Jim Leyland is a realist. Eleven years of managing in the minor leagues and another 16 as a skipper in the major leagues does that to a guy. Thus, the Tigers manager doesn’t need to look at the playoff odds report to understand that his team’s chances of repeating as American League champions are only slighter better than O.J. Simpson’s are of winning the Good Samaritan of the Year award. “We’re a long shot, a real long shot,” Leyland said. “That’s just the way it is. If we don’t make the playoffs, it’s not going to be the end of the world. I know that, and the guys on this team know that, just like we know it’s not going to be the end of the world if we do make the playoffs.”
It might not be the end of the world, but a comeback of the proportion the Tigers will need to pull off in the final 12 days of the season would be enough to make more than a few hearts skip a beat. After losing the first two games of a three-game series at Cleveland that ends this afternoon, the Tigers are now 6 ½ games behind the Indians in the AL Central, and 4 ½ games behind the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card race.”What it comes down to is that Boston and the Yankees and the Angels and Cleveland have all played better than us this season,” Leyland said. “We haven’t had a bad season by any means but there are four teams in the American League who have played better. There is no shame in that. They are all very good teams. We’ll play the rest of the games and see what happens.”
The Tigers will almost certainly be home in October a year after making an improbable run to the World Series, where they were knocked off by the even more improbable Cardinals. Nevertheless, the Tigers were perhaps the biggest story of the 2006 season, winning the AL pennant after a dozen consecutive losing seasons. However, last year was bit of a magic carpet ride. Leyland had returned to managing after six years as a scout with the Cardinals. They also had the good fortune of avoiding the types of major injuries that derail many playoff expresses.
This year, though, it became apparent before the season ever started that things weren’t going to go that smoothly for the Tigers again. In the final days of spring training, left-hander Kenny Rogers, ace of their starting rotation, had a blood clot in his pitching shoulder that had to be surgically removed. “We’ve lost some key guys to injuries this season and it’s had an effect,” Leyland said. “That’s not making an excuse, that’s just a fact. However, every team in baseball has injury problems at one time or another. We’re not the only team to have injury problems.”
While Rogers returned from the injury, he has logged only 51 innings this season. Hard-throwing reliever Joel Zumaya, a rookie sensation last year with a 100-mph fastball, ruptured a tendon in the middle finger of his right hand in early May. He has been limited to 31 innings this season and was forced to dial down his fastball a few ticks after having surgery. Fernando Rodney battled shoulder problems most of the season, and two other members of the starting rotation–left-hander Nate Robertson and right-hander Jeremy Bonderman–also spent time on the DL.
Injuries weren’t limited to the pitching staff. Designated hitter and sometime outfielder Gary Sheffield, acquired from the New York Yankees in trade, injured his right shoulder in a collision with second baseman Placido Polanco in late July, and was never the same. Sheffield eventually went on the DL and completely lost his power stroke.
But it’s especially the injuries to the pitching staff that the Tigers haven’t been able to overcome. They are ninth in the AL in runs allowed this season, giving up 5.01 a game, after leading the league with a 4.17 mark a year ago.
The only one of the Tigers’ top four sarting pitchers who has come close to duplicating his 2006 success is Justin Verlander. He has a 5.4 SNLVAR this year after posting a 6.1 mark last season as a rookie. Verlander is also the only one of the front four starters to stay off the DL this season. However, Verlander was hammered on Tuesday night by Cleveland, a loss that all but ended the Tigers’ postseason aspirations, as he gave up seven runs in 5 2/3 innings.
Thanks to injury, Zumaya’s WXRL is 0.874 this season, down from last season’s 5.010 that led the Tigers and ranked seventh in the AL. Meanwhile, the only two Tigers with a WRXL over 1.000 this year are closer Todd Jones (2.853) and left-hander Bobby Seay (2.081).
While Sheffield has only added roughly three wins with his bat to the Tigers’ total with a 33.5 VORP this season, the offense is still better than it was a year ago. The Tigers rank second in the AL with 5.50 runs a game this season, and third with a team Equivalent Average of .270 after their 5.07 and .257 marks from last season were good for fifth and 10th, respectively.
Powering that improvement has been right fielder Magglio Ordonez, enjoying the finest season of his career with a VORP of 80.5. In most years, he would have an outstanding shot to be the AL Most Valuable Player, but doesn’t figure to outpoll Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Center fielder Curtis Granderson has had a breakout season, as his 60.5 VORP ranks seventh in the league. Both halves of the club’s double play combination, shortstop Carlos Guillen (41.6, 17th) and Polanco (47.6, 11th), also rank in the top 20.
The only downside with the Tigers’ increased offensive production is that only one of their regulars is under 30, the 26-year-old Granderson. The Tigers are again expected to try to trade for Pittsburgh shortstop Jack Wilson in the offseason after failing to make a deal at the July 31 non-waiver deadline; current shortstop Guillen’s chronically bad knees will likely necessitate a move to first base in 2008.
While Rogers is 42 and Jones is 39, the Tigers pitching staff still has upside. Verlander and Bonderman are 24, Zumaya is 22, and a number of pitchers 26 or younger have seen action for the Tigers this season, including left-handers Andrew Miller, Macay McBride, and Clay Rapada and right-handers Jair Jurrjens, Zach Miner, Yorman Bazardo, Virgil Vazquez, Jordan Tata, Jose Capellan, and Eulogio de la Cruz.
“People talk about momentum and how if you win a dramatic game in extra innings that it will carry you for a week, but momentum is only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher,” Leyland said. “You have to have pitching to win a pennant. We showed that last year. It’s also why I feel we have a chance to be competitive for a number of years.” Even if the Tigers’ days of contending this year have all but expired during a season in which they have never held more than a two-game lead in the AL Central.
“It hasn’t been the easiest of years for us and there were a couple points in the season when I think just about everybody outside of our clubhouse wrote us off,” Leyland said. “I’m proud of this team, though. Our guys have never given up on themselves and always kept fighting. In a lot of respects, I’m even prouder of this year’s team than last year’s. It’s easy to play hard when things are going well but our guys never quit battling all year, even though it looks like it might not be enough to get us into the playoffs.”