Detroit Tigers: Rick Knapp the last to go?

Justin Verlander has every right to wonder where the rest of the Detroit Tigers starting rotation has gone. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Having reached the mid-point of the 2011 season in Major League Baseball, teams are beginning their mid-season evaluations. With the trade deadline quickly approaching, contenders are moving into buyers mode while the bottom-dwellers are moving into sellers mode. For the Detroit Tigers, this trading deadline could play a crucial role in where they will end up come the beginning of the postseason. One move has already been made in the decision to fire pitching coach Rick Knapp, but will he be the last coach or player to go?

There is no question that changes have to be made within the Detroit organization in order for them to be in any contention for the division crown. That’s what it will take to make the postseason for any AL Central contender, as it seems that, barring a major turn-around in the play of the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, the AL East will likely have two playoff spots come September and October. So, in order for the Tigers to make the playoffs, they will have to win the division, and frankly, this current team won’t get it done.

When playing to their potential, the Tigers can play with anyone. The problem is, though, they have struggled all season to have that complete game as a team. Both offense and defense have shown great inconsistencies on a day-to-day basis. Starting pitching and relief pitching struggle to get on the same page, and the offense is great one day and horrendous the next.

To stick with the pitching, it has been, quite possibly, the most aggravating part of the 2011 season for fans. Currently, the pitching staff  sits 26th out of 30 teams with a 4.37 ERA and 25th with a .261 BAA. To separate the staff into starting and relief roles will allow fans to view two staffs that have been night and day the whole season.

In the early months of the season, the starting pitchers had a 30-plus game streak of allowing three runs or less in each game. That led them to an early season ERA of 3.92 to start the month of June, which was good for seventh in the American League. At this point in July, the starting pitching staff has fallen to 10th in the AL with a 4.13 ERA. If you remove Justin Verlander‘s numbers, that ERA for the last month has been near 8.00. Aside from Verlander, the four other starters have been almost non-existent in games because they have been pulled so early. And question marks at the four and five spots in the rotation have led manager Jim Leyland to put Phil Coke back into the bullpen after starting the season with a 1-8 record and a 4.96 ERA.

The relief pitching started the season so badly that even with an okay month in June, their ERA is still sitting at 4.91, which is good for last place in baseball tied with Minnesota. While the relief pitching has shown life in recent days with the continued successes of Al Alburquerque (47 Ks in 29 IP) and Jose Valverde (23 for 23 in SO), there has been a struggle to find days when both starting and relief pitching play well. These numbers and struggles played a key role in the decision to fire pitching coach Rick Knapp, but who else within this organization could follow him?

Within the coaching staff, Manager Jim Leyland has felt heat for the past few years because of his inability to get his teams to finish a season strong, failing to record a .500 post-All-Star break record in each of his seasons as manager. This season, he has continually been criticized for the amount of playing time he allows to Ryan Raburn at second base. (See a more hopeful take on Raburn here from fellow TTFB writer JJ Stoppard.) Leyland’s recent game ejections and press conference blow-ups at the media signal that the pressure is on and all may not be well within the organization. Being in the last year of his contract, how the team plays after the break will play a key role in whether or not Leyland will be skipper of the Detroit Tigers down the stretch.

Hitting Coach LLoyd McClendon sits in an awkward spot. It’s been hard to evaluate his abilities as hitting coach because there has been both success and struggle within this team’s batting order. Currently, there are six everyday players hitting .290 or better, with five of them above .300. The team sits eighth in MLB in runs scored with 411, and a team batting average of .265 is fifth best in all of baseball.

Within the successes, though, their have been areas of worry for this Tiger offense. As mentioned before, when this offense is good its great, but when it is bad, it is horrendous. This offense has seen droughts of games in which runs have come at a premium, and they have not cashed in on the opportunities given to them with runners in scoring position. Most notably, they are on a seven-game stretch in which they are only hitting .226 and have scored just 30 runs with 50 strikeouts. Strikeouts is an area that has worried fans the whole season with the team having struck out 656 times, which is 10th most in all of baseball. They have also grounded into 74 double plays, which is also 10th most in all of baseball. If recent trends have shown anything, it’s that if this offense hits a long enough drought, McClendon could also be watching games from his home.

From a player stand point, guys to watch around this time of year would be Don Kelly, Brandon Inge, Raburn and Alburquerque. For Raburn, he has to be worried about his position on the team and could see his season end as soon as Carlos Guillen makes his expected return after the All-Star break. While Leyland has given this player every opportunity to perform, he continually lets the team down both offensively and defensively. At the plate, he is hitting just .216 with 31 RBIs in 75 games played. In the field, he has committed nine errors and has a fielding percentage of .954, which is last on the team among position players. Fans would love to see him return to the bench and become the every fourth- or fifth-day player that he has always been throughout his career.

Inge is wearing out his time as an everyday third basemen for the Tigers. He is hitting just .186 on the season with one home run and 17 RBIs. His number of strikeouts (56) greatly outnumbers his number of hits (38) . Defensively, the normally sure-handed third basemen has been anything but this season with seven errors and a fielding percentage of .962, good for second lowest amongst position players on the team. Inge and Raburn sit on thin ice with fans and at some point, their continued struggles will see them traded or on the bench.

Kelly and Alburquerque sit on the opposite side of the spectrum from Raburn. While many teams look at prospects within organizations around trading deadlines, these two players have become major league performers and could prove to make nice additions to teams looking to build. For the Tigers, these are movable players that could possibly allow them to make the trade for impact players to help make their playoff push.

Kelly is not an everyday player, but he has played well enough this season to warrant play over Inge. Hitting .247 with three home runs and 11 RBIs, he has been what the Tigers had hoped he’d be as a back-up player. For fans, hitting .300 would be nice to see , but that’s never going to happen with Kelly. He fits well at that.250 point and has been solid, at times, at getting on base and scoring runs with 22 runs scored from the two spot in the batting order.

This line-up is good enough in a weak Central Division to make the playoffs, but not good enough to win a World Series. Changes must be made in order to garner some sort of hope for a long postseason run. Depending on how Guillen plays after returning to the team will play a large roll in determining how many moves the Tigers are willing to make at the trade deadline. They have the movable players who can attract teams looking to sell.

One thing is certain, among players or coaches, Rick Knapp will not be the last to go.

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