The Detroit Tigers seem like they have been treading water lately, a notion supported by a 5-5 road trip. While this recent stretch of mediocrity against the division tapers them from the torrid intradivisional pace they were on earlier in the season, there is nothing wrong with a .500 record on a long road trip. The way they lost a couple of those games was unfortunate -- they were a nearly-gloved line drive away from another series win and a 6-4 trip -- but they are still among the best teams in the American League and have gotten through most of an early season gauntlet in relatively good shape despite little-to-no production from Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander.
It's encouraging that the Tigers are seven games over .500 without this production, but it also sheds light on the amount of overperformance happening elsewhere on the roster. Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon were dominant in seven of their combined 12 starts, Jose Iglesias has an .882 OPS, and Andrew Romine is hitting .500. There is a lot of baseball left to be played, and the games against competition will tell us just as much about this Tigers team as the previous 29 have.
Despite widespread belief among the fanbase that Victor Martinez would come back good as new after two weeks on the disabled list, the reality is that a DL stint probably isn't going to do much for the 36-year-old designated hitter. Martinez's surgery, a debridement of the meniscus, part of the cartilage in your knee, has a relatively quick timetable as far as surgical procedures go. As an elite-level athlete, his leg strength was already better than most heading into the surgery, and he probably didn't lose much after his relatively brief layoff period immediately afterward.
Why is he struggling so much, then? His difficulties are limited to the left side of the plate, where he is currently hitting .148/.260/.148 in 73 plate appearances. When batting left-handed, Martinez's left leg is his plant foot, or the leg that drives most of his power. A slight lack of strength could be part of the problem, but part of it is likely just the knee joint itself. There is a small amount of rotation that happens within the knee whenever we bend and straighten it, and this is one of the last things to come back after an operation, even one as simple as the meniscectomy Martinez had. Add in his previous surgical history and you're looking at a guy who should have a longer timetable of recovery than he would have had 10 years ago.
That said, a trip to the disabled list isn't likely to help. Sure, some aggressive rehab could help improve the strength and joint mobility of the knee, but the only thing that will get him back to 100 percent during game action is actual game action. Taking swings at game speed and having the knee go through the weighted rotation it undertakes during a swing is the last hurdle Martinez has in his recovery, and two weeks off will do little to help that. Unfortunately for Martinez and the Tigers, this just takes time.
There is no reason to be concerned about another team this early in the season. History is littered with teams that got off to hot starts before fading away. For example, on the morning of May 8, 2014, the National League division leaders were the Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, and Colorado Rockies. Tigers fans remember how the Cleveland Indians roared out to a 30-15 start in 2011 before finishing the year under .500 and 15 games back of the Tigers. Even last year's 27-12 start and subsequent fall to mediocrity should caution fans about putting too much stock into a hot month of baseball.
That said, I do think we all slept on the Royals a bit. Their bullpen is somehow better than it was last year, and their offense has picked up the slack for a mediocre starting rotation. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, in particular, have looked like their playoff selves so far. Both are hitting above .300 with decent power, giving the Royals a much deeper lineup than they possessed in 2014. Kendrys Morales has returned to form after struggling last year, and Lorenzo Cain has looked like the American League's version of Andrew McCutchen so far this season. They won't keep hitting like this -- they have six regulars hitting .290 or better -- but they are a lot better offensively than in 2014.
The Tigers have already begun changing the lineup around, moving Yoenis Cespedes ahead of J.D. Martinez during the prior series with the Chicago White Sox. I think this is the right move. The younger Martinez has been struggling something fierce, striking out 23 times in his last 45 plate appearances. He is swinging at everything, and appears to have gotten back into some of the old habits he developed in Houston. What is the answer for J.D.? I'm not sure, but I'm slightly encouraged by his four walks in the past two games (he also has four strikeouts, though, so don't get too giddy).
While J.D. deserved to move down, I think keeping Victor Martinez in the cleanup spot is also the right move. Both Cespedes and J.D. are free-swinging sluggers who have power to all fields, while Victor's ability to hit for average and work the count set him apart as an elite-level hitter. He's not producing right now (from the left side, at least), but his plate discipline and approach still make him a valuable asset behind Miguel Cabrera.
@blessyouboys 1. Please describel what soud be a typical rehab schedule for JV based upon a month off 2. How many runs saved so far— mgorosh (@sportz5176) May 7, 2015
First, the good news: despite missing a month of action, Verlander's timetable for return is not that of a full spring training (i.e. he's not back to square one just because he missed April). The normal progression for returning a pitcher to the mound is to have them play catch at a short distance (30-60 feet), then move back to 90 feet, then 120. After that, the pitcher moves to a mound. The pitcher will simply throw off the mound before actually pitching. Then, the stamina-building begins, with bullpen sessions, minor league rehab starts, and a return to the majors.
This probably sounds like a long process, but it should go rather quickly, provided Verlander doesn't have any setbacks. He has already thrown two days in a row, and should probably get onto a mound sometime next week. If all goes well, we could see him in a minor league game within a couple weeks, with a return to the majors before the beginning of June.
Who moves out of the rotation when Justin Verlander returns to the 25-man roster?
If Verlander were returning tomorrow, this would be a very interesting topic. Kyle Lobstein has looked far better than anyone expected so far this year, and has pitched at least seven innings in each of his past three starts. His season-long ERA is down to 3.00 after yesterday's win over the White Sox, and he is the only Tigers starter to last at least five innings in every outing this season. If he keeps this up, he would be a contender for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
However, I think Lobstein will have to keep up this level of performance to supplant either Alfredo Simon or Shane Greene. We have seen similar stretches of dominance from both pitchers thus far, and while their respective résumés aren't that much longer than Lobstein's, they have more natural talent than the soft-tossing lefthander.