The report of the Tigers’ demise is greatly exaggerated

J.D. Martinez has had a hot bat as the Tigers have reclaimed fist place.

J.D. Martinez has had a hot bat as the Tigers have reclaimed fist place.

I don’t intend this to be a glass is half-full article. Anyone who knows me can tell you I am much more inclined toward the “glass is half empty” philosophy.

But I have to call it like I see it. And when it comes to the 2014 Detroit Tigers there’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom lately. There may be a time for sorrow and doom and even gloom, but that time is not now. It’s June for gosh sakes! There’s a lot of baseball to be played, and besides, don’t you have to admit that you feel a heck of a lot better on Monday morning, June 23rd than you did on Wednesday evening June 19th. On Wednesday the Tigs suffered a third straight loss at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. The Kansas City Royals! The last time the Royals were contenders, the Huxtables were the hot thing on television, Top Gun was top dog at the box office, and kids were playing with the hot toy of the year – the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The Royals? They’re in year 29 of a 29-year rebuilding project. But still, they took three of four from the Tigers last week and took possession of first place. But their grip on the top spot was short-lived. The Tigers went down to Cleveland and took out their frustration on their favorite whipping boys – the Indians. Last season, even though our Bengals only inched out the Tribe by a single game, they beat the Indians 15 times in 19 meetings. We haven’t seen a smack down like that since MJ, Sir Charles and Larry Legend pounded the international world in hoops back in ’92. The Tigers played the role of Dream Team and the Indians were Angola. True to form, the 2014 Tigers swept the Indians this weekend, extending their winning streak to four games and reclaiming first place. The Royals stumbled at home against the Mariners, losing three straight and Detroit is now back where they usually are – on top in the AL Central.

It’s not a given that our Tigers will stay in first place and make a fourth straight postseason appearance, but it seems likely that the division will be decided by Detroit one way or another. The Tigers are the best team in the division, and it’s not really close. But this is baseball and you have to play 162 games to sort this stuff out. As we saw over a 29-game stretch that began on May 19th after the team was bumped from a flight in Boston and forced to race into Cleveland to face the Indians, strange things can happen, bats can go silent, and aces can come up jokers.

But the 7-game lead the Tigers built in May wasn’t an illusion. This team can be that good. And the games you win in April and May are just as important as the games you win later in the season. That 7-game cushion allowed the Tigers to weather their worst extended stretch of play in more than a decade, and still come out only a sliver out of first place. Now after their weekend sweep of the Tribe, that included solid performances from Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, as well as some fine offense from up and down the order, it looks like the ship has been righted. I wouldn’t expect this team to go 9-20 again or anything close to it. They are more likely to go 20-9.

That doesn’t mean the Tigers will run away with the division, it just means they have the horses to win it. I actually think they will pull away eventually, but remember this is a team that has played 173, 175, and 173 games the last three seasons with their deep runs in the postseason. Getting to the postseason four seasons in a row is hard to do, something only a few teams have ever done.

Here’s what the Tigers need to win their fourth straight division title and make a run for their first World Championship in 30 years:

1. Return to form from Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Verlander doesn’t have to be the JV of 2011, we know he never will be. But he could give the Tigers the sort of extended stretch of solid pitching he did for much of 2012 and parts of 2013, especially the end of the season. He’s no longer striking out as many batters, which is troubling, but he is a great pitcher and if he finds the groove again (earlier than he did in ’13), Detroit can ride his lead.

Max simply needs to throw 6-7 innings and be dominant with his fastball as he has been many times this year already. He was fine yesterday against the Indians, and I think his 2-3 bad starts this season were just an aberration. The workload on these two needs to be watched though, to have them fresh for the stretch run.

2. Consistent performance from the back end of the bullpen. Every Tiger fan knows this has been the great achilles heel for the team this year and just about every other year. Joe Nathan has set some sort of record for going from New Guy in Town to Most Hated Guy in Town. His recent outings have been pretty good, and he still has the chance to get on track. But Detroit won’t wait long if he falters badly again. Joel Hanrahan will be available in July and he’s a closer, once upon a time a pretty good one. Phil Coke scares the crap out of every Detroit rooter, but listen to this — it seems he thrives if he’s used in tough situations as he has been lately. And he’s getting his #2 pitch, the breaking ball, into form. I won’t like it, and I won’t watch it (I’ll have my hands over my eyes like every other Tigs’ fan), but if manager Brad Ausmus wants to use Coke in save situations here and there, I would welcome that over the nibbling of the uncertain Joe Average.

Note to Brad: it’s a long season and you’ll need to keep your relievers both healthy and sharp. Some relievers, like Al Alburquerque, need to work a few times a week to stay tuned up. Others, like Evan Reed and Ian Krol, can’t pitch too often or they’ll break down. The worst grade I’d give Ausmus so far is in his handling of the pen — he’s been too quick to use guys in only one role and situation, and he’s used some guys way too much. The Tigers not only need a few pitchers to step up to fix the bullpen issue, they need Ausmus to settle into a groove too.

3. Above average offensive production from one more spot in the order. As infuriating as it is to watch Alex Avila and Austin Jackson wave and miss at pitches or weakly tap the ball into the ground for stretches at a time, the Tigers offense is not a glaring problem. The team ranks 4th in the AL in runs scored, and with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Ian Kinsler all having All-Star seasons, they have the fuel to keep their offense chugging along. J.D. Martinez has stepped in to add a fourth solid bat, just when Rajai Davis and Torii Hunter disappeared. But the Tigers could use one more potent bat in the lineup.

It’ll probably have to be someone on their current 40-man roster, as it’s unlikely the Tigers will deal for a hitter. Eugenio Suarez has that potential. but he’s a rookie and he can’t be counted on. In fact, in his last seven games, he’s 3-for-23 with zero extra-base hits.

At this point in their careers, Jackson and Avila have shown us all they have from the offensive side. They are both essentially defense-first guys, and anything we get from them with the lumber is just a bonus.

Nick Castellanos is showing signs of his star potential, but he is not likely to be a real threat at the plate for at least another year. In the meantime he’s a rookie and he’ll look promising one day and lost another.

It comes down to the corner outfield spots. J.D. Martinez has caught lightning in a bottle and the longer it lasts the better. We’ll find out by the end of the summer whether he’s a full-season wonder or he just got hot for a little while. Davis has settled down to his established level – he’s an exciting base runner but he won’t get on base much. Ausmus needs to bat him ninth, since Rajai doesn’t get on base enough to justify him getting the plate appearances in front of Miggy and VMart.

Could it be Andy Dirks? Maybe, and Andy is coming back soon. His “aw shucks” grin will be welcomed back, and if he could get hot it could make a nice platoon with J.D. Otherwise, I don’t know who the Tigers can rely on to extend the lineup a bit.

4. Play better at home. Since 2009, the Tigers have won at least 50 games at home every year. They’ve been the best home team in baseball over that stretch, but so far in 2014 they’ve been mediocre in the Motor City: 19-19. Meanwhile they’ve been great road warriors, going 20-13 (the second-best record away from home in the AL behind the A’s). So far it hasn’t been one thing that has really caused this change in performance at home, it’s really been the case of running into hot teams in Detroit. The Rangers took 3-of-4 in May at Comerica Park, the Blue Jays were red hot and swept the Tigers in Detroit in early June, and KC (on a winning streak) took 3-of-4 last week while visiting Detroit. The Tigers need their appetite for home cooking back.

The Tigers aren’t dead and the Royals aren’t running away and hiding, in fact the rest of the AL Central just seems to be plodding along around .500 or below, waiting to see which team is going to take control. The Tigers know that role very well and they’re well-equipped to take the lead.