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Detroit Tigers’ fine homestand soured by the usual Achilles heel

Their week in Detroit was a microcosm of underrated strengths and the same old weakness in the bullpen.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT — After the first road trip and homestand of the season, the Tigers have a 6-3 record and are tied for first in the American League Central Division. In particular, the homestand gave a glimpse of what everyone should be able to expect from Detroit this season.

Overall, the team has done well, but the starting rotation has been its strength.

More than anything, the starting five have carried the team

Justin Verlander looks like himself. Michael Fulmer displayed a maturity beyond his rookie season. Daniel Norris battled through a rough start and finished strong. Matthew Boyd made key adjustments. The only problem at the moment is Jordan Zimmermann. He's now had two troubling starts, but it's too early to say whether that's just weather-related or something more.

After Thursday's game, he told reporters that he had no idea where the ball was going because he couldn't feel it. Manager Brad Ausmus agreed that the cold weather was a factor. For now, his poor performance can perhaps be attributed to the chilly temperatures. For the first two innings, Zimmermann said he felt sharp and the results showed, particularly in the second.

All the starting pitchers had their workloads somewhat limited to begin the season. But it's also for that reason, that the bullpen has gotten more than its fair share of work so far.

Oh, that bullpen

No matter what the Tigers do, they can't seem to catch a break with whatever combination of pitchers they try for effectiveness. Francisco Rodriguez imploded trying to get a four-out save and then vultured the win after the offense bailed him out. Justin Wilson was brilliant, but overly taxed, and had to be rested when the team needed him. Alex Wilson can't handle inherited runners. Anibal Sanchez is still a gas can, can't be trusted, and gives up dingers left and right.

If there is one bright spot, it's that the hook for poor performance has come quick and early this year, as opposed to in the past. Bruce Rondon was sent down to Triple-A Toledo and the Tigers cut Mark Lowe and Mike Pelfrey despite the salary loss. When the rotation begins to pitch deeper into games, which should come soon, the need for the bullpen should decrease.

Roles are being established — K-Rod is the closer and Justin Wilson is the set-up man. Alex Wilson can pitch in any situation, so long as his inherited runners are limited. Right now, the biggest concern is Sanchez, who richly wore one on Thursday when he gave up two three-run homers. His command is gone and it shows. There's just nothing there, and now he's unavailable for Friday's opener against the Indians. Perhaps that’s for the best.

The Tigers are in a precarious position with Sanchez because if they're going to deal with him, it's going to be costly. Sanchez can choose a minor league assignment, but at this point it's highly unlikely that he would agree to that. Essentially, they'd just be cutting him and keeping the salary.

So, for now they've called up William Cuevas to serve in a long man role — basically, the bullpen is taxed and they need a fresh arm because Sanchez crapped the bed and is useless for at least a day, if not two.

The offense has been good — yet hasn’t

They are hitting at least one home run in every game, but they're also not turning their hits into an abundance of runs. Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Justin Upton had been silent at the plate until Thursday.

Cabrera and Upton both homered in Thursday's game, but the vast majority of the production hasn't come from the top and middle of the lineup — the bottom of the order has been getting it done. Oddly enough, James McCann has hit three home runs and Andrew Romine knocked his first-ever grand slam.

The defense has been solid and JaCoby Jones is stellar in center field. The man can run down anything. Right field, though, is begging for the return of J.D. Martinez, which could come as early as next week if the Tigers get lucky. He could take batting practice with the team in Tampa next week, and rejoining them isn't much farther off. Don't expect his bat to be on fire in the first game, but it would be an improvement nonetheless.

The heart of the lineup will get their bats going, eventually. Cabrera has begun his assault on opposing pitchers, and Upton is showing signs of life at the plate. The biggest thing is whether the team can string together their hits enough to count for more than one or two key runs. They need to be able to pour it on, and right now they haven't shown that.

Tigers might be a force

Overall, the Tigers seem like a steady team with the ability to bounce back from in-game issues. Their highs and lows may result in balance. They've avoided injury with the exception of J.D. Martinez and the rotation looks as good as it has in years. With Verlander leading the rotation and Cabrera heating up again, Detroit should become a force to be reckoned with — if they can only keep their bullpen in line.