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Second-half Thoughts: Doug Fister and OF help are key as Tigers defend Central title

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First, second and third in the division? Well, not likely. But we'll still say Miguel Cabrera's Tigers finish atop the Central. We're just not as confident about it.
First, second and third in the division? Well, not likely. But we'll still say Miguel Cabrera's Tigers finish atop the Central. We're just not as confident about it.

Whoops, a day later than I intended. But I have a pretty good excuse. I was building my own Cousin It from spare Donner parts.

I'm changing my preseason predictions. Sorta. Before the season, I wrote that the Tigers would win 90-92 games (I like to give myself a game of leeway, so 91-71 would have been my best-guess record). I also thought they might be able to reach the ALCS but I didn't think the Tigers had a World Series club. Of course, in baseball anyone can reach the World Series (Hi, Cardinals!) just by reaching the playoffs. But I felt like there were better teams.

I will say with confidence there are better teams in the AL. Those Rangers are pretty good. The Angels have rebounded well and have an incredible 1-2 punch in their rotation. Detroit's defense is poor, rotation is inconsistent and lineup is maddening. Sure, the Tigers could represent the AL in the World Series, but I wouldn't bet the house on it.

The question, then, is can the Tigers represent the AL Central in the playoffs. To that I say ... er, maybe. They trail the White Sox by four in the loss column. With 76 games remaining on the Tigers' schedule, 10 of those against the White Sox, there is certainly enough time to get back into the race. We've also seen the Tigers play much better during the past five weeks than they did during the prior six weeks or so.

The question you have to answer is "Why are the Tigers winning now?" Some might allege they're winning because the schedule eased up. That could be a partial explanation, though I don't think it's entirely fair. They did well in Interleague play until losing two of three to Pittsburgh. They followed that up with a poor showing in Texas, then a great showing in Tampa. That was followed up by splitting with the Twins, in Detroit, which could hardly be seen as a good thing. But they finished off the half by sweeping Kansas City to run a winning streak to five.

Detroit's also winning because it's scoring runs more consistently. Is that because of poor pitching by opponents, or because certain members in the lineup are 1) healthy, 2) hitting as expected, 3) happy it's no longer 45 degrees outside. Don't underestimate how important it was to get Austin Jackson back in center field and leading off. And definitely give credit to Quintin Berry, because the No. 2 spot in the lineup has been a black hole in any game that Berry or now-injured Andy Dirks didn't play. The bottom of the order has a hole or two, but the Tigers cannot allow that to occur in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

These two topics come into play when you consider the next month of the season. I hate to put too much weight on it, but it could be considered make-or-break. Well, break, anyway. The next 10 games include three at a surprising Orioles team, four against a rather decent Angels then three against the first-place White Sox. Then it's a road trip that begins in Cleveland, moves north to Toronto and finishes up in Boston. New York comes to Comerica for four in early August, then it's off to Texas.

Well, you get the point. Detroit has the hardest remaining strength of schedule in the division, per CoolStandings.com.

Detroit: .513
Royals: .512
Twins: .510
Indians: .500
White Sox: .492

(If you're thinking wild card, by the way, the AL East teams are all at the same level as Detroit's schedule with the Red Sox as high as .530.

The minimum the TIgers need to do during the next month is not suck. Don't fall out of the division (or wild card) hunt. Stay within shooting distance. At least that way, with all the games against division opponents in September, Detroit in some ways will be able to control its destiny. If the Tigers can somehow push through, proving that they can play on the same field as the Rangers and AL East, as well as picking up some wins against the Sox and Indians, things should be set up well.

The question is, can the Tigers do that? I just don't know. This team is harder for me to get a read on than any in past years. At the break in 2009, I was able to correctly guess the Tigers' final record. Right now, I don't feel confident enough to even put a record out there. If the team has been winning in the past month because everything is falling into place, you can feel confident they'll earn enough wins against the schedule. If they were only taking advantage of weak opponents and the NL, the next month could be total hell.

If I had to guess, I'd say it plays out like this: Someone in the Central wins 86-87 games to go to the playoffs. Someone finishes just above .500. The rest finish at .500 or below. I just find it hard to believe there's a team that can win 89+ games.

I'll be a homer and still put the Tigers in the playoffs. We thought they were good enough before the season. If they can stay healthy, they should be good enough now.

Second-half keys:

  • Trade for lineup help in the outfield.
  • Try to trade for defensive help in the infield.
  • Keep an eye open for rotation help, but don't expect it.
  • Get Doug Fister back on track, pitching like the No. 2-3 he appeared to be rather than the No. 4-5 that has shown up this year.
  • Keep Max Scherzer consistent. No matter what you do, keep Max Scherzer consistent!
  • Cross fingers, hope White Sox cool off.
  • Stay close, then make a strong push against the division in the end.
What have you guys got?