We always covet what we don't have. The 2015 Tigers have an offense the Mariners can only dream of: They're second in OBP, fourth in slugging and wRC+, and boast a 41-40 record. But while Mike Montgomery and Taijuan Walker have emerged a viable big league starters, Shane Greene has... not and Tigers pitching beyond the top of the rotation has been leaky to say the least.
Coming off their fourth straight AL Central title, many Tigers fans hoped they would shrug off the struggles of last year's bullpen, field a rejuvenated pitching staff with a returning David Price and a hopefully healthy Justin Verlander, and make another run at the playoffs. Instead, badly timed injuries and shaky pitching have them third in the Central behind the All-Star bound Royals and the Twins. The recent loss of Miguel Cabrera leaves a sizeable hole on their offense, but the Tigers are only a game and half out of the second wild card. Can this team get hot for the second half and overcome its woes?
As the Mariners ramp up for a three game home series against the Tigers, we spoke with Thomas Bunting, contributor at Bless You Boys, SB Nation's home for the Tigers and a very good baseball blog. In addition to being a rabid Tigers fan and Don Kelly enthusiast, Thomas is a good grad school friend, although his hearty Michigan blood has allowed his to endure longer than I could. My answers to his Mariners questions can be found over on Bless You Boys.
1. What happened to us? Why are we here? Remember the beginning of the season? Those halcyon days when we looked forward to this series as a potential preview of the ALCS? How did we get here? Or in actual question form, what do you see as the main contributors to the Tigers' woes of late?
Oh, the curse of memory. The Tigers have fallen a long way from 2013 when they had a rotation for the record books. Alas, that group of Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Fister and Porcello has faded into the ether and their rotation is a shadow of its former self. Pre-season I thought that no player was more important to the Tigers than Justin Verlander, but unfortunately he has been injured for most of the season. In his four starts since coming back from the disabled list he has exhibited encouraging velocity and "stuff,"
Hello Vintage Verlander, nice to see you again pic.twitter.com/h7uDp8Q8gE— Tigers GIFs (@TigersGIFs) July 5, 2015
but the command has been off and his ERA is pushing seven for a reason. Besides Verlander’s absence, Shane Greene has been a major disappointment and currently resides in Toledo, pitching for the Tigers’ Triple-A team and not doing very well. He and Ian Krol are the last scraps of our Doug Fister sale, so now it looks like we feel the Mariners’ pain when it comes to trading away Doug Fister for nothing. In addition, Alfredo Simon has regressed towards his peripherals. Sanchez began the year quite shaky and has given up an uncharacteristic 1.4 home runs per nine innings, but he has been better of late. Right now, the Tigers pitching staff is David Price, Anibal Sanchez, three question marks and a bad bullpen. The offense has had a lot of pressure to deal with as a result and many games have been...frustrating.
2. What is going on with the Bullpen? At the beginning of the season, it looked like Handsome Brad had figured out how to properly manage it; they went from being the literal worst to being pretty ok? Now they're close to the bottom in team ERA and FIP again. What's the latest, and did you throw a parade to commemorate Joba getting DFA'ed?
I would rather not speak about the bullpen, but if pressed, I would say that small samples can make things appear to be different when really everything is how it has always been and how it will always be -- our bullpen is a flat circle. I actually preferred Dombrowski's bullpen strategy this offseason of taking fliers on arms with upside rather than paying expensive veterans like Joe Nathan who likes Tigers fans about as much as they like him. However, many of the early season performers eventually turned into pumpkins and offseason signings Joba Chamberlain and Tom Gorzelanny both ended up being designated for assignment. Joakim Soria also started giving up home runs (five in June) in an attempt to convince everyone that the Tigers bullpen is, in fact, cursed. In addition, Brad appears to be more handsome than tactically savvy. Right now Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy and Soria comprise the list of reliable Tigers relievers. On the bright side, Hardy's 2.75 FIP matches his ERA and Alex Wilson looks exactly like Chris Pratt so that is awesome.
(Update: Thomas will get me right back in this piece's companion post by making me talk about Rodney and recall the night we lost in extras to the Yankees. Friends: They know your soft spots.)
3. We have to talk about Miggy. First, let us pour one out for Miggy and shake our fists at the baseball gods for doing this to us. Can this offense withstand a loss like this one? Is the recent JD Martinez resurgence enough?
First, I will pour out oceans for Miguel Cabrera. (Thomas makes the long walk from Madison, WI to the shores of Lake Michigan, the nearest proxy for the ocean, and stares at its dark waters, wondering why the Baseball Gods would so cruel. Sufjan Stevens plays quietly in the background.) He is often called the best hitter on the planet and his season so far merits the title with a .350/.456/.578 slash line to compliment 15 home runs and 54 runs batted in. Cabrera has been worth 4.1 wins above replacement to date according to Baseball Reference, so replacing that elite-level production is impossible, even for a man like Jefry Marte, whose name exudes pure confidence and a disdain for unnecessary letters. Further, replacing Miguel Cabrera's joyful presence on the field and in the clubhouse will also be impossible (I am saying the Tigers will be less fun to watch).
That said, the Tigers offense is still quite good, although heavily right handed. Kinsler, JD Martinez, Victor Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes should have enough offense to carry the team, and their supporting cast of Alex Avila, James McCann, Jose Iglesias, Rajai Davis, Anthony Gose and Nick Castellanos have shown the ability to contribute. As a team, they lead the league in batting average and on base percentage and they are sixth in slugging percentage. JD Martinez's recent hot streak and his thirteen home runs since June show that there are players capable of stepping up. All of this is a long way of saying Miguel Cabrera will be deeply missed, but I am still most worried about the pitching.
4. Related: Many non-Tigers fans think the Tigers are headed to a dark time, with a lot of money tied up in slumping stars. Are you concerned? And are we maybe just rooting for the same team, separated by a couple of years and (much) better Tigers' hitting?
Many Tigers fans see darkness and doom as well, especially on twitter.com. There is a common trope that holds that the Tigers are the next Phillies. I do not subscribe to this theory for a variety of reasons, but the short version is that Miguel Cabrera is not Ryan Howard and Dave Dombrowski is not Ruben Amaro Jr. Jr. They have around 50-60 million dollars coming off the books this year and Dombrowski has shown the ability to make changes on the fly. For example, Dombrowski notably traded Curtis Granderson for Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer and Phil Coke, exhibiting an ability to reload on controlled talent without a lengthy rebuild. They will figure things out if Dombrowski sticks around.
I do not think that the Mariners are a very similar team to the Tigers (although they are both a little stars and scrubs-y), but that is because I am not entirely sure what the Mariners are doing. See question six.
5. Current pitching matchups for the M's series:
Simon v. Hisashi "Please be ok now" Iwakuma
Ryan v. Tai "Our Hopes and Dreams for the Future" Walker
Sanchez v. What Happ-ened to Early Season Promise?
We're managing to avoid Price and the current version of Verlander. Which of these matchups are you most excited about? What fills you with dread?
I am most excited about Sanchez against a bunch of Happ puns for obvious reasons. I am most nervous for Simon against Iwakuma because Simon has been very up and down. I also like Iwakuma and hope that he can return to form, but first starts back from the DL are often rough -- I don't want to watch a pitching duel of sadness. I am most despondent about Kyle Ryan versus Tai because that seems to be a foregone conclusion with the way Walker has been pitching. I dread most that we will watch mediocre pitchers face mediocre teams and the spectacle of it all will crush our souls.
6. How would you fix the Mariners? Inquiring minds, small children, and the entire Lookout staff want to know.
I would keep the staff at Lookout and probably promote you all to the front office. The thing that baffles me about the Mariners is everything. The Tigers for example, have a clear identity and things they always do -- trade prospects for proven talent, draft right-handed SEC pitchers who throw baseballs hard, hoard mediocre utility infielders and assemble terrible bullpens. These are the things we like and things we do every year; there is comfort in routine. The Mariners are more scattered. Their poor drafting and player development has hurt their system and unlike the Tigers, they rely heavily on such talent contributing to the Major League team. Signing Robinson Cano appeared to be a signal that the Mariners were ready to hang with the big boys, much like when the Tigers overpaid Ivan Rodriguez to show they were serious about competing. However, besides a modest deal for Nelson Cruz, they have not surrounded their stars with adequate support. I will not mention specific names and I certainly will not speak ill of Mike Zunino to his biggest fan (Friends: sometimes they lie to make you feel better), but let's just say the lineup could stand an upgrade.
The Mariners are a great baseball franchise and the West Coast team I like to watch when the Tigers are done playing, so I hope that they figure out a way to win. Also, when I visit Safeco next year I want it to be fun and not sad. How would I really fix the Mariners? After hiring everyone on your staff to manage the front office, I would steal Bryce Harper from the Nationals and rescue Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez from Miami, creating a dynasty unparalleled. In the meantime, there is a lot of baseball left and the Mariners are hanging around and getting healthy -- they might just fix themselves.