The thing about the Tigers is that they're really not a great team. They can put on the costume of a great team -- they were on pace to win more than 100 games and run away with the AL Central division at one point this season. Vegas pegged them as favorites to win the World Series. But the way they're built, once you start to strip away the makeup, you start to get a different picture, sometimes a downright ugly one. They are somehow both teams at once, a team of stars that can dominate anyone yet lose to a bottom-feeder a series later. The result is a team that wins and loses in bunches, that has played .500 ball since June 1, has blown seven-game leads in the division twice inside a three-month span, and sits in second place behind the Royals today.
Things are getting downright frightening for the Tigers this month. Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez strained his right pectoral muscle Friday and could be out a month. Reliever Joakim Soia hurt his left oblique Saturday and could be out three weeks. And now former ace Justin Verlander left after an inning Monday with soreness in his pitching shoulder and is scheduled to undergo an MRI in Detroit on Tuesday.
It's hard to diagnose the team's issues, because right now the Tigers are so bad it's like hitting a moving target. This happens to all teams, of course, and could be seen both as cause and effect. First the pitching is phenomenal, but the hitting stinks. They scored six runs in a four-game stretch against the Yankees last week while losing three games. Or the hitting comes around -- the Tigers have scored 18 runs in the four games since that series -- only to have the bullpen blow a game or the starting pitching implode. They lost three of those four as well.
You can actually imagine the Tigers pitching through their troubles in the meantime. Even a team throwing rookies Robbie Ray and Buck Farmer -- weeks removed from pitching in Low-A -- should still feel pretty confident putting Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello on the mound the other three games through the rotation. Sanchez and Verlander actually had the two worst ERAs in the rotation, Verlander's an astounding 4.76 -- while Porcello at last delivered on his potential -- making their losses somehow the best-case scenario. The Tigers actually led the Royals by seven games the day they acquired Soria from the Rangers.
Even a team that struggled to score runs still has Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and a renewed Torii Hunter hitting in the middle of the order. Despite their second-half issues, the Tigers have scored enough runs to win games, just not enough runs at the right times. It is not inconceivable to see this team returning to its first-half ways. And yet.
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More from our team site
Maybe the biggest concern is the bench. That's why the team is good, but not great. Depth has often been an issue with these Tigers teams, so driven by acquiring superstars and their big salaries, acquired either via free agency or trade, that the complementary pieces have been a bit of an afterthought. Fangraphs' August Fagerstrom calculated the wins above replacement each team's bench has accumulated for the season. Not surprisingly teams in playoff contention, such as the Dodgers, Athletics and Orioles, led the field with several additional wins. Teams such as the Indians, White Sox and Phillies, with no playoff hopes, were near the bottom, with a bench worse than replacement. The Tigers sat right in the middle, with a bench exactly at replacement level: 0.0. That about says it all.
The Tigers were a team projected by Clay Davenport's simulation to win 91 games before the season started. They're a team projected by Davenport's simulation to win 88 games today, even with a season of Verlander's struggles and Cabrera's core muscles still bothering him. They're a team you could imagine everything breaking right for, cruising through the playoffs behind a strong rotation and good-enough lineup. They're a team you can imagine missing the playoffs entirely if the scale of winning and losing streaks balances at the wrong time. Any day they could be great; any day they could be awful. Add it up, and it's plain to see: The Tigers are an altogether average team.