I don't think the Detroit Tigers will win the division this year. And there's absolutely no hope of the wild card.
There, I said it, and I know it's not what you want to read. I hope I'm wrong. I really do. The first half of the season was fun and exciting, and I want nothing more for that to keep rolling after the All-Star Break.
Try as I might, I just can't find reason to believe it will.
The team over performed in the first half of the season. The schedule is too difficult going forward. The Tigers have rotation problems. They have an offense built on the shoulders of three huge first-half performances that almost certainly cannot be duplicated in the closing months of the season. Their defense is lackluster. Their depth is non-existent, leaving them walking on pins and needles with multiple players.
I'd love to believe this is the year, but if I was a betting man I'd take the field. Not that the field is perfect.
The White Sox had to play at an .800 clip dating back to June 8 in Detroit, just to get back into the division. That kind of run won't continue, and they could revert to the sub-.500 club they were the first two months of the season. Losing Jake Peavy isn't going to help matters either.
The Twins have Francisco Liriano leading their rotation. Carl Pavano is having a nice year. And then? Well, it's not quite as pretty as it was in years past. Joe Mauer is having an incredibly non-Mauer-like year -- hip problems may be behind that. And now Justin Morneau has a concussion. Even when healthy, some of his numbers point toward sustainability (in short: career-high batting average driven by insanely high BABIP), even for a good hitter. The Twins have certainly not been lucky with injuries and several players are cause for concern going forward.
Which brings us to Detroit.
The first, most important thing of all that the Tigers must do is beat the White Sox. Last season was the first during the team's modern history -- aka the years since 2006 -- the Tigers didn't have a losing record to the Sox. They didn't have a winning one; it was a 9-9 split. So that was a start. However Detroit has already managed to lose a series at home to the Sox and simply must do better in the remaining 14 games. Maybe they will, but until they prove otherwise I don't feel good about it.
Of the division contenders, Detroit had the easiest strength of schedule in the first half (.490, according to ESPN.com). Chicago had the middle one (.493) and Minnesota the toughest (.511). As I wrote about Tuesday, that completely reverses after the break when the Tigers are suddenly faced with the most difficult schedule, including a killer stretch that lasts a month, while the other teams get a relative respite. The Tigers don't play the Yankees until after the trade deadline, either. So they could be facing an extremely tough four days in the Bronx.
OK, those things aren't good but here's the part that really gets me. There are just two starting pitchers in the Tigers' rotation who I have any faith in, whatsoever. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. After that? Oy. Rick Porcello is not good. He was lucky, but now he's not even lucky. Jeremy Bonderman is what you call an innings eater. Armando Galarraga is ... something. So the manager wants the team to trade for a relief pitcher. Why? Because he knows he's going to need some extra arms in the bullpen the way the starters pitch.
The lineup? I am concerned because so much depends on the continued success of Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera and Brennan Boesch. Jackson is slowly fluttering back to earth, and he's a rookie who has never played in a 162-game pennant race. August and September were among the worst-hitting months of his minor league career.
Next we have Boesch. He's having the best run of his baseball career. And even if you believe he can keep batting successfully you have to be hard-pressed to think he can keep getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time -- way above his career norms. The power is real, I have no doubt about that. But his OPS is probably about .150-.200 higher than even I expect it in being optimistic.
The third cog is Cabrera. He's having an MVP season. It's not an exaggeration to say he's one of the best batters of his generation. He has never hit for an average this high. He has never had this much extra-base power. Right now, his OPS is 1.074. It's never been over 1.000 during his career. Even if you want to believe he's going to have the best season of his life -- and entirely acceptable belief, given the growth of his maturity -- the odds tell you that he's going to take a small step or two back.
Then we have the matters of needing everyone to stay healthy just for the Tigers to keep performing at this level. There is absolutely no depth anywhere in the system to step up if that happens.
When I add it all up, I see odds that do not fall in Detroit's favor.
Now the good news. As of right now, none of the three AL Central contenders looks good enough to run away with it. Baseball is continually interesting because actual results continually defy expectations -- some folks need to read that sentence again, by the way.
They're probably not going to win the division by standing pat. They'd be best served by making the right moves in the coming weeks. (What, exactly, should be on the shopping list will be in the next post.) So this isn't a final assessment. We'll have to see what GM Dave Dombrowski has up his sleeve.
As of today, I wouldn't bet on the Tigers; but there's a lot of the season left to be played.