Tigers deserve good overall marks for the first half of the season


Victor Martinez has had a great first half for the Detroit Tigers.

Here’s my report card for the Detroit Tigers for the somewhat bizarre but mostly successful first half of the 2014 season:

Hitting: B+
While Victor Martinez enjoyed a career-best first half, with unexpected power, Miguel Cabrera started out slow and then returned to form, though he’s not quite punishing the ball at an MVP or Triple Crown level this year (or maybe we’re just getting used to his awesome). Around this dynamic duo, the Tigers have enjoyed a pretty productive Ian Kinsler and the surprising punch of J.D. Martinez. The rest of the batting order has been spotty and inconsistent, but with significant contributions at times from Rajai Davis, Torii Hunter, Eugenio Suarez, and Nick Castellanos — but Austin Jackson and Alex Avila have been mostly missing in action. At the All-Star break, the Tigers were leading the American League with a .778 OPS (.280/.333/.444) but trailed the Angels and Athletics in the measure that really matters — runs scored.

Defense: C
Jackson remains a good defender in center, but he is flanked by men with limited to merely passable range who are prone to making mistakes. Kinsler is fairly dependable at second base but also makes the occasional misplay, Cabrera has limited range but usually makes the plays he can. The rookies on the right side of the infield are learning on the job: Suarez shows promise, and Castellanos tries hard, is improving, and has flashes of competence. Avila has become an anchor — a smart handler of pitchers with a decent arm. But other than catcher and center field, Detroit is overall quite mediocre in the field.

Starting Pitching: B
Scherzer, Sanchez, and Porcello have become the new big three—all of them reliable workhorses who can usually put their team in a position to win. These three match up with any starting trio in the league. Drew Smyly has been OK as a fifth starter — but getting worse of late, and the big question is how he will hold up carrying his increased workload into the second half of the season. The overall grade is dragged down by the continuing mystery of Justin Verlander, prone to bad innings, gopher balls, bouts of wildness, and just general poor pitching too often so far this season. If JV could get it back together and keep it together, this would be among the very best starting rotations in baseball.

Bullpen: D
Ugh—Joe Nathan, the team’s new closer, who looked like a sure thing, has struggled and shown signs of a steep fall-off. Everyone else has been unreliable except for Joba Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque, and if those two are your best relievers, your bullpen is in trouble. The Tigers so far have survived the disaster that is their bullpen, but they won’t make it deep into the post-season if they don’t solve the puzzle. (Dragged down by the bullpen and Verlander, the staff at the All-Star break had an ERA slightly above league average and was, somewhat surprisingly, ninth in the AL in strikeouts.)

Bench: C
It was thin and insignificant until the arrival of J.D. Martinez, but now that he’s forced his way into the everyday starting lineup, the team has some kind of weapon in whoever of the outfielders is not starting on any particular day. Other than that, there’s not much to say except I admit Don Kelly is versatile (there, I’ve said something positive about him).

Base running: C
The surprising news that the Tigers had become a team that steals bases gave the club a jump-start and a whole new dimension in April. But that has worn a bit thin in the last month or so with some notable instances of bad base running. Yes, Detroit has sixty-one steals, above league average, but they’ve been caught thirty-one times, second most in the AL. Hey, at least the grade is no longer an F!

Manager: Incomplete
Brad Ausmus got credit out of the starting gate for being a thinking, innovative, responsive skipper who perked up the team’s running game and got everyone thinking about a more multifaceted approach. The team chemistry is fine. And Ausmus has tried to get the most out of the bad hand he’s been dealt in the bullpen, but he hasn’t really solved the problem there. He has been too reluctant to stay with a hot hand more than an inning. Maybe he should keep trying harder to use his better pitchers out of the pen in multiple kinds of ways, not just confine everyone to a set role. But admittedly he doesn’t have much to work with. To his credit, Ausmus didn’t panic during the team’s one very bad slump. He is learning on the job, and he gets credit for explaining his every move. But his grade has to be incomplete because only the rest of the season and the post-season will provide a fair measure.

Overall: B+
Because the big three starters are so good and the Miggy-Martinezes so productive, the various problems on the club have not been fatal. Which squad is the real Tigers team is still not clear though. Many players have been as hot and cold as the weather. Just when the team looks solid, the ship starts to leak. Because the rest of the division, as usual, has been mediocre, Detroit should have no trouble winning the Central again. And 53-38 is hard to argue with. But the bullpen must be fixed, and Verlander too, or a championship will remain elusive.