Slump exposed Tiger weaknesses, but will reinforcements steady the ship?

Ian Kinsler is starting to warm up for the Detroit Tigers.

Ian Kinsler is starting to warm up for the Detroit Tigers.

All good teams suffer slumps. Over the course of the long, grueling major league season, even the best teams blow hot and cold. The teams that make it all the way to the playoffs find a way to staunch their wounds and stop the bleeding before it becomes fatal.

When the Detroit Tigers went from a great 11-2 start to treading water with a 17-18 record over the next six weeks or so, questions started to surface, but no one panicked. Bad things happen to good teams.

But then the bottom fell out. The disastrous skid at first looked like a routine rough patch on a road trip against a good team. The club looked weary against the Angels.

But when the return home for a series against a bad team didn’t stop the slide, concern could have turned to panic. Three good Oakland starters made the slumping Detroit lineup look pathetic. It looked like the whole team had caught a flu—because losing can be as contagious as winning.

In Chicago, Murphy’s law seem to take full effect. Everything that could go wrong did. Joakim Soria was one out away from ending the losing streak when a ball disappeared over the center field wall. Rajai Davis’s comically inept leap ended with his arm scrunched against the top of the wall. A great outfielder might have made a spectacular catch. Rajai is not a great outfielder.

And then, in the eleventh, Miguel Cabrera couldn’t backhand a grounder, and the winning rally was gift-wrapped. When the Tigers’ eighth consecutive loss came on a bases-loaded hit batsman, it seemed clear that the gods of the diamond were laughing cruelly at Detroit.

With their worst skid in a decade, Detroit had sunk all the way to .500. With the White Sox and Indians both lying in wait, cynics asked whether the Tigers could go all the way from first to last in the course of six weeks.

Finally, the club’s only two reliable starters saved the day. David Price dominated the Sox in a complete game on Saturday, and then Alfredo Simon overcame a three-run first-inning homer and logged eight gutty innings on Sunday afternoon. The Tigers’ power outage ended. A Cabrera two-run homer sparked a five-run inning, and then homers flew on Sunday. Once again, the Tiger lineup looked formidable. (They followed it up with six runs against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night).

While the slump exposed Detroit’s lack of depth, revealing a team that looks to be skating on thin ice, it also showed a club with some resiliency and toughness under pressure.

One thing became clear: Brad Ausmus is starting to take the reins more firmly. The second-year manager finally showed he is willing to shake things up a little. He experimented with the lineup, getting J.D. Martinez out of the fourth spot and putting Cespedes there—a good move—and moving Jose Iglesias to second and putting Ian Kinsler fifth. Iglesias is an ideal No. 2 hitter and doesn’t belong in the No. 9 spot. The experiment didn’t work right away, and Ausmus went back to the old alignment. But at least he proved willing to tinker—and maybe it was the start of some innovation. The lineup shouldn’t be set in stone, but adapted to the opposing pitcher at least a little.

Similarly, Ausmus tried hard to get the most out of the patchwork that is the Detroit bullpen. He isn’t afraid to call on Soria in the eighth inning for a four-out save. He tried to groom Angel Nesbitt as a set-up man, perhaps out of desperation. He used Joba Chamberlain more judiciously. He’s gotten more than expected out of Alex Wilson. Still, the Tiger pen is being held together with scotch tape and bubblegum (as evidenced in the opener against the Cubs when Ausmus pushed an effective Sanchez into the eighth inning to spell his bullpen for a third straight game). The Detroit pen is in need of a major overhaul. But Ausmus is making the most out of his limited resources, even if some of his moves backfire day to day. Again, at least he’s willing to try different things.

During the slump, and due to a number of minor injuries, Detroit employed some new spare parts. Tyler Collins is coming around as a hitter. Maybe Josh Wilson can help. Hernan Perez is gone. Daniel Fields debuted. Kyle Ryan looked promising. Again, while there is no magic bullet, at least management was not overly stubborn, showing a willingness to shuffle personnel as needed.

Of course, the slump also revealed some real problems. The rotation behind Price is a shambles. Something’s wrong with Anibal Sanchez. As well as Alfredo Simon has pitched, he’s no #2. The lineup is potent only sporadically.

Which team is the real Tigers? The juggernaut of the first two weeks or the toothless squad of the eight-game skid? Probably neither. As currently constituted, the real team is probably the 17-18 squad that labored between the hot start and the deep slump.

Obviously, the main problem is that the club has been missing some key cogs. The Tigers need some semblance of the old Justin Verlander, and his return to the rotation this weekend will be a welcome sight. They really miss the 2014 model of Victor Martinez. His return means everything—but only if it’s on at least serviceable knees. A gimpy DH won’t do.

Catcher Alex Avila’s absence has coincided with the implosion of the pitching staff; that is almost certainly not a coincidence. He is sorely missed as well, even though James McCann has been doing a great job.

But the most pressing need for repair is still, of course, the bullpen. And that’s why the imminent return of Bruce Rondon is another key. If he could become the pitcher he’s long been touted as, that would be a huge help. But is that possible after all the injuries?

Fortunately, the slump coincided with a mediocre stretch for the Kansas City Royals. And the Tigers’ record against the Central Division has remained sterling. So Detroit can recover quickly in the standings (the Minnesota Twins can be ignored; they’re not for real).

It’s not time yet to give up on this club. We have seen the worst it can be: a weak-hitting, bad-pitching nightmare. There is little margin for error. This is the crucial moment of the 2015 season. The Tigers need to hold the fort until reinforcements arrive.