Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera has seen his power drop off following core-muscle surgery in the offseason. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Injuries are mounting, and so is the danger. An expected summer stroll for the Tigers has become a stunning stagger, and it’s troubling, but not terminal.
No whining, no excuses. For all their struggles, the Tigers still should win the division, no matter how much the scorching Royals make them sweat.
The Tigers actually got good news Tuesday when it was revealed Justin Verlander suffered no structural damage in his sore right shoulder and might miss only one start. But even with Anibal Sanchez and Verlander ailing, along with reliever Joakim Soria, the Tigers should have enough to outduel the Royals and win the Central for the fourth straight year.
No, the Tigers aren’t a World Series team right now, but that’s not the point, and it doesn’t absolve their miserable play since the All-Star break, going 10-15 and blowing a 7½-game lead. The Tigers love muttering “this is baseball” during slumps, and the truism hurts now. Injuries are part of baseball, too. Roster depth is part of baseball. Playing hard through tough times is part of baseball.
This isn’t some cruel twist of fate. It happens — ask the A’s, who opened the season missing three injured starting pitchers. It’s a supreme test, especially for GM Dave Dombrowski and rookie manager Brad Ausmus, and the Tigers still have the high-end talent to pass it. Lament the injuries and the brutal schedule all you want, but even if Verlander misses time, they have a starting threesome of Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello, which gives them a solid chance to win three out of every five games.
Should've seen it coming
The Tigers are vulnerable, no doubt. The bullpen is awful, although it’s not like Dombrowski has ignored it. No matter how painful it is to watch, Joe Nathan remains the key, more so with Soria sidelined. Dombrowski will peck through the waiver wire for another arm and another bat, and I’d suggest he make a run at Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava. The Tigers are always willing to buy help, but there’s also nothing wrong with demanding production from within.
Some are calling this an implosion, but I’d say it’s more an ugly correction of fortune. Did the Tigers really think they’d go two full seasons without major blows to their starry pitching staff? Did they really think Miguel Cabrera would put up MVP numbers every season without any concession to age and wear? Did they really think J.D. Martinez would remain a fearsome everyday slugger? Did they really think Nathan wouldn’t decline at the age of 39?
And did Dombrowski really think he had so much pitching he could deal Doug Fister (11-3, 2.49 ERA with the Nationals) and not get immediate major league value in return? Maybe if the Tigers still had Fister, they wouldn’t have Price, but they could have filled a different hole.
The Price trade was tremendous, but it came at a cost. They surrendered center fielder Austin Jackson, and in his absence, the poor outfield defense has gotten worse and the offense has sputtered more. I’d make the trade again and again, but the Tigers’ strategy of just loading up the rotation does have its drawbacks, and it shows in the weak bench, weak bullpen and weak defense.
There’s a cool confidence — even an arrogance — about the Tigers that comes from dominating their division. But the Royals are a good team with a great bullpen, and they’re surely sick of being the underachieving butt of jokes.
The Tigers will need more from their best players to regain control. Remember, they’re trying to win with an all-rookie left side of the infield, Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez. And with Alex Avila struggling badly against left-handed pitchers, the cries grow to promote rookie catcher James McCann.
It’s never that easy, but it shouldn’t be this hard. The Tigers’ sloppy flop in that 11-6 loss to Pittsburgh Monday night was inexcusable. Verlander tried to gut it out, probably not the wisest move, and was pulled after one inning with a sore shoulder that might help explain his subpar season.
Verlander hasn’t made excuses, and neither has Cabrera. Both underwent core-muscle surgery in the offseason and lost significant power. Cabrera still hits for average (.308) and drives in runs (85) but the drop in home runs (17, after 44 last season) is significant.
Ian Kinsler has been excellent at second base, but his hitting is streaky. Torii Hunter supplies what you’d expect a 39-year-old, one-time star to supply — bursts of unsustainable production. Fans focus on Don Kelly, Bryan Holaday and the bench, but when you invest so much in stars to win now, there’s no way the 24th and 25th guys should derail you.
The Tigers are scheduled to start Buck Farmer, a 23-year-old farmhand who mostly has pitched in Single A, tonight. Every move looks panicky now, as it did a couple months ago, when the Tigers stumbled through a 9-20 stretch. They recovered from that and can recover from this.
Obviously, it’s going to be more difficult than predicted, when the Tigers were overwhelming favorites to win the division and a top pick to reach the World Series. Those chances have fallen, but no one wants to hear the woes of a team with Scherzer, Price, Porcello, Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Kinsler, etc.
The Tigers have been in trouble before and fought back. They’ve tried to hide their flaws behind their stars, and now their stars are dropping. That means they’re in danger but they’re not doomed, and there’s no excuse to play like it.