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June 7, 2012

What You Need to Know

Thursday, June 7

by Daniel Rathman

The Wednesday Takeaway
Two months ago, when the offseason was winding down and every team’s slate was still clean, the Detroit Tigers were the trendy pick to win the AL Central. Indeed, if you went by ESPN’s predictions—made by a diverse group of 50 analysts and pundits, ranging from former managers and players to insiders like Buster Olney to our own Kevin Goldstein, from all corners of the country—the Tigers were the only choice. Each and every one of the 50 picked Jim Leyland’s team to sit atop the division standings come October 3.

But after last night’s 9-6 loss, the Tigers are 25-31, six games back, and trailing both the White Sox and the Indians, who are separated by half a game and tied in the loss column. Presented with a chance to gain ground on Cleveland in a three-game series at Comerica Park, Detroit has dropped the first two and will rely on rookie Casey Crosby to play stopper in his second major-league start this afternoon (1:05 p.m. ET).

Now that the calendar has turned to June, it is difficult to pin the Tigers’ poor record on bad luck. Detroit’s run differential is -19, which portends a 26-30 mark through 56 games, just one game off its actual ledger. And considering that the Tigers’ opponents to date have a combined .500 winning percentage, a challenging early schedule is not the culprit either.

Rany Jazayerli spotlighted general manager Dave Dombrowski’s three-star strategy in a feature for Grantland about a month ago, concluding that although it left his team’s regular-season fate to chance, the Tigers would be a legitimate threat to any post-season opponent if they were still alive in October. Well, the three stars (Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder) are playing like stars, but the rest of the roster, a lack of on-field cohesion, and injuries to Victor Martinez, Austin Jackson, and Doug Fister have dragged the team down.

When the Tigers were all but handed the division in March, all of us knew about their flaws. Yet, perhaps still enthralled by their out-of-nowhere surge to win the Fielder sweepstakes, we—yours truly included—looked past them. Now those flaws have come to the fore, as Detroit is dead last in the American League in defensive efficiency and ninth in runs scored.

A healthy Martinez, Jackson, and Fister would and still may help, but these Tigers are not who we thought they were two months ago. They now have only a one-in-four shot of reaching the postseason. And that may be proof that, unlike in the NBA—where the Miami Heat had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and are just two wins away from the Finals—in major-league baseball, three stars are not enough.

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Pitchers who depend on fly-ball contact typically dread starts at Citizens Bank Park, and Aaron Harang—who has allowed 12 home runs in 66 1/3 innings there—is no exception. The big righty will try to keep the ball in the yard as the Dodgers go for a four-game sweep this afternoon (1:05 p.m. ET) and, oddly enough, his biggest challenge might be little Mike Fontenot, who is only in the lineup because second baseman Freddy Galvis is the latest Phillies player to land on the disabled list. Fontenot is 7-for-25 in his past encounters with Harang, but those seven hits include three of his 26 career home runs.
  • Speaking of sweeps, the Yankees, who are now just a half-game behind the Orioles, will be looking to broom the Rays out of the Bronx in a game that features the best pitching matchup of the night (7:05 p.m. ET). It’s David Price against CC Sabathia with a chance to sit atop the AL East standings on the line. That’s about as good as it gets in early June.
  • And back to the subject of little second basemen, the Astros’ Jose Altuve is hotter than a Houston summer. Including a 2-for-5 effort last night, Altuve has now collected six multi-hit games in his last 10, batting .404 during that stretch to raise his average for the season to .329. Among his fellow keystoners, Altuve is second only to Dan Uggla with a .369 on-base percentage—a remarkable feat considering that he has drawn just one walk since May 20. He’ll do battle with Lance Lynn in tonight’s rubber match (8:05 p.m. ET) against the Cardinals at Minute Maid Park. 

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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