July 23, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Tony Paul

MLB Insider: Tigers should win another AL Central, but there are potential land mines

Anibal Sanchez's inability to go deep into ballgames is one reason the Tigers are not a cinch to clinch the AL Central. (Norm Hall / Getty Images)

I’m not saying the Tigers won’t win the American League Central.

Of course I think the Tigers will be the first team since those powerful 1990s Indians clubs to win the division four years in a row.

I just would caution Tigers fans from being quite so cocky. It’s not exactly a given that the Tigers are playoff-bound. We’ve seen too many crazy things happen in baseball, and in Detroit, to punch a ticket today.

Tigers fans like to point out two reasons the division race is over:

1) They have the largest division lead in baseball, at 6.5 games after Wednesday’s victory over the Diamondbacks.

2) They have, by far, the best rotation.

There are problems with both theories.

To speak to the first one, we’ve already seen several times this year just how fast a division lead can be built, and how fast a division lead can be torn apart. The Tigers were way up in May, and lost it all to the Royals in a month’s time. Then, they got hot again, reclaimed first place and haven’t looked back since. In short, things can change in a hurry.

As for the second point, that is a flawed argument. Yes, the Tigers have the biggest rotation names, but this isn’t the dominant starting staff Tigers fans got used to the last several years. There are some warning signs. Justin Verlander still can’t find himself, Drew Smyly is hit or miss, Rick Porcello has had a nice season but isn’t a lights-out guy, and their best two starters, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, have way too hard a time going deep into ballgames.

That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski actually adds a starting pitcher as well as another relief pitcher in the next week or so.

The Royals rotation, in turn, is better on a whole. The Indians’ isn’t quite, at least not yet.

Now, the Tigers are the most balanced team, to be sure. But they have their flaws — namely, in that darn bullpen, even after acquiring Joakim Soria from the Rangers late Wednesday. The Royals, especially, and Indians, usually, get the job done in relief.

The Royals, meanwhile, need help on offense, while the Indians could use some starting pitching. And both should be plenty motivated to fix things ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. And that’s where things will come a bit more into focus, in terms of the AL Central.

Think about it: What if the Indians get aggressive, and go land one of the top-line starting pitchers? What if the Royals go grab one of the available bats, maybe a Marlon Byrd or an Alex Rios?

Or, what if the Tigers suffer a big injury to one of their big guys?

It’s not a stretch to see either scenario playing out, particularly from the Royals’ perspective. GM Dayton Moore has been given an eternity to build a winner in Kansas City, and bet big two winters ago in trading top prospect Wil Myers for James Shields and Wade Davis. If the Royals don’t make the postseason before Shields walks as a free agent this winter, Moore's job very well could be in jeopardy.

The Indians figure to be a little more timid, at least judging by their timid offseason after a surprising playoff run in 2013. But the Indians also figure to be the Tigers’ toughest foe today. They own the season series against the Tigers, and these teams meet in two more series — both in September, when the Tigers also face the Royals twice amid a schedule full of AL Central competition.

About that Tigers schedule, it’s grueling. There’s no other way to say it. The competition is fierce, starting with four games against the Angels. Days off are scarce. There are doubleheaders, too.

2009 wasn’t that long ago, folks. It’s painful for Tigers fans to remember, I understand, but it must not be forgotten. The division was all but delivered to the Tigers, until it wasn’t — because they collapsed, and the Twins got red hot.

This year’s Royals and Indians have shown an affinity for getting hot, too. Just not as hot as the Tigers, hence their big lead today.

But a big lead today guarantees nothing in October.

Price of futility

Not surprising that Josh Byrnes lost his job as general manager out in San Diego.

He left the Padres a bit of a mess — a mess made extremely clear Tuesday afternoon when the Padres interim GMs (yes, plural) had to pawn off third baseman Chase Headley on the Yankees.

It wasn’t that long ago that Headley would’ve commanded a supreme haul on the trade market. This is a guy, after all, who finished fifth in the National League MVP voting just two years ago.

That big season, complete with 31 homers, 115 RBIs and an .876 OPS, made Headley not only very valuable, but also a big-time challenge for the small-market Padres to sign long-term.

But Byrnes held firm, kept Headley and, rather predictably, it cost the Padres dearly. All they were able to get from the Yankees in a trade: utility infielder Yangervis Solarte, signed in January as a minor-league free agent, and low-level right-handed pitcher Rafael De Paula.

You would think that would make the Padres reconsider their supposed desire to hang on to late-inning reliever Joaquin Benoit. He’s a middle-aged reliever, on a team going nowhere this year or next, and has sky-high stock, especially in the wake of the haul the Padres received from the Angels for veteran closer Huston Street.

Above Street value

Speaking of that Street trade, that turned baseball’s trade market on its head.

The Angels, desperate to upgrade a bullpen that’s been an issue for years, parted with four prime prospects for potentially two-and-a-half months of Street. There’s a team option for next year.

Last weekend, they gave up minor-league shortstop Jose Rondon, right-handed reliever R.J. Alvarez, second baseman Taylor Lindsey and right-handed starter Elliot Morris.

All come highly regarded, though none more than Rondon. In fact, ESPN’s Keith Law, a top-notch minor-league talent evaluator, told me Tuesday on Detroit Sports 105.1 that Rondon, himself, should’ve been enough to get that deal done.

Instead, the Angels way overpaid — and in doing so, set the market for other teams selling and buying relief pitchers. It was great news for teams like the Rangers (Soria, Neal Cotts), Phillies (Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo), Rockies (Matt Belisle, LaTroy Hawkins) and Astros (Chad Qualls, Tony Sipp, Josh Fields), who now figure to reap big-time rewards for their relief-pitching surplus. But it was bad news for teams like the Tigers, who had to part with two top pitching prospects, Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson, to land Soria.

Doing the deal

Baseball’s July 31 trade deadline is just a little more than a week away.

But there’s been a push in recent years to move the deadline to later in the season, preferably sometime in the middle of August. And the idea is making more and more sense.

It used to be that teams knew pretty well whether they were contenders for postseason spots by July 31, thus they knew whether they’d be buyers or sellers. That’s changed a lot in this era of increased postseason fields, not to mention the greatest parity this sport has ever seen. One quickly look at the standings Wednesday showed there are 23 teams with varying degrees of postseason potential, all vying for 10 playoff spots — six division championship and four wild cards.

Take a team like the Red Sox. They were sure sellers a week ago, but now have caught fire and are plenty alive in a wide-open — and watered-down – AL East. The Rays are a similar story.

So, what do they do? Too many teams are facing the same dilemma for MLB not to make a change.

Around the horn

Saw former Tigers pitching great Mickey Lolich at a charity function Tuesday night. He still lives local, and follows the Tigers quite closely. He was asked what he’s seen differently from Justin Verlander this year, and Lolich summed it up to, “just an off year.”

He did say, however, that he has noticed Verlander isn’t pitching inside as aggressively as in the past.

… There were no Detroit News MLB Power Rankings this week, because last week’s All-Star break didn’t allow for much shuffling. They will return Monday at detroitnews.com.

Three up ...

1. Mets starter Bartolo Colon flirted with a perfect game Wednesday. This guy’s career was pronounced dead in 2006, but he just keeps getting the job done.

2. This weekend, Cooperstown, N.Y., gets a big boon after last year’s shutout. A legendary class of three managers and three players gets inducted Sunday afternoon.

3. The AL East, while week this year, has the makings of a fantastic finish. Any one of the five teams could win the division, and it would surprise absolutely nobody.

… Three down

1. It’s stunning the Tigers took so long to upgrade the bullpen. Of seven relievers pre-Soria, only two — Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque – could be trusted with any regularity. That's why Soria shouldn't be the Tigers' last move.

2. What a bust that five-year, $65 million contract was for Dan Uggla. He finally was released, after hitting .162 this season, following years of .179, .220 and .233.

3. All the injuries have really caught up with the Rangers, who actually are last in the AL West. They last time they finished fifth or worse in a division was 1988.

Diamond digits

9 — Consecutive losses for Red Sox starter Jake Peavy, tying a record for the longest skid by a former Cy Young winner, per Elias Sports Bureau. Denny McLain also did that in 1971.

29 — Strikeouts by Tigers catcher Alex Avila, in 77 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers.

7/24/80 — Royals legend George Brett signs a contract boosting his annual salary to $1 million a year. Today, the average annual salary is nearly $4 million.

He said it

“I should’ve been a Tiger.”

Royce Clayton, longtime major-league shortstop, accepting an award at the 27th annual Father Vincent Welch Memorial Dinner in Troy on Tuesday night. He played for 11 teams, in 17 seasons.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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