09/14/12 3:19 PM ET
Tigers have not lived up to lofty expectations
By Terence Moore / MLB.com
They don't, you say? And they aren't?
Well, then the Tigers should have a huge lead in the American League Central, where those other four teams in the division have significantly less talent than the club with Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander -- you know, just for starters.
What's that? Not only don't the Tigers have a huge lead in the AL Central, they aren't even leading the division?
No problem. If nothing else, Detroit should be cruising in the race for the first of the AL's two Wild Card spots.
I'm checking. I'm still checking.
None of those things is happening for the Tigers when it comes to their status with baseball overall, their division or that first Wild Card spot. But surely they have a significant advantage regarding that second Wild Card spot.
Looks like they don't. Looks like they aren't even close to capturing any of those Wild Card spots anytime soon.
Looks like they're just paper Tigers.
This doesn't make sense, and it's not just me saying as much. Just listen to Jim Leyland, Detroit's manager, a possible future Hall of Famer, who told USA Today this week: "This has been a bit of a mystery team. We haven't lived up to expectations. You can't run from it. You admit it."
It's this bad for the Tigers: The last time they were alone atop the AL Central was July 22. Detroit's biggest lead was 2 1/2 games, and that was on April 18. The Tigers have also been as many as six games under .500, and they are an underwhelming 75-67.
As a result, unless Detroit discovers ways down the stretch to rise to the top of its division over a Chicago White Sox team that was expected to struggle this season, the Tigers won't reach the postseason. That's because either the Oakland A's, Baltimore Orioles or New York Yankees will earn the AL's first Wild Card spot.
More than likely, one of the two losers out of that battle for the first Wild Card will get the other Wild Card spot.
Worse for the Tigers, they also trail the Angels and Rays for that second AL Wild Card spot. So the Tigers probably won't become a playoff team without erasing their one-game deficit to the White Sox and holding on the rest of the way to win the division.
What's up with this?
On paper, Detroit has the hitting. Cabrera and Fielder are two of the most prolific sluggers in baseball, and they are back-to-back in the lineup as the franchise's new Al Kaline and Norm Cash.
Just consider these numbers: Cabrera is an AL MVP Award candidate, with a .328 batting average, 36 home runs and 118 RBIs. All Fielder has done is hit .305 with 26 home runs and 98 RBIs, and his on-base percentage (now at .403) has ranked consistently among baseball's elite -- with Cabrera (.393) and Tigers leadoff hitter Austin Jackson (.391).
Speaking of Jackson, his batting average is .309, and he leads the league in triples, with 10.
No wonder Detroit is fourth in the league with a .268 batting average.
It's just that all of that sounds good -- on paper. The operative word for the Tigers' offense is inconsistent, especially when it comes to hitters not named Cabrera, Fielder and Jackson.
Then there are the Tigers' issues in the clutch. They rank an uninspiring eighth in the AL in runs scored, but this is more telling: They are the only team in the Major Leagues without a grand slam. In fact, the Houston Astros are baseball's only team with a worse batting average than Detroit (.204) with the bases loaded.
The Tigers can pitch, though, and they can do so with few flaws.
For one, Detroit's bullpen is deep, with closer Jose Valverde sitting among the league leaders with 30 saves. His 105 since 2010 are more than anybody in the league.
Mostly, there is the Tigers' dynamic duo of starters Max Scherzer (16-6, 3.77 ERA) and Verlander (12-8, 2.91 ERA). They are first and second in the Major Leagues in strikeouts, and they lead a Detroit staff that is second only to the Rays in the AL in that category.
I mention strikeouts because teams that generally prosper in the playoffs are those with pitchers who have the ability to blow hitters away, more often than not with fastballs. The thing is, if you're the Tigers, you can't do anything along those lines in the playoffs unless you get there first.
Added Leyland to USA Today: "If we're fortunate to win this division and make the playoffs and do something, it'll be, 'Well, they lived up to expectations.' But to this date we haven't."
Thus the Tigers' problem -- a big one.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.