June 10, 2014 at 8:39 pm

Tony Paul

Tigers mailbag: Fans look for fixes as team's fast start sputters and stalls

Tigers shortstop Eugenio Suarez, left, can't hold onto the ball as Red Sox baserunner Mike Napoli safely steals second in the eighth inning Sunday at Comerica Park in Detroit. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Not long ago, we were handing the division to the Tigers. Never mind the 120-plus games that remained to be played.

Now, on June 10, the AL Central is shaping up to be quite the race.

Entering Tuesday, all five teams sat within five games of the lead.

And hereís the interesting part: it could stay this close for a while. The Tigers remain talented, despite what the panic-stricken fan base will tell you. The Indians are red hot. The White Sox are loaded with powerful bats. The Royals have the pitching. And the Twins still believe in themselves, hence the recent addition of slugger Kendrys Morales.

Of course, there could be some separation in the next two weeks, too, especially since the Tigers are playing four consecutive series against the AL Central. During that span, the White Sox and Royals play three series against the AL Central, and the Indians and Twins two each.

Bottom line, weíll know a whole lot more July 10.

Q. Is there a shortstop controversy now between Eugenio Suarez and Jose Iglesias? RadKiller6 (twitter.com/usarmy_rick)

A. No.

Itís too early to dissect what the future holds for the Tigers at shortstop. But hereís what we know now, and have known all year. The Tigers have two quality men who could play the position for years ó Iglesias, a defensive wizard, and Suarez, who can pick it, too, but figures to hit for more pop.

But itís too early to anoint Suarez the guy just because heís hit two home runs in his first three starts. Truth is, guys who get called up always have the advantage against pitchers because scouting reports are limited. Itíll be wise to wait and see how Suarez reacts once pitchers adjust to him.

The Tigers, though, donít have to make this decision right now. Likely, itíll make for a juicy story line next spring, when Suarez and a then-healthy Iglesias arrive in camp fighting for the job. But beyond that, time isnít an issue. Iglesias isnít a free agent till 2019, Suarez 2020.

Obviously, if one asserts himself more than the other, then the Tigers will have the luxury of holding a prime trade chip. Just donít expect either to be dealt this summer; thereís too much risk involved .

One possibility: Keep Suarez at short, move Iglesias to second, and trade second baseman Ian Kinsler. That, of course, is easier said than done. Kinsler remains an All-Star-caliber player, plus is owed at least $45 million through 2017 (plus a $12 million team option for 2018).

A better solution, when the time comes, might be to shift Kinsler to the outfield. Heís a tremendous athlete, and could handle such a move.

Q. You figure either the Tigers get a closer or will they have to go with Joba Chamberlain and hope to find someone at setup? LeslieinFortLee (twitter.com/DisgustedNYer)

A. No question, Joe Nathan has been a supreme disappointment considering heís a $20 million, two-year investment, and was pitching like an All-Star with the Rangers.

Now he canít get anybody out.

This happens with closers. Outside of the very best, they tend to be up and down from one year to the next. Just look at other teams this year. The Aís traded for Jim Johnson, and he lasted about a week in the closerís role. The Rays signed Grant Balfour, and he recently was taken out of the closerís role.

Then, of course, thereís the Tigers and Nathan, who already has allowed more homers, more earned runs and more blown saves than he did all last year with the Rangers.

I gotta believe a guy with his talent and experience can figure his way out of this, but the Tigers certainly have to be prepared if he canít.

The best bet probably would be to explore the trade market, where Huston Street is looking good, with a 0.76 WHIP for the Padres. Thatís the better option, trading for a closer, rather than moving a setup man like Chamberlain. All that does is fix one problem and create another.

That is, unless Joel Hanrahan returns to form after Tommy John surgery, and Chad Smith proves a nice answer from the minors. In that case, the Tigers might be able to afford to shift Chamberlain to the ninth, where heíd be fine.

Q. If the AL Central stays close, I would believe Cleveland or Chicago takes a run at David Price. Dave (twitter.com/davehockey44)

A. No question. Both teams have absolute studs at the top of their rotations, with Chris Sale leading the White Sox and Corey Kluber morphing into one of the gameís elites with the Indians.

Once you dip down into the 3-4-5 spots, though, things arenít nearly as rosy, which is why both teams figure to be active on the trade market ahead of the July 31 deadline.

And there figures to be plenty of starting pitching available, from Price, the Rays ace, to dominant Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija. The next tier, thereís the likes of Jason Hammel and Brandon McCarthy, among others.

Expect the White Sox to go after at least two of those, and the Indians at least one.

The problem will be, given all the parity in baseball, there could be more buyers than sellers, meaning the price to do business will go up. Will the White Sox and Indians spend what it takes?

And, will there be more competition in the AL Central, alone? What if the Tigers go after starting pitching? It might have seem far-fetched during camp, but might not be as loony now. If Dave Dombrowski spun a deal for a starter, he could then Drew Smyly back to the bullpen, and bolster two areas.

Itís a stretch, but itís not out of the question.

Q. Time to adjust expectations? Dan Scanlon (twitter.com/danscan13)

A. Well, I guess it would depend on what your expectations were to begin with.

If you were banking on 110 wins, well then itís probably time to put the bottle down.

But if you were counting on the Tigers to own the AL Central a fourth consecutive year, I see no reason to backpedal yet. All good teams struggle.

Granted, the Tigersí rough stretch, going on four weeks now, is alarming given that they went from looking like the best team in baseball to looking like the worst.

But the starting pitching remains strong, and the offense balanced ó and potentially boosted by the arrival of Suarez. The biggest question remains the bullpen, specifically Nathan and Phil Coke. Nathan figures to figure it out, while Coke figures to be gone eventually.

In the grand scheme of things, those arenít the toughest fixes for a trade-happy contender, and certainly Dombrowski will do his best to address the situation.

So hold off on tempering the expectations just yet.

Q. If you could have just one player from the 1984 Tigers on this yearís team, who would you pick? I would take Alan Trammell. Sparky (twitter.com/1984_Tigers)

A. I like the Trammell answer ó one of the best of his era, offensively and defensively.

But looking at whatís wrong with the Tigers today, itíd be tough not to pick Willie Hernandez. The guy was picked up from the Phillies for a song during the spring of 1984, and went on to win not only the Cy Young Award, but the MVP.

Given what the Tigers are lacking this year, how much would they love a guy like Hernandez in that bullpen?

The bespectacled left-hander was pure gold that year, pitching in nearly half of the regular-season games (14013 innings) and allowing 96 hits. He also had a 0.941 WHIP. Cokeís is nearly double that.

tpaul@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/tonypaul1984