The Detroit Tigers are in uncharted territory. There have been hairy moments throughout each of the Tigers' four consecutive American League Central Division titles, but they have not been nine games behind in a divisional race since 2010, the last time they missed the postseason. The last time they were this far back at the All-Star break was in 2005, when the playoffs were still little more than a pipe dream to Tigers fans.
While this season's team has been frustrating to watch, there is still hope. They are only 3 1/2 games out of the AL wild card, and have enough games left against the Kansas City Royals to impact the division race. However, it will take a strong second half effort to reach the postseason. This year's Tigers team is similar to two other recent squads at this point in the season, but their paths after the All-Star break could not have been more different.
The 2008 Tigers were 47-47 at the All-Star break, 6 1/2 games out of first place. With plenty of preseason expectations on their shoulders, it seemed like the team was starting to come around as mid-July rolled around. However, even a "thousand run offense" couldn't make up for an abysmal pitching staff that allowed more than six runs per game after the break.
In 2011, the Tigers were 49-43 and in first place in the AL Central. This seems worlds away from the 2015 club at 44-44, but the 2011 squad was the last one to have a negative run differential at the All-Star break. With a similarly shaky starting rotation, the Tigers went 7-8 to start the second half. Their big turnaround came after the trade deadline, when they acquired Doug Fister from the Seattle Mariners. Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 10 starts, and the Tigers won 39 of their final 57 games.
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The 2015 Tigers have the potential to go either way. Their pitching staff has allowed 4.69 runs per game this season, just north of the 4.67 runs per game the 2008 squad allowed before the All-Star break. Their distribution of wins is closer to what the 2011 team accomplished, though. The 2011 Tigers were 13-7 when Justin Verlander took the mound in the first half, and just 13-19 when Brad Penny or Phil Coke started. Meanwhile, the 2015 team is 15-3 with David Price on the mound, and 8-18 in games started by Kyle Lobstein, Shane Greene, Kyle Ryan, and Buck Farmer.
Should the Tigers choose to trade for a starter at the trade deadline, they will replace one of the weakest links on their roster. Even a .500 record with a new starter on the mound is worth four or five extra wins in the second half, and a hot run like Fister had can turn the entire tide of the season. The bullpen is still a weakness, but shoring up the rotation should be the Tigers' primary focus if they are buyers at the deadline.
If they stand pat or sell, things could get ugly. The 2008 squad allowed 6.07 runs per game after the All-Star break. Only one starter, Armando Galarraga, finished the season with an ERA under 4.00. They did not make a win-now move at the deadline, instead trading catcher Ivan Rodriguez to the New York Yankees for reliever Kyle Farnsworth. The 2015 team probably won't fall apart so precipitously with Price around, but if he gets dealt, we could see more slugfests like the ones the Minnesota Twins enjoyed last weekend.
If the Tigers buy, things won't be as easy as they were for the 2011 squad, though. The Tigers were the only AL Central team to finish above .500 that season, and they only played 11 games in the second half against teams who finished the season above .500. They were an incredible 50-22 against their AL Central rivals, a .694 win percentage. The 2015 Tigers have played well against their division, but there is far more competition now. The Royals seem like a lock to win 90 games, and the Twins aren't going away any time soon. The Indians and White Sox have struggled, but they would be out of the cellar in any other division in baseball.
While things look bleak now, there are still opportunities for the Tigers to get back in the hunt. Other than Miguel Cabrera, the rest of their roster is starting to get healthy. They have 32 games remaining against divisional opponents, including 12 against the Kansas City Royals. They don't have much time to waste, but the right move at the trade deadline could pay off in a big way.