June 3, 2014 at 1:17 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers must upgrade at shortstop to ensure bid for World Series title

Shortstop Andrew Romine has taken care of most every play in the field for the Tigers, but he hasn't done much at the plate. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

The Tigers aren’t in sudden trouble. They’re not tragically flawed. Let’s get that nonsense out of the way.

But they’re not good enough right now, and of all their traits and trends, one concern is enduring. They still have a gaping hole at shortstop, which compounds their bottom-of-the-order hitting woes, which has led to a temporary delay in their annual AL Central coronation.

The Central Sludge gives them time to figure this out, but it’s more and more likely Dave Dombrowski will have to make another big move. The Tigers remain a World Series favorite, but teams don’t win many championships with a shortstop combo as weak-hitting as Andrew Romine and Danny Worth, especially alongside a rookie third baseman, Nick Castellanos, who’s struggling.

When Dombrowski sees a hole, he, generally, aggressively tries to fix it. He has utilized the patching method, shuttling candidates through a shortstop turnstile, but whether patching or pitching, the Tigers look top-heavy again. The starting pitchers are supposed to compensate for everything, and at times they do. But we’ve seen what happens when they falter, and the Tigers can take nothing for granted.

After playing 16 of 20 games on the road, they’re finally home against the scorching Blue Jays and Red Sox this week, which could be daunting, and maybe telling. The Tigers have dropped from a high of 27-12 to 31-22, yet their division lead remains 4½ games.

It’s never wise to make assessments in the bleary aftermath of a road trip, so as Dombrowski and manager Brad Ausmus rub their eyes, a little clarity is in order. You start with track records in baseball, and although you don’t follow them blindly, you chart them diligently.

That’s why the recent scuffles of the vaunted starters is a red herring, a false alarm. We debate it because the standards are so high, but Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello remain the overwhelming reason the Tigers are contenders.

Another spark needed

You can waste a ton of energy in a long season focusing on the wrong things. Miguel Cabrera’s slow start was never, ever (not ever), a concern. He’s bashing brilliantly again, and so is Victor Martinez. Torii Hunter and Ian Kinsler look renewed, and Kinsler is turning the Prince Fielder trade into one of Dombrowski’s all-time thieveries.

I’d also suggest — at the risk of getting lampooned — the Tigers bullpen will work itself out. Joe Nathan has been shaky, blowing four saves, but even at 39, he’ll end up being dependable. Joba Chamberlain has been better than expected, and there are enough pieces, including Joel Hanrahan when healthy, the Tigers can figure this out.

Which brings us back to the conundrum, the issue that’s a real issue because there’s no positive track record whatsoever. Of the uncertainties that popped up the first two months, only one looks like a certainty: Shortstop must be improved.

Romine is hitting .205 with an OBP of .258, with 31 strikeouts, eight walks and a team-high six errors. He has a good arm and plays solid defense, but not stellar enough to justify feeble offensive numbers. He and Worth (.167) essentially are doing what their scant histories suggest.

After a miserable 4-0 loss in Seattle to end the trip, Ausmus called it “the flattest we’ve been all year.” Road weariness contributed, but when Cabrera and Martinez get shut down — rarely — there’s not enough spark from others. Oddly, the righty-heavy Tigers lineup has been smothered by left-handed pitchers lately.

A year ago, the major concerns were defense and the bullpen. When Jhonny Peralta was suspended, Dombrowski acted quickly and traded for slick Jose Iglesias. Perfect, until it twisted badly. Iglesias likely is out for the season with shin fractures and Peralta has slugged nine home runs for the Cardinals. Iglesias is still the shortstop of the future, with the type of flashy glove that can justify poor offense.

GM has job to do

But until then, what does Dombrowski do? There’s promising 22-year-old shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who’s dazzling with his bat (.382) in Toledo but inconsistent with his glove. The Tigers passed on free agent Stephen Drew, who returned to the Red Sox and is about to resume playing.

There will be options before the July 31 trade deadline, but it’s not that simple. If Iglesias is your long-term answer, do you pay for a veteran such as Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins (who says he doesn’t want to be traded) or Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera instead of dealing for another youngster?

Outside of the big four in the lineup, the Tigers have gaps — not gaps that will destroy them, but gaps that will make it more difficult to win it all. They lead the AL in hitting at .269 but rank sixth in runs. Austin Jackson is in a slump, his average down to .240, and so is Castellanos (.235), although I suspect both will settle down and hit.

Rajai Davis has been a fine addition with 16 stolen bases, but you wonder about those dastardly track records, such as his career .258 average against righties, well below his current .291. Alex Avila may hit sporadically, but his staunch work at catcher makes up for it.

If this were only about winning the Central, the Tigers wouldn’t need to do much. But everyone knows the goal is bigger than that, which is why Dombrowski probably will have to do more, and keep spinning that shortstop turnstile.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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