July 19, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers have room to improve in second half, and they'll need to

Tigers slugging tandem Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera will have to maintain their pace at the plate for the team to return to the World Series this season. (Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News)

Detroit — The Tigers have the most-feared hitter and two of the top pitchers in baseball. They have more All-Stars than anyone. They have the best offense and best starting pitching, based on various statistical measures. They sell out games, generate noise and still are Las Vegas favorites to win the World Series.

So naturally, we gotta ask: What’s wrong with the Tigers?

Not as much as you think (or I think). But just enough to set up a tense second half that could be the most impactful, one way or another, for the Tigers since their last championship in 1984. So much is at stake, as Mike Ilitch continues the most grimly determined quest not involving a captain and a whale.

The Tigers should win the anemic AL Central for the third straight time, and it shouldn’t be as tight as a year ago (three games) or as easy as two years ago (15 games). They hold a 1˝-game lead over the Indians at 52-42, displaying a sputtering inconsistency that freaks fans out.

I’d suggest people calm down, but that sounds patronizing. The Tigers will make the playoffs barring catastrophic injury, an asteroid hit, or a steroid hit. And because it doesn’t appear Jhonny Peralta or any player allegedly connected to the Biogenesis lab will serve a suspension this season, Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland can focus their concerns on the old standby, the rickety bullpen.

Could the Tigers win the World Series as presently constructed? Yes they could, with Joaquin Benoit stepping solidly into the closer’s role and Drew Smyly performing well as the setup guy.

Should the Tigers attempt to win the World Series as presently constructed? No, they shouldn’t.

Window space

If you’ve come this far, losing in the World Series twice since 2006, you don’t risk it all with players in new roles, and you don’t skimp. This will be a momentous stretch drive because nobody knows how much more Ilitch can afford to invest, in money or time. Leyland is on a one-year contract and Dombrowski has mortgaged pieces to win now. The Tigers are too talented to be confined to a small window, but it doesn’t stay wide open forever.

That’s why Dombrowski will trade for one or two bullpen arms by the July 31 deadline. He might even pick up another hitter. The Tigers need to buy some insurance, but there’s no way to purchase assurance. As much as any sport, baseball’s long grind guarantees nothing, which is why mediocre regular-season teams like the Giants and Cardinals have won recently.

“I’ve liked my club all year, and I’ll like it to the end no matter how it turns out,” Leyland said before the All-Star break. “We’re not the most athletic club, but we can hit doubles, hit balls over the fence and be a little creative if we get (Austin) Jackson going a little more. Whoever wins this thing is gonna be the mentally toughest team. We showed it the last couple of years, but there’s not much margin for error for anybody.”

Leyland chafes at the suggestion the Tigers should just romp and roll, and he does a good job calmly directing such a high-profile team. The Indians are capable, although their pitching is highly suspect. Beyond that, Kansas City, Chicago and Minnesota are a combined 38 games under .500, and the Tigers get to play that gruesome threesome 36 times out of 68 games remaining.

The Tigers are built to win more than a division, with Miguel Cabrera having another spectacular season and Max Scherzer joining him. Justin Verlander is poised to turn it up and Victor Martinez already is turning it up. Suddenly, the Tigers lineup one-through-six is imposing, from Jackson to Torii Hunter to Cabrera to Prince Fielder to Martinez to Peralta.

Stops and starts

For all the justifiable angst about the bullpen, Benoit and Smyly have morphed into a very effective late-inning combo. It would help if rookie Bruce Rondon can harness his 100-mph heater in the seventh, but after that, the bullpen is half-yikes and half-yuk.

The fact is, a team shouldn’t be defined by its weaknesses, but by its strengths. And the Tigers’ starting pitching needs to be even more dominant, with Scherzer, Verlander, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez going deeper into games. Verlander has been tweaking his delivery, and seems to be gathering strength.

“We have a lot of veteran guys that know how to prepare for a long season, and that’s why I think you see us play well in the second half,” Verlander said. “I don’t think we’ve even shown our potential yet.”

Actually, the Tigers have shown tons of potential — they just have to fulfill it. Their .281 team batting average is best in baseball, but from the seventh inning on, they rank a puzzling 28th in key offensive categories.

The Tigers have clutch guys who hit well with two outs, so that late-inning stat could be an anomaly. Maybe it’s because they grab quick leads and pace themselves — in games and in their division. For sure, it has to be ratcheted up now.

“We have some sparks for three or four games that are just unbelievable,” Hunter said. “But I’m waiting for that ballclub that for two to three weeks just puts up crazy, gigantic, historic numbers.”

There’s a reason Vegas oddsmakers still list the Tigers as favorites to win it all. The way this team was built, the talent it possesses, there’s no other option. Dombrowski can’t hedge in acquiring bullpen help and the Tigers can’t dodge expectations that were set long ago, and despite the flaws, remain as high as ever.


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