Thompson: Tigers not far away from contending in AL Central

If I were to assume the role of Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski for the second half of the Major League Baseball season, I'd be a happy man - and I'm not even thinking about the healthy pay increase I'd encounter from overtaking his job.
Nate Thompson
Jul 16, 2012

I’d be smiling because the Tigers have more than a realistic chance at competing for a playoff berth in the second half when, by all accounts, they don’t deserve to be in the conversation.

I’d also have an ear-to-ear grin because my job security is no longer an issue, at least for now. Owner Mike Illitch has invested a lot of pizza money into this roster, and if the Tigers completely belly-flopped, Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland would be roasting in Illitch’s Little Caesar’s ovens right now.

Somehow, the Tigers are in contention, despite placing five key players on the disabled list in May and June; despite losing arguably the team’s most disciplined hitter to injury in Victor Martinez during the off-season; despite seeing a drop in production from nearly half of the lineup and most of its starting pitching staff from the same time as last season; and despite playing downright ugly at times.

Even with all that negativity, Detroit is still in the thick of the race in the American League Central division and just 1 1/2 games back of Baltimore for the second wild card spot. The Orioles host the Tigers tonight to open the second half of the season.

Granted, a pessimist will point out that these Tigers spent all but about three weeks under the .500 mark in the first half, but as a half-glass-full thinker like myself, there’s no way Detroit should encounter as much bad luck with injuries and head-scratching lack of production in the second half like it encountered through its first 86 games.

Plus, their talent, which is attractive on paper, should step up.

Back when Detroit signed Prince Fielder in late January, I envisioned his slugging impact in the middle of the lineup would propel the Tigers to score over 900 runs this season. Fielder has produced solid numbers, but they’re likely going to fall well shy of that projected total. Detroit ranks sixth currently in the American League with 387 runs and sport a cumulative batting average of .269, which is surprisingly second-best in the AL.

It’s surprising because nearly every key bat after the dynamic duo of Miguel Cabrera and Fielder are hitting worse than in 2011. That includes starters Brennan Boesch (.243 now compared to .306 at the All-Star break last season); Jhonny Peralta (a drop from .312 to .260, with 23 less runs batted in); and an injury-riddled Alex Avila (a drop from .286 to .242, with half of his home run and RBI totals).

Detroit has also sputtered because Delmon Young isn’t easing the Tigers’ grief over losing Martinez in the vital No. 5 spot in the lineup. Despite his recent home run surge, Young and his swing-at-anything approach hasn’t provided the protection in the lineup the Tigers covet behind Cabrera and Fielder.

The production has been even more putrid at the bottom of the lineup, where Ryan Raburn (.171 batting average), Don Kelly (.185), and Ramon Santiago (.230) appear to have traded in their lumber for Whiffle ball bats.

Detroit could easily be cellar-dwellers right now if it weren’t for its saving graces in Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry. Jackson, with his altered approach and swing at the plate, should have been an All-Star, while out-of-nowhere Berry keeps proving doubters wrong with his game-changing speed and ability to find the hole in the infield. He does only have 144 Major League at-bats on his resume, so we’ll see if he can keep his production throughout the second half as pitchers adjust to him.

The Tigers don’t need another slugging outfielder like Arizona’s Justin Upton or San Diego’s Carlos Quinten like recent trade rumors suggest. Remember, I’m now in the GM’s shoes, and if it came down to the deadline, I’d hold faith that a healthy Andy Dirks can still be the Tigers’ every day left fielder.

Instead, I’d pursue another table-setter to add to the Tigers’ collection of power hitters to make it a more complete lineup and match up with teams like Texas, New York and Anaheim. Detroit obviously can’t rely on Raburn, Santiago or another minor leaguer as its everyday second baseman, so it’s time to fill the position that has badly under-produced since Placido Polanco bolted back to Philadelphia. People may laugh that someone like former Tiger Omar Infante could be a difference maker, but look what’s he doing with Miami this season: a .290 average with seven home runs and 30 RBIs. Not outstanding, but it’s steady and compared to the current production at the bottom of the Tigers’ lineup, it’s an astronomical improvement.

At 30, Infante is in the prime of his career and with the Marlins likely to fade in the second half, he’d be available likely on the cheap, meaning Detroit wouldn’t have to part with any top prospects.

As for the pitching staff, I still believe the Tigers have one of the best bullpens in the American League, despite the fact they’ve failed to convert on nine save opportunities – another huge step backward compared to a year ago.

Relying on rookie starter Drew Smyly down the stretch is a scary proposition, and scooping up a veteran arm such as the Chicago Cubs’ Ryan Dempster would be wise.

As Detroit proved last year with the arrival of Young and starting pitcher Doug Fister near the trade deadline, sometimes the under-the-radar deals can prove to be the most beneficial.

The more you watch this team, the more it seems they are just one or two minor pieces away from putting it all together and laying a lot of first-half frustration to rest.

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