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Raine's Wrong: Part 1
by Raine Daniels (MLB)
Posted on May 13, 2006, 1:43 PM

I have come to the realization that maybe – just maybe – I was wrong.

Not about the White Sox, Boston, or Prince Fielder, of course. I’m much too stubborn to concede defeat on those subjects until Game 162. Even then, you can’t rely on me showing up to my humbling party.

However, I (along with James, because you need to be wrong with someone else) might’ve judged the Detroit Tigers a little too soon. Am I now handing them the Central Division Title or even a playoff berth?? No. A .500 season?? Possibly. Surprise team of the American League?? More than likely.

I knew I had them ranked far too low in that ‘Power Rankings’ column at the beginning of the season. If I was granted a do-over and allowed to change it, I might’ve moved them up from 28th to 25th. Not much of a difference, but respectful enough to admit they could be better than Florida, Washington, and Cincinnati. Looking back, perfectly aware that hindsight is 20/20, I should’ve had them higher.

Understand my case, though: their power hitter’s were either addicted to injuries (Magglio Ordonez), allergic to walks (Pudge Rodriguez), or ridiculously overrated (Dmitri Young). Their starting pitching included the fantastically short-tempered Kenny Rogers, the first 20-game loser in roughly thirty years (Mike Maroth), and an assortment of high-ceiling, under-25 arms that haven’t proven squat at the major league level.

(May I also note their closer all-but-retired, leaving them with a new closer that – before last year - hadn’t saved 15 games in a season since, well, he was a Tiger??)

You can see the bind I was in. You couldn’t rely on anybody or anything on that team aside from Placido Polanco hitting .300 and Jim Leyland walking out two months into the season. Honestly, did you know who Chris Shelton was in March??

Even up until three weeks ago, I was willing to write them off as the benefactor’s of an easy schedule (like I’m currently doing with Boston). Sure they were 6-4, and had begun the season 5-0, but look who they faced: the Royals and Rangers. Their first test against a real team (the Chicago White Sox) ended up with them getting swept at home. It was hard to take Leyland’s squad seriously.

Then came a split of a four-game series with Cleveland, which included beating both Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee. After that, they took two-of-three from Oakland on the road. They capped a sweep of Seattle at Safeco before losing two-of-three in Anaheim, but still went 6-3 on that West Coast swing. All the while Chris Shelton is still crushing pitches at an alarming rate (although slowing down now); Mike Maroth has an ERA under 2.60 and – if you subtract two poor starts – has allowed only two earned runs in 24.1 innings; and Todd Jones has all but lost his closing job.

I turned around and suddenly this team is 22-13 and riding an adrenaline high. That sweep against the White Sox should’ve crippled their young season and sent them into a free-fall with Cleveland coming in followed by a West Coast road swing. Looking far too much into this, that was one of those occurrences in a season that crush a perennially sub-.500 team and keep them in the 70-win range.

What’s even more astounding about their winning ways is that they’re doing it with a third of their offense playing like they just cashed their checks and called it a day. Pudge Rodriguez still hasn’t found a pitch he doesn’t like (although his six walks should satisfy him until July), Ordonez has come around but his .OBP is still well below his career average; and in a poor act of judgement, Craig Munroe has decided to hit with his bat upside down. Even Chris Shelton (with his sparkling batting average, slugging percentage, homerun and RBI totals) is striking out every third at-bat. Half their offense is performing, the other half is considering to begin playing mid-way through June.

Oddly enough, their pitching staff has been holding this club together. None of their starter’s have an ERA over 4.40 (their club ERA of 3.42 actually leads baseball). Kenny Rogers has picked up six wins in only eight games started, while Jeremy Bonderman has regained his control with a 4:1 K/BB ratio. They’ve also discovered a gem for a closer with Fernando Rodney, who up until this season was a barely-proven bullpen arm. Now?? His ERA is a buck-and-change, owns an even lower WHIP, and is striking out nearly a batter per inning.

That’s not the say the rest of the staff isn’t performing. Aside from Rodney, Leyland can toss out three other bullpen arms’ that have ERA’s under 3.00. Justin Verlander is starting to understand how to pitch in the major leagues, although his control is still lacking. Nate Robertson is also enjoying his ‘Jon Garland Season,’ although a few years too late.

Their pitching staff has allowed them to survive in the revamped AL Central, no longer the joke of baseball. With their offense being very middle-of-the-road, which has to be expected with the quality of pitching they’ve seen and inside their football stadium of a ballpark, they’re only need to provide around four runs a game on most days (and they give three of their pitcher’s over 5.00 on average).

As of this second, the Tigers sit at second place in the Central, with the second-best record in the AL. Most likely they won’t hit first, with the White Sox rounding into form as well as they are (and with the umpires handing them victories), while the Indians won’t be under .500 very much longer. The good news for Detroit is that they’re in a stretch right now where they play Cleveland seven times in just over two weeks, with only Minnesota, KC, and Cincinnati to worry about between those dates (alright, be a little worried about the Reds). The next three weeks could conceivably push them to anywhere between 17 and 19 games over the .500 mark and create a wider cushion between Cleveland with a much tougher June on the horizon.

The stars have lined up right for Detroit in the early season, but June, July, and August see them play a total of 13 series against teams that could very well be leading their respective divisions at that time, including 13 games against the team leading their own division, the White Sox. Their pitching has the talent to remain as effective, but the durability issue arises, seeing as how Kenny Rogers is 41 and both Verlander and Bonderman aren’t 25. If they can hold it together, there’s no question that the Tigers can win in the vicinity of 90 games. They just have to solve the problem they’ve had beating the White Sox so far this season.

Who I’m not willing to admit I’m wrong about yet.

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