June 6, 2009 at 11:42 pm

Lynn Henning

First-place Tigers still have issues

Placido Polanco's struggles at the plate (.245, compared to .303 career) haven't carried over to his defense at second base, where the former Gold Glove winner gets a fifth-inning out despite Jeff Mathis' hard slide. (Duane Burleson/Associated Press)

Detroit

What the Tigers would hope on June 6 is to be as stable and sturdy as their first-place perch atop the American League Central Division standings implies.

First place, however, is likely an illusion.

The Tigers were reeling after their third consecutive loss Thursday, and are headed for potentially tougher times as three issues haunt them heading into the thick of their schedule:

  • Magglio Ordonez's collapse as a middle-of-the-lineup force, which could result in the Tigers deciding at any point to release him.

  • An overall hollow offense, especially at the corner outfield positions, which is likely to spur a trade well ahead of the All-Star break.

  • Individual pitching problems made more complicated by bad contracts.

    As for Ordonez, who has been a marquee star since joining the team in 2005, the Tigers are stunned a player two years removed from winning the AL batting title seemingly has hit the wall.

    Ordonez has displayed virtually no extra-base hitting crunch -- two home runs, eight doubles and a .357 slugging percentage compared with a .520 mark entering the season. His absence of speed and limited defense is another liability on a team that has seen a former All-Star decline dramatically at age 35.

    "I have no answers to that," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after Ordonez was 1-for-4 Thursday, his lone hit a single. "I wish I did. I can't figure it out."

    Asked if he thought the Tigers might release him, Ordonez said after Thursday's game: "I get paid to produce, and I'm not producing. What do you expect?"

    Speaking of his hitting frustrations, as well as his wife's two bouts of surgery last month, Ordonez said: "I've got to handle it like a man."

    The Tigers are believed to be trying to make a trade for a hard-hitting corner outfielder. Josh Anderson, Clete Thomas, Ryan Raburn and Ordonez, who have been handling most of the work in right field and left field, have combined for eight home runs and 55 RBIs.

    "We are always talking to clubs," said Dave Dombrowski, president and general manager of the Tigers. "Right now, in most cases, the process is more in the starting stage in regards to acquisitions for clubs, although there are exceptions like the McLouth trade (Pittsburgh's trade of outfielder Nate McLouth to Atlanta)."

    Ordonez, however, could be difficult to trade because of his long, expensive and complicated contract that pays him $18 million in 2009. It calls for option years of $18 million in 2010 and $15 million in 2011 if a series of vesting levels are hit.

    The 2010 option is guaranteed if he has 135 starts or 540 plate appearances this season, or a combined 270 starts and 1,080 plate appearances in 2008-09 combined.

    Ordonez has 204 plate appearances in 2009 and 827 combined the past two seasons.

    The Tigers could be absolved of any responsibility in 2010 and 2011 if Ordonez is released before the options kick in.

    But it also is likely Ordonez's agent, Scott Boras, as well as the players union, would take legal issue with his dismissal.

    Too many bad deals

    Although the Tigers have been in first place primarily due to superb pitching by Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, Rick Porcello and an otherwise solid bullpen, bad contracts and ragged individual pitching efforts are threatening to hamstring the roster.

    They also could leave owner Mike Ilitch with additional multi-million dollar salary obligations for players no longer on his team (Gary Sheffield is being paid $13.6 million by the Tigers even after he was released during spring training).

    Dontrelle Willis, under contract in 2009-10 for $22 million, had to leave Thursday's game after walking five batters in 2 1/3 innings, turning a 3-0 Tigers lead into a 5-3 Red Sox advantage. Willis has one victory since the start of 2008.

    Nate Robertson, a former starter and now a reliever after losing his spot in the rotation, is under contract through 2010 for $17 million.

    He was knocked out of a relief appearance Wednesday that reminded everyone how far he has tumbled since his days as a workhorse starter. One year after having the highest ERA (6.35) of any regular starter in the American League, Robertson is 1-0 with a 5.17 ERA in 13 games as a reliever.

    Robertson made the team largely because of his contract obligation. His future, however, is anything but certain.

    The pitching staff remains problematic in an ironic way because of the return of right-hander Jeremy Bonderman.

    Bonderman will rejoin the team Monday following a year's absence due to arterial surgery. He has been fighting to regain strength and extension in his right shoulder and has been so-so during a rehab stint in the minor leagues.

    Finding a place for him on the 25-man roster presents the Tigers with added challenges. Zach Miner has a minor league option remaining and could be the loser when Bonderman is added. But the Tigers also have relied on Miner to spot-start or pitch in long relief.

    Help on the way?

    Along with Bonderman, the Tigers will reclaim by next week another familiar name from the disabled list, outfielder Marcus Thames, who hit 25 home runs in 2008 but has been on the shelf since April with a strained oblique muscle.

    Thames will provide Leyland an option in left field, as well as some potential power in a batting order that was further weakened when regular left fielder Carlos Guillen went on the disabled list May 5 with right shoulder inflammation.

    Guillen was viewed as an indispensable switch-hitter heading into 2009. But Leyland described Guillen's ailment Wednesday as "long term."

    His absence represents a batting-order void for the Tigers as well as one more potential contractual albatross.

    Guillen is under contract through 2011 at $36 million ($10 million in 2009, $13 million in 2010 and 2011).

    Unable to project when, or if, Guillen can return, the Tigers are believed to be pressing hard for a trade, although Dombrowski is counting on healthier players to give his team a lift.

    "We do have Marcus Thames coming back soon," said Dombrowski, "and were hopeful that he'll help our offense."

    It's sorting out trades, promotions, demotions, and potential pink slips that will keep Dombrowski and Leyland in conference in coming days.

    In the meantime, they will allow events and developments to shape sensitive decisions and hope first place is more than temporary quarters for a team that, for all its pluses, has no shortage of contradictions.

    lynn.henning@detnews.com">lynn.henning@detnews.com (313) 222-2472

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