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Detroit must stay healthy to win division (duh)

Fact: As of right now, just one Tigers player is on the disabled list. That man is, of course, Joel Zumaya.

The Detroit News' Tom Gage had that interesting observation, which he later turned into a full column. When Carlos Guillen came off the disabled list and Brad Thomas was outrighted to Toledo, that left Zumaya the only remaining Tiger on the DL. He's probably not coming off any time soon, and he might be joined by center fielder Austin Jackson soon. But for right now, just the one player.

That got me thinking how big of a role injuries have played in the second half of the season for the Tigers in recent years. It's not an excuse, per se. Other teams have overcome injuries to win division titles -- the 2009 and 2010 Twins lost Justin Morneau for instance. But expecting a team to play the same or to improve when it loses key members to injury would be silly if you ask me. Unless Michael Cuddyer is on your team, anyway. And blaming the manager for the organization's lack of depth doesn't seem much better in my mind.

So, for the gutsy readers out there, here's a trip through memory lane at some of the injury issues Detroit battled in the years it was a July contender.

2010 -- You might recall all the injuries in 2010. Not only did the Tigers find themselves facing some tough AL East teams, but they did it while losing Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge within days of each other. You should remember the phrase that was coined after that: Miguel Cabrera and the Mud Hens. Will Rhymes, Jeff Frazier, Brennan Boesch and Danny Worth -- four players who made MLB debuts in 2010 -- could be found in the lineup together. Ramon Santiago and Don Kelly were intermixed. And of course, you remember the terrible injury Joel Zumaya suffered that season. It's no wonder the team struggled to win games in late July and early August.

2009 -- Near the end of June, starter Nate Robertson hit the disabled list. Not that he was exactly pitching the best that year, but then again he had growths in his elbow that he went on the DL to have surgically removed. Robertson did not return until late August. Early in July, Alfredo Figaro joined him on the DL. In July, Zumaya re-aggravated a stress fracture. In August, the Tigers had to pull Jarrod Washburn -- whom they acquired at the July 31 deadline -- due to his knee injury. Meanwhile Brandon Inge played through knee pain that caused him to have surgery on both knees in the offseason. If these injuries don't sound awful, that's because the team did stay relatively healthy. They also went .500 in the second half, though you'd be hard-pressed to tell that if you listen to some fans talk.

2007 -- Opposite of 2009, this was a season de-railed by injuries to pitchers. Kenny Rogers missed much of the year after doctors found and removed a blood clot. He came back around the All-Star Break only to hit the disabled list again in July. By the time he returned to the team the Tigers were 7 games out of first. Maybe Jeremy Bonderman should have spoke to team trainers more openly, because at the same time he was trying to pitch through pain in his arm. His strikeouts dropped off in August, his walks rocketed in September, and Bonderman played on. You'll recall he later had to have a blood clot removed as well. So you wouldn't be surprised to find the Tigers ERA was nearly a run higher in August than it was in June. Of course these weren't the only injuries. August also saw Andrew Miller hit the DL, Marcus Thames return from a nearly month-long stay on it, and Gary Sheffield battle shoulder problems until he hit the DL. Summation: It's kind of surprising the team played so close to .500 in the second half given key pitchers and a key offseason position player were battling health issues.

2006 -- People always want to make a big deal out of the Tigers' second half "slide" in 2006 when comparing it to the first half. Two problems with that. The first is that absolutely no one would have projected the Tigers to be playing .670 ball at the All-Star Break. That translates to 108-109 wins for the season. Before the season fans probably thought this was another fourth place team; most analysts did.

The second issue is ignoring a key occurrence in August. On Aug. 15, Detroit beat Boston to go 37 games above .500 and a 6 1/2 game lead in the division. Second baseman Placido Polanco, making a typical hustle play, dove for a ball and separated his shoulder during that game. He hit the disabled list a day later. He returned from it on Sept. 22. During the time in between, Detroit went 14-21 and saw its division lead eroded to just 1 1/2 games.. During the second half, the team was just two games under .500. You do the math. It might be a bit of an oversimplification to pin so much on Polanco's injury, but throwing around wins and losses without acknowledging the loss of your No. 2 hitter and rock-steady second baseman is even worse. As a bit of bonus information, the Tigers rotation featured two rookies in 2006, and one of them was Zack Miner. The other was Justin Verlander, whose innings jumped from 119 in 2005 to 186 in 2006. Not surprisingly his ERA was 1.50 runs worse in the second half -- 4.54 compared to 3.01 before the break.

So what was the point in this exercise? Obviously it was more than looking at injuries. I hope some people realized there is a bigger picture when looking at records. It's easy to say "Jimmy Leyland teams always fall off in the second half", but there's usually a reason for it. Maybe the team overperformed in the first half. Maybe it had some rookie starters. Maybe key members of the rotation were lost. Maybe key position players were lost. The fact is, bad things happened every year the Tigers were in the division hunt in July. The Tigers have never had much organizational depth, and they still don't. That's not the fault of the manager.

If Detroit is going to win the division this season, it's going to have to have its healthiest second-half in recent memory or make some darn good trades in case of any key injuries. Otherwise, the minor leagues are not overflowing with players who are able to step into a division hunt without missing a step. That goes for pitching side as well as positional side.

Cross your fingers, knock on wood, line up your votive candles. We need some good luck in the second half for a change. Detroit simply has to stay healthy.