Indians, Tigers are mired in mediocrity

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

During five days in early May, the season young but not all that young, the managers of the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers dragged their tired eyes across batting orders that had gone soft.

A hundred miles apart, a couple games in the American League Central Division apart, and shoulder to shoulder in their early dissatisfaction, Eric Wedge and Jim Leyland reached similar conclusions to de-emphasize their designated hitters.

Travis Hafner came out of the three hole in Cleveland, Gary Sheffield out of the third spot in Detroit. Both currently are batting sixth.

Sheffield, 39 and admittedly troubled by his wandering mind between at-bats, is the Tigers' new left fielder because Jacques Jones had no such excuse (or contract) and is now unemployed. Hafner, despite the fact his club also discarded a left fielder (Jason Michaels) because of massive offensive deficiencies, can't play the outfield and remains limited to the batter's box, which, very often, has served as a way station on his way back to the dugout.

Thus united in a narrow but meaningful aspect of their shared quarter-pole mediocrity, the Tigers and Indians carried their larger – and divergent – issues into mid-May as well. Broadly, the Tigers have been abandoned by their starting pitching, the Indians by many of their run producers, so the presumed two-way race in the Central has not yet developed, and might never.

Happily for the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox, who win about as often as they lose and together have spent most of the past month in first place, surprise structural flaws in Cleveland and Detroit have opened the division to most – if perhaps not all – comers.

It helps the anxiety levels in Detroit and Cleveland when the players are still wearing long sleeves as often as not, meaning there remains a little chill in spring and lots of life in the season.

Still, through 38 games the Tigers have the worst ERA in the league, in large part because starters Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman and Kenny Rogers have been so hittable, as was Dontrelle Willis before he hyperextended his knee five innings into his AL experience. Due to various arm ailments and what the organization believes to have been heavy workloads in recent seasons, the Tigers went easy on their starters in spring training, the results apparently being subtle losses in velocity and appalling losses in command and overall effectiveness. What general manager Dave Dombrowski could really use is reasonable young arms, but he traded Jair Jurrjens and Andrew Miller for a restructured offense, which hasn't been a complete flop but hasn't been close to dominant either.

The Tigers – Leyland, et al. – would ask for your patience. Except, if they really believed in patience, they'd have stuck with Miller, Cameron Maybin and the rest of the youngsters they threw at the Florida Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Willis, or Jurrjens, who was dealt to the Atlanta Braves for Edgar Renteria.

Sheffield's .208 average and two home runs are inadequate for the Tigers, but so are Cabrera's .195 average with runners in scoring position, Renteria's .295 on-base percentage and Curtis Granderson's 16 strikeouts in 65 at-bats.

So the lineup has been in flux, including swapping corner infield positions between Carlos Guillen and Cabrera, working in some at-bats for rookie Matt Joyce and welcoming back Granderson from the disabled list.

"It's simple," Leyland recently told reporters. "You do some things and try some things and it works for a while. Ultimately, at some point, it comes to the manager and the coaching staff, and then they're gone. At some point, later on, maybe it goes to the general manager (and) he's gone. … We know how this all works. It's our job to get this team going."

It's not nearly so drastic yet. But the Tigers have been shut out five times; they were shut out three times last season. If they were hoping the offense would prop up an imprecise pitching staff for a month or two or longer, they only need to examine their first nine games (of which they lost eight) or their last nine games (seven losses) to see how that's turned out.

There will be more of the same if the starting pitchers don't find their games.

"It's apparent they weren't quite ready to go at it full bore when the season began," Dombrowski said Monday. "But, their velocities are not so far off to where they were in the past, other than maybe in one or two spots. We've done a lot of research on it."

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, on the other hand, has had one of the better pitching staffs in the game (welcome back, Cliff Lee, whose velocity has increased) undone by a seriously underachieving batting order, which is on pace to score 90 fewer runs than it did last season. Only leadoff man Grady Sizemore is at or above the production one might reasonably expect. Even Victor Martinez's heady .346 batting average is dulled by only six extra-base hits (no home runs) and a lack of chances with runners in scoring position.

Where the Tigers went all splashy with their winter strategy, the Indians stuck to their plan and their budget and the men who had them on the verge of the World Series last October. What it's gotten them so far is a lot of low-scoring losses.

"I can't really explain the offense," Shapiro said. "I don't know what to tell you."

The Indians do believe they've found something in Hafner's hitting mechanics, which would sound good had Hafner not lived through plenty of stretches like this in 2007. Presumably, his stroke has little influence on the rest of the guys, who cumulatively rank near the bottom of the league in batting and on-base plus slugging percentages.

Shapiro moved Ben Francisco into Michaels' roster spot, but that's the extent of the solution so far.

"If I felt one move was going to turn this team around, it wouldn't be too early [to consider a trade]," Shapiro said. "Right now, I don't think that's going to do it. The solution has to be on this team. That's where it has to lie right now. Besides, there's not a lot of impact talent available out there."

After a pause, Shapiro reached for a little optimism, and innocently spoke for both struggling franchises.

"It would be a lot tougher," he said, "if our division wasn't going through the same thing."

Tougher still if he'd added tens of millions of dollars in talent this winter. That burden lies with Dombrowski, whose payroll is $138 million.

"When you lose, you're never comfortable," Dombrowski said. "But you have to deal with the situation day in and day out. If you think you're going to go through a season without struggling, then you're living in a dream world. The division, that's been fortunate for us, because we haven't fallen way out of it. By all means, there's a lot of baseball to be played."

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