Tigers Daily-ish: Detroit Stands At Post-Coast Crossroads

by Jon Erkkila | Posted on Monday, June 1st, 2015
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Miguel Cabrera

Standing at the baseball crossroad. What a pain in the ass spot to find yourself on the first day of June.

But that’s where the Detroit Tigers sit after another woeful foray to Anaheim. A four-game sweep at the hand of the Angels put the cap on a 2-5 West Coast swing. The road trip was another step in the slow drift toward mediocrity the Tigers have found themselves in for weeks. No really devastating losing streaks and no solid winning streaks. Just a tick more losing than winning since the middle of April.

However it all adds up…and that sucking sound Brad Ausmus hears is his club being gradually pulled toward the .500 mark after his club’s dash from the starting line with an 11-2 start. The Tigers’ season isn’t lost by any means. But the amount of uncertainty surrounding this club is palpable. They can’t score much despite a lineup led by future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera. Their rotation is wobbly at times and great at others. They run themselves into a lot of outs. The young manager might be over-matched. The injury bug has had a healthy appetite.

So where are the Tigers? Which road will they take from here as they stand at the crossroads? Surely one of their choices can lead them toward a 5th AL Central title. But the other roads likely have third place written all over them.

The 2-run Quota Offense

The Tigers are a team that gets plenty of love from national announce crews as having a fearsome offense. On the surface they should and they have been at or near the top of plenty of team offensive stats in the American League. But none of it has translated to runs.

Sunday’s loss to the Angels was another game where they scored two runs or less. That’s now 25 times in 52 games where they’ve failed to get at least three men plated. It’s shocking.

What’s happened? Certainly the injury to Victor Martinez has opened a wide chasm in the Tigers offense. Few expected “VMart” would replicate his tour de force career season in 2014, but even fewer contemplated the thought in the off-season that Martinez would have contributed almost nothing as the season reaches the one-third mark.

Nick Castellanos hasn’t, to this point, taken the steps forward his supporters had hoped to see. He contributed a big game winning triple against the Milwaukee Brewers last week, but all too often has been making extremely soft outs during prolonged quiet stretches.

Ian Kinsler started off fine in April but his game has taken a nosedive in May as he’s been replicating much of his second half offense slump from ’14. The lack of extra-base power from Kinsler, especially the homers, has been noticeable. He is contributing defensively however at a high rate.

Then there are the double-plays. The Tigers offense has been getting overwhelmed by the twin killing in 2015. Leading the AL and on a record pace at times. All the DPs have led the Tigers to being near the bottom in clustering their hits for rallies. Ed Feng’s great “The Power Rank” website, tracks the number of runs a team is gaining or losing from the randomness of clustering hits together. In short, the Tigers haven’t strung together big rallies very often over the last month. Getting a man on base and then erased by the multitude of DPs has shortened the odds of the Tigers getting more men to the plate to string those hits in clumps. Ausmus will need to hope this is one of those stats that “evens out” over time…starting soon.

The Tigers also rank near the bottom of most aggregate baserunning stats according to Fangraphs.com. Yes they lead the AL in the number of stolen bases. That’s fine. But they’re also running into plenty of outs as they try to press matters to jumpstart their offense. Double-play avoidance is probably at the heart of some of this as runners get put in motion. However there have been missed signs, poor decisions, and general carelessness on the basepaths that all must get cleaned up.

The Leadership in the dugout

Listen, I’m not a “can the bum” kind of guy when it comes to managers. It’s not an easy gig and those who do the job are wide open to criticism at all times.

But Ausmus doesn’t make it easy on himself at times. He’s really made some head-scratching decisions at times. Even with the understood idea that sometimes “the manager knows things about a players health/psyche that we don’t”, there have been moves that all things being equal have cost the Tigers this season.

Pinch running for Miguel Cabrera late in a tied game cost the Tigers a chance for Cabrera to win the game an inning later. It was a high risk move that predictably backfired badly in the almost the worst possible fashion. An excruciating 11th inning loss to the Kansas City Royals was registered a few minutes later.

Allowing journeyman southpaw Kyle Lobstein to face Carlos Gomez for a 4th time when Lobstein was clearly at the end of his rope and a righty, Angel Nesbitt, was warmed up led to Gomez stroking a go ahead base hit. That was an easy one. Everyone saw that one coming. Ausmus was on the top step of the dugout looking for all the world he was coming to get his pitcher…and he froze there.

Decisions like this latest loss in Anaheim also rankle many. With the base-loaded in a tie game in the 8th, Ausmus decided to lift David Price as he went north of 120 pitches. Fair enough. But to entrust the enigmatic Joba Chamberlain instead of a well-rested bullpen ace like Joakim Soria was eminently frustrating. In what world should the biggest out of the game be given to Chamberlain over Soria? It’s not even the point that Chamberlain allowed a soft humpback liner for a base hit. Joba didn’t get hammered there. It’s the mindset that Ausmus wasn’t going use his best pitcher at a critical moment.

Ausmus simply hasn’t distinguished himself from a tactical standpoint as we move deeper into year two of his reign. The above are only a few examples that pop immediately to mind, but there have been others. Certainly he gets his share of calls right, but he’s missed some easy ones that just don’t add up.

Is it a long haul starting rotation?

General Manager Dave Dombrowski is going to have some interesting decisions on his hands at the trade deadline. Will he need to add offense to get things untracked or will he need to bolster his rotation?

The Tigers rotation is wobbly at points. Shane Greene has self-immolated nearly as often has he’s been very good. He allowed five dingers in less than two innings on Saturday to the power-deficient Angels to add to his list of duds. Anibal Sanchez has been getting torched himself by the gopher ball as balls have been flying out at a career high pace for the Tigers near-Ace. Lobstein is on the DL and being replaced by non-ready youngsters for the time being.

Price has been solid. Perhaps far from dominant, but facts are the the Tigers are 9-2 when he toes the rubber. Alfredo Simon, prior to his sad and unfortunate Bereavement Leave, has been a near god-send for the Tigers with consistently solid efforts. Can he avoid the second half swoon that marred his season in the National League in 2014 however? That remains to be seen.

Justin Verlander is now becoming the focal point of the Tigers hopes. Trying to come back from a subpar year in 2014, Verlander was looking okay this Spring but was waylaid by an arm issue. He has only just now threw his first rehab assignment in Toledo. It sounds like he’s close to returning. If so, it’s a huge add to the Detroit rotation. It’s almost like a deadline acquisition of sorts at this point.

With two-thirds of the season remaining, it’s still an open question that current core group of starters, even with a resurgent Verlander, can make it to the finish line in October. There are so many question marks right now. It’s a far cry from the rock solid quintets that put the Tigers into the winner’s circle for the AL Central the last four seasons.

Where it goes from here

The news that Verlander is nearing a return is critical for the Tigers future.

Martinez is said to have texted Ausmus that he’s feeling really good during his workouts at the team’s complex in Lakeland, FL. The Tigers desperately need his bat, especially his skills as switch-hitter. They have no left-handed power when he is out.

Flame-throwing reliever, Bruce Rondon, is wrapping up his rehab assignment at Toledo as well. The addition of his triple digit rocket arm would on lengthen a surprisingly competent bullpen.

Alex Avila, on the disabled list for over three weeks, is said to be close to “resuming baseball activities”. While there will be detractors of his that will say he hasn’t been “performing baseball activities since 2012”, it’s a fact that the Tigers have won plenty of games with Avila behind the dish. His OBP skills are a factor and his lefty-bat would help balance a righty-heavy crew.

There is possible help on the way. If most of the currently injured crew comes back and contributes the outlook for the Tigers by the All Star Game could be much different than it looks right now.

Cabrera has had moments this year that recall his MVP seasons. Jose Iglesias’ return has gone very well. His defense has been magnificent and he’s carrying a solid bat to this point. Yoenis Cespedes has held up his end of the bargain for the first two months. He’s provided some extra base juice to the lineup, defended his position well, and, let’s face it, he’s never boring to watch. J.D. Martinez weathered one huge slump (20 K in 40 ABs at one point) to come back as a solid offensive presence. Anthony Gose has taken a step forward over his time in Toronto.

There are things going right in Detroit. But only enough right now to keep their heads above water. Probably not enough to contend over the long haul unless contributors return, some luck turns the Tigers way, and the rotation holds steady. It will likely be critical for Dombrowski to pull off another deadline heist to bolster this club as well. He’s done it before but a thin farm system might make his job a bit harder this time.

The month of May is over. The Tigers are probably happy about that. It was a month of mediocrity and boredom overall. June is a big month. The club needs to position itself as a contender in their division. Where they stand in the coming weeks will determine how much treasure and effort Dombrowski will pour into adding talent to let this group make a run.

I’ll be honest…I predicted “79-83 and 3rd place” for the Tigers this year on the even of Opening Day. While I still believe they can catch fire and win the division this year, my prediction is still in the game and, slowly, the odds are improving.

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Jon Erkkila
About the Author

Jon Erkkila is a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan. Currently living in MLB Blackout Hell, otherwise known as Iowa. Follow him on twitter @yooper_ia

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