July 16, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Lynn Henning

Better hitting part of this fool-proof plan to get Tigers division crown

Nick Castellanos has a .281 average with 12 homers, 49 RBI and 29 doubles in 98 games with the Mud Hens this year. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Issues and (potential) answers as Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ front-office pharaoh, sizes up his baseball team, July’s trade deadline, and a nervous Central Division race:

The simple recipe for running away with a division everyone in baseball knows the Tigers should own.

Two ingredients, all in the Tigers pantry, are required. The absence of each is why the Tigers played so haltingly in running up a mild 52-42 record through 94 games.

Hitters, fundamentally, must do their part. Austin Jackson, this means hitting consistently in the .285-.300 range and minus those blackout stretches that occasionally crop up.

Andy Dirks, you’re obliged to hammer the ball at your 2011-12 clip or prepare to yield a left-field assignment to Nick Castellanos, who will soon enough be making the trek from Toledo to Comerica Park that eventually becomes part of a hot prospect’s job experience.

Alex Avila might, or might not, straighten out. But if he finds his swing in the season’s second half, he becomes a big reason why the Tigers offense will have delivered the punch projected in 2013 and why they could win this division race fairly comfortably.

The counter-argument, and it’s strong, is that Avila’s swing won’t settle during the regular schedule. As was the case with Jackson in 2011, it probably necessitates a winter program that realigns Avila’s stance and sets the tone for a 2014 comeback.

Which brings more immediacy to Dombrowski’s dual mission – adding brickwork to Detroit’s bullpen.

If hitters deliver tight late-inning leads the Tigers should build during most games, the bullpen can’t be allowed to undo what good starting pitching and manager Jim Leyland’s lineup have crafted through the earlier hours. There is your map to getting lost in a division the Tigers know they should win.

Dombrowski will bring aboard one or two relievers this month, or even in August, when waiver trades are at least achievable. The Tigers are built on pitching. They have always been built on pitching during Dombrowski’s reign. And a certain chief executive will not allow a series of 2013 bullpen breakdowns to sabotage a team that either wins this division or spends the next four months crying itself to sleep.

When to bring aboard Castellanos.

The Tigers understand they have in Castellanos a hitter, even at 21, who can drive in runs and keep an inning going. He has gap power and a capacity to hit for average that could lift Leyland’s lineup during the closing months.

There is hesitance, of course, and for good reason, especially when Matt Tuiasosopo has been a remarkably reliable option off the bench.

Castellanos is playing a new position, left field, and Comerica Park isn’t a great training ground for apprentice outfielders when left field has about the same square acreage as Belle Isle. He also will face pitching he hasn’t seen at Triple A. Fastballs in the International League don’t cut apart home plate’s corners as they do in the big leagues. Off-speed junk that ends up in the bleachers at Fifth Third Field often parks in a catcher’s mitt at Comerica.

But, as Tigers observers have noted, veteran hitters can have the same troubles against good big-league pitching. The Tigers will be happy to give Castellanos his crack as soon as (a) Dirks confirms he might not resume his old ways as a .290 hitter, or (b) Castellanos again heats up and proves there is nothing left to gain by swinging against Triple A pitchers and shagging fly balls at Toledo.

It’s the fine-line between wanting more offense and accepting a precarious drop-off in defense that explains why, for now, Dirks and Tuiasosopo have jobs, and why Castellanos is still sweating through basic training at Toledo.

But, at some point, he graduates. And at some point between now and early September, Castellanos is headed for Detroit – and maybe to assist in winning a division this team has every responsibility to claim.



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