What are the Detroit Tigers? Are they good? Or are they bad?
As we approach the 60-game mark of the 2011 season, fans are still trying to figure that question out. Sitting at 29-27 and in second place in the A.L. Central, just four and a half games behind the Cleveland Indians, fans are wondering where this team is going to go. While there have been streaks of great play that have left fans cheering in the stands, there have also been streaks of such poor play that fans have resorted to hiding their heads in shame.
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Altogether, this has been a season of streaks when it comes to winning and losing as a team. When they win, they win in bunches, and when they lose they lose in bunches. Since opening the season mixing in wins and loses in the first few weeks, the Tigers have gone on win streaks of four games twice, two winning streaks of three games and a stretch in which they won nine of 10. Mixed in with those winning streaks have been losing streaks of three games twice, a five-game losing streak and a stretch of seven losses in a row.
These streaks have kept them around the .500 mark as a team, and have hindered their ability to gain ground on Cleveland at the top of the division. At some point, one would think that this team will settle into a streak whether its winning or losing. There are some important factors that can decide which direction the team will go, and with that, I give you … the good, the bad and the ugly.
Starting Pitching. If anything has been a positive this season, it has been the starting pitching for the Tigers. As of June 1, Detroit’s starting pitching ranked seventh in the American League with a 3.92 ERA and sixth in both batting average against (.245) and wins (21). Justin Verlander highlights the rotation being second in the AL with a .190 batting average against and fourth in strikeouts with 76. While Verlander has been nothing short of brilliant at times this year, solid outings from Max Scherzer (six wins and 68 strikeouts), Rick Porcello (five wins and a 3.79 ERA) and Brad Penny (four wins and 100+ ground ball outs) have provided enough depth to keep the Tigers in every game they play and can help get this team into the playoffs.
Alex Avila. Perhaps one of the bigger disappointments to the 2010 season, Avila has come out firing on all cylinders to start 2011. Through April and May, Avila was second among catchers in RBIs with 30 and third in home runs with eight. He has already surpassed last season’s home run total of seven and is one RBI away from matching last season’s total of 31. Avila has been that reliable bat at the bottom of the order that can drive in runs and hit for power, but he has also shown up defensively. He sits second in the majors with 16 runners caught stealing and is top 10 in assists with 24. Avila’s bat at the bottom of the order and arm behind the plate can help slow down both opposing pitchers and base-runners. His play could be vital in getting the Tigers into a winning groove and staying there.
Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta. Although the offense has struggled at times, the production of the four, five and six hitters in the Tiger offense has made up for what little spark the top of the order has been able to bring to the table. Between the three hitters, they have a combined .308 BA with 99 RBIs on 24 home runs. Peralta, a career .265 hitter, is easily having the best start of his career and is on pace to break both his home run (24) and RBI (83) averages for a season with eight home runs and 31 RBIs in the first two months. Martinez has forced opposing pitchers to do something the five-hitter in the line-up couldn’t do last year, and that’s pitch to Cabrera. Becasue of the production of Martinez (.300 BA and 28 RBIs), pitchers can no longer intentionally walk Cabrera (.311 BA and 40 RBIs) expecting the hitters behind him to struggle. Their continued production is crucial in this offense if they have any hopes of catching Cleveland and making the A.L Central a race worth watching.
Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn. These were the two questionable contract extensions at the end of 2010 and in the offseason. Being re-signed in hopes of providing leadership and stability amongst a team that has tons of younger talent coming into the line-up, these two players have been nothing but disappointments in 2011. While their continued struggles at the plate have hurt this team day in and day out, they haven’t provided much with their gloves either (although Inge provides the occasional dazzling play at third). Hitting a combined .204 with just five home runs and 27 RBIs, their lack of production has put them on the bench in recent games, while players like Andy Dirks and Don Kelly are fighting for their playing time. Defensively, Inge has been shaky on his two bad knees at third base with five errors and a .964 fielding percentage, and Raburn has played a questionable left field, at times, with three errors and a .960 fielding percentage. The rest of the season could see less of Raburn and Inge and more of Kelly and Dirks if these two players can’t find a way to make the sort of impact on both sides of the ball that they have in years past.
The One, Two and Three hitters in the batting order. This has been a handful of players, from Austin Jackson to Will Rhymes, Scott Sizemore, Magglio Ordonez and Brennan Boesch, who have all struggled, at times, throughout the 2011 season. After stellar rookie seasons, Jackson and Boesch have come back down to earth for 2011. Jackson is hitting just .224 with 23 runs scored, while Boesch followed up an April in which he hit .319 and had 17 runs scored, with a May average of just .186 and 18 strikeouts. Ordonez struggled on his bad ankle and has been on the DL throughout the month of May. Sizemore (.221 BA and 4 RBIs) was inconsistent enough at second base to get traded, and Rhymes (.222 BA and 2 RBIs) played his way back to triple-A Toledo. It’s amazing that the power hitters in the middle of the lineup have had any production at all with such weak numbers from the top of the order. If this team is to get on a winning track, then the top of the order must get on and into scoring position so that Cabrera, Martinez and Peralta can get them across home plate.
The Bullpen. Without question, the bullpen has been the most aggravating aspect of this team to begin the 2011 season. After the signing of Joaquin Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million contract in the offseason, the late-inning relief was supposed to be in place. Benoit has yet to live up to the amount he is being paid and has been just one part of the meltdown that has been the Tiger bullpen this season. While Benoit has struggled to a 5.57 ERA, the rest of the staff hasn’t faired much better coming in at second to last in the majors with a bullpen ERA of 5.17, while giving up 82 earned runs and a .265 BAA. It has not been all Benoit in the late-inning meltdowns that have seen the Tigers lose leads and games due to poor pitching. Middle-relief guys Brayan Villarreal (6.46 ERA), Brad Thomas (9.00 ERA) and Ryan Perry (12.19 ERA) haven’t provided much support when called upon to maintain leads.
While Al Alburquerque (3.06 ERA and 31 Ks in 17.2 IP) and Jose Valverde (3.24 ERA and 14 of 14 in saves) have been the two lone reliable relievers since opening day, the problems with the other pitchers have outweighed their successes. Valverde has elevated his ERA from the first half last season, but he has given up just one earned run in 14 save opportunities this season. The front office and coaching staff are recognizing the weakness of the bullpen and have already begun making changes to help provide support for the great play of Valverde and Alburquerque. Within the trade of Sizemore to the Oakland Athletics, the Tigers acquired relief pitcher David Purcey who has already thrown two scoreless innings in two appearances. They have called up Charlie Furbush and Adam Wilk from triple-A Toledo, who have combined to throw 12.2 scoreless innings, giving up just six hits and striking out 14 in relief roles.
For this team to get on the winning track and stay there, the biggest change has to come from the bullpen. Since 2004, every American League Champion has had a bullpen that has ranked in the top 5 of the AL. Being almost last will never get Detroit into the conversation for possible World Series contenders or even playoff contenders. There has to be some support within the middle to late innings to take some pressure off the starting rotation to go seven plus innings every game. The changes being made have been good enough in the short-term, but only time will tell if the younger talent at every position has what it takes to take this team to the next level.