Stars haven't aligned just yet for Tigers
Detroit should be able to put sluggish start in rearview mirror
Jim Leyland was asked earlier this year about the surge in season tickets sold at Comerica Park."When you have stars," Leyland said, "it attracts people. And we have some stars." Indeed, the Tigers do. But when it comes to the performance at the field, rather than at the turnstiles, Detroit's stars have not yet aligned in 2012. Justin Verlander, through six starts, is only getting 3.77 runs of support, on average -- the sixth-lowest mark in the league. And Miguel Cabrera, who endured one of the worst slumps of his career in mid-April, has had to carry all the weight in the middle of the order because Prince Fielder (.404 slugging percentage) is not performing up to his career par and Brennan Boesch (.622 OPS), Jhonny Peralta (.624) and the currently suspended Delmon Young (.644) have all been virtually invisible. Combine this with the havoc the Doug Fister injury has wreaked on the rotation and the general ineffectiveness of a bullpen that has revealed its warts, and you have the makings of a disappointing 12-12 start -- one in which the surprising success of rookie Drew Smyly (1.23 ERA in four starts) has been one of the few bright spots. So, yeah, this is not what we saw coming from a star-laden roster that amped up expectations from the Tigers' fan base perhaps like no Detroit nine before it. And yet it's hard to take the slow start too seriously when you remember that last year's Tigers team had the same record after 24 games and went on to win its division by 15 games and advance to the American League Championship Series. In the AL Central, especially, a slow start has little bearing on the big picture. For the Tigers to overcome it -- and it says here that they ultimately will -- they'll have to do the one thing they've been counted on to do from the beginning, and that's outhit their flaws. Thus far, surprisingly, it hasn't happened. Among the AL's 14 teams, the Tigers rank eighth in batting average (.246), 11th in on-base percentage (.310), ninth in slugging percentage (.392) and 10th in OPS (.702). Collectively, their hitters have amassed just 0.9 wins above a replacement-level offense, according to FanGraphs' calculations, and that's the lowest such number in the Majors. That the Tigers do rank a slightly-more-respectable seventh in the league in runs per game (4.38) is largely the product of an improved .753 OPS with runners on base and a .757 OPS in situations defined as "close and late." In other words, the Tigers have done a better job of capitalizing on run-scoring opportunities than they've done in creating them. "I know it's a slow start for us now," Peralta said, "but we're going to hit." That remains the expectation, because for this thing to work -- for a team with an odd defensive alignment and what has been, to this point, a shaky pitching staff to run away with the division -- the Tigers clearly have to fix this offensive funk. That starts with Fielder, whose aforementioned slugging percentage and weighted on-base average (.333) are both well below his career norms (.537 and .389). Fielder is not far removed from a 2010 season in which his slugging percentage of .471 was more toward league norm than elite, and that's obviously not what the Tigers signed up for when they committed $214 million to Prince and not what they're counting on here in 2012. Granted, the concept of the Tigers needing Fielder at his finest to take the pressure off Cabrera is probably an overrated one. Opposing pitchers will pick their spots to pitch around Cabrera no matter how Fielder is faring (Cabrera was intentionally walked 22 times last year, even with Victor Martinez batting behind him). But this is obviously a lineup built around two power producers and, thus far, the Tigers have not reaped the benefits of that alignment. They also haven't gotten much out of the supporting cast -- save for what is shaping up to be a breakout season from leadoff man Austin Jackson (.311/.393/.511), whose 1.8 WAR, according to FanGraphs, ties him with Josh Hamilton atop the AL. What might be in order, by season's end, is an upgrade at second base. And an upgrade won't be hard to find if Ramon Santiago, Ryan Raburn and Co. continue to combine on this black hole of a second-base slash line: .160/.218/.247. And if said second baseman can bat in the two-hole, where Boesch is currently getting on base at a .252 clip, well, all the better. Ultimately, though, the Tigers will go where their stars take them. And the good news on that front is that Cabrera -- the 0-for-22 skid behind him -- remains a beast (1.034 OPS over the last two weeks), and Verlander is actually ahead of his 2011 ERA pace (2.38 mark this year vs. a 3.64 mark after six starts last year). Getting Fister back (and he had a solid outing in his first rehab start Wednesday) will go a long way toward restoring order in the rotation, and the bullpen, it appears, will be a work in progress. But a lineup short on production, thus far, but long on track record is the area where this team figures to see the greatest amount of improvement in the coming weeks. Enough improvement, one would imagine, to make people forget this slow start. As Leyland said recently, "I'll take my chances with this group."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.