Just a few weeks ago, the Tigers looked like the best team in baseball. Even up until a few days ago, despite their recent run of poor play, they seemed like a shoo-in to win their division. Now, after back-to-back shellackings at the hands of the Royals, theyâ€™re in second place in the AL Central, and there appears to be no end in sight to their downward spiral.
Verlander hasnâ€™t just been shaky, heâ€™s been â€˜booâ€™ worthy (a treatment he received while being hammered by the suddenly red-hot Royals offense on Monday night). Then last night, Max Scherzer, who had come up with a huge complete game shutout to salvage a win against the White Sox last week, pooped the bed by allowing 10 earned runs over four innings in an 11-4 loss.
The past three weeks have been a nightmare for Tigers fans. What once looked like the best squad of the Dave Dombrowski era is now a rudderless ship. Anibal Sanchez is their only reliable starter. Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque, and Ian Krol are their only reliable bullpen arms. And the bats have been stagnant outside of Miggy, V-Mart, Kinsler, and the surprising contributions from J.D. Martinez and Eugenio Suarez.
So, quo vadis – where do we go from here? There is always the hope (/assumption?) that things will turn around, that this is just a significant blip on an otherwise clear radar. And I think there is a certain amount of this disaster that you can chalk up to a good team going through a tough stretch.
At the same time, it might finally be appropriate to push the panic button on Verlander. His fastball velocity is down – though heâ€™s still averaging a strong 92+ mph – but the real problem appears to be an inability to finish hitters off. In the not too distant past, it was almost a foregone conclusion that when JV got a guy to two strikes the at-bat was sure to end in either a strike out or a weakly hit ball. With his arsenal of high heat, knee-bending curves, and potent changeups, batters were helpless once they got behind in the count. Now? Now he simply canâ€™t finish very well. And in this day and age, if you canâ€™t strike people out on the regular youâ€™re just another guy. Another guy whoâ€™s going to get hammered fairly frequently.
Just as the Tigers were due for a little regression when they were setting the AL on fire in April and May, they are soon likely to turn things back around. Suarez has been a boon, I donâ€™t think Joe Nathan is done quite yet, and Verlander and Scherzer will probably at least go back to being solid, if not spectacular, within the next couple of weeks. And the Royals arenâ€™t going to keep on averaging seven runs a game for much longer.
The Eugenio Suarez era
A few months ago we were talking about Jose Iglesias as a defensive whiz who would anchor the middle of the Tigers infield for years to come. Then he came down with a horrible case of shin-itis, which will keep him out for the year and possibly severely dampen his career prospects. That sad news led to a run of geriatric Alex Gonzalez and punchless Austin Romine and Danny Worth manning the 6 spot. But now we have Eugenio, and heâ€™s off to a torrid start.
When youâ€™re looking for ways the Tigers can turn things around, guys like Suarez, Corey Knebel, and even the recently recalled Chad Smith (who took the roster spot of the DFAâ€™ed Evan Reed) might be the teamâ€™s best hope, which is scary. Obviously, Suarez is not going to keep hitting .300 while regularly hitting home runs, but if he can hold his own at the plate and in the field thatâ€™s one less spot Dombrowski has to shore up come trade deadline time.
The bullpen, on the other hand, is probably going to need some work.