Obstacles haven't stopped Tigers
Pitching, defense trumped predictions in surprising first half
DETROIT -- Count all the issues that have gone wrong with the Tigers since Spring Training, all the players on the disabled list. Then count them in first place. That's the difference pitching and defense can make.
Remember the expectation in camp that someone out of the comeback mix of Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson would fill at least one spot in the Tigers' rotation, if not two? So far, they've combined for eight starts, seven of them from Willis, and they're all on the DL.
Magglio Ordonez hasn't hit for power consistently all year, and Carlos Guillen really hasn't been healthy until now. Yet through all the setbacks and disappointments, the Tigers are showing the resiliency of the city they call home.
Little by little, what was a 2008 team with all sorts of offense, but not enough clean pitching and fielding to make it stick morphed into the opposite. Detroit's mighty lineup still hasn't cranked out runs for more than a few games at a time, but the rotation -- despite having no starter older than 26 -- has made use of the run support it has and turned it into wins.
They'll still need to hit better to survive, and they'll face questions down the stretch. But in a division where no team has really stood out, the Tigers look to be in the best position to win.
Club MVP: For all Brandon Inge has done offensively and defensively, it isn't a stretch to call him the most important position player on the club, moreso than even Miguel Cabrera. He leads the club in home runs and RBIs, and his glovework at third base spearheads a vastly improved infield defense.
Call him "Ace": Edwin Jackson makes a very good case, but Justin Verlander has been outright dominant for most of the season to date. It's about more than the numbers, including the AL-leading strikeout total. It's about that next gear he has found time and again when he gets a lead.
Greatest strength: No question, this team rides on the backs of its starters. Manager Jim Leyland has called Verlander and Jackson the best 1-2 punch in baseball, with good reason, and Rick Porcello has obliterated expectations for a 20-year-old with one pro season under his belt. If Armando Galarraga can build off his recent momentum, this is one of the best rotations in the AL.
Biggest problem: Outside of Cabrera and Inge, the once-formidable Tigers lineup has lacked a consistent spark. It goes beyond the stunning power outage from Ordonez, now a platoon player in right field. Curtis Granderson has had lots of homers and steals, but little else. Placido Polanco has his lowest batting average and OPS in at least 10 years. Left field has been a mishmash of different parts.
Biggest surprise: Everyone expected Inge to field like crazy at the hot corner, but admit it, you rolled your eyes a little at first mention of Inge's changes at the plate in Spring Training. Nobody's dismissing them anymore, of course, and opponents generally pay when they try to pitch him inside to his past weakness.
Team needs: If Galarraga gets back to his 2008 form, the rotation is OK as it stands, even with two rookies until/unless Bonderman returns. But the lineup needs someone to add punch in the middle, whether it's a resurgent Ordonez, a healthy Guillen or a trade acquisition from a relatively weak hitting market.
He said it: "If we can get innings out of our starters, I think we'll be fine. If we get back to 100 pitches after five innings, I think we won't be fine. I think in a lot of cases, your starting pitching dictates your bullpen." -- Leyland
Mark your calendar: No team in the AL has played more road games than the Tigers so far this season, a schedule quirk that will even out in the second half. But the most important stretch for Detroit features 13 out of its final 16 games against AL Central pursuers Minnesota and Chicago, concluding at home against the Twins (Sept. 28-Oct. 1) and White Sox (Oct. 2-4).
Fearless second-half prediction: The Tigers will win the AL Central and get to 90 victories, but it won't be easy and it won't be locked up until the season's final weekend. That's life in the Central this year.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.