Detroit Tigers: Contenders or Pretenders?

I’ll start off by reminding you how unpredictable and unexpected this MLB regular season has been. As described in my recent “Contender or Pretender” pieces about the Orioles, Red Sox, Pirates, and Nationals, the first few months of the season have consisted of teams being both disappointments and pleasant surprises.

Possibly the most disappointing team of all to this point has been the Detroit Tigers, who once had the best odds to win the World Series. The Tigers’ not-far-above-average offense and middle-of-the-pack pitching have led them to exactly what you’d expect throughout the first few months of the year: mediocrity.

Through Monday’s games, Detroit stands two games behind the AL Central leading White Sox and 1 & 1/2 back of the second place Indians. But if you’re thinking the point of this article is really to dissect whether the Tigers will be contenders from here on out, you’re mistaken.

Photo courtesy Leon Halip via Getty Images

They are contenders and they will continue to contend in the weak central division. The more realistic question to ask about the Tigers is “what will keep them from winning, and will that be enough for another team in the Central to hold them off?” And I think I’ve got the answer. But to get there, you’ve got to break the team down.

Disappointments Galore on Offense

Going in to the 2012 campaign, everyone expected the Tigers’ offense to be head and shoulders above the rest. However, as previously alluded to, that has not been the case.

While Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder have been phenomenal for Detroit, the reason their lineup has not produced as much as expected is because of the lofty expectations that were put upon the likes of Brennan Boesch, Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young, and Alex Avila, all of whom have struggled. You can say what you want about how good the previously mentioned trio has been, and even about how well the likes of Quentin Berry and Andy Dirks have performed in limited action, but a lineup is not made up of three guys, not even close. Unless a couple of the main disappointments in that lineup pick up the slack, the inconsistent production will continue to tempt and frustrate fans.

Do they have a lineup capable of winning that division? You betcha’. But with their best three hitters already going about as good as you’ll see them go, their offense hangs in the hands of Boesch, Peralta, Young, and Avila, unless major help is brought in.

Thin Pitching Staff Revealed

Justin Verlander is really good. I mean, that’s how you have to start the discussion about Detroit’s pitching, right? Okay, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at a rotation trying to hide behind the Michael Bluth of the family (Arrested Development reference).

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The three staples of the rotation to this point have been Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, and Drew Smyly. Porcello has been pretty consistent with the rest of his disappointing career, amassing a 4.71 ERA through his first 15 starts, including an unimpressive 1.57 WHIP. Smyly got off to a phenomenal start but has settled back in to what he will probably be going forward, a consistently solid, soft-tossing lefty. He has a 3.96 ERA and has been their second best pitcher overall, but in my opinion is far from a No. 2 (or No. 3 pitcher, considering Fister is back) on a contender.

But the rotation comes down to two main guys: Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. And unfortunately for the Tigers, to this point the only two adjectives that can describe these guys are inconsistent and injured.

Scherzer has never quite lived up to his potential besides the occasional highlight-worthy start, as he’s been a .500 pitcher since coming over from Arizona. But this year has been remarkably bad, as he’s got a 5.12 ERA. Tigers fans can say whatever they want while raving about Scherzer, but a pitcher that doesn’t give you a very good chance to win every other time out serves as much more of a liability than he does an asset to a contender. He needs to figure out how to impress time-in and time-out, and he needs to figure it out soon.

Finally, we’ve got Doug Fister, who has been good throughout his eight starts so far, but has already been on the disabled list twice in 2012. I’m not one to worry about injuries when someone isn’t actually injured, but I assume that the two injuries do at least mean Fister will have to be monitored closely and used [somewhat] lightly down the stretch, which is never a good thing looming in the face of a contender.

What Will Happen?

This is tough. I would just look to one of my favorite television shows of all-time, Arrested Development, to see if Michael Bluth, the only competent member of the highly dysfunctional family, is able to bring the family out of hot water and back to success, but unfortunately the show has been off the air for six years and won’t be wrapped up until their movie hits theaters next year.

I must admit, I’m pretty proud of the Arrested Development reference I incorporated

Oh, you’re still there? Crap. I guess I’ve got to give you a prediction.

I really think the AL Central will come down to the White Sox and Tigers. I don’t see the Indians or Royals staying in the race. And when you go position-by-position through the lineup and starting rotations, the White Sox are better (on paper). But I’m hesitant to pick against the Tigers because, for one, their bullpen has much more experience and has just been flat-out better, and two, because we all know that the Tigers can improve and hit a hot streak at any given time.

But then I look back to the Sox and see a team whose struggles have come solely because of their pitching and hitting not being able to click at the same time. If they start to roll simultaneously in the coming months, they could hit a hot streak or two, as well.

Since I already answered the “contender or pretender” question, I’ll leave you here: I think this race could likely come down to the last week of the season and may very well be decided by who is hotter come the end of September. You can decide who you think will be better come crunch time, because while the AL Central has been by far and away the worst division in the MLB, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a spectacular race down the stretch.

About the Author

Zach Gropper

Zach Gropper is a sports broadcasting major at Indiana University in the beautiful town of Bloomington, IN. He is from Flossmoor, IL, a small Chicago suburb. Zach was was the sports director for WHFH 88.5 FM Flossmoor his junior year of high school and Television Station Manager of Viking Television during his senior year. He runs a White Sox blog at GrabSomeBench.com and also contributes and reports for AssemblyCall.com. Last summer, Zach interned for ESPN 1000 AM Chicago, working on programming for the Waddle and Silvy Show. He is currently eager to get out into the professional world of sports media, wherever that may take him.