The AL Central is one of the most unpredictable divisions in all of baseball. In 2015, few expected the Kansas City Royals to come out of the Central and win the World Series over the juggernaut clubs of the Cubs, Dodgers and Rangers among others. Even fewer predicted the Cleveland Indians to come out of nowhere, win the division and the AL Pennant with it.
Is this year the Tigers’ turn to make the unlikely run out of the Central? If so, here are three keys that must be met.
It seems that every year, the Tigers struggle to stay healthy. Whether it is Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez, the Tigers are constantly forced to go through weeks or months at hand without some of their top producers.
Until recently, Detroit has been perpetual buyers at the trade deadline and during the offseason. This has led to a ball club with plenty of superstars, but a massive payroll along with no depth and a farm system that is only just now beginning to recover.
In other words, the Tigers have no means to replace injured players. The Tigers cannot lose some of their top players and expect to win the Central. This has been kryptonite for the Detroit over the past few seasons, and shows no sign of changing in 2017 with the loss of slugger JD Martinez who at best will return early May.
The Tigers play old style baseball. They will rarely out pitch teams–they out slug them. From 2013-2016, the Tigers led the MLB in batting average every year except 2015 where they were third. With strong bats from sluggers such as Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Nick Castellanos and Ian Kinsler among many others, the Tigers have a lineup that many managers would kill for.
The Tigers also found sporadic success over the past few seasons in their starting rotation with Verlander re-finding his game, finishing second in the Cy Young race in 2016. They have also found talent in young pitchers Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd.
The Tigers’ bullpen, however, is a completely different story. In 2016, Detroit had the seventh worst bullpen ERA in the MLB. 2017 has offered nothing better thus far.
The Tigers cannot rely on good starting pitching and hitting alone to make a run. Now-a-days, it’s more about speed, defense and steady relievers. While the Tigers are nowhere close to shifting into the “modern” baseball team, they do need to make adjustments in the bullpen to avoid breaking down in the later innings.
Lastly, the Tigers need some consistency if they want to take the Central and compete in the playoffs. Over Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus’ tenure, the Detroit has had spurts of unstoppable play but also stretches of struggles.
A classic example is in the summer of 2016. From July 25 to July Aug. 6, the Tigers went 10-1. But from Aug. 7 to Aug. 20, they went 3-10. Then, from Aug. 21 to Sep. 5, the Tigers went 11-3, but from Sep. 6 to Sep. 17 they were 3-8.
While it is not uncommon for baseball teams to go through hot streaks and cold spells, teams will usually settle into some sort of consistent pattern by summer. But the Tigers rarely did this.
For the Tigers to win the Central, Ausmus must play around with the lineup during cold streaks and find ways to break the spell. He needs to stay away from the status quo.
For example, Justin Verlander struggled early last season, but turned his year around after pulling up socks to his knees. Even simple tricks like these can give confidence to players simply because it is a change of pace. Ausmus needs to explore options such as these to shake things up when the Tigers are cold.