It’s been a tough few weeks for the Detroit Tigers.
As of August 24, Detroit is 11-12 this month, and this is after acquiring ace LHP David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays at the trading deadline. The Kansas City Royals have emerged as a serious threat in the AL Central, and lead the division. Heck, even the Cleveland Indians are still lurking as a possibility to challenge the Tigers’ hold on the Central crown.
On August 10, the team placed number two starter Anibal Sanchez and setup man (and trade deadline acquisition) Joakim Sora on the disabled list. Detroit’s former ace, Justin Verlander, has been inconsistent at best and often barely resembles the Cy Young winner the Tigers are used to seeing. “Proven Closer” Joe Nathan has not stabilized Detroit’s bullpen the way General Manager Dave Dombrowski envisioned when Nathan was signed in the offseason.
It somehow gets worse. Price threw a one-hitter against his former team in Tampa Bay on August 21, but Detroit still lost, 1-0. Between a 20-6 drubbing on Friday and a 12-4 loss in the first game of a doubleheader on Saturday, Detroit allowed 32 runs to the Minnesota Twins, which according to MLB.com’s Jason Beck, was the team’s worst two-game stretch since 2004. Verlander started the nightcap on Saturday, but was able to limit the Twins enough to give the Tigers a split of the doubleheader, as Detroit won, 8-6.
But while the Detroit Tigers are down, the team, and more importantly, the starting rotation, should still be feared as the season winds down. Detroit will have to battle to make the postseason, but it shouldn’t panic. Detroit’s rotation is good enough not only to still make the postseason, but also to win the World Series.
First, Sanchez could be back as early as Saturday, and start one of the games of a scheduled doubleheader, admittedly without the benefit of a rehab start. Sanchez has been Detroit’s second-best starter (behind last year’s Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer, and not including Price), so this would be welcome news regardless, but importantly, Sanchez’s return would mean the Tigers wouldn’t be forced to turn to one of the two pitchers who started the blowouts versus Minnesota (Robby Ray and Buck Farmer, respectively).
A rotation consisting of Scherzer, Sanchez, Price and Rick Porcello (who’s having arguably the best season of his career and would likely be the number two starter on a number of other teams) is going to be formidable for anyone in the American League, but especially in the AL Central.
Verlander is struggling, yes, but the good news for the Tigers is that for at least 2014, all they need him to be is a fifth starter and to give the team what Detroit got from him on Saturday — just enough for the offense to get ahead.
The threat to the Tigers string of AL Central titles is real, but Detroit is not buried here. The Royals have been winning at an absurd pace (16-4 entering the Royal’s game in Texas on Sunday), and it’s unrealistic to expect Kansas City to continue to play at an .800 pace in September. And even if the Royals do remain hot, Detroit has four starting pitchers having great seasons, and a guy in Verlander who was once the most feared pitcher in baseball available for a potential Wild Card game. Counting the Tigers out at this point in the season is pure folly.
Yes, Detroit manager Brad Ausmus will probably sleep better once Soria is back in action, and it’s unclear if recently acquired cast-off Jim Johnson can help the Tigers at all in 2014. Nathan’s ERA is ugly (5.36), but reliever ERAs can be misleading due to relievers throwing far fewer innings than starters, and his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a much-better 4.13. It’s not great, but it’s passable for a one-inning guy. But the Tigers do have other high-leverage relievers outside of Nathan and Soria, and this is good news for Detroit fans.
Offseason signing Joba Chamberlain is healthy and effective again, and he’s struck out 50 batters in 51.2 IP as primarily a setup man. Also, it’s admittedly a small sample (30.2 IP), but Blaine Hardy has been effective for the Tigers, particularly since his most recent call up on August 12 (one run allowed in 6.1 IP since the call up). And don’t forget, when you have starting pitchers as good as Scherzer, Sanchez, Price and Porcello are, there’s fewer innings for the bullpen to pitch.
For the Tigers, it’s the guys they aren’t counting on — giving up the runs. This is encouraging, if you’re a Tigers fan. It’s highly unlikely Detroit would make the playoffs and have one of Ray or Farmer starting a game (and it’s quite possible Verlander would be relegated to the bullpen as well).
The Detroit Tigers have some ground to make up in the standings, but any fans thinking they don’t have a chance are overreacting. Detroit’s rotation has been struggling lately, but with Sanchez returning, it would not be wise for other teams to sleep on them.