Detroit Tigers Learning Greatness Doesn’t Come Easy

The Detroit Tigers were supposed to take baseball by storm this season. The addition of Prince Fielder meant World Series or bust. Playing in what many deemed the worst division in baseball could only mean domination. Some fans even predicted a similar start to the 1984 Detroit Tigers’ 35-5 record.

One month in, and that didn’t quite happen. A lot occurred to derail Detroit’s potential hot start.

The season began with some bad luck when Doug Fister departed his first start with a left side strain, not the type of injury a pitcher can rush back from. The team also experienced Jose Valverde’s first blown save in over a year, foreshadowing some early season struggles. And the pesky second base situation, a position that remains with more questions than answers, hasn’t helped the stability in the field or lineup.

Add in inconsistencies from Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, at least one of which Detroit desperately needs to step up, and Delmon Young’s recent off field tirade and the Tigers continue finding the road to a championship is filled with bumps.

Let’s not fool ourselves either; the Tigers are a good baseball team, one that can attain greatness. But also, a team that needed to face some adversity early to know championships can’t be won on paper.

So what exactly is wrong with the Tigers? We’ll start with the least of their concerns, the hitting.

Keep Swinging

The Tigers offense produced average numbers in the first month. Prince Fielder hit well, but experienced some adjustment to the American League as he still seeks his power stroke. The bottom of the lineup that plagued Detroit much of last year continued to do so as Jim Leyland tooled with the lineup daily.  Even Miguel Cabrera encountered an 0 for 22 hitless streak along the way, the second longest of his career.

Of course, Cabrera kept swinging and reestablished his position as one of the most complete hitters in baseball. And that’s a big reason Detroit will be fine in the long run on offense. Cabrera and Fielder both maintained averages around .300 in the first month even with certain struggles. Cabrera will not experience another slump lasting that long and Fielder proved in past seasons a slow power start for him means nothing for the remainder of the season.

Another person to watch has been Austin Jackson, who seems to have found a swing and shorter kick that works for him. Jackson’s strikeout numbers remain high and seem like they will for his career, but he has a renewed focus on reaching base. Jackson walked more than Cabrera or Fielder in the first month of the season. He also found ways to be more patient, get ahead in the count and play for contact. The team depends on Fielder and Cabrera, but without base runners like Jackson for them to knock in, their plate opportunities become wasted. Other players struggling have shown consistency in the past, but Jackson may be the most important in keeping the lineup stable.

Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While some of the hitters struggling are veterans who may be readjusting to the cold and grind of another season, the bottom of Detroit’s lineup has had questions for years. This year, however, certain moves were recently made that may allow some cohesion in the 7, 8, 9 spots.

The Brandon Inge saga came to a close a few weeks into the season and Leyland no longer has the pressure of playing him in a certain amount of games. Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago will gain more consistent playing time to find their rhythms. Alex Avila, the young catcher, has a legitimate backup in Gerald Laird this year, in hopes that he won’t wear down like he did last season. Avila has been up and down early this year, which mirrors last season. He can become hot in an instant.

Finally, Delmon Young’s suspension may not be such a terrible thing for the team after all. The team is forced to insert some of its younger depth players in the lineup. Andy Dirks, Danny Worth, and Don Kelly all have the opportunity for real playing time for the first time this season. Even if they struggle now, the continuity will help the overall depth of the Tigers later in the season.

In The Field

Before anyone saw Detroit’s mediocre start, the number one question revolved around the Tigers ability to field a baseball. Cabrera moved to third base, the Tigers lacked a true second baseman, and a couple outfielders could use some work.

So far the fielding has been good enough. The Tigers are average in errors and fielding percentage.  Nothing has truly cost them any games yet that occurred in the field. The only worrisome stat is their lack of Baseball Reference’s defensive efficiency, where they reside near the bottom.  Certain plays stick out early like Delmon Young turning in circles as the ball falls next to him.

As for Cabrera, the biggest question mark, he has been okay. He has shown good range and a very strong arm. The only issue early with his fielding would be handling balls while on the run. Whether it is a bunt or a slow roller, if Cabrera doesn’t have time to set and throw an adventure may ensue. In the Seattle series and Yankees series a few bunts headed his way that caused some issues. Expect more teams to challenge him with bunting as he relearns how to handle those plays. His improvement will be vital in the stretch run and in the playoffs when runs become even more precious.

Find the Strike Zone

The final area of concern and the one that will make or break Detroit is pitching. No matter how well a team hits, the final result usually revolves around pitching. The good news: Justin Verlander is still Justin Verlander. Add in the emergence of rookie Drew Smyly, a former 2010 second round pick with an ERA under 1.50 in his first four starts, the foundation for a solid rotation exists.

As previously mentioned, the Fister injury set things back a bit. His spot has been filled by spot starters who don’t last too many innings. If Fister comes back healthy in May as expected, Detroit may have their top three pitchers, even if number three (Smyly) is an unlikely source.

That leaves Porcello and Scherzer, two with high expectations who looked shaky in April. Porcello showed promise in his first two starts of the season, going seven or more in each and giving up a total of three runs. Then he got steamrolled versus Texas and followed up with a dud against Seattle. This is the 23 year-old righty’s fourth year in the majors and he must find a way to stay dependable start to start with an ERA under 4.00.

Max Scherzer warming up his arm during pre-gam...

Max Scherzer warming up his arm during pre-game, Tigers at Royals, June 4, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bigger mystery, however, resides in Scherzer. He walked seven in his final April start and gave up at least 3 runs in each of his five starts. Scherzer traditionally struggles in the first half of the season, but Detroit can’t afford to wait around too long. He has yet to go beyond six innings in any start, putting pressure on an already tired bullpen.

Having a tired bullpen in April is not a good sign for the future. Detroit currently stands in the bottom 10 in ERA and innings pitched for starter pitchers. Considering Verlander pitched three games into the ninth inning in April, the other starters aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. Detroit dug deep bringing various relievers up and down from the minors to try and find some cohesion.

Octavio Dotel, brought in as a free agent, produced the strongest numbers of any reliever in April. The two mainstays of Joaquin Benoit and Valverde from last season, however, struggled throughout the month. Both were vital in Detroit’s late season surge to pull away and reach the playoffs. While each pitcher should gain more of a rhythm, both have struggled at various points in their careers and the Tigers may keep one eye open for extra reliever help down the road.

Only one other reliever, recently converted back to a starter Duane Below, showed true promise in April. When Fister comes back, Below may be put back in the long relief role he flourished in. The Tigers also saw Phil Coke do what he does. He won’t dominate, but in non-pressure situations he can help keep the score down.

So what does all this mean? Teams often struggle in April, but Detroit’s holes were exposed quicker than many envisioned. Instead of the bottom falling out later, the team knows where it must improve as the season goes in. Expect Detroit to remain average for another month as they gain their bearings and start doing the little things it takes to win. The flashy 10 run victories aren’t going to magically appear so the team will learn to manufacture runs in other ways. By June, the team should catch fire and don’t be surprised if the AL Central begins to follow the preseason predictions of a Tigers runaway.

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