Tigers starter Justin Verlander hasn't been his dominant self in 2013, but given his history, he's still a good bet to start Game 1 of the playoffs. (Robin Buckson)
Assuming a certain baseball team from Detroit sticks to percentages and in the next few days nails down a division title and playoff spot, the Tigers will be halfway home.
They will have qualified for October’s postseason tournament. At which time the anxiety will build for Tigers fans who, while true believers, understand there are issues with this team just as there are assets sufficient to steal a World Series flag Motown has been chasing for 29 years.
Bullpen soft spots.
Too little speed to go with the heft.
A position noteworthy for offense — left field — producing minimal horsepower.
These are the weak links that can end a season when good playoff teams meet in October’s head-on collisions.
But the mushy places on Detroit’s roster can be overpowered by the structural strength of a team that is about to win 90-plus games and grab its third consecutive American League Central crown. Also worth keeping in mind: Some of those thin-ice spots can be shored up by the time Detroit’s playoff turn arrives in 15 days.
Peeling away veneers, these are the pluses, minuses, and potential fixes that will be in place as manager Jim Leyland’s team gets ready for October.
PLUS: The Tigers can choose four winners from five prime-time starting pitchers
Leyland will go, almost certainly, with his most seasoned and/or more powerful quartet: Justin Verlander (don’t be surprised if he starts Game 1), Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister.
Rick Porcello loses only because he is 24 (the rest of the group is at least 29) and because his repertoire and style are more easily transferred to the bullpen, an uncomfortable subject to be discussed later.
Verlander had his in-and-out interludes in 2013. But he never was a serious issue as a team waited for him to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Although he was sub-par in Wednesday night’s loss, Verlander’s bounce-back was an inevitable event that took shape the past three weeks.
Leyland probably goes with Verlander in Game 1 because of his power, track record, and, yes, his aura. It still leaves the remainder of the cast plenty of time to take their necessary turns.
MINUS: There are no left-handed options.
The A’s and Red Sox each have left-handed batters the Tigers ideally would want to offer an alternate-arm look in any future playoff series.
PLUS: Porcello can move to the bullpen.
And won’t this be handy. The Tigers love when their starters hang around through six, seven, or even eight innings. They avoid tempting fate. And fate can deliver a mixture of fortunes as Leyland brings on the bullpen cast.
Al Alburquerque is a strikeout pitcher — when he throws strikes. Jose Veras is the resident setup man. But in 171⁄3 innings since joining the Tigers, Veras has walked seven batters and struck out 13, while doling out 11 hits. In other words, he has not exactly been automatic when it comes to keeping innings clean and reducing wear and tear on Leyland’s and his team’s psyche.
Bruce Rondon has been dealing for two-weeks-plus with a “tender” elbow, which always is a red flag. Phil Coke is hit-and-miss as the best situational left-handed option.
Joaquin Benoit, of course, has been a blue-ribbon closer since he arrived as Detroit’s ninth-inning answer man. But the relief corps’ reliability is a concern, which is why Porcello could be a godsend.
MINUS: There still are no great, guaranteed left-handed options for hitters, other than Drew Smyly, that demand a snuff-’em-out matchup.
Coke has been all over the place and is only a few weeks from a tuneup assignment at Triple A. Jose Alvarez is a soft-tosser more designed for long relief.
Darin Downs has been hurt and hasn’t pitched since July 6. It explains why Porcello, with his change-up that can be tough on left-handers, could earn an overtime assignment in October.
PLUS: The Tigers are getting more help throughout their batting order.
No longer is it entirely up to Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez to knock in runs arranged by Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter. The Tigers have been getting back-end help from three vital corpsmen: Omar Infante, Alex Avila and even Jose Iglesias, who can hit a double, beat out a chopper, lay down a bunt, or otherwise energize the tail-end of the lineup.
This is all-essential news for an obvious reason: The Tigers can be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the basepaths.
Cabrera cannot run at all because of his lingering abdominal ailment. Fielder runs full-throttle with a throttle that doesn’t quite reach the speed limit. On any list of least fleet Tigers, Martinez is right there with Cabrera.
This can make scoring runs astonishingly difficult. If any of the above is on second base, particularly in the cases of Cabrera and Martinez, it probably requires an extra-base hit, or consecutive singles, or something double-jointed, to push either runner home.
It makes the 6-through-9 hitters critical in terms of getting gap hits or home runs, which Avila and Infante can produce. But notice that Infante, Avila, and Iglesias are three names for four batting spots. Which brings us to that other issue.
MINUS: Left field too often is a Tigers offensive graveyard.
Corner outfield positions are primarily geared to provide runs by way of slugging percentage or speed. The Tigers offer little of the above in their left-field cast, which is Andy Dirks and Don Kelly from the left side, and Flavor of The Day (Matt Tuiasosopo, Nick Castellanos, etc.) as Leyland’s right-handed options.
The Tigers pay a price here, perhaps heavier than fans realize. In many of those games where the Tigers get nine, 10, or more, hits and score a handful of runs, the low fuel mileage is directly attributable to slow runners and to no pop in left field.
PLUS: Jhonny Peralta could rejoin the Tigers in eight days.
Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office boss, wisely avoided closing options on Peralta after his former starting shortstop was suspended in July for 50 games as punishment for his link to the Biogenesis clinic and its affiliation with performance-enhancing drugs.
It seemed a long shot — even to the Tigers — that Peralta would be back.
He was bearing the scarlet letter of PEDs, which wasn’t anything the Tigers were wild about re-admitting to their carefully conditioned clubhouse.
But more practically, the Tigers saw no place for Peralta. He was a shortstop and the Tigers had their new man, Iglesias. To simply carry Peralta as a pinch hitter would be ceding a prized roster spot to a player of one-dimensional skills.
And then a couple of things happened.
The Tigers steadily got nothing from their right-handed platoon in left field. Also, when the Rangers said they would welcome back their own 50-game player in exile, Nelson Cruz, and got precious little negative response, the Tigers saw that Peralta might be a safe add-on as people came to grips with the severity of his penalty, which cost Peralta more than $2 million in salary, on top of acute humiliation.
Peralta offers one practical plus for the Tigers: He is a seasoned batter who hits good pitching and who can knock in big runs — precisely the elements missing from left field in 2013.
Of course, there’s a flip side, maybe a couple of them, as the Tigers assess Peralta.
MINUS: You still need defense in left field.
No doubt, the Tigers front office has said the same thing fans have said about Peralta’s capacity to play left: If they could live with Delmon Young out there, they can survive with Peralta.
That might be true. Or, it might be a matter of innings before fans realize the outfield is a region fraught with dangers: line drives that sail, veer, sink, and rise, which can make for double trouble in a left-field tract as wide and deep as it is at Comerica Park.
Then, too, there is the matter of Peralta and his bat. He has not played in nearly seven weeks. Big-league pitching is tough enough to handle when you’re seeing it on a daily basis. Step away for a couple of months and the reunion can be awkward.
“Fifty games is a lot of games to miss and to expect to come back sharp after a few games,” Leyland said this week, speaking of Peralta’s challenge. “I think that’s quite a while.”
The gamble is appreciated by all parties involved. But that is why Peralta agreed to a stint at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Fla., where he is limbering up in left field during Instructional League games against Tigers minor leaguers.
At the very least, he is seeing professional pitching and, more important, taking legitimate line drives and soaring fly balls that have been batted his way.
The Tigers are starved for an option that could turn into a game-changing plus if everything clicks for a 31-year-old player who has a knack for the game.
It is, after all, all about increasing your pluses and minimizing your negatives as a team steels itself for October.
And for a playoff run the Tigers understand will require more than a single break if they’re to win that long-sought world championship.