Trouble in Motown: Tigers no sure thing

April, 29, 2012
4/29/12
8:40
PM ET

Sometimes the analysis is pretty easy.

The Detroit Tigers' lineup on Sunday featured 31-year-old minor league veteran Brad Eldred, who last played regularly in the majors in 2005, hitting fifth. He was followed by Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago, Gerald Laird and Danny Worth. You're not going to beat CC Sabathia with that group.

In recent days, Tigers relievers have included Luke Putkonen, Collin Balester, Brayan Villarreal and Thad Weber. Who? Villarreal was the losing pitcher on Friday night versus the New York Yankees.

On Sunday, Max Scherzer walked seven batters in a 6-2 loss to the Yankees. Earlier in the week he got hit around by the Mariners. His ERA is 7.77 and he has yet to pitch more than six innings in any of his five starts.

In 2011, Rick Porcello ranked 84th among 93 qualified pitchers in ERA. Still, many projected a breakout season. Good stuff, they say, good hard sinker. So far, it has been the same Porcello: A lot of hits allowed and not many strikeouts. Two starts ago against the Texas Rangers, he got three outs and gave up 10 hits and nine runs. Against the Seattle Mariners, he gave up five runs and two home runs. He has a 6.45 ERA.

With Doug Fister on the disabled list, rookie Adam Wilk made three starts, losing all three and allowing 21 hits in 11 innings.

Despite batting in front of Miguel Cabrera, No. 2 hitter Brennan Boesch is hitting .231 and has just two walks with 20 strikeouts.

Prince Fielder is finding the pitching a little tougher in the American League. After homering twice against the Boston Red Sox in the second game of the season, he didn't homer again until Sunday.

Left fielder/designated hitter Delmon Young was placed on the restricted list after getting arrested on Friday for allegedly attacking a man in front of a Manhattan hotel and yelling anti-Semitic remarks.

Closer Jose Valverde and setup man Joaquin Benoit hardly look like the dominant duo of a year ago, having allowed 23 hits and 16 walks in 19 innings.

Listening to the Tigers' local radio broadcast the other day, the announcers described the team's energy as listless.

And then there's the defense. Entering Sunday, the Tigers ranked 26th in the majors in defensive runs saved, at 13 runs below average. It's not all Cabrera's fault. He's at minus-2, but Jhonny Peralta is minus-4 at shortstop, Fielder minus-3 at first base, Boesch minus-3 in right field and Raburn minus-2 at second base. The totals should not be surprising as none of them have a reputation for being good defensive players.

That 4-0 start seems like a long time ago to Tigers fans. After starting 9-3, the Tigers have gone 2-8, they've been outscored by 10 runs on the season and their flaws have been exposed like a leaky pipe -- drip, drip, drip, a slow understanding that something isn't right. Detroit doesn't appear to be the super team it looked the first week of the season, but rather a team with little depth in the bullpen, a starting rotation that is relying too heavily on Justin Verlander, poor defense, and a lineup that needs Alex Avila and Peralta to start hitting.

Leyland showed some frustration after Sunday's loss, telling MLB.com that a crucial 2-2 pitch to Derek Jeter that he checked his swing on and was called a ball wasn't a bad call, even though catcher Laird said Scherzer hit his target. "That's all excuse stuff," Leyland said. "That Jeter pitch was a close pitch, but when you're that wild, you're not going to get close pitches."

Instead of escaping the inning, Scherzer allowed two more runs and he ended up throwing 119 pitches without getting out of the fifth inning. "Max is a huge key for us. It has to get better, plain and simple," Leyland said.

Is this a bad time to mention that all 50 ESPN.com voters in our preseason predictions file picked the Tigers to win the AL Central? Obviously, that cast the Tigers as overwhelming favorites to win the division. I was one of those 50, although I hesitated, even once saying on the "Baseball Today" podcast that I was going to pick Cleveland to win the division, before changing my mind when I had to submit my vote.

OK, it's just 22 games and the Tigers are only one game out of first place in the AL Central, a division that has been collectively outscored by 63 runs so far. Rookie lefty Drew Smyly has been impressive. That still makes the Tigers the heavy favorite in this field of five.

If you want other good news, according to our RPI standings, the Tigers have also played the fourth-toughest schedule in the majors so far. The next month presents a schedule that could prove much kinder: Kansas City, the White Sox, at Seattle, at Oakland, at the White Sox, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, at Minnesota. Tigers fans will undoubtedly point out that Detroit was 25-26 as late as May 29 a year ago, and tied for first as late as July 20, before finishing with a 38-16 kick over the final two months. That surge coincided with Fister's arrival from Seattle, as he went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA. Fister threw a bullpen session on Thursday and will make his first rehab start on Wednesday in Toledo, as he returns from a strained rib cage muscle.

Still, the Tigers will need more than Fister's return. They need Scherzer and Porcello to pitch better. They need a reliable arm in the bullpen besides Octavio Dotel. They need Fielder to start slugging. They need the defense to help out the pitchers a little more. Young? Ahh, he's not that good anyway.

In the end, I see an imperfect team, certainly not one that will win 100 games or even 95. I see a good team in a weak division, but a team that could easily finish fifth in the AL East. I see a team that is ripe for a surprise pennant race if one of their division rivals puts it together.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

David Schoenfield | email

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