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Mailbag: The Tigers' starting rotation is a major problem

The Tigers' starters have been awful in 2015, and there are only more questions as they look toward 2016.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Well, so much for the false hope. Just over a week after climbing to within four games of the second American League wild card slot, the Detroit Tigers have fallen well out of the race. They were bludgeoned by the Toronto Blue Jays in a three-game sweep over the weekend, though the Jays seem to be doing that to everyone nowadays. Now 61-70 and sitting in last place in the AL Central, the Tigers are playing for little more than pride and draft position.

How did things get this bad? In short, the pitching. The Tigers have had issues preventing runs all season long, and the last few weeks have been no different. They have allowed 149 runs since August 1, an average of 5.3 per game. This is in spite of a 1.69 ERA from Justin Verlander, who finally earned his third win of the season last night in a 6-5 nailbiter over the Kansas City Royals. Verlander has allowed 13 total runs (eight earned) in his last six starts, and is the only sure bet to land in the Tigers' rotation in 2016.

Both are concerns, but the starting rotation has to be the bigger focus for the Tigers at this point. The rotation ranks 21st in Major League Baseball with 6.8 fWAR this season, and their 4.60 ERA is second-worst in the American League. We recently reviewed the glut of mediocre starters the Tigers have used this year, and the results are ugly. Only four Tigers starters have a FIP under 4.00, and two of them -- Randy Wolf and Alex Wilson -- have combined to start just three games. David Price owns over half of the rotation's WAR on his own, and Justin Verlander has another 1.5 to himself. If you're doing the math at home, that leaves 1.7 WAR for the other 96 games started this season.

The bullpen has been bad too. They are one of three units in baseball below replacement level this season, leading only the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. Fangraphs' WAR wasn't a fan of Joakim Soria, who allowed a 4.86 FIP in his 41 innings in a Tigers uniform, but his 2.85 ERA and 3.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio were certainly an asset. With him gone, that leaves three relievers -- four if you count Joe Nathan -- with an ERA under 3.00. Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson have been reliable, but Drew VerHagen has done so in under 10 innings of work, and doesn't look to be ready for high leverage innings quite yet.

As bad as both units have been, the starting rotation is far more important for two reasons. First, they throw more innings. Tigers starters rank fourth in the American League with six innings pitched per start, a rate that Price boosted considerably in his 21 outings with Detroit. The rotation has logged 727 innings this year, more than double that of the bullpen. The sheer volume of innings dictates that this should be a bigger focus for the Tigers this offseason.

Second, the Tigers already have some reliable pieces in their bullpen and fewer in their starting rotation. We have noted Brad Ausmus' inability to effectively manage the bullpen time and again on this website this season, and while more effective management might not significantly change the overall numbers, it would definitely help mitigate the risk of losing winnable games. Reliable bullpen pieces can be found all over -- Blaine Hardy and Al Alburquerque were signed as minor league free agents, remember -- and it only takes a couple good ones to patch over the most glaring holes.

Between their currently uninspired finish to the 2015 season and general manager Al Avila's noncommittal statement during his introductory press conference, I'm having a hard time envisioning a scenario in which Brad Ausmus returns as the Tigers' manager in 2016. A 90-win season and an early playoff exit shouldn't be enough to put a manager on the hot seat, but a last-place season mixed with moments of pure ineptitude should turn the heat up on Ausmus real quick. If Ausmus is fired, expect most of the staff to go with him, save one or two holdovers -- looking at you, Omar Vizquel.

There are plenty of available replacements, and fans will be quick to mention favorites (theirs, not the Tigers') like Bud Black, Ron Gardenhire, and Manny Acta. However, there's one far-fetched option that I'm intrigued by: Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona. Tito has a contract that runs through 2018, but with club president Mark Shapiro jumping ship to Toronto, Francona has the option to opt out of his deal. He has already noted that he won't use the clause as leverage in negotiations, but he may not have the same loyalty to the Tribe now that Shapiro, a close friend of Francona's, is no longer around.

That said, it's still very unlikely. Francona has also expressed gratitude to current Indians general manager Chris Antonetti over the years, and moving to a division rival may seem like a slap in the face. Plus, if Francona opts out, he may look to rejoin Shapiro in Toronto, depending on what the club decides to do with incumbent manager John Gibbons.

Austin Jackson is an interesting case study on both sides of the ball, but unfortunately, the results are rather disappointing. He is batting .271/.311/.385 this season, good enough for a .304 wOBA and 96 wRC+. This would have been his second-worst offensive season in Detroit, topping only his subpar 2011 season. For whatever reason, Jackson's walk rate fell off a cliff after leaving the Tigers last year. He walked in 8.6 percent of his plate appearances as a Tiger (including 8.1 percent in 2014), but only took a free pass in 36 of 684 plate appearances as a Mariner, a 5.3 percent clip.

Jackson's power has dropped off too. While not the biggest home run threat, he did rack up 229 extra base hits in four-plus years with the Tigers, good enough for a .136 isolated power (ISO). This was slightly below league average production for center fielders during Jackson's career, but far better than the .086 ISO he had with the Mariners. Jackson's offensive stats are weighed down somewhat by a brutal finish to 2014, but his meager 2015 numbers (including a .111 ISO) aren't particularly encouraging.

On the bright side, defensive metrics have taken a slightly rosier outlook with Jackson in 2015. After two seasons in the red, Jackson's UZR is up to +5.8 in 901 innings this season, his best total since +7.8 in 2011. Defensive runs saved (DRS) isn't showing the same love at -3, and Baseball Reference's dWAR has him at exactly replacement level. This is a far cry from the guy that was worth a few wins with the glove alone in 2010 and 2011, but there were signs that his glove was slipping in Detroit.

The trends aren't ideal, but there is something to be said for the stark contrast between his numbers in Detroit and those in Seattle. Perhaps Austin rebounds if he returns to the Motor City, or perhaps there was something about Seattle that didn't jive with his offensive game. He is hitting better on the home than on the road this season, so the spacious Safeco Field isn't the reason, but if the price is cheap enough -- and his role is limited enough -- both Jackson and the Tigers could potentially benefit from a reunion.

The pro-high socks crowd is going to be disappointed, but Castellanos started hitting better well before he opted for his new look. Based on a trial-and-error search method, I discovered that Castellanos did not pull his socks up until after August 14. However, his breakout started well before that. He hit .258/.327/.495 with six home runs and 20 RBI in July, an .822 OPS for the month.

The magic date for Castellanos seems to be June 23, which coincides with him being "benched" during a series against the New York Yankees. Castellanos did not record a plate appearance in the final three games of that four-game set, when Andrew Romine was swinging a hot bat. Since then, Castellanos is hitting a robust .285/.342/.531 with 11 home runs and 37 RBI. It may not be the high socks, but let's hope whatever Castellanos is doing -- he has a 134 wRC+ in the second half -- continues in 2016.