Keeping Score: Tigers positioned well but questions remain for pennant drive

Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Expectations were high entering 2013 for the defending American League champions. They have weathered the pre-All Star break and enter the "second half" with a 1.5 game lead. What questions are still up in the air as the post-break stretch kicks off?

I have a few simple questions about the final 68 games the Tigers will attempt to traverse over the next 2.5 months. These questions are ones that I feel will determine how they will fend off any challenge from the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals.

It wouldn't be me if I didn't also take a stab at forecasting the ultimate answer to each query. Let's go...

Will the Tigers identify the right bullpen piece and be able to acquire the guy they truly want?

The White Sox went out and found pitching last year at the deadline. Brett Myers and Francisco Liriano were brought aboard to plug holes and keep the Sox at the head of the pack in the AL Central. Ultimately, it didn't help stave off a late season collapse. Myers and Liriano aren't really sexy names...but the Tigers aren't looking to get Rollie Fingers or any of the "Nasty Boys" from the early 90's. They're probably going to attain guys of Brett Myers-level ilk. Is that enough to make a difference when it's all said and done?

Folks like to rightfully celebrate the Doug Fister trade in Detroit. It gets overlooked that David Pauley came to Detroit in the same deal and Pauley was posting solid numbers in Seattle that season with a 2.15 ERA in 54 innings. He lasted about four-minutes in Jim Leyland's "Circle of Trust" after the trade with an ERA of 5.95 in 14 forgettable appearances in Detroit. We can't always trust a solid looking half-season from a reliever to continue.

The good news for the Tigers is that simply need "competence" from whichever reliever they acquire. They aren't necessarily needing dominant shutdown help (though it would be appreciated if they stumbled into that guy). The Tigers need depth in their bullpen crew. They need a guy that can get outs and not let the roof cave in. This should be easier to acquire. The pitcher they acquire will likely pitch only about 25 to 30 innings. Even the very best of pitchers can have wide ranges of outcomes in such a short number of innings. Its a true dice roll. But needing mere "competence" and not "dominance" from the pitcher in question increases the odds of an acceptable outcome.

I see the Marlins as the match with the Tigers. Steve Cishek would seem like a very solid target. Jose Veras is a little wild for my tastes but he could easily be the fall back option. The Astros have no reason not to sell off a Closer for a last place club. Anyone who says they know what these guys would produce post-trade in those few innings is lying. It could go any number of ways. (and YES...I would be interested in the Tim Lincecum rumblings. Take on all the money on his deal and offer up mid-level prospects Tyler Collins and Melvin Mercedes. It's mostly a money commitment to rent Lincecum. The Tigers can afford it. They won't miss Collins and Mercedes much but the Giants can't expect a ton more in talent if the other club takes all the money. Lincecum isn't what he was...but he's still talented and I like what he could potentially do over the common bullpen arm that will be up for sale. But NO, I don't think there is much of a chance it happens.)

Will the Cleveland Indians strike big in the trade market?

Matt Garza. I think the news that broke on Wednesday of the Tribe winning a Competitive Balance Draft Pick in the lottery may play a big role in making Cleveland a bigger player in the hunt for premium pitching than they were 24-hours earlier. That draft pick is eligible for trade. It should be a coveted asset to attain by clubs who are in "selling" mode. Having that pick to sweeten any deal could easily move the Tribe well up the pecking order for the Cubs to deal with in the next few days.

Cleveland showed two years ago that they aren't afraid to make the move at the deadline. The Ubaldo Jimenez deal probably hasn't worked out as hoped overall...but they had the stones to make a deal of that magnitude. No reason why, sitting 1.5 games out in mid-July, they wouldn't go that route again. Garza immediately becomes one of the top 2 in the Tribe rotation and gives them a very legit option to open a playoff series. The Tigers rear view mirror gets a little hairier looking if Garza heads to Cleveland. I think the deal happens. Garza and Jamie Russell to the Indians for basket of minor league goodies (among others, Tyler Naquin or LeVon Washington perhaps?) capped off by that Competitive Balance pick.

Is the recent Victor Martinez surge for real or just a fleeting bit of fun?

Hey..."VMart" is piping hot and his bat is looking very similar to what we saw in 2011. He was quiet rock that season and is now starting to lash some line drive base hits that harkens back to that campaign.

Martinez is hitting a very tasty .393/.443/.607 with 8 extra-base hits in 14-games for the month of July. If we use Baseball Reference and "the last 28 days" we also see Martinez' solid play expands out to 24 games with a slash-line of: .337/.406/.516. This tells me that his resurgence is starting to show legs. Perhaps it can stretch out through the dog days of August and into the autumn.

The Tigers offense takes on a whole new dimension if it starts to get some production out of the DH slot. The club received precious little from not-so-dearly departed Delmon Young in 2012 and had to weather the initial post-ACL surgery struggles of Martinez this Spring. Martinez should be able to keep the train rolling after Cabrera and Fielder if he maintains anything close to what the last few weeks has shown. Martinez can't run a lick but if he keeps moving some baserunners around and gets himself on base enough, the free agent status of Jhonny Peralta will really take off as Peralta should have even more ducks on the pond than he has already in this All-Star berth season.

I think the last few weeks are "real". I believe Martinez will hit enough to at least alleviate the worries that he's toast...a view that was gaining steam not that long ago. The Tigers are going to bludgeon some AL Central staffs in the heat of the late summer and the presence of Martinez will be a major factor why it happens.

Will Biogenesis be a plague upon the Tigers middle infield?

Very short answer. I will be absolutely stunned if the Player's Union can't fight any discipline handed down in order to delay any possible suspensions until next season. I do not believe Jhonny Peralta will miss any time this season due to the scandal. The only possible exception might be if the number is low. If it's 25-games or less, then maybe they just bite the bullet and serve the time. If MLB is throwing the book at these guys with max suspensions, I think the union fights it hard. (and they should) This is supposedly the toughest union in sports. Prove it.

Of the 68 games remaining, how many starts will the Tigers preferred starting 5 take?

Health and durability. Such a key component of any pennant contender. Through 94 games the Tigers have been fairly healthy. Only the four Jose Alvarez starts have been from a pitcher outside of their Opening Day rotation. I believe if the Tigers can get a minimum of 60 starts of the final 68 from their top 5 they should be in terrific shape to hold off the Indians even if the Tribe adds to their starting pitching at the trade deadline. The Tigers bet a lot on these five pitchers and their collective health will be perhaps the determining factor down the stretch.

I am going to peg this rotation getting 62 starts the rest of the way from the top 5. Doug Fister missed time last year which may make him a candidate to miss a couple of starts. The Tigers may also give Anibal Sanchez a rest at some point to give his shoulder a breather to make sure they nurse that situation along carefully. But that wouldn't be bad. I think it's the rotation that carries the club over the finish line and limits the bullpen's exposure by consistently chewing up quality innings.

How historic will Miguel Cabrera's final stats appear?

Ohhhh, I dunno...how about "pretty damn amazing". Let's concentrate on the baseball card stats. I'm going to predict 50 HR/151 RBI with 120 runs scored and a .358 batting average.

I think a .450 OBP and a slugging percentage of .675 are both very possible with an OPS+ approaching 200. If "WAR" is your thing, I see no reason why he can't push a bWAR of approaching 9.0 which would be quite a feat. We're talking about a career season from a guy with an already epic career. I don't put any feat with a bat in his hands past him any longer.

Which position player quietly holds the lineups‘ fate in their hands?

Cabrera is an MVP. Prince Fielder is one of the most well-known stars in the game. Torii Hunter's PR machine and spurts of solid productivity get plenty of notice. Peralta is resurgent this year. Martinez is rebounding. Alex Avila is gobbling up the attention of those who'd rather dwell on "this guys sucks and is holding us back". (it should be noted I'm not one of those guys. I think Avila will be fine in time and isn't as big a hindrance as many portray....that's probably another article on its own!) This leaves one guy who bats in a prominent spot that gets slightly overlooked at times.

Austin Jackson is the catalyst at the top of the order that really makes this lineup go. His combination of speed and power is ideally suited to the leadoff spot in Detroit. If Jackson is getting on base down the stretch to set up Hunter, Cabrera, and Fielder then there should be no let up now that Martinez is bridging the 5-hole productively to the bottom of the order.

Jackson's big issue is health. The Tigers have several players who have "durability" prominent on their resume'. To this point in his career that really isn't a Jackson strong suit. Jackson gets nicked a fair amount of the time. Will he inhabit the Tigers lineup for 64 games the rest of the way? Or only 44? We all witnessed the Tigers lineup chug and wheeze along when Jackson was on the DL earlier this year. Andy Dirks and Omar Infante gamely tried (or maybe it was just "gamey") to fill the void but the difference was palpable. The Tigers need Jackson and they need him to keep taking steps forward that a player his age should take.

Final record and standings?

The Tigers sit at 52-42 at the All Star break. I think 88 wins takes the AL Central when it's all said and done. That might even have room to spare. The Tigers have to go 36-32 to get to 88 wins. I think they can beat that.

89-73 and a first place division finish as I see it today.

(A note...I will be in Kansas City on Friday and Saturday night this weekend to attend the both games with a group of friends. If anyone from the BYB community is there and would like to have a beverage of some kind while talking about the Tigers please say so in the comments and we'll make it happen!)

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