Every time you look away from this team, you end up looking back. Every time a player gets hurt and you figure the Tigers will slide, they plug and shrug.
And now here they still are, a curiosity perhaps becoming something more than that. Flukes and goose vibes don’t last 73 games. The Tigers — picked to be among the worst in baseball, lest anyone forget — are 36-37 after a 3-1 victory over the White Sox Sunday, completing a three-game sweep. They’ve won five straight and are 2.5 games behind the first-place Indians as we near the midway point of the season.
The plan doesn’t change. The Tigers are rebuilding, not adding pieces, not spending to contend. But you know what has changed? The possible timetable. The competitive culture. The entertainment value.
Give Ron Gardenhire loads of credit for instilling a positive buoyancy in the Tigers. Give GM Al Avila credit for plucking important spare parts, from Leonys Martin to Niko Goodrum to John Hicks to Mike Fiers to Francisco Liriano.
Blaine Hardy has jumped from the bullpen to the starting rotation and refused to leave, winning again Sunday. Reliever Joe Jimenez put on another dominant performance, and Nick Castellanos continued to recapture his power stroke.
Staying in the mix
You can say the Tigers are outslugging slugs, and they are. But they can only play the opponents they’re assigned, and the AL Central is so bad, the Tigers actually might be a .500 team, or better. You keep waiting for the Indians to run away, but their bullpen has been a mess and they just lost starter Carlos Carrasco to the disabled list. They remain huge favorites, but certainly don’t look like the 102-victory beasts of a season ago.
The White Sox and Royals are awful. The Twins are rebuilding, which in this division, doesn’t have to mean you’re retreating. Minnesota squeezed into the playoffs last season, although the AL is so top heavy now, there’s no room for a middlin’ club.
I’m not suggesting the Tigers are squeezing in anywhere. I am suggesting they have a couple key ingredients to keep it interesting — a deep starting rotation and a terrific eighth-ninth-inning relief combo. Oh, and it helps they’re not in a division with the top four teams, the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Mariners. Of the 15 AL clubs, only four look dominant, and we’re still not sure about the Mariners. The Central is the poorest in the majors, with these payroll rankings: Indians (17), Royals (18), Tigers (19), Twins (20), White Sox (30).
Again, no push to accelerate the plan. The Tigers certainly are worth watching, and after the dismal early weather, are drawing respectable crowds. Misery was predicted, and the season’s big moment was supposed to be the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
Now, you know what? The Tigers still won’t be buying anything, but they might not be so eager to dump. In fact, there might not be a ton of activity. So few teams harbor a legitimate chance to win it, there likely will be fewer buyers, which will drive prices down for veteran players. Would a World Series contender really bid much to add Liriano or Fiers to the back of its rotation?
And there’s no need to shop Michael Fulmer, 25, or Castellanos, 26, not during the season, maybe not ever. Both have rebounded impressively, and it seldom makes sense to deal young, inexpensive players, though, of course Avila is keeping all his options open.
“In going into this trade deadline and into the winter, I don’t have a mandate to trade anyone,” Avila told reporters in Chicago. “We’re not picking up the phone, and we’re not going to pick up the phone and say we’re trading so and so.”
The Tigers are still trying to get younger, more athletic and deeper in the farm system, and it won’t happen immediately. And circumstances can change. Stopgap pieces have played above their perceived norm, and others have risen nicely — Matthew Boyd, Hardy, Jimenez. Miguel Cabrera is out and Hicks has provided impressive pop in his absence.
Most strikingly, the Central is worse than imagined, so far. The Tigers have 32 more games against the White Sox, Royals and Twins, which means little if they don’t beat the Indians. A week ago, Cleveland took two of three in Detroit and it looked like a reality check. It might still be, as another three-game series looms in Cleveland next weekend.
But the Tigers have developed pitching elements that make them competitive, starting with the highly effective tandem of Jimenez and Shane Greene. Jimenez has eight straight scoreless outings and owns a 2.04 ERA. Greene just closed out four victories in four days.
After battling through injuries, the Tigers have a rotation that can go six deep when Liriano returns. Gardenhire said Hardy could stay in the mix, joining Boyd, Fulmer, Fiers and Jordan Zimmermann.
Is it a fearsome six-some? No. But the Tigers are 13-10 in one-run games partly because the starters have gotten them to Jimenez and Greene in decent shape. The starters’ ERA of 4.22 is 19th in baseball, not bad considering they’ve juggled guys all season.
You don’t have to call the Tigers contenders or confounders. In fact, they might be neither. But you do have to take them seriously, as long as they don’t take it too seriously, and keep happily surprising everyone but themselves.