Detroit — For more than two months, it didn't appear the Tigers were playing the part of a rebuilding bunch.
The youthful Tigers sat at 36-37 on June 17, a game under .500, but just 2.5 games behind the the front-running Cleveland Indians in the American League Central. The Tigers were riding a five-game winning streak, and boasting the never-say-die spunk they showed in April and May.
But reality hit, and it hit hard. Hitting the meat-grinder portion of their schedule that included series against the Indians, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros — all division leaders — the Tigers went 5-20 from June 18 to the All-Star break. They were outscored 128-81 in that stretch, scoring three runs or less in 17 of those 25 games.
An indication of how over-matched the Tigers’ offense was in that stretch — they struck out 228 times, almost unfathomable.
“Offense has been our downfall,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We’ve pitched good enough to win a lot more games. The offense hasn’t shown enough on a consistent basis to make any kind of move or stay where we were.
“But the effort has been there. They have busted their tails all the way along and are staying in the game for the full nine innings. We just haven’t been able to come up with enough big hits.”
Gardenhire went through a rebuilding process twice in his time with the Minnesota Twins, but this challenge, he said, was cut of a different cloth.
“This is different because we have limited veterans here,” he said. “We had some veteran (position) players there and we don’t have that here. We have a veteran pitching staff here, which we didn’t have in Minnesota, but we had the other part.
“We had some veteran players who got us through some of the tough times. Here, the pitching is carrying some of the younger guys.”
The Tigers through the end of June and into July have started players in their first full big-league season at five of the eight positions, and many of them are mired in extended slumps. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario is hitting .152 with six RBIs since June 17. Center fielder JaCoby Jones is hitting .189 with four RBIs. Dixon Machado, who had been the starting second baseman, hit .190 in June with three RBIs and was designated for assignment (ultimately re-signing with Triple-A Toledo).
'When it rains it pours'
“I haven’t been through it offensively like this,” Gardenhire said. “We strike out a lot. It’s just young hitters, and we’ve been facing good teams in this last stretch. We knew it was going to be difficult. The thing I didn’t expect was that Candelario would go into a prolonged slump.
“Some of the guys who were playing really well early on all of a sudden lost it. Maybe it was too much playing time, I don’t know.”
Veteran players like Victor Martinez (.181 with three RBIs over the last 25 games) and catcher James McCann (.182 with eight RBIs) have struggled as well.
“We started off OK,” Gardenhire said. “We had the big guy, then all of a sudden Miggy got hurt. We were OK for a while, but you knew that was going to come down and get us eventually.”
It hasn’t been talked about much — out of sight, out of mind — but the loss of Miguel Cabrera has deeply impacted this baseball team. His absence has been felt on the field and in the clubhouse.
“Just having that big guy in the middle; you build your lineup right around him,” Gardenhire said. “You knew he was going to go out there with those soft hands at first base. He doesn’t have the range he used to have, but he caught everything.
“Just him yelling at guys in the dugout. Having that guy who wasn’t afraid to speak his piece and talk trash to the younger guys. He’s not around, and that’s a big (loss), it really is.”
Cabrera was lost for the season with a ripped tendon in his left bicep on June 12. The Tigers won five of the next six games to pull within one game of the .500 mark. That’s about when the roof caved in.
“He’s a Hall-of-Famer,” Gardenhire said. “It’s been a big miss for us. Victor’s done a nice job with these kids, talking to them, but Miguel’s presence means everything to our ball club and we don’t even have him around right now — he’s doing his rehab.”
The Tigers are also missing the energetic and comical presence of center fielder Leonys Martin, who has been out since July 2 with a hamstring strain. He was having a strong season, both at the plate and in the field, providing a jolt at the top of the Tigers’ batting order.
“When it rains it pours,” McCann said. “Nothing seemed to go our way. But when things aren’t going your way, you have to make breaks for yourself. It’s part of the ups and downs of the game. It’s something the veteran teams have an easier time navigating through, because they’ve been there and done it.
“With a young team, it gets frustrating and it can snowball a little bit.”
'Wheels fell off'
Was it inevitable the Tigers would lose 20 of 25 games? Maybe not. But a correction to the norm certainly was.
“Streaky,” is how Gardenhire described the first half. “We had a real good stretch and then the wheels fell off. We started playing some good teams and we couldn’t get over the hump. But through the slide, we were in just about every game. We just couldn’t come up with the big hit.
“Our starting pitching has given us a chance in most of the games. But we strikeout an awful lot and situational baseball, we’re not real good at it. We don’t get runners over and those things. We don’t do a lot of that.”
Tigers general manager Al Avila has repeated that he was prepared for the occasional blackout in 2018 and that Cabrera's exit simply compounded matters. But he, and Gardenhire, have also gotten a look at players and surprises, such as Niko Goodrum, who could be part of a Tigers future that steadily should feature better hitters.
Candelario, the GM has said, is going through an ordeal not uncommon to rookie hitters who ultimately benefit from their dark nights. Jones, too, is learning what it's like to face sustained good pitching and what he can take from his first full year.
The Tigers roster will be different next year, and in 2020, Avila has said, and probably for the better in terms of introducing new talent. But in the interim there was destined to be a 2018 schedule that during days and weeks — and even months — could remind fans in graphic ways of what the first full year of a roster reconstruction can entail.
Here’s the ominous part: It’s not likely to get any better in the second half.
The Tigers are very likely to get much younger by the end of the month. They are motivated to trade two of their better starting pitchers — Francisco Liriano and Mike Fiers — and several teams have shown interest in both.
The Tigers signed both veteran pitchers with a dual purpose: To help them stay competitive early in the season and to be used as potential trade bait to acquire more young prospects.
The Tigers also are motivated to trade shortstop Jose Iglesias, who is in the final year of his contract and is playing arguably the best baseball of his career. They are also willing to listen to offers on two of their best young players — Michael Fulmer and Nick Castellanos. Though the asking price for those two is high, as it should be.
“Just like every year I’ve done this, you hear stuff flying around and you take it at face value,” Gardenhire said. “There’s always a lot of the talk and more so than not, nothing ever happens. With our ball club, something could happen.
“But I just go about my business and keep working hard. I told all of these guys — you just can’t worry about that. You just have to do your thing.”
Staff writer Lynn Henning contributed