Jury is still out on Tigers’ season

By Dan Fenner


With postseason hockey winding to a close, Michigan’s sports fans turn their attention to the baseball diamond in hopes of a Tigers season with even half as much success as their beloved Red Wings.

Coming out of spring training in early April, most baseball prognosticators predicted the Tigers would finish below .500, citing their starting pitching as the biggest reason for concern. On paper, the Tigers didn’t appear to be significantly improved from the team that finished last in the division a season ago.

But fortunately for the Tigers, standings are still determined by actually playing the games. The team has opened up a four game lead in the American League Central Division behind the strength of their pitching staff. Through two months of the season, the team has found a formula to win games despite an offense that is underachieving badly.

The remedy to their offensive shortcomings begins with their top three starting pitchers. Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, and rookie Rick Porcello have anchored a rotation that not long ago was filled with inconsistency and doubt. Each of them has picked up six wins on the season and are largely responsible for the team’s 3.98 ERA, second best in the American League.

Verlander, coming off the worst season of his career in 2008, shook off early season concerns and was named the American League Pitcher of the Month in May. It was a remarkable month for the Tigers’ ace, as he regained his feel for pitching that had been absent for over a year. Every start of late seems to bring the promise of another no-hitter like he threw in 2007 against Milwaukee.

Jackson, who was acquired in an offseason trade with Tampa Bay that drew some criticism, has been a totally different pitcher under the tutelage of pitching coach Rick Knapp. His 2.16 ERA ranks third in the AL and he’s been nothing short of dominant his last few starts.

But perhaps the biggest reason for encouragement this season comes from the Tigers’ youth. Porcello could easily be mistaken for a seasoned veteran at times despite being the youngest pitcher, 20, in all of baseball this season. Reliever Ryan Perry has given fans hope that he can be their closer for years to come by helping solidify a bullpen that was among the worst in baseball last season.

Fernando Rodney is a perfect 11 for 11 in save opportunities, but like his predecessor, Todd Jones, has been known to raise the collective blood pressure of Tigers fans with every appearance on the mound. In an ideal scenario, the team would be able to utilize him in a setup role, rather than as the ninth inning stopper. But for now, the team has bigger areas of concern.

In order to reach the postseason, the Tigers will need improved production from their middle of their lineup, as typically-reliable veterans Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco have really struggled to hit for any extended period.

Detroit has managed to push just enough runners across home plate to win on most nights, but won’t be able to fend off their Central Division opponents for much longer without more timely hits from their offensive leaders. 

Young outfielders Clete Thomas and Josh Anderson have provided some spark at times, but on a team with playoff aspirations, they would be best suited to remain role players with less pressure to lead offensively.

The Tigers likely won’t have much opportunity to improve their team at the trade deadline this summer due to an already high payroll and a lack of expendable prospects in the minor leagues. This makes it even more imperative that the offense lives up to preseason expectations and career averages.

Despite much-improved pitching, there is little room for error if the Tigers intend to return to the postseason for the first time since 2006. And with all that has transpired economically in the state of Michigan, a pennant chase deep into October would be a welcome distraction.