June 17, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Tony Paul

Tigers Mailbag: Second place is unfamiliar to Detroit, which hasn't trailed yet in 2014

Detroit — Earlier this year, when the Tigers were rolling along at 27-12, there were the natural comparisons to the 1984 team.

On Tuesday night, one of the possible connections to the 1984 team will be at stake.

The 1984 Tigers team led wire-to-wire, never spending a moment in second place.

The 2014 Tigers team has been in first place from Day 1 as well, but the Royals on Tuesday night have a chance to change that. Hard-charging Kansas City enters the game just a half-game behind the suddenly mediocre Tigers in the American League Central Division.

Yes, by Wednesday morning, the Tigers could actually be in second place. And you thought the fans had panicked already.

That reminds me: On to this week's Tigers Mailbag:

Question: Does this terrible stretch get to the point where somebody becomes a scapegoat in an attempt to send a message to the team? — Garrett Elliott

Answer: Depends what you mean by scapegoat. If you mean do the Tigers fire a coach to shake things up, the answer is almost assuredly no. That's just not how Dave Dombrowski operates.

Think about it: Since the renaissance of Detroit baseball in 2006, only once have the Tigers fired a coach in the middle of the season — and that was pitching coach Rick Knapp, in 2011. And as much as fans would like to believe he was a scapegoat, he wasn't. A minor-league lifer before he got the Tigers job, Knapp simply wasn't a good fit in the major leagues.

Plus, this is the first year for Brad Ausmus and his staff, outside of holdovers Jeff Jones and Gene Lamont, who are going nowhere.

In-season firings make for good, bold headlines in the newspaper (kids, consult your history books). They usually make fans happy. And yet, they usually are unwarranted and almost always ineffective.

Plus, the problems on this team have little do with Ausmus, Wally Joyner, Jones or Lamont. They have to do with Joe Nathan and Torii Hunter, suddenly looking their age. They have to do with Justin Verlander suddenly looking average. They have to do with Austin Jackson's latest mysterious struggles. They have to do with a bullpen, and the lack of some left-handed hitters.

So, honestly, if anyone's to blame here, it might just be Dombrowski, the Tigers president and GM. He's made the bullpen an afterthought for years, he traded Doug Fister for spare parts, he went hard after Nathan.

And, yet, best I can tell, Dombrowski has no plans to fire himself.

Question: Does Dirks replace Torii Hunter when he returns? — Rick Hill

Answer: This is an interesting question, and there are no clear-cut answers.

First, let's start with Andy Dirks. He had back surgery this spring, was expected back in June, but now it's looking more like early July. He's going to get a shot on this team, especially given how good he was in 2012 — and how much his struggles in 2013 might've been tied to a knee injury he suffered last spring, but rarely complained about.

Dirks also is an elite defender — especially compared to Rajai Davis and Hunter, who's no Gold Glover anymore.?

I suspect, at first, Dirks will split time spelling Davis in left field and Hunter in right. Davis isn't an every-day player and has showed over the years he can be very effective if not overused. The Tigers are seeing this first-hand right now. As for Hunter, he's struggling, not just on defense, but his on-base percentage is below .300. That’s almost unimaginable for someone hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera.

The bigger question here: Whose roster spot does Dirks take?

Everyone just assumed all along he would take J.D. Martinez's place on this team, but Martinez is making himself rather valuable — he's got big-time power, something the Tigers rarely have had off the bench in recent year. And, man, has it showed.

More and more, to me anyway, it's looking like Don Kelly could be the odd man out, despite his versatility. With Dirks and Martinez, the Tigers would have plenty of outfielders, and Andrew Romine gives them a guy who can play third, short and second.

Question: Might be a dumb question, but could they put Verlander in the bullpen for a couple weeks as like a long reliever? — John Moore

Answer: That's not a dumb question, John. At least not as crazy as some suggestions I've heard — namely, sending Verlander to the minors, or trading Verlander. A) Verlander isn't going to the minors. B) Even if the Tigers wanted to trade him, uh, 29 other teams can see what's going on with Verlander right now, too. It's not exactly a secret.

The bullpen idea isn't a bad one, at least to allow Verlander to skip a start or two.

Because the cold, hard truth is, Verlander is absolutely hurting his team by taking the ball every five days right now. His earned-run average since mid-May is 7.38. In most starts since then, he simply hasn't given his team a chance to win.

I'm not part of the crowd that is ready to write him off just yet. I acknowledge he has had bad stretches before, although if you compare his bad stretch last year to this one, there is absolutely no comparison. This is way worse. I also acknowledge there's a possibility he's simply not right yet, following his offseason core-muscle surgery, although if that's the case, then Verlander needs to say so.

That doesn't change the fact that, right now, when Verlander pitches, the Tigers are very likely to lose. We're way past the "fluke" stage.

So throwing him in the bullpen for a week or two, and having him skip a start or two, might at the very least clear his mind and change up his routine — a routine that's obviously not working. The Tigers probably could get by with a couple Robbie Ray starts in the interim.

Question: If Eugenio Suarez turns out to be the real thing and not just a flash in the pan, what happens when Jose Iglesias is once again healthy? — Roger Warmuskerken, via e-mail

Answer: Obviously, it's too early to say anything definitive at this point.

For starters, we don't know if Suarez will be the great hitter he's been through his first two weeks in the majors. Second, we don't know when — or if — Iglesias is coming back. Remember, these shin issues date back years, not months.

Here's what we know, for sure: Suarez projects as the much better hitter, and Iglesias will be the much better defender — even if Suarez is plenty capable of making the "SportsCenter" highlight reel.

Most likely scenario: They both come to spring training next year, fighting for the same job. And that's OK. As one Tigers official told me last week, "There's always room for talent."

If one clearly separates himself in Lakeland, then the Tigers will have a couple options. They can either make the other one a super-utility player — Iglesias best fits this description, since he doesn't figure to hit .303 again — or they can trade whoever loses out. And whoever loses out still will have plenty of trade value.

Either way, that decision is a long way off — and either way, the Tigers should end up OK.

Question: OK, I'll say it. I miss Jim Leyland! — Dave

Answer: Me too! I miss the jokes. I miss the long answers. I even miss the cigarette smoke.

But I like Ausmus too, and he deserves a chance — from this team, and from these fans.

I think he's done a lot of things well. After all, he did have this team 27-12 at one point. That doesn't happen by accident. He has the players' respect, and that's plenty evident, regardless if fans actually believe it.

That said, I understand if fans don't believe it. After all, they've seen Ausmus twice talked out of removing a starting pitcher — and both times, with Max Scherzer and Verlander, it burned him. He bats Kelly second and fifth; I don't get that. He's bunted Suarez twice already, including once in the fifth inning of a tie game at U.S. Cellular Field, where you rarely should be playing for just one run.

Bottom line: Ausmus is brand new to this. It always was going to show, at some point.

He's been figuring out what works for him, and what doesn't — all the while not spending a single day out of first place.?

Then again, that would change Tuesday night with a Royals victory.

tpaul@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/tonypaul1984

Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander has a 7.38 ERA since mid-May. In most starts since then, he simply hasn't given his team a chance to win. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News