With the season nearly half over, the Detroit Tigers have stumbled to first place in the AL Central. And yes, I said "stumbled." As you might recall, the Tigers were the ESPN Forecast preseason prediction to be the American League representative in the World Series. Yet so far they have the second-best record and worst run differential of the three AL division leaders.
As bland as leading a division by 4.5 games can be (which can make all the difference in sudden-death wild-card formats), the 2014 Tigers could have been even worse. I wouldn’t call it karma, but trading Prince Fielder seemed fortunate, especially after he stuck his neck out with some rather nonchalant comments about last year’s playoffs but before he had the season-ending neck injury. Throw in slow starts from Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera, a false start from Joe Nathan, and no start at all from their original starting shortstop, Jose Iglesias, and even the Cleveland Indians (briefly) looked competitive.
That phase has passed. After Saturday's come-from-behind victory over the Houston Astros, the Tigers are 8-2 in their past 10 games while other teams in the AL Central have wilted. Cabrera, their reigning Triple Crown winner, has a .994 OPS over the past week. To complement Cabrera, Victor Martinez hasn't exactly been roster filler either, nesting himself among the league leaders in hitters. And the guy they acquired for Fielder? Ian Kinsler's got a higher WAR than Martinez and Cabrera. While you might be dazzled by the offense, don't forget that the Tigers have two Cy Young award winners, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, on their staff which can make all the difference in a short series playoff format. Furthermore, they have remaining upside on both sides of the ball if Jackson returns to form and Nathan returns to relevance.
But what if Jackson falters or Nathan remains, um, not good? What separates the Tigers from the other AL division leaders and wild-card wannabes is that they have much more flexibility to make moves at the trade deadline, getting the players needed to win in 2014. It is no secret that Mike Ilitch, the elder Tigers’ owner, badly wants to win a World Series. Ilitch has thrown, wisely, his support (and let’s not forget the money) to a front office headed by GM Dave Dombrowski, who has provided Detroit with one of baseball's rarities, a team that perpetually wins.
We’ve seen evidence of Dombrowski's handiwork beyond the Fielder trade. Before the season, he signed J.D. Martinez to a minor league contract and called him up near the end of April to avert an offensive outfield offense. While Martinez has been used sparingly and is highly unlikely to continue to post an elite OPS of .957, he’s bought time for the rest of the offense to find its wheels. Meanwhile, though Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Castellanos has been serviceable at third base, Dombrowski’s early promotion of Eugenio Suarez to plug the shortstop hole is paying off offensively, if not defensively, so far.
Furthermore, there’s little that blocks Dombrowski from making a future move. Though the Tigers' farm system isn’t the richest in the world, there is still some talent that can be used to snatch players from “rebuilding” teams. Meanwhile, they can still take on more money despite having a payroll in excess of $161M. Comparatively, the Blue Jays and A’s are both near their limit payroll-wise. Sure, they can acquire players for prospects (which would be a break for the norm for both of them), but the Tigers can swim in both ends of the pool.
If Hunter continues to look better smiling than he does hitting, he can ride the bench and be sent on his merry way while a star player (and their ensuing salary) is brought on. Ilitch has the finances to absorb a Nathan demoted to middle reliever status if it means bringing on a still-working closer. If Castellanos (or some other Tiger) goes into a horrible slump, the Tigers can make a move. Those are worst case scenarios from a front office that wants to win. If Castellanos achieves his upside, pure gravy cometh.
The AL East and AL West are still tight races, meaning that even the Oakland A's, with their lofty run differential, could get bumped out early in either a wild-card game or short series. We also know that there are teams "in the hunt" such as the Los Angeles Angels or (gasp) the New York Yankees that will spend. While the Tigers, at present, have neither the best record nor the best run differential, they have an outstanding group of core talent, they are in the best position to win their division and have the kind of roster that can go far in the playoffs. Furthermore, they have a front office empowered to make moves that their rivals just can't or won't make.
Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies.