Yes, the Detroit Tigers lost a tough series and looked completely outmatched against the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers. And yes, their bats have gone colder than a Barack Obama reception at an NRA meeting—but keep saying to yourself it’s only April…it’s only April. Despite scoring just 30 runs in their last 10 games, they’re still in first place in possibly the weakest division in baseball and they still have the second best record in the American League.
Despite their overall good start, I’ve noticed after a cold offensive road trip and a down series to the Rangers that some fans are already about the push the panic button. I have three words for them. The Cleveland Indians. The Indians were world beaters to start last season and had a near double digit division lead at the end of May 2011. They quickly fell apart as the weather warmed up and the Tigers cruised to win the division by 15 games last season.
This is a better Tiger team than last year, even though they’re not showing it. No doubt the loss of Doug Fister has been felt, but the discovery of Drew Smyly might be the story of the year so far for the Tigers. He’s the first Tigers’ starter in the modern era to allow two runs or less in each of his first three starts. While it’s only three starts, he did something that Adam Wilk and Rick Porcello—and just about everyone not named Justin Verlander—couldn’t do, and that’s shut down a ridiculously talented Ranger lineup. If Smyly pitches half as well as he has, he’s a keeper and gives the Tigers a tough top of the rotation with Verlander and Fister—when he comes back.
The bullpen is much better as well. The Phil Coke starter experiment undoubtedly messed with the valuable lefty last year, but he seems to have settled down now that he’s back in the bullpen where he belongs. Joaquin Benoit is in another early season struggle, but he rebounded last year and will again this year. Jose Valverde is what he is and that’s never going to change. He’ll almost always get the job done while driving up sales of Pepto Bismol in Detroit. Octavio Dotel was a highly underrated addition as he gives the Tigers a fourth dependable bullpen arm—something they severely lacked in last years ALCS vs. Texas.
The offense is the most perplexing thing about this team, but there are still some extremely positive signs. Fielder and Cabrera will heat up. They’re too accomplished not to and those hard singles will turn into doubles and home runs before too long. The fact that the Tigers are winning half of their games since they’ve stopped producing is very encouraging because the lack of production won’t last for long. Austin Jackson, meanwhile, might be the most improved player on the team. He’s cooled off from his hot start but he’s getting much better swings even on his outs—twice in Sunday’s game he produced 400 foot flyouts. Additionally, his strikeouts are on a pace to decrease by almost 30% this season. Other than finding the answer at second base, long term there’s not a lot to worry about with this offense.
My advice to Tigers fans is to sit back and enjoy the long ride this season. Don’t read too much into the losses and don’t get too excited about the wins. The Detroit Tigers are going to be just fine. Once they get in the playoffs, well, that might be a different story.