During the offseason the Detroit Tigers were crowned as the best team in the AL Central. The addition of Prince Fielder gave the Detroit Tigers a lethal middle of the order. Having midseason acquisition Doug Fister for a full year should have allowed the Tigers to cruise to a second straight division win. We’re nearly two months into the 2012 season, and at 20-21 and 3 games back the Detroit Tigers aren’t performing as well as we expected. So I thought it would be a good time to look at why the Detroit Tigers aren’t leading the AL Central, and if they still have a shot at a playoff spot.
Let’s start with the pitching. Ace Justin Verlander is pitching even better than he did last season when he won both the Cy Young and the MVP. The strikeouts are up, the walks are down, leading to a better ERA. And yet the Detroit Tigers are trailing the Cleveland Indians by 3 games. I’d argue that this is a perfect example of why a pitcher, or specifically Justin Verlander, shouldn’t have been the MVP. Last year we heard stories about how Verlander carried the Detroit Tigers to the playoffs – and yet when he’s pitching better they’re doing even poorer. But their struggles aren’t Verlander’s fault.
No, the Detroit Tigers struggles rest on the shoulders of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Both were expected to be significant contributors to the rotation, and so far they’ve been a huge disappointment. Scherzer has an ugly 5.73 ERA, although given his outstanding strikeout rate there is hope that he should improve quickly. Porcello is a whole other story, as he’s been around the 5.00 ERA mark the past few seasons. At one point Porcello has a highly touted prospect, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever be much better than a back of the rotation pitcher.
The biggest surprise in the rotation has been Drew Smyly. The rookie southpaw has helped keep the rotation afloat after an injury to Doug Fister, as Smyly is 1-1 with a 2.89 ERA. Once Fister returns to form, the Tigers could have a scary top 3 for the playoffs with Verlander, Fister and Smyly.
Things are a bit different on the offensive side – raise your hand if you thought Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks (who?) would be the Detroit Tigers best hitters. Because those are the guys carrying the offence. Jackson has continued his breakout season, posting a 958 OPS in addition to his typical gold glove defence. But Andy Dirks (who?) came out of nowhere, posting a similar 954 OPS in left field. It’ll be interesting to see if he can keep this up over a full season.
As for the two guys who were expected to anchor the lineup, it’s been a mixed bag. Miguel Cabrera has been brutal defensively at third, and his offence hasn’t been at an elite level. But with 8 home runs and an 850 OPS, it hasn’t been terrible either. Fielder has been pretty similar with an 850 OPS, which while good, is nowhere near good enough given what the Detroit Tigers are paying him. If the Tigers are to turn it around, they’ll need both of their big bats hitting like superstars. Both are capable of doing that, it’s just a matter of if and when at this point.
But it’s not just Fielder and Cabrera who need to step it up. Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta have been awful after breakout seasons, and the rest of the offence has been non-existent. It’s a big reason why the Detroit Tigers currently rank 7th in the American League in runs scored, a large drop considering they were fourth in runs scored last season.
If the Detroit Tigers are to rebound, they’ll need better innings out of the rotation, their superstars to step it up, and to get some quality role players to produce. The lack of depth in the lineup was a potential weakness during the offseason, and other teams have exposed it. It’s possible that the Detroit Tigers can still win the division, but they’ll need several players to start performing or they’ll quickly turn into one of the biggest disappointments of the 2012 season.