There will come a time when the Detroit Tigers will relax their stranglehold grip on the American League Central, but that time hasn’t come yet.
After sweeps of a pair of division rivals, the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals, the Tigers have sent a strong message to the rest of the AL Central. That message is, “We’re still here.”
The Tigers’ offense pounded the Royals over the weekend, and at the same time, all three starting pitchers confounded the overmatched home team. After a 6-1 road trip, the Tigers enjoyed a happy plane ride home last night and prepare to start a four-game series at Comerica Park against the woeful Houston Astros. Detroit’s 17-9 record is the best in the American League, and their lead in the Central is now 4 1/2 games (but 6 games in the all-important loss column).
The Detroiters have won three straight division titles and advanced to the AL Championship Series in each of the last three seasons. Yet, this good start wasn’t a given. In spring training there were a litany of questions, for example: How would the Tigers replace the power in the middle of the lineup that they lost when they traded Prince Fielder? Would the team regret the trade of Doug Fister, a solid-and-at-time-spectacular starting pitcher who was dealt to the Nationals in a head-scratching trade? How could the bullpen handle the loss of Bruce Rondon to season-ending surgery? What would become of the left field position after the left-handed portion of a platoon (Andy Dirks) was lost for several months to an injury? What impact would the loss of shortstop Jose Iglesias have on the team’s defense? How would Miguel Cabrera look after having off-season surgery to repair the core injury that hobbled him the last 8 weeks of 2013? Would Justin Verlander bounce back from surgery to repair an injury he suffered in the offseason? Oh, and what about the rookie manager, how would that affect the Tigers?
That’s a lot of question marks for any team, let alone a team picked by many to win the World Series. But the Tigers have responded with one of their better starts in recent years. How are they doing it?
It’s the front line players who are leading the way for Detroit so far in 2014. By front line, I mean the starting lineup and the top four starting pitchers. For every team, the regulars in the lineup and the 3-4 top starting pitchers will get the most action throughout the season, and the Tigers are as well-oiled in those spots as any team in baseball. Their so deep and so talented that it doesn’t even matter that much that Cabrera had an off-month in April. Other front line players have risen to the challenge.
Austin Jackson and Victor Martinez are fueling the Detroit offense. Jackson is thriving lower in the batting order, where he’s out of the spotlight a bit. VMart just cruises along delivering hit after hit after hit, while still being the toughest batter to fan in the game. Ian Kinsler is off to a good start at the plate, and Torii Hunter continues to defy Father Time as he makes another bid for the All-Star team at the age of 38. The team hardly flinched when shortstop-for-hire Alex Gonzalez didn’t pan out and was cut after a few weeks of doddering play. Instead, newcomer Rajai Davis is hitting like Al Kaline and running the bases like Ty Cobb as he gets a chance to play pretty much regularly out in left field. Rookie Nick Castellanos will look silly on some pitches and he’ll lunge at balls outside the strike zone, but through Saturday he shared the team lead with 17 RBIs, and he has enough flashes of his awesome potential to indicate that he could hold down the hot corner for a long time in Motown.
But where the team is really shining so far in ’14 is in the starting rotation, an area of strength for years. Brad Ausmus has the luxury of handing the ball to two Cy Young Award winners in co-aces Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. So far, they’ve fed off each other. Scherzer has a puny 2.08 ERA and he sports a 5-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, a stat that shows how dominant a starter is. Verlander usually gets off to a meager start, but he’s put up a 2.68 ERA and has produced a quality start in six of his seven starts.
One of the quandaries of 2013-14 offseason was what to do with Rick Porcello. Before the Fister trade, there were some who thought the Tigers should have traded Porcello for either a shortstop or a bullpen piece. Instead, GM Dave Dombrowski cleared Fister out, elevated lefty Drew Smyly back into the rotation, and secured his commitment to 25-year old Porcello. So far this season that move has looked brilliant. Porcello has won four games, his ERA is in a much more palatable region of 3.50-3.75, and most importantly, the right-hander has improved his strikeout to walk ratio (he’s finally starting to strikeout batters with a diving fastball), while also improving his WHIP (walks and hits allowed per 9 innings). Porcello currebtly ranks second in the AL in WHIP, and he’s kept his team in games. Smyly has made only two starts, but his ERA is 2.45 and he has two quality starts in three chances. Meanwhile, Doug Fister hasn’t made a start for the Washington Nationals, and he hasn’t been missed in Detroit. Anibal Sanchez, the third head in Brad Ausmus’s starting pitching monster, has been lights out when he’s been healthy, though he’s spent a week-and-a-half on the disabled list with a nasty blister. Once he’s back, with Porcello and Smyly dealing like they are, the Tigers may be unbeatable, at least for 6-7 innings a game.
The bullpen and bench have not been good so far this season, and that bill will eventually come due. There will be games where the absence of a top-notch pinch-hit bat will hurt the Tigers. There will be games where a sure-handed defensive replacement would be handy, and Ausmus won’t have that option. There will be extra-inning games that will stretch the Detroit reserves to the limit. The Tigers may lose a few of those games (last season they were 6-13 in extra-inning games and 20-26 in one-run games). And the bullpen will blow games (they have already), but the Tigers front line players are so good that it may not matter much. It might not be that much of a struggle to win the AL Central (though I think it’ll get tighter and that Chicago will be the biggest challenge) again in 2014. With a core of superstars and a talented supporting cast of front line players, 12-13 players deep, the Tigers are as good as any team in the game. How far they go this season will depend on how much lifting that group can do and how infrequently the rest of the team is put in position to win or lose games.