It’s the beginning of July, and the Tigers are sitting in familiar territory: second-place in the American League Central. Last year at this time, the Tigers sat in second-place behind the Chicago White Sox with a 39-41 record, and even as frustrating as last year was at times, this year seems even more agitating. Victor Martinez was coming back, Dave Dombrowski locked up Anibal Sanchez solidifying the best rotation in baseball, and Torii Hunter was coming to town to not only fill the gap in right field but to also fill the two-hole in a lineup that was desperately looking for answers all of last year.
But here we are—just before the halfway point of the season—and the Tigers sit a half-game back of the Cleveland Indians. No one predicted this, nor would it have been logical to predict this. Baseball experts all over TV and radio predicted the Tigers to win the World Series, let alone win the measly AL Central.
So, amidst all this frustration and uneasiness that is the 2013 Detroit Tigers, should we as fans be worried? Are the Indians a legitimate threat to steal the division that was everything but gift wrapped for the Tigers? I say no. There are three main reasons why the Tigers are at their lowest point of the season right now, and these same three reasons are why the Tigers’ fortunes are bound to change.
The BullpenThis one is no secret. The Tigers’ bullpen was the team’s Achilles heel heading into spring training and it’s lived up to all the hype and more. Hopefully—for the sake of our sanity—the Papa Grande experiment is over, but with Valverde accepting his option to Toledo there’s a chance we’ll see him again later this season. Regardless, he hasn’t been the only problem with the Tigers’ bullpen thus far. Albuquerque couldn’t throw the ball over the plate in his first stint in the Big Leagues this season, Bryan Villareal couldn’t throw the ball over two plates lying side-by-side, Bruce Rondon is young and still finding his way, and Octavio “don’t ask don’t tell” is, well, I couldn’t tell you where he is. He’s been hampered by elbow inflammation but don’t ask Jim Leyland when he’ll be back because he has no idea either. Did I fail to mention Phil Coke? He’s 0-5 with a 6.56 ERA.
But, even with all of this turmoil throughout the first half of the season, the bullpen will get better. Drew Smyly has proven to be a valuable lefty that can pitch in long-relief or in the late innings, and Joaquin Benoit has been the most consistent man out of the bullpen all year. Al-Al has shown better command with his fastball since he’s been recalled from Toledo and Rondon has made two impressive appearances in a row. On top of all of that, there’s no way Dombrowski doesn’t add a piece or two before the deadline. Jesse Crain sounds pretty good to me.
No one expected Victor to start the season out hot after missing an entire year due to reconstructive knee surgery, but no one thought he would struggle this late into the season (especially after his success in 2011). The struggles are bound to turn around though, and the stats back it up. Martinez only strikes out 10.9 percent of the time he stands in to bat yet his batting average on balls in play is a lousy .240. Victor is going to find more holes and gaps if he keeps his strikeout rate down and continues to put the ball in play in the second half of the season, so look for him to pick up the Tigers rather than pull them down. He could easily hit .300 from now until the end of September (he’s a career .300 hitter).
Lack of clutch hitting
The Tigers offense has been abysmal in the late innings of games, most notably extra-innings with a 2-8 record. The club sits close to last in nearly all offensive categories after the 7th inning or later. So, what evidence is there that the team will get their late inning woes figured out? There really aren’t any stats to back this one up, but do you really expect a lineup with the likes of Miggy, Prince, Jackson, Hunter, and Victor Martinez to not figure things out? These are some of the best hitters in the game, and for many of us the best hitter we’ve ever seen in Cabrera, so there’s no way the team can continue to go silent in clutch situations.Sure, the first half of the season has been frustrating. That seems to be the norm for the Tigers in recent history. But, there’s no need to get too worked up. The amount of talent on this team won’t allow this team to lose the division, and the lack of talent in the AL Central won’t allow the Tigers to lose the division. So take a deep breath Tigers fans, it can only go up from here.