I’m going to preface this article by saying that I still believe the Detroit Tigers will claim the American Central League crown for the fourth year in a row. Heck, they’re still tied for first after what seems like a horrendous start, especially offensively.
In six of their first 11 games, the Tigers have scored three runs or less and scored four on Opening Day against the Kansas City Royals. Two of those six games went into the 10th inning, where the Tigers could only muster two runs.
With the offense struggling to start the season and the defense looking out of sorts at times (not quite like 2013 but still struggling), here are three ways the Tigers can kickstart their average start and runaway from the pack in the AL Central.
1. Miguel Cabrera returning to his MVP form
Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball without a doubt. When healthy and executing his swing the way he wants (he’s struggling with his opposite field power that has made him such a complete hitter over his career), he has the ability to carry the offensive load for stretches during the season; he has done so in each of his past two MVP seasons, including a Triple Crown in 2012.
I was always in the camp that Mike Trout is the best all-around player in the game when looking at all five tools. Cabrera struggles with defense and base running, and now he doesn’t play a premium position like Trout. With that said, Cabrera has been much more valuable to his team than Trout, which is why he has deserved to the MVP in back-to-back seasons.
That is most evident in 2014. While Cabrera isn’t hitting like Cabrera (.227/.277/.364 with an OPS of .640), neither is the rest of the team. The Tigers, in all honesty, need Cabrera to carry the offensive load. Last season, I believe former manager Jim Leyland knew that was the case which is why he never rested his superstar for a long stretch during the season.
Cabrera not hitting isn’t a case of not having Prince Fielder in the lineup. Fielder has declined over the past two years to say the least, and Cabrera has had success with the less intimidating Victor Martinez batting behind him. The offense starts and ends with Cabrera, and once he gets his bat going (don’t worry he will), the Tigers offense will start to put up offensive numbers fans are used to.
2. Once the shortstop situation is figured out, the bottom of the order will have a better feel to it.
Rajai Davis is hitting well in the absence of his platoon partner, Andy Dirks. His current slash line is .303/.368/.394 with OPS+ of 116. He has also been solid on the base paths as expected, totaling five stolen bases while only getting caught stealing once through 9 games. Davis has been a pleasant surprise, despite his spotty defense in left field, which I don’t understand because he is the fastest player on the team, but speed doesn’t always equal great defense.
Shortstop is the major concern for the Tigers. Andrew Romine and veteran Alex Gonzalez are making Jose Iglesias look like the greatest hitting shortstop in Tigers history. Romine is 1-go-12 (.083) to start his 2014 season, and Gonzalez has a slash line of .185/.214/.259 through eight games.
These are very small sample sizes, but neither was expected to do much with the bat. Despite Romine’s hitting woes, he looks like the better option. Gonzalez is slowly proving he can’t play the premium position anymore. The Tigers will most likely look elsewhere for options at shortstop, but it looks unlikely something will happen before the June draft.
I doubt the Tigers look in-house because, well, they didn’t once Iglesias went out so why should they now? I was in the camp of giving the job to Eugenio Suarez, who is currently playing for Erie at the Double-A level, where he hits in the three-hole for the Seawolves,
Stephen Drew is looking more and more appealing each day Gonzalez is in the lineup. Drew should be an option once the first round pick is no longer attached to him. The Tigers will more than likely sit and wait this one out, as the offense will look to improve on its 2014 woes, especially from guys who had tremendous seasons last year (i.e Torii Hunter and Cabrera).
3. The Tigers will start to play more consecutive games to get a rotation and a rhythm down.
As it sits right now, Drew Smyly has yet to make a start in 2014. This, I don’t understand. I believe he is a better pitcher than Porcello and even has more upside than the ground ball specialist. The Tigers haven’t needed a fifth starter, but how is Smyly’s confidence? Ausmus has to keep pushing him back, and Smyly hasn’t started a game since late in spring training.
Playing more consecutive games will also allow the offense to get things going and have rhythm before the first month of the season ends. It has been tough to start the season for the Tigers, as they had a NL west coast trip to begin their road schedule, which means one of Cabrera, Martinez, Castellanos or Avila would sit. Avila is great behind the plate, but so is James McCann, who is waiting in Toledo.
Getting back to baseball everyday is what the Tigers need to separate themselves from the pack in the AL Central, a division they have owned in recent years. You can blame the weather all you want, but both teams have to play in it and the Tigers have struggled thus far with the Michigan cold.
The Tigers live and die with Cabrera, everyone knows that. Once Cabrera heats up, it will feel like the other problems have taken care of themselves, that is how important his bat is to the Tigers.
Hunter and Avila are both struggling and could help contribute to getting the Tigers out of this early season funk as well. Avila hasn’t been the same player since his All-Star campaign, so-at 27-years-old, is Avila the player he will be the rest of his career? A great defensive catcher but can’t hit his weight? If so, I’d say let the James McCann era begin, but stay tuned.