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Top 5 questions facing the Tigers in the second half

There are a zillion questions surrounding this team. We tried to single out just five.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Detroit Tigers have been a frustrating group, to say the least. Their inconsistent play has been maddening at times — especially when they were on the losing end of those swings — and the personnel decisions haven’t made a ton of sense either.

However, things could be worse. The Tigers are currently 46-43, 6 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. They enter the second half four games out of the AL Wild Card, and are a half game up on the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox in the division. As the Tigers kick off the second half against the Royals on Friday, there are a number of questions surrounding this team for the final two months of the season. Let’s tackle the five big ones.

How many innings will Michael Fulmer pitch?

As we stand, MF Doom (we’re working on it) has pitched 92 innings this season between Triple-A Toledo and the major leagues. He worked a total of 124 2/3 innings last season, and the Tigers are looking to limit him to a roughly 20 percent increase this year. The rigid math puts Fulmer at 149 2/3 total innings for the season, while his breakout performance will probably push him up somewhere into the 150-160 range. If you assume Fulmer will continue to average six innings per start, that gives him another 11 outings before he gets to 160 innings, the upper tier of this innings hypothesis.

The Tigers have already identified a plan of how to get him there. Giving him several days off around the All-Star break helps — he hasn’t pitched since July 6 and his next start is Sunday, July 17 — but they will still need to skip him periodically throughout the second half to get him into September. The problem, then, isn’t necessarily how the Tigers stretch him throughout the season, but who replaces him for those spot starts. Their options are limited, and no one in the organization is capable of putting up numbers like Fulmer has.

And if the Tigers make the playoffs, God willing? They will have to answer this question all over again, but with much less wiggle room.

Who will be in the starting rotation?

While a bit of a 1b to the Michael Fulmer 1a topic, it’s fair to question just who will be starting these games. Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann are currently on the disabled list. Though both seem close to returning, neither has exactly been a beacon of health this season. Norris has already been on the DL three times since joining the Tigers last summer, and Zimmermann has suffered multiple injuries this season. Fulmer is on an innings count, and nobody else — save rotation stalwart Justin Verlander — has been remotely effective for long stretches.

Where do the Tigers go? Matt Boyd has looked solid at times, but if things get bad, he can only cover one of the open spots in the rotation. Anibal Sanchez has been a disaster, allowing a 6.75 ERA in 82 2/3 innings this season. He hasn’t limited an opposing lineup to fewer than four runs in a single start since April. Shane Greene is a popular pick to move back to the rotation, but (a) that blows a hole in the bullpen, and (b) Greene isn’t exactly a proven starter himself. Buck Farmer and Kyle Ryan seem firmly (and rightfully) entrenched in the bullpen. Internal options are limited, so it’s imperative that their top guys stay healthy.

Will Justin Upton finally break out?

If you were to judge the contracts signed last offseason based solely on their first half performances, Justin Upton would rank among the very worst deals inked. He is currently hitting .235/.289/.381 and has struck out 112 times in 356 plate appearances. He has just nine home runs and has been a below replacement level player, at -0.6 fWAR. Woof.

Things are getting better lately, though. If you cherrypick to make his recent stat line as rosy as possible, he’s hitting .259/.325/.469 with seven home runs and 28 RBI since May 31. While that’s good enough for 30 homers and 120 RBI prorated over an entire season, fans are still expecting more. Where is the Upton we were promised, the one who gets white-hot for six weeks at a time and carries an offense?

He might be coming. There isn’t a large sample of data to back this up, but Tigers fans have seen a couple sluggers struggle relative to their gaudy career numbers when coming over from the National League. Sure, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder both managed to post an OPS over .800 while “struggling,” but they were better hitters in their primes than Upton. The 28-year-old outfielder saw a huge jump in his walk rate after the calendar turned to May, and limited his strikeouts rate to just 22 percent in June. While both of those numbers have taken a short step backward in July, we’re looking at a 10-game sample, all on the road. If he can start hot in the second half, the Tigers might be in business.

What will the Tigers do at the trade deadline?

Buy? Sell? Stand pat? I outlined my reasoning for wanting to buy big earlier this week, but each option has its merits at the moment. The Tigers are in trade deadline no man’s land, and it will take a strong performance in the next two weeks to convince most fans that gutting the farm system once again is the best decision for this club going forward.

Whether they choose to buy or sell, their options are limited. There isn’t a David Price out on the market this year, or even a Doug Fister. Oakland’s Rich Hill is the best pending free agent on the trade block, and he hasn’t topped the 100-inning mark since 2010. Jeremy Hellickson is a guy, I guess. The best options available come with multiple years of cost-control attached, and those players aren’t going to be cheap. Tampa has shopped multiple guys already, including Jake Odorizzi and former Tiger Drew Smyly. Drew Pomeranz is also a popular pick, but it’s still unclear whether the Padres are actually looking to move him.

On the selling side, who do you move? Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Cameron Maybin, and Francisco Rodriguez have some value, but after that, you’re dipping into a talent pool that will seriously hamper the Tigers’ ability to compete in the near future (and Maybin is looking more and more necessary as the Anthony Gose saga unfolds). Unless the Tigers try to blow it up and start over — hint: they won’t — they would be hard pressed to find much value on the seller’s market, even at the trade deadline.

Can the Tigers make the playoffs?

FanGraphs gives the Tigers a 26.1 percent chance to make the postseason, while Baseball Prospectus is at 21 percent. Sitting four games out of a wild card spot with a battered rotation is not the best position to be in, and the Tigers’ negative run differential suggests they’re lucky to be that close.

Here’s the thing, though. Just about everyone above the Tigers in this playoff race has similar concerns. The Red Sox and Orioles’ starting rotations are arguably worse than the Tigers’ right now, and the Blue Jays will run into similar problems as Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez keep piling up the innings. The Astros and Rangers are both in good positions, but the Rangers have been historically fortunate in one-run games thus far; Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win percentage actually has them behind the Tigers in the standings.

With so many games left against teams in similar positions — the Tigers play 41 games against the Red Sox, Orioles, Astros, Rangers, Royals, or White Sox in the second half — they have plenty of chances to control their own destiny. If they can sort out their own question marks, or at least hide them better than those other teams, it’s certainly not out of the question.