April 15, 2014 at 11:44 am

Lynn Henning

Trouble rearing ugly head for first-place Tigers

Tigers catcher Alex Avila has shown he can hit, but not this season. Through 10 games and 23 at-bats he's hitting .130 with 14 strikeouts. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Statistics tell the story of a teamís fortunes, good or bad. While delving deep into the science of the first two weeks of the Tigers regular season, one number stood out.

It was .600 ó Detroitís winning percentage after 10 games.

Only one other American League team had done better, the Aís, who were prancing along at .667 (8-4).

It reminds us baseball seasons are long. Teams generally are troubled. And over-fixation on a single clubís flaws can overwhelm that most necessary of words, perspective, when youíre in first place and local fans feel as if they might as well call it a season and get ready for football.

The opposing side and its hand-wringers are also right, particularly as it relates to the Tigers. They have troubles. They could be serious enough to cost Detroit an American League Central title that a team with its starting pitching and general talent should probably win.

Three glaring areas in need of replacements, turnarounds, or both are presently eating at manager Brad Ausmusí team the way termites chew on floor joists. To avoid collapse, even in a division this accommodating, the Tigers will need to fix the following:

Straighten out Alex Avila

Fans are justified in wanting Avila exiled. His numbers are ridiculous. He has 23 official at-bats and has 14 strikeouts. He is hitting .130, which, astonishingly, is the same number as his slugging percentage. A catcher with a .390 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) isnít merely hurting you. He is on a path to costing you games.

What exasperates the Tigers ó and, no doubt, Avila ó is he should be one of the lineupís sledge-hammerers. His bat speed is high-rpm. He knows the strike zone (too well, perhaps). And, yes, he has hit ó he had superb numbers in 2011 and half of 2013 ó with enough continuity to have fashioned a career OPS of .764.

So, whatís going on? And why should the Tigers put up with this .390 OPS nonsense?

Consider four at-bats spanning last October and last Saturday night at San Diego. It helps explain what happens when confidence and talent mesh and the consequences when confidence is nowhere on the horizon.

First at-bat: Game 2 of the American Championship Series at Boston. The Tigers are leading the Red Sox, 3-1, in the sixth. There is one on when Avila arrives. He swings at Clay Buchholzís first pitch. Note the number: first pitch. Itís a 91-mph fastball Avila drives deep through the mist and chill of an autumn night at Fenway Park for a 425-foot home run that puts the Tigers on top 5-1 in a game the bullpen later would donate to the Red Sox.

By contrast, here were Avilaís first three at-bats last Saturday night in San Diego. They looked a lot like Avilaís swings during any game this month or at any time during the 2013 seasonís first half.

Second inning: fastball (ball), fastball (called strike), change-up (foul), fastball (ball), swinging strikeout on 2-2 fastball.

Third inning: change-up (called strike), fastball (ball), fastball (ball), fastball (foul), swinging strikeout on 2-2 fastball.

Fifth inning: fastball (foul), curveball (called strike), swinging strikeout on a change-up.

You can derive any number of readouts from those four at-bats, but what comes across, invariably, when Avila is in one of these funks is that he is not attacking early enough in the count.

He is being careful. He probably commits a tad late on those fouled-off, first-strike pitches. But he comes closer to making contact then than when he is down in the count or batting with two strikes. At that point ó during his tailspins ó it matters not what they throw him with two strikes, he is missing it.

The adjustment, the timing edge, is so slight as to remind the Tigers that Avila can, and still could be, one of the most dangerous on-base and slugging presences in Ausmusí lineup.

Do they wait? At age 27, yes. The case for Avila heading to Triple A Toledo for some mind-cleansing is always an argument that can, and maybe should, be made. But it got bad last season before he snapped out of it and threw together a .303 second-half batting average with a .500 slugging percentage.

If his bat were dragging, or if his batting eye were a mess, the Tigers might go with backup options, none of which are reassuring when there is still a game that must be called and defended behind home plate.

He is a confounding player, Avila. But be assured: The minute the Tigers send him elsewhere, that .850-.900 OPS will show up again. They have little choice but to wait this one out.

Need a new, everyday shortstop

Alex Gonzalez is neither the defender nor the bat-wielder you want as the infieldís captain, nor is Andrew Romine a player a playoff contender carries except as a backup.

But replacing either of these two options, brought on by Jose Iglesias and his leg fractures, is at the moment a scavengerís mission.

The Tigers, of course, could get a lift from everyoneís favorite sidelined free agent, Stephen Drew. Everyone expects the Tigers to get involved in seven weeks when bids for Drew can be made minus the forfeiture of a first-round pick.

Voila. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch tells his front-office general, Dave Dombrowski, to sign Drew for whatever it costs on a one-year deal that makes Drew a free agent in the autumn and clears space for Iglesiasí return next spring.

Thereís just one catch, apart from assumptions the Tigers can make a handy one-year offer to Drew. Foxsports.comís Ken Rosenthal reported Monday what was generally anticipated: The Tigers will have company for Drew if he is still on the market in June. And they will have competition, in some cases, from teams that donít want Ilitch and the Tigers to prevail in patching their biggest lineup hole.

This is why help from Detroitís farm system is still the teamís more likely repair at shortstop. Hernan Perez had three doubles last Sunday and is hitting .270 at Toledo. Eugenio Suarez, a potential prize-winner, has been playing well at Double A Erie and needs only to pare down his strike zone before he stands as a serious option.

The Tigers cannot look at Gonzalez-Romine as their long-term answer for 2014. The question is whether, in a brutally thin market, they can make an upgrade in time to make a difference in their 2014 playoff chase. It points to a club at some point deciding farm kids with reasonable skills are a better option than their existing cast.

Bullpen reinforcements needed

Their relief pitching is a perfect parallel to the situation at shortstop. They need help, probably two arms. But where do you find it when the Tigers, as is the case in most years, arenít the only team shopping for support?

This will be a nervous vigil unless a couple of pitchers, in particular, throw according to script: Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain.

Nathan has every reason to tell Tigers followers to chill. This is April, and lots of pitchers are waiting for the weather to warm and their fastballs to resume old ways. Nathan probably will be fine, even if age makes everyone wary in the wake of his rough start.

Chamberlain is beginning to show why Dombrowski and his scouts believed a hard-throwing right-hander of Chamberlainís lineage would build steam. He threw better last week, more in line with what the Tigers front office anticipated.

Meanwhile, Ian Krol, who is proving why he was part of the Doug Fister trade, is joining with Al Alburquerque and Evan Reed to keep Ausmusí antacid tablets from being steadily gulped.

Itís not a team that will make anyone comfortable during these early weeks, and maybe, months. But a first-place club with a .600 winning percentage halfway through April is probably worth regarding as something other than lucky. Dombrowski will work on the flaws. Yet to be determined are if catcher, shortstop, and bullpen woes are deficiencies that, like most offenses, can someday be forgiven.


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