If you blend all three parts of the Tigers’ season together, their 53-38 record is good for a .582 winning percentage and baseball’s third best record. They have a six and a half game lead on the Royals, seven and a half on the Indians, and 10.5 on the Twins and White Sox. It’s probably only going to take 87 or 88 wins to claim the division and they only need to go 37-34 to make it to 90.
FanGraphs gives the Tigers a 94.6 percent chance of reaching the Division Series based on their record to date and rest of season projection. It can be hard to internalize what that means, but if the 2014 season was played from here to Game 162 one hundred times, the Tigers would only miss the playoffs five times. Essentially, it would take an epic collapse to keep them from October.
But getting to October and succeeding there are two different things. The Tigers have made three consecutive trips to the ALCS or World Series and have ended each season feeling like they were almost there. In 2011, they lost a couple of close games and couldn’t rally back. In 2012, they marched in as heavy favorites and got whalloped. In 2013, they were just a couple of bad pitches away.
Their ability to field a competitive team is unquestioned, but their ability to win it all remains unclear. Most will agree that the amount of randomness involved in baseball’s postseason makes it a crapshoot. That’s basically true, but having the best possible roster and a talent advantage over your opponent helps tip the scales of chaos in your favor.
Importantly, I think the Tigers three biggest weaknesses are three crucial components of a successful postseason club. We know the Tigers have good starting pitching and one of the best overall offenses in baseball, but they lack quality defenders, a deep bench, and a lights out bullpen. They should address all three to be ready for October.
The Tigers need to upgrade in the outfield. Between Austin Jackson, J.D. Martinez, Torii Hunter, Rajai Davis, and Andy Dirks (we hope) the Tigers have a capable enough group of hitters, but a somewhat uncertain defensive group. Jackson is streaky. Martinez is improved, but likely due to come back to Earth. Hunter can hit, but he is a massive liability on defense. Davis is a terrific bench player. Dirks could be great, but we have no idea if he’ll be himself after missing time with a serious back injury.
There are probably two real starters in that group and a collection of pieces that serve some purpose, but work better as depth options. If the Tigers upgrade on one of the corners, then shifting everyone else down a step solves their outfield defense problem and their depth problem. Instead of bringing Rajai Davis or Don Kelly off the bench to pinch hit, you might call on Torii Hunter or Andy Dirks. Davis becomes your pinch runner.
The best option is Ben Zobrist from Tampa Bay. Not only would Zobrist be a nice upgrade in an outfield corner, but he’s also more than capable at shortstop if the league adjusts to Suarez and provides nice insurance if Ian Kinlser happens to get hurt. He’s having a fine season with the bat and has shown himself to be capable of more and is a versatile and productive defender. He’s a switch hitter with a great approach and could fit into the Tigers plans this year and next on a very affordable deal.
The only problem with Zobrist is that he has so many virtues, making him a hot commodity on a team still not quite sure they want to sell. He’d be a hot target for Oakland, St. Louis, and Seattle at the very least and the Tigers might not be able to meet those offers.
The fallback plan could be a more modest rental like Alex Rios, although his defensive skills and baserunning value do appear to be fading a bit this year, making this move less useful to the team. It might also be interesting to kick the tires on Gerardo Parra, who is having a bad season, but is capable of slotting into the back of the lineup while playing great defense. For the right price, either would be worth considering, although Zobrist is the perfect player at the perfect moment.
The bullpen is also an area of intense need. If you’ve watched the last few postseasons, you’ve likely noticed that teams rely heavily on their pens in October to avoid letting the starter face a lineup for the third time and because using four pitchers for a short sprint is often more effective than using one or two pitchers for longer stretches. As such, the Tigers need to upgrade their attack, but they can't just rely on their traditional approach to upgrading the unit.
If you assume the Tigers need seven relievers in the bullpen for October, that leaves them potentially needing to find at least two arms before they get there. Drew Smyly is obviously going to the bullpen unless one of the other starters gets injured and Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan will be there as well, if healthy, no matter how any of us feel about that. The organization seems to value Ian Krol, and Al Alburquerque has been a mainstay. That leaves two spots for Phil Coke and the collection of players who have cycled through to populate. Blaine Hardy probably has the inside track, but things can change quickly.
Smyly, Chamberlain, and Nathan are locks and two of the in-house guys will probably make it based on who is throwing well. That leaves the Tigers looking for two more quality arms, from somewhere. Given a potentially tight market though, the Tigers need to look internally as well as externally for assistance.
For starters, Joaquin Benoit coming back to Detroit makes too much sense given that the team should have re-signed him instead of Nathan last winter. The Tigers could also target Joakim Soria, pray that Joel Hanrahan gets up and running, or make a run at Steve Cishek, Koji Uehera, or Jonathan Papelbon. More than anything, the Tigers need to grab every bullpen piece they can without trading away their most prized assets.
In October, against Oakland or Los Angeles, hoping your starter gives you eight innings isn’t a realistic strategy. You need to be ready to go to the pen in the fifth inning and the Tigers aren’t equipped to do that very well.
I’m also a fan of what the Cardinals have done over the years, which is to call on their top starting pitching prospects to handle relief duty in September and October. Not only should the Tigers be testing their minor league relievers, they should also see if someone like Robbie Ray, Drew VerHagen, or Kyle Lobstein can lend a hand in the big league bullpen. By reaching down to the farm, the Tigers can complement whatever moves they make at the big league level to ensure a strong seven man group to close games out in October.
The Tigers have the framework of a championship club, but their poor bullpen and lack of depth and defense has cost them in recent seasons. This isn’t the year to go out and grab a Doug Fister or Anibal Sanchez, it’s the year to find pieces to plug the leaks and bolster groups. Ben Zobrist, a top of the line big league reliever, and a bold promotion strategy from within might just do the trick.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44