Five things we’ve learned about the 2016 Tigers so far

Performances by Michael Fulmer and Victor Martinez have helped keep Brad Ausmus

Performances by Michael Fulmer and Victor Martinez have helped squelch discussion about Detroit manager Brad Ausmus and his job.

The Detroit Tigers ended May with what seems like an annual rite: a heartbreaking walk-off loss to the Angels in Los Angeles.

Why is it so hard for this team to win on the west coast?

OK, there is the travel, the time change, the jet lag. I get all that. But the Angels are not a good team, and the Oakland A’s are even worse. These are teams that Detroit should at least split on the road. Instead, the Tigers went a lackluster 2-4 against those two west coast clubs to close out May.

The first two months of the season are officially in the books. We are one-third of the way through. What have we learned so far? Here are five things:

#1: The lineup is top-heavy

The bottom third of the order has been awful offensively. If the Tigers are going to make any kind of move in the second half, Justin Upon, Jose Iglesias, and James McCann need to start contributing at the plate.

McCann has all the markings of a team leader, but right now he looks overmatched with a bat in his hands. He has a long, loping swing that makes him a sucker for breaking pitches and off-speed stuff, and he has struggled mightily against right-handers. The Tigers probably wouldn’t mind sitting him more, but his platoon partner, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, after a red-hot start, hasn’t been hitting his weight lately.

We’re still waiting for Upton’s extended red-hot streak that all the scouts told us about in the off-season, and the Tigers must be wondering if Iglesias can once again be the spray hitter he was last year when he hit .300.

#2: Revamped rotation might be blessing in disguise

The ineffectiveness of Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey may be a blessing in disguise. It took a long time for the Tigers to come to grips with the likelihood that Sanchez is not going to turn back the clock and recapture the magic of 2013. Pelfrey’s May WHIP of 1.660 is bad enough, but perhaps most distressing are his struggles in pitchers’ counts. Hitters are batting .353 against him, including a home run, on 0-2 counts. On all pitches in which Pelfrey is ahead in the count, opponents’ have a .351 batting average against him.

That is not a formula for success. But the good news is that the Tigers have young, promising arms to take their place. Michael Fulmer is proving, from one start to the next, that he can be a legitimate number three man in this team’s rotation. Matt Boyd’s stuff isn’t on a par with Fulmer’s, but he will continue to improve. After initially struggling in Toledo, Daniel Norris is showing signs that his return to the Motor City might not be far off. Shane Greene’s immediate future may be in the bullpen, but he remains an excellent swing man. If the Tigers can stay close this summer, I like their chances in September with Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, and Fulmer at the top of the rotation, followed by a combination of Boyd, Norris, Pelfrey and Greene.

#3: Victor is being Victor

The biggest surprise of 2016? For me, it is Victor Martinez, for a couple reasons. First, he has been healthy. How long that will be the case is up to the baseball gods. But secondly, he has been a beast at the plate. Even the most optimistic projections for V-Mart put him around .270 or .280 with some home run pop. He’s not going to hit .350 the rest of the year, but this guy is like a fine wine: he just keeps mellowing with age. But there is that persistent air of fragility that hovers over him. Tiger fans should savor his every at-bat, because you never know when it may be his last.

#4: Ausmus’ job is safe for now

We can turn off the Brad Ausmus watch. He is not going anywhere this season, period. If Al Avila was going to give him the axe, he would have done it by now. The Tigers want stability at the managerial position, and even if they were to let him go, it is not as if there is a Sparky Anderson clone behind the black curtain, just waiting to be trotted out. Enough with the Ron Gardenhire nonsense. No, Tiger fans will just have to resign themselves to the fact that Ausmus will be here for the rest of 2016.

#5: The AL Central is up for grabs

The Tigers are up against an American League Central that has is one of the weakest in years. Every team in this division has major flaws.

Kansas City has been hit hard by the injury bug, and their starters have finally found their water level after walking on magical quicksilver for two years.

The Cleveland Indians can pitch as well of any team west of Flushing, New York, and while their offense has not been as putrid as the preseason haters thought it would be, it is still a lineup with question marks. Is Michael Brantley, for instance, going to contribute anything this year? The Tribe’s starting staff is excellent, but their bullpen boasts two names that Tiger fans will recognize: Joba Chamberlain and Tom Gorzellany. That does not inspire confidence.

As for the White Sox, they played over their heads in April. They may be the best team in the division, but the back end of their rotation remains inconsistent with Carlos Rodon and Matt Latos. Which is why they acquired James Shields from the Padres over the weekend, making them the first team in the division to shore up their roster for a playoff push.

The Tigers are hanging close in a lackluster division. No team is likely to take command, which as much as anything else should give the fans hope the rest of the way.