By H. Jose Bosch
Unlike Miss America 2008 — Michigan-native and first pitch thrower outer Kirsten Haglund — the Tigers have managed to be in first place without looking pretty. Granted, it’s like being the one-eyed man in the land of the blind, but I’m not one to complain about first place.
The starting pitching has been solid, the bullpen has been holding together and even though the offense isn’t as explosive as the last first-place team (2006) it has gotten the job done up to this point. Since the Tigers haven’t reached astronomical highs like they did in the first half of 2006, maybe their second half will be better.
First half MVP: Miguel Cabrera (.321 BA, .384 OBP, 18 HR, 50 RBI, 31 walks, 50 strikeouts)
I could have gone with Brandon Inge since he has more home runs and RBIs and he’s an all star this year while Cabrera is not. But Miggy is hitting much better than Inge, striking out less and has been a better fielder statistically. Inge is an excellent fielder and he is clearly a better athlete, but Cabrera plays his position better than people give him credit for and he hasn’t made too many goofs this season. As for the offensive numbers, if Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco weren’t having off years (for them) Cabrera might have 70 RBIs. If those two have better second halves and Marcus Thames stays healthy, look out. Cabrera cooled down quite a bit after storming out of the gate, but my goodness if I performed at life like this after “cooling off” well I’d be at the New York Times already. Hehehe … (turns into uncontrollable sobbing).
Most improved player: Brandon Inge (.268 BA, .360 OBP, 21 HR, 58 RBI, 35 walks, 85 strikeouts)
If you can’t be the best player, there is nothing wrong with being the most improved. At the break last season Inge was still not hitting well (.220) and had considerably less pop in his bat (7 HR, 23 RBI). Now you could make the case that if Inge’s improvement coincided with Detroit’s than he really is the most valuable player of the first half. I’m not going to buy that. Regardless, Inge has done a great job so far this season. He could have a year similar to his career best in 2006. Even though the Tigers aren’t going to live and die by his bat, having that pop near the bottom of the order in the second half is going to be a major help.
Biggest strength: Starting pitching
Two all stars and a rookie-of-the-year candidate in the starting rotation make life a living hell for opponents on most nights. Detroit is third in the American League in team ERA and has held hitters to a .259 BA (fifth-best in the league). The starting pitchers, particularly Nos. 1-3, have a major hand in that.
After a slow start Justin Verlander has been as dominant as any pitcher in the American League. He’s at the top of the strikeouts pile with 149 strikeouts, 18 better than the next highest pitcher. He is also one of just seven pitchers with 10 or more wins.
Edwin Jackson is walking fewer batters and giving up fewer hits than his career average. In fact, he has lowest WHIP (walks/hits per nine innings) in the American League. He also has the A.L.’s second-lowest ERA (2.52). With more run support Jackson would probably have at least as many wins as Verlander right now.
Rick Porcello was roughed up in his last two outings but received a long rest during the all-star break. His numbers are strong for a pitcher in his first full season with the big club (8-6, 4.14 ERA, 31 BB, 47 SO) and there is no reason to believe he can’t keep that up.
If the Tigers decide to make any majors moves, it could be to acquire a stronger No. 3 starter. Whatever happens, Nos. 1-3 are steering this ship. If Armando Galarraga pitches better in the second half, it’ll be icing on the cake.
Biggest weakness: Consistency
One look up and down the Tigers roster and I think this is a damn good team. There are places where Detroit could be better. I’d love to swap out Magglio Ordonez for a left-handed hitter with some pop. I wouldn’t mind acquiring stronger middle reliever to get to Rodney in the ninth. And the team could use a functional fifth starter. Heck I’d take a fifth starter period. Most of the time what Jim Leyland throws out on the mound in that place has been anything but a Major League starter. But not one of theses problems are so glaring that it could be considered the biggest weakness.
What will solve the Tigers’ problems is more consistent play. Ordonez has slowly turned his slow season around and if he, Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson can get back to beig .300 hitters (even if they don’t finish the year over .300) the offense will be very formidable, even without a left-handed bat.
In terms of relief pitching, Leyland needs to trust one man in the 7th inning and stick with him. Brandon Lyon has done well after a rough start and he seems like the perfect guy to use in the 7th. I love Bobby Seay at the specialist role between the 6th and 7th inning. Joel Zumaya he needs to start mixing in his change up and slider and throwing them consistently well if he wants his fireball fastball to be effective.
As for the fifth starter, Leyland will have to be content with a parade of pitchers in that spot until the playoffs when a No. 5 starter doesn’t matter. As long as their collective numbers do well, it’ll be a non issue.
Final forecast: As I said earlier, this division is weak and no one, Detroit included, will run away before September. But the Tigers are just as competitive as the White Sox and Twins at the moment. If the stars keep playing like stars and the struggling few pick up their performances just a bit, Detroit can expect its first division championship since 1987.
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