COMMENTARY | With over a 10th of the season under their belt (where does the time go?), it seems like a good time to check on the health of the Detroit Tigers. It's obviously too early to make a firm diagnosis, but regular doctor visits are important.
With that in mind, the doctor is in.
Preliminary results indicate the Tigers are once again frustrating fans who believe they should be better than they really are.
In 2012, the addition of Prince Fielder was supposed to be the final piece in the puzzle. With his acquisition, the Tigers became immediate favorites to run away with the AL Central. And while the Tigers ultimately took the division, it was by no means a runaway. After battling to stay close all summer, the Tigers didn't claim first place for good until Oct. 1.
They then took the AL pennant in fine fashion. But they tanked in the World Series, losing four straight to the San Francisco Giants. Losing in four straight would not have been so bad if the Tigers hadn't lost in similar fashion in their last series appearance under manager Jim Leyland's stewardship in 2006.
The offseason addition of Torii Hunter and the return of professional hitter Victor Martinez have, once again, heightened expectations. But it wasn't easy then, and it won't be easy now. To hear the Tigers' skipper say it, baseball "up here" never is.
At a similar point last year, the Tigers were 10-9. After a feverish 9-3 start, they dropped three of four to the Texas Rangers and were unceremoniously swept by the lowly Seattle Mariners, King Felix notwithstanding.
Today, they stand at 9-9 having dropped four straight.
Nowhere are the symptoms of déjà vu all over again more prevalent than at the plate. In 2012, Leyland frequently lamented the lack of production he was getting from his six through nine hitters. This year, the five spot can be added to that list. While Martinez will ultimately hit, the potential for extended pain from the bottom four of the order is real.
One through four, Tiger starters check out as completely healthy. The smart money, if there is such a thing, knows that over 162 games no aspect of the game is more linked to a team's success than its pitching.
Unfortunately, initial test results also show that the bullpen is suffering from an identity crisis. Its most reliable resident to date has been Drew Smyly. But given Rick Porcello's struggles, Smyly may be in line for a start -- or three. While potential solutions may seem elusive, the doc thinks the elevation of Bruce Rondon and Jose Valverde could settle things down.
Team defense has been surprisingly healthy, at least if measured by the absence of errors. The Tigers lead the majors in fielding percentage. But if measured by plays that should have been made but weren't, the picture is not as pretty. Austin Jackson needs to uncharacteristically speak up. Two catchable balls have dropped between him and his left fielder. Tough plays, yes. But communication breakdowns could lead to more misses.
At 37, few expected Hunter to be in such good health. The reception he has received from fans of his former teams is a testament to the way he plays the game on the field and the way he conducts himself off it. Some say leadership in the clubhouse is overrated. The doc thinks that's bunk. A star player who deflects personal praise is a very good thing to have.
Also 37, Victor Martinez's recovery, not from his injured knee but from his atrophied bat, is taking longer than expected. But Victor's bat will be resurrected.
All in all, the prognosis for the Tigers is good. Playing 12 of their first 18 on the road, including an always-taxing nine-game West Coast swing, is a tough way to start. But with the next nine in the cozy confines of Comerica Park, a nice little win streak could be on the horizon. The doc, if nothing else, is an optimist.
At the same time, it is sure to be another season of fits and starts. That's just the way things work "up here."
A lifelong follower of the Detroit Tigers, Mike has covered sports, automotive, government and interfaith issues for publications and websites including "The Detroit News," Internet Auto Guide, Opposing Views, American Thinker, Examiner and A Common Word.
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