The Tigers came into this thing as favorites. Whether the division or the season, the losers of 2011's American League Championship Series weren’t satisfied with a one-season run. They’re supposed to win, with the AL Central representing the very least of their goals.
After laying out for Prince Fielder as the surprise late entry for baseball’s other big free-agent first baseman of the winter, general manager Dave Dombrowski had literally doubled down on paying top dollar to top sluggers. Pairing Prince with Miguel Cabrera, on a team that has Justin Verlander going every fifth day? Heading into Opening Day, that sounded like just about the best set of headliners on any single team this side of fantasy baseball. Or maybe the Bronx.
Except then the regular season happened, and the Tigers didn’t run away with anything. When they fell to 28-33 with a loss to the Cubs on June 12, six games behind the White Sox and 4.5 behind the Indians, you could wonder whether March’s team of destiny was destined for third place in a division in which not even Bud Selig’s latest expanded postseason formula could turn that into something meaningful.
The real-world season’s long march showed that the problem with what you might glibly dismiss as a stars-and-scrubs approach to roster construction is that you can’t really get away with scrubs, not even in the AL Central. The second-rank players have to step up as well, and the Tigers have a supporting cast that was expected to do more than it has so far. In the lineup and in the rotation, the players pegged to support the stars have come up short.
Which is part of what has to make Saturday’s 7-1 victory over the White Sox so satisfying for folks in Detroit, because it wasn’t the famous guys who put the Tigers back on top; it was the supporting cast. It wasn’t Verlander winning the big game; it was Rick Porcello. Jose Valverde didn’t close things out, Joaquin Benoit did. It wasn’t Cabrera air-mailing the decisive three-run blow into the cheap seats; it was Brennan Boesch. It wasn’t Fielder plating four runs from the cleanup slot; it was Austin Jackson doing it from leadoff, cashing in because Gerald Laird and Danny Worth got on base six times between them.
Those are the things the Tigers will need to not just get back on top, but stay there. Getting good work out of Porcello is a particular key. Since his arrival as a hugely hyped rookie in 2009, his blue-chip status has faded about as well as a 4-year-old pair of jeans. With his talent and his stuff, he’s supposed to get better, and as he adds polish to his slider and change, his ability to neutralize lefties has improved with age. Stats such as FIP say he has pitched better than his ERA by a half-run or more in each of the past three seasons, a prediction of future performance that can’t come soon enough where the Tigers are concerned.
This year’s separation between Porcello’s performance and Porcello as you wish he was has been especially broad, with a 4.66 ERA and 3.81 FIP going into Saturday’s start against the Sox. That happy expectation owes much to the notion that Porcello’s batting average on balls in play is going to regress to something more reasonable than this year’s appalling .358, and in broad strokes, it should ... if Porcello wasn’t pitching in front of one of the worst defenses in baseball, with a .691 defensive efficiency that ranks next to last in the league. At the relatively tender age of 23, Porcello is having to pitch with the daily lesson that life isn’t exactly fair, that the runs Fielder or Cabrera or Delmon Young might put on the board are ones they might readily give back as soon as they take the field.
Outscoring that defense and making life easier for Porcello or Doug Fister or all the other non-Verlanders on the mound is where the Tigers will need better second halves from Boesch and Young and Alex Avila at the plate. Boesch and Young are both nearly 100 points away from an average OPS for a corner outfielder or designated hitter. It won’t take that much to make a big difference in filling out the Tigers’ lineup. Avila doesn’t have to slug .506 (as he did in 2011) to become the third wheel that helps propel this lineup back toward the top. And those analysts who were quick to try to write off Jackson’s rookie-season BABIP (.396) in 2010 as an improbable fluke are seeing him do it again his third time 'round the circuit (.398), with better walk and strikeout numbers.
Put all of that together, and it isn’t hard to see how Saturday’s victory over Chicago could be the start of something special in the second half. The Tigers don’t need their supporting cast to step into the limelight, but if those players start delivering more than they have, Jim Leyland’s club might beat a "stars and scrubs" label on its way back to October.