Prince Fielder's .259 average in 2012 is well below his career average of .284. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Issues being something every big-league team deals with 24/7, five points for contemplation as the news-making Tigers continue with business at Cleveland:
1. Alex Avila and Victor Martinez: What’s behind two hitters’ turnarounds.
Fans were free to wonder if these guys would ever straighten out. Martinez was batting .228 on June 28, which was 75 points beneath his big-league career average entering 2013. He was fighting back from a one-year layoff, and, well, even a hitter as extraordinarily skilled as Martinez might have been watching the lights dim at age 34.
Now, he’s batting .276 and is an absolute replica of the switch-hitter whose talents were so revered the Tigers three years ago handed him $50 million through the 2014 season. So much for retirement thoughts or a club’s anxiety about eating a contract.
Avila was at .163 on June 15, which would have suggested a typographical error or that a 26-year-old left-handed batter with a simple, powerful stroke had somehow gotten gummed-up.
He isn’t out of the woods – not at .199. But for the past three weeks he has been more in step with a catcher who started an All-Star Game in 2011. It wasn’t a fluke, that 2011 season when he batted .295. Nor was it necessarily a typical year. He was always projected to be more of a .270 guy who would pop 15-20 home runs. That’s still his hitting profile.
But the reason those early Avila and Martinez slumps figured to be short-term could be seen in their early at-bats. They were not getting beaten on high-90-mph fastballs. Their swings had not gotten overly long. They weren’t cheating on heaters.
Martinez needed to reunite with old ways that were impaired by that 2012 cancellation. Avila was obliged to find his old hitting base, which is more difficult than it sounds.
So, they’re back. And probably just in time for a team that, like all clubs, has its ongoing lineup issues.
2. Austin Jackson and Prince Fielder: What’s up?
Fielder gets his RBIs (76), gets his occasional big hit (he launched Monday night’s rally), but he should be swinging better than .259, with a .787 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). The problem, largely, has been in Fielder’s strike zone. It’s too big. It’s not as refined as it was a year ago when he hit .313. He’s working on it. And he must. That bat is too important, too good, to have it sabotaged by attacking pitcher’s pitches, especially when Fielder’s eye is so sharp.
Jackson? The man mystifies. It’s not that .261 and .717 are gosh-awful for a leadoff man – unless you consider his talent and the knowledge that he should be, minimally, 20 points higher.
The Tigers need their leadoff batter and clean-up hitter to be bashing at more than a .260 clip. When they’re not hitting, the Tigers aren’t scoring.
3. Infield defense’s visible – and invisible – sides.
The Tigers scored eight runs in three games during their weekend sweep of the White Sox. Against most teams, as opposed to the weakened White Sox, the Tigers probably would have lost at least once. And they would have lost one or more games to the White Sox had their infield defenders not been such splendid sidekicks for Detroit’s pitchers.
Everyone had their moments – Jhonny Peralta, Ramon Santiago, and even Prince Fielder – but Jose Iglesias was the difference-maker. He proved you can turn around a game as much by taking away a hit and tamping down pitch-counts as can be delivered by a base hit.
Iglesias is at shortstop and will be repeating his weekend act regularly. He isn’t so heroic that he’ll single-handedly win a division. But, if the Tigers make it to October, Iglesias’ magic act could decide a playoff game. And everyone knows what a single playoff game can deliver to a team that’s good enough to win a World Series.
4. When does Nick Castellanos arrive in Detroit?
The Tigers would love to add their renowned rookie ahead of Sept. 1, just in case they want Castellanos as a playoffs option in the event they win the Central Division. It’s tough to see how he would crack the roster, or make it to Detroit ahead of Sept.1, unless someone gets hurt.
But they want him to get a taste of Comerica Park, and not only because he’s a decent bet to be the Opening Day left-fielder in 2014. They think his bat might be helpful, especially now that Peralta is in exile. At the very least, he’ll be in Detroit on or about Sept. 1. Anything prior will signal that he could be staying in town well into October.
5. Jeremy Bonderman rejoins Tigers. For how long?
The Tigers have done fine with their pick-and-choose signings: Matt Tuiasosopo, Al Alburquerque, Brayan Pena, etc. They got all but a free ticket when they signed Bonderman, even if a team as needy as the Mariners saw no future in a right-hander making a big-league comeback.
The Tigers went for it: Bonderman is 30. He is strong. They also need a long reliever. When he showed during his Triple A stint that he still had a fastball and a serviceable slider, the Tigers decided on a reunion. If it works with a guy who pitched here for eight seasons, they made another steal. If it doesn’t, it was worth a try, not only for themselves, but for Bonderman, all while the guy he replaced, Evan Reed, who didn’t deserve to be demoted, is subject to recall.