Niyo: Tigers must pick up pace to show help is worth it

John Niyo
The Detroit News
David Price, pitching in the All-Star Game Tuesday night, says the Tigers have left themselves plenty of room to improve in the second half.

Detroit — A little salesmanship wouldn’t hurt, fellas.

Because the boss sounds like he might need a little convincing.

The fans do, too. But these next 10 days or so are more about the Tigers, a maddeningly mediocre bunch for most of this season, giving ownership — and by extension, president and general manager Dave Dombrowski — a reason to buy in, as misguided as that might be.

The unofficial “second half” begins tonight, and the July 31 trade deadline is two weeks away, so the clock officially is ticking.

“Have we played baseball that we’re capable of playing and expect to play? No, I don’t think so,” said All-Star left-hander David Price, the ace who was, not coincidentally, acquired from the Rays at the deadline a year ago. “I do think we’re a better team than what we’ve showed in the first 88 games.”

Whether you agree with that or not — thinking and doing are two vastly different things in baseball — there’s no arguing this point: It’s time to show it, post-haste. Because Dombrowski’s phone is ringing. And while there’s no telling what the Ilitch family is thinking — just a hunch, it’s not pretty — there are plenty of Pepsi machines around the league that need filling. Maybe even one or two around Comerica Park, if this gets any worse.

The Tigers are nine games behind the division-leading Royals, 41/2 behind the still-surprising Twins, and two games ahead of the Indians and White Sox in the AL Central cellar, such that it is.

“We have to get on a roll at some point,” Dombrowski said last weekend. “We have to. We’re not going to be able to play a couple of games, get three games above, then one game above and then back to .500. We are not going to be able to do that and make the postseason.”

Team fighting poor odds

According to FanGraphs projections, the Tigers have less than a 10 percent chance to win the division, and slightly better than a 1-in-4 shot to make the playoffs.

Of course, the odds that anybody in the Tigers clubhouse — including manager Brad Ausmus — gives a rip about those numbers are much, much longer.

Baseball fans around here may recall the Tigers coughing up a 10-game division lead in the final 50 games of 2006. Optimistic fans also like to point out last year’s World Series featured a pair of wild-card teams. Ausmus might even mention to his players — if he hasn’t already — the Astros team he was on in 2005.

The roster built by Dave Dombrowski and managed by Brad Ausmus was maddeningly mediocre in the first half.

That team was 44-46 on July 17, 141/2 games out of first in the NL Central and 61/2 out of the wild card. The Cardinals cruised to the division title that year, but the Astros, who started 15-30, clawed their way past the Phillies, Marlins and free-falling Nationals to grab a playoff berth. They then beat the Braves and Cardinals to reach the World Series, where they were swept by the White Sox.

Still, that Houston team started its surge a month before the All-Star break. And though Detroit doesn’t have nearly as far to go — even without an injured Miguel Cabrera for the next month or more — it also hasn’t won more than three in a row since that 6-0 start.

The Tigers are 44-44, and have won 44 percent of their games (33-42) since April 20. The Tigers posted sub-.500 records in May and June. And if they do it again in July — they’re 5-7 so far — they probably can forget the postseason.

“We’re going through a tough time right now, in the last month, month-and-a-half,” said J.D. Martinez, whose first-half power surge has been one of the bright spots. “It’s just hard to get going.”

Starting pitching is key

If history is any guide, Dombrowski will do something to jump-start things before the deadline, with the focus on adding a starting pitcher and late-inning relief help, rather than selling off pending free agents and restocking for the future.

The Tigers are 31/2 games out of the second wild-card spot, and “if we play to our capabilities in the second half,” said Dombrowski, who also is in a contract year, “we have a chance to win still.” But who doesn’t, at this point? Eight teams are within a half-dozen games of the Astros and that last playoff berth at the moment.

One of those teams — Baltimore — is in town to start this seven-game home stand. And if you’re searching for some optimism, as the front office seems to be in this murky mess, that’s a good place to start. Three of the 14 games before the deadline are against teams with a winning record, and those three are against Tampa Bay (46-45), a team that lost 15 of its last 21 before the break.

Time to get going? Well, there you go. But, as Dombrowski said last weekend, “the only way to do that is with good starting pitching.”

Since June 1, the Tigers are 12-2 when Anibal Sanchez and Price pitch. But they’re 4-18 when they don’t, including losses in all five of Justin Verlander’s starts.

Verlander certainly deserved a better fate in his last outing, victimized by that epic bullpen collapse last Friday night. But the struggles of Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, who’ve combined for an 11.79 ERA in their last five starts apiece, don’t leave much room for error.

Ausmus has his rotation set so that Sanchez, Price and Verlander — in that order — will start nine of the next 13 games. If the Tigers intend on making their move, and encouraging Dombrowski to make some moves to help that cause, those three will have to do most of the heavy lifting.

If not, well, then it may be the boss worrying about selling.