The Tigers face at least five issues they must overcome in the second half of the season. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
Thrill rides are a big industry for two reasons: They simultaneously entertain customers while scaring the bejabbers out of them.
That happens to be the same contradiction at play for manager Jim Leyland's Tigers as they head into the final 75 games of the regular season. The Tigers are in first place in the American League Central, which is lovely stuff to behold for any big league team chasing a playoff spot.
But their modest record (48-39) and their narrow lead over two quality clubs (3 ½ games over the Chicago White Sox, 4 games over the Minnesota Twins) join with assorted team deficiencies to make the Tigers a nervous contender, at least in the view of most fans and critics.
The Tigers are staring at various make-it-or-break-it issues as they return to work this week, at a fittingly scary place, Yankee Stadium, where they will play the daunting New York Yankees in a three-game series.
1. Will the starting pitching hold up?
The Tigers need more than Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson. If they can't depend upon regularly effective starts from Rick Porcello, Armando Galarraga, and Luke French or whomever settles in as a fifth starter, the Tigers are dead ducks in terms of making the playoffs.
Porcello, the 20-year-old rookie who has shown his age of late, can probably be nursed through his first year and be the competent No. 3 starter he was ahead of July.
Galarraga, however, has shown few signs he's in for the long haul. He has been too up-and-down for too long to expect a second-half renaissance.
French has been trustworthy. But he's a rookie, as well, and rookies tend to display their inexperience soon enough, particularly if they rely on finesse in the manner of French.
Of course, the Tigers' rivals aren't always parading 20-game winners to the mound. But the Twins and White Sox have fewer questions today with their rotations than the Tigers.
And that's not a good recipe for a first-place team and its hopes for staying there.
2. Will the bullpen settle down?
In any year for any team, relief pitching is about as predictable as the crude oil market. It can be way up, or way down, and it goes either way in a hurry.
The Tigers are proof positive. Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya have seen to that.
Rodney gets the job done, but too often it's a James Bond script where he escapes death by some far-fetched combination of luck and creative magic.
He will make for some heavily investing club a sound set-up man when he hits the free-agent market this autumn, but the closing role is not a good fit for Rodney, as he too often proves, no matter that he tends to somehow get the save.
He must get command of his fastball. Otherwise, his luck, and that of the Tigers, will vanish in the season's final 10 weeks.
As for Zumaya, he will be the Tigers' next closer -- if he gets his act in order. A big "if" there based upon his recent control issues.
What the fans who now want him traded, sent down, exiled, or worse, should remember is that in their sudden cries for Zumaya's scalp they sound an awful lot like the same people who for two years begged to be rid of Brandon Inge. Or, those who wanted Verlander shipped to a new team after his 2008 struggles.
Zumaya is 24 years old. He has such a potentially overpowering arsenal of pitches that only 29 other teams would be lined up outside the Tigers front office making trade offers if the Tigers were to place him on the market.
Hang onto him. And hope he regains confidence in the season's second half. He's the most important arm in the Tigers bullpen, bar none. Without an effective Zumaya, there won't be nearly as many games for Rodney to even consider closing.
3. What to do with Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen.
Ouch. The Tigers made a shrewd decision last week when they opted to platoon Ordonez in right field with Clete Thomas. Fine -- at least when a right-hander starts and Thomas is in the lineup.
Ordonez, though, is being carried for one reason: his ticklish contract situation (options for 2010 and 2011) that the Tigers must be careful about skirting, lest they run into problems with his agent and the Major League Players Association.
There's no pretense on the part of Leyland that Ordonez is in the lineup to help win a baseball game. And that's because he can't be expected in any given game to be much other than a negative.
He hits the occasional single and the far less occasional home run or double and does not have outfield range. He's slow on the base paths.
Now the Tigers face another decision that has "Ordonez" written all over it. Carlos Guillen will soon begin a rehabilitation assignment in the minors. That means the Tigers will be adding yet another outfielder whose defensive limitations make him ideally a designated hitter.
Leyland won't enjoy deploying Guillen or even Marcus Thames in left field because of the serious compromise on the Tigers' defense. And yet he will need to play one of them in the outfield.
Corner outfield spots occupied by Ordonez and either Guillen or Thames will put further strain on the pitching staff. Which is why it still seems likely that Ordonez will be the player released when Guillen returns from his rehab stint.
4. Get Curtis Granderson going.
Sure, he has 18 home runs. He also has a .254 batting average and a .338 on-base percentage, which isn't getting it done when Granderson is the team's leadoff batter.
Granderson needs to bat leadoff, however, because of his speed and formerly reliable knack for igniting the Tigers offense.
If he doesn't pick it up in the second half -- hitting .300, hitting left-handers, and socking the ball up the gaps as well as over the fence -- the Tigers' offense is toast.
Granderson, who had a triple and scored the winning run for the American League in Tuesday's All-Star Game, has gotten by with the gloss from his previous seasons with the Tigers. That honeymoon should have been over long ago. He needs to make baseball his fixation -- and hit as if it were his only fixation. There's too much talent there to be hitting .254.
5. The difficulty in trading for help.
Granted, the non-waiver trade deadline is July 31 and the Tigers have as much right as any team to make an impressive deal that might strengthen one of the above soft spots.
But don't bet on it.
Too many teams are in a buying mode. Lots of clubs have a shot at the playoffs. And so any available help is bound to be expensive -- far too expensive for a Tigers team that must keep its eye on the long haul.
The Tigers cannot discard any of their better minor-league prospects for a shot at the 2009 playoffs. It's a blueprint for grim times down the road. And no matter how badly fans want their team in the playoffs, short-term gains at the expense of long-term competitiveness is poison.
The Tigers are in first place because they have built a capable baseball club. They depart spring training each season with a chance to win. That's what they owe their fans, along with the commitment to making sensible personnel upgrades where it's possible.
But it doesn't look as if anything sensible is in the cards this month. And that reluctance to risk the ranch for a particular player should remain in place. The last move the Tigers should make is to squander good young talent for a playoff run that offers no guarantees either way.
Curtis Granderson's power numbers are up, but the Tigers also would ... (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
More Lynn Henning
- Justin Verlander can't be the Tigers' ace all the time
- Tigers may have no choice but to send down Alex Avila
- This is why the Tigers refused to dump Rick Porcello in a trade
- 10 players Tigers would love to have on draft day
- Miguel Cabrera blast more evidence Comerica needs added charm, less space
- Torii Hunter has ended Tigers’ right-field anxieties
- Heating-up Andy Dirks a prime example of when Tigers’ scouts shine