Detroit — Admit it. You can’t figure out the 2014 Tigers.
They hit. They don’t hit. They pitch great in some games. Their bullpen comes apart in others. They supposedly are a team built on speed and defense. Bu they make three errors against the Indians and nearly lose before chugging to a 7-5 victory, as happened Thursday on a sunny, baseball-shaky afternoon at Comerica Park.
Brace yourself. This is how it likely will be for a while. And maybe for an entire season.
The Tigers are a flawed bunch. Their consolation? Most — make that all — of the 30 big-league teams are just as messed up in one phase or another of a game that sneers at talent, rips apart battle plans, and laughs at expertise.
So, we’ll consider instead a Detroit baseball team’s pluses and minuses in a bid to see if the Tigers can hang tight until help arrives. The back-up units figure to show in June or July, either by way of healed players (Andy Dirks), acquisitions (Stephen Drew as a June answer to Detroit’s shortstop woes?), minor-league promotions (Hernan Perez or Eugenio Suarez?), or the standard deadline trade in which Dave Dombrowski seals a division title, thanks to a general manager’s knack for making summer steals.
Plus: Ian Kinsler is playing like a potential team Most Valuable Player. Everyone knew from his years with the Rangers that Kinsler was a all-around prize. Some of us never imagined how good he would be in these early weeks with the Tigers.
He dropped weight and is as fast on defense and running the bases as he was in his prime at Texas. He is battering pitches and now has an .871 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage to go with his .327 batting average. He makes the Prince Fielder salary-dumping heist an even bigger haul for Dombrowski.
Minus: This team still has no shortstop. Alex Gonzalez is no answer. His defense has been alarmingly bad and isn’t likely to get better. Andrew Romine is better with the glove but cannot hit.
Signing a celebrity free agent such as Drew is a possibility, but not as likely as the Tigers simply deciding they must go with one of their farm kids: Perez or Suarez. Keep an eye on the box scores. One of those lads is destined to be promoted. It’s the best way out for a team with no shortstop.
Plus: The bullpen is beginning to behave. Joe Nathan looked more like Nathan during Thursday’s ninth-inning shift. His fastball velocity crept higher (up to 93 mph). His slider and secondary pitches were crisp.
As essential as Nathan is to the Tigers having any shot at winning this division, it is mandatory they find another arm in the back end.
That could — could — be Joba Chamberlain. And if it is, Dombrowski and his bird dogs will have called this one all the way.
It’s still early. And he must build command of a fastball that is cruising closer to the mid-90s. But Chamberlain’s slider has been nasty of late. Should his fastball begin nipping corners and crowding hitters’ hands, Chamberlain could evolve into that guy the Tigers had to find once Bruce Rondon’s season ended.
Minus: Alex Avila has yet to drive in a run. This will change when a catcher who has had a brutal month pushes that batting average past the .172 mark, which is where it rests today. On the merrier side, Avila had a pair of line-drive hits Wednesday and at least drew a walk Thursday.
The Tigers cannot expect to win their division if Avila’s offense languishes. But they become downright dangerous if Avila fights through his April spiral and brings to a batting order the on-base and slugging percentages he yet should be able to deliver.
Plus: Nick Castellanos continues to shine. He is so much more than a talented rookie. During a week when Castellanos hit a dozen or more pitches hard and had zero hits to show for it he never got down. A third baseman, a month after turning 22, simply strung together one good at-bat after another.
He had another in the ninth inning of Wednesday night’s miserable 3-2 loss to the Indians. He was batting against John Axford in 30-degree weather with a frosty wind blowing in. He took Axford to a 3-2 count and an eight-pitch ordeal. He drilled a 3-2 breaking pitch deep to center. It was an out. A tough, tough out.
“Thank God I stayed on that curve ball,” Castellanos said Thursday as he went through the at-bat. “I still hit it 420 feet to center into a big wind.”
There was no sense of achievement. He felt no triumph at having made an out. But he knew what had gone into that particular at-bat, and that specific contact on a tough pitch.
This cat is going to be something. Have fun watching him grow during a season that will have its share of the good, the bad, and an awful lot in between.