Before the season started, this site featured the prediction that the Detroit Tigers would win the American League Central division. Up until the first of June, that prediction looked pretty darned stupid. Suddenly, the Tigers have won eight of their last nine, including two wins in a row against the powerhouse Texas Rangers and find themselves only a game and a half behind the Cleveland Indians. Just as suddenly, that pick doesn't look nearly half as stupid as it did just a week and a half ago. But is this just a hot streak? Can the Tigers be good enough to win this thing? Let's take a closer look.
Since Victor Martinez returned to the line up, this team has been hitting. But it's more than just Victor Martinez. Brennan Boesch has gotten really hot and the call up of Andy Dirks has been a nice spark to the offense. Dirks has settled in left field and is playing good defense out there. Dirks, only 25, has fairly mundane numbers overall in the minors, but has been terrific ever since he hit Triple A. He is carrying that bat to the major league level and is slugging .500 in his early small sample size. Ryan Raburn is still scuffling at the plate, but you'd have to think that he will turn it around. And no matter what he hits, now that he is playing second (face it, it isn't his best position), he's got to be better than any of the Tigers' other options there offensively. Martinez is hitting like he always has from the DH spot and perhaps his return sets the line up better and it all falls into place.
Miguel Cabrera has very good numbers, but he really hasn't gone on a tear yet. Look out world when he does. Even so, his OPS is over one and he continues to be the finest right handed batter in the league. Meanwhile, Alex Avila has been a terrific surprise as the Tigers' catcher. He's shown good power and currently sports an awesome 148 OPS+. The only fear for him is that all this catching will slow him down as the season wears on. He's catching nearly every game. But Omar Santos offers little and Victor Martinez should catch as little as possible.
Another huge surprise is Jhonny Peralta. Where is this season coming from? His OPS+ is at 150. He's batting over .300 and is slugging over .500. Amazing. Are we witnessing one of those outlier career years? Perhaps. Peralta is a lot like Jeter in that he has no range but makes all the plays he's supposed to make. And there is a lot to be said for that. But you'd really like to have him at third instead of short. Brandon Inge is toast at this stage of his career. Even his defense has slipped. But the Tigers have nothing in the minors for shortstops. Cale Iorg doesn't field well and isn't hitting in Triple A and Ciraco is little better in Double A. So barring a trade, this is what the Tigers have. Is it ideal? No, but at least Peralta is hitting even if Inge is an automatic out.
And what of Austin Jackson? He looked totally awful at the plate early this season. But like the Tigers, he has rebounded lately. He is 13 for 32 in his last eight games (a .406 clip) with three walks. He will always strike out too much and he's simply not a lead off batter. But if he can hit better than league average for the rest of the way along with his great defense in center, he should be okay. The Tigers simply shouldn't have him at the top of the order.
The starting rotation has three good options and two prayers. Justin Verlander is one of the elite pitchers in baseball. No questions there. Max Scherzer is 7-2 but really hasn't pitched great. For one, he's a homer machine with a rate at 1.4 per nine innings. Plus, he is giving up over ten hits per nine innings pitched. But his other peripherals are good with 8.4 K's per nine and a 2.57 K/BB ratio. He should be okay in the long run. Rick Porcello was excellent last night against the Rangers. He's now 6-3 with an ERA+ of 108. He should be good over the long haul, though he doesn't blow people away.
Brad Penny is 5-4 and that's just the way he's pitched. When he's good, he's pretty good. When he's bad, he's awful. Fortunately, he's been good five times thus far. Phil Coke doesn't have really bad numbers for a guy who is 1-5. It's just hard to know what to expect out of a guy who has been mostly a reliever in the majors. At least he's a lefty and that's a bonus.
The first thing you notice about the bullpen for the Tigers is the walks. Ugh! The walk rate in the bullpen is frightening. The closer, Jose Valverde, walks over four per nine innings. Al Alburquerque and Daniel Schlereth are both over five walks per nine. It's simply frightening. But Alburquerque has been a nice surprise otherwise and has taken up the mantle of the injured Joel Zumaya and is blowing away batters to the amazing tune of 16 strikeouts per nine innings. Wow! Joaquin Benoit was the much scoffed at free agent signing earlier in the season when he was lit up. But he's been much better lately. His peripherals are good with 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings and only 2.4 walks per nine. He should continue to be a quality set up guy down the road.
The Tigers aren't perfect, but the good news is that none of the teams in the AL Central, or in all of baseball for that matter, are perfect. Now that they have pulled themselves back into the race, there is no reason to believe that they can't win this thing. They have the offense. They have three-fifths of a rotation and they have a bullpen that can blow people away (when they aren't walking people). They have good outfield defense and good defense behind the plate. Their infield defense is a bit of a problem. But overall, the Tigers have a shot. They really do.