Award this year, but no one else in the rotation has an ERA under 4, in spite of the favorable dimensions of the home park. Even worse, only Doug Fister, at 4.04 is even close to that benchmark. Rookie Drew Smyly, after a strong start, first started to fade and then got hurt. He was replaced by Jacob Turner who was promptly lit up in his first start. Turner and Smyly are at least very young. But what’s the excuse for Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello? The latter has done nothing since 2009 and needs to go. Scherzer, with a disappointing 4.84 ERA, but with good stuff and at least a tolerable track record might be the one who needs to go if he can be used as trade leverage. Because however you slice it, if Detroit is serious about winning this year—and after spending the money on Fielder in free agency they are—they have to make a significant trade for starting pitching. They’d be a good fit for Ryan Dempster of the Cubs, or possibly Wandy Rodriguez in Houston. And the Tigers need to also think big and make a run at Zack Greinke of Milwaukee, currently the top starter on the market.

The bullpen is up and down, but there are some options that manager Jim Leyland has to make it all come together for the stretch run. Jose Valverde  at closer is heart failure waiting to happen for any manager, and he’s actually been worse during this July hot stretch, but given his upside, the Tigers may as well ride this out. But Leyland’s gotten some good work from unknowns like Brayan Villarreal, and keep an eye on Darin Downs who just came up and has looked sharp in his short time in the majors. Veterans like Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel and Duane Below have been inconsistent, but all can come through. I won’t go so far as to say I like this bullpen—in fact, with a lesser manager I’d hate it. But if Tony LaRussa could turn last year’s St. Louis bullpen around, Leyland can do the same with this Tiger relief corps.

Ultimately it comes down to the starting pitching in the 2 thru 5 spots. Offensively, Detroit’s going to be fine. Even when Boesch cools off, someone else can step up—maybe Peralta, Avila or Delmon Young, whose hit four home  runs this month. The team may also add a second baseman to replace the offensively-challenged Ramon Santiago. With this offense, the team’s going to be a handful with Verlander on the mound—surely a motivator for Texas or Los Angeles to avoid a wild-card game. But what happens after that? You can’t expect more from Porcello, and anything the kids give is a bonus. The plan has to be for Fister to come through and help to come on the trade market.

That’s realistic and would get the Tigers in the playoffs, perhaps as AL Central champs. But if they go the wild-card route, they need Scherzer to pitch well, as Verlander would be used up in the one-game shot and the #4 starter’s importance will come out in the Division Series. That’s a riskier bet, and why Detroit really needs to keep its sights fixed on Chicago to win the Central.

Around the American League…

*In a development directly related to the AL Central’s wild-card prospects improving, the AL East doesn’t have anyone outside the Bronx playing well right now. Baltimore desperately needs to plant its feet and turn around, banking on the young kids in the pitching staff. Boston still can’t get consistency from Jon Lester, Tampa Bay continues to struggle and Toronto had to put Jose Bautista on the disabled list. All four team are one good week from leading the wild-card race though.

*Cleveland remains just a game and a half back of Detroit in the wild-card push, and at 3.5 out in the Central are in striking distance of Chicago. The Angels’ losses in Detroit have pushed them six back of the Rangers in the West, and the Halos are now just one 2-5 week away from having to focus strictly on the wild-card.