As we enter the month of May, we are given the opportunity to look back on the first month of the 2011 Major League Baseball season. More specifically, fans of the Detroit Tigers can remember the opening month they hoped the team would have, while scratching their heads at the month they actually had.
If you had told Tiger fans at the end of spring training that, as of May 1st, their team would be sitting in third place in the American League Central Division, then you would have most likely received no argument. Had you told the same fans that, as of May 1st, their team would be third and almost eight games behind the Cleveland Indians, well, then, you would have been laughed out of the building.
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Unfortunately, for Tiger fans, that’s reality.
In an AL Central Division that has been turned completely upside down from a year ago, the Detroit Tigers find themselves sitting in that middle spot, and barring a major turnaround in their play, that’s where they will stay.
As surprising as the early-season run by the Indians seems to be, one can argue that it has been anything but a fluke. They are playing the best baseball of anyone in the league. They receive solid pitching from their starters down through their closer, and timely hitting has helped jolt them to an early-season lead.
The Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians have been night and day, thus far, in 2011, with the Tigers getting off to an abysmal start offensively, while their bullpen has struggled to close out quality starts by the starting rotation.
There are many pressing needs that need to be addressed with this team, but none are more important than the offensive woes. To say that the offense, to this point, has been a disappointment is a major understatement.
This offense was expected to produce this season after adding Victor Martinez to the middle of the order and expecting more from Alex Avila as a fulltime catcher. To Avila’s credit, he has been one of two bright spots in the Tiger’s order to go along with the expected sensational hitting that Miguel Cabrera provides on a yearly basis. But there are nine positions in a batting order and getting positive results from two will never get a team into playoff talk or contention.
Early on, the struggles offensively begin with lead-off hitter Austin Jackson, who enters May leading the majors in strikeouts with 43, which has contributed to his .190 batting average. Jackson continually falls behind in the counts and looks confused as he struggles to just make contact with anything near the strike zone.
[poll id=”6″]The lack of offense continues with hitters like Ryan Raburn (second in strikeouts with 40 and hitting .236) and Brandon Inge (23 Ks, .211 BA), who both seem lost in many at-bats and act as if a coach needs to tell them to go ahead and open their eyes when they do finally put a ball in play.
Brennan Boesch (.300 BA) and Jhonny Peralta (.270 BA) provide sparks at times, but are still too inconsistent to provide any reason for pitchers to go ahead and pitch to Miguel Cabrera with first base open.
That leaves players like Magglio Ordonez and Martinez, who could provide offensive power when healthy, but both have had lingering injury problems to begin the season. Ordonez has struggled to get the ball in the air and leads the team with 37 ground-ball outs, while Martinez has spent time on the DL after struggling to find consistency in his first handful of games with the Tigers, hitting just .254 in 17 games.
So what do we make of the offensive struggles? How do the Tigers go about fixing these problems and getting back into the race to win the division?
First and foremost, changes need to be made at the top of the order to get guys on base and allow the bigger bats in the middle of the lineup to drive in runs. After a month of baseball, the Tiger’s first three batters are hitting a combined .200, which isn’t getting the job done. Manager Jim Leyland already has made a move to spark the top of the lineup by bringing up Scott Sizemore, who was hitting .408 and had an OPS of 1.100 in triple-A Toledo, to replace Will Rhymes (.221 BA; .556 OPS) at second in the order.
The offense is centered around Miguel Cabrera — who leads the team with a .352 batting average, seven home runs and 23 RBIs — and his abilities to drive in runs. He is the most lethal part of the order and, if the first three batters in the lineup could find better ways to get on base, his numbers could shoot through the roof.
But the hitters in front of Cabrera are just the first part. In order to force teams to pitch to Cabrera, the five and six spots need to produce with more consistency. Having a healthy Martinez return to the lineup could be exactly what is needed to provide a cushion for Cabrera, as well as take some pressure off Boesch and Peralta.
Let’s remember that it’s only May, and there are five months of baseball to be played before all is said and done. But these offensive struggles have to make Leyland think about how important the second month of the season needs to be in re-establishing a consistent offense. The next month could very well decide what the Detroit Tigers will be fighting for as we reach the summer months. Will they improve on the .255 team batting average that got them through April, or is this what fans should expect as playoff races begin, leaving this team in the dust?