This week I made it out to see the Detroit Tigers playing at Target Field through the raindrops.
When I was around 5th grade, maybe a little before, my mom had a conference in Detroit and came back with a dark navy Tigers hat with a white D on it for me. I wore that hat well through high school and maybe into college, being one of my longest tenured MLB caps. I has always appreciated the classic style of the Tigers uniforms that always convey a sense of tradition. From Cecil Fielder to Prince Fielder the Tigers have always had exciting players (although after Prince left the whole team was exciting hitters with the only triple crown winner of my lifetime, but it's not as poetic of a statement). I liked the lesser known players like Brandon Inge who could play anywhere including catcher, pitcher Justin Thompson whose name borrowed from my older brother's first and middle names, and Tony Clark, a 6 foot 8" mashing 1B who is now the head of the players union.
Prince Fielder's premature retirement this season brought back memories of my initial reaction to the trade that sent him away from Detroit. He was traded to Texas for 2B Ian Kinsler after the 2013 season. At the time, I was shocked the Tigers would send away their big bruiser first baseman especially since he seemed to have a true dynamic duo situation with with Miguel Cabrera who was playing third base during his Detroit stay. After he went to Texas, Prince had one season out of three that wasn't ended by injury, and the one complete year he hit over .300 although his power numbers were a low for him 23. Kinsler, although he was known as a powerful second baseman, was not the MVP level player of Fielder, and he would be replacing Omar Infante at 2B for the TIgers who was in the midst of establishing himself as a solid hit for average and fielding infielder. The move would shift Cabrera over to first and rookie Nick Castellanos would take over at third. It was almost like a trade where the Tigers gave up half of their infield for just a little more pop at second.
As it turns out, Ian Kinsler has been the keystone to this top five offense in the AL, batting lead off with 22 home runs already this season. This season, Kinsler has been the table setter for 4 straight .300 hitters in the lineup, Cameron Maybin, Cabrera, and the Martinez's Victor and J.D.. Castellanos has broken out beyond being just an average hitter this year and Jose Iglesias might be the best fielding SS in the league and a scrappy hitter to boot, although both of them are currently riding the pine on the DL.
The Tigers are just out of the Wild Card right now and the weak spots might just be the injuries in the lineup, a rebuilding rotation, and an odd down season for Justin Upton. Upton has been one of the more dynamic and promising power hitters in the majors for years, but he hasn't broken through to be more than 31 homers in a season, the only time he has gone over 30. There was the thought he would break through in this lineup, the one that has vaulted J.D. Martinez from being a guy who was cut by the lowly Astros to being a Silver Slugger. No such vaulting has affected Upton whose average is at a career low of .233 and his 16 homers are under achieving for him. Oddly, his brother Melvin who has been a bit of a disappointment for most of his career after being a high draft pick, is an exciting player and acted as a team leader before being traded away from the Padres to the Blue Jays.
The Tigers have been known for their top pitching anchored for the last eleven seasons by Justin Verlander. 2014 was a season that appeared like it could have been the start of a downturn for Verlander, but he has bucked that down season by posting 3.38 ERA's this year and last year over 46 starts. Gone this year are Price, Porcello, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Drew Smyly, but they do have ROY front runner Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann who this season joined the 20K game club, and second year lefty Matt Boyd whose ERA is dipping below 4.00, and hot prospect Daniel Norris who is thriving after coming back from voluntary homelessness and involuntary cancer. The problem is that Zimmermann's ERA has ballooned to 4.44 and he has hit the DL and veteran Anibel Sanchez who, after several solid seasons, is in his second season of a downward trend where his is now shooting right past a 5.00 ERA.
The main event, and the reason why the Tigers can be a Wild Card team and win the single game round over anyone is Mr. Triple Crown, American Pharoah... no, Miguel Cabrera. Although... I'm sure Cabrera could have a .300 season with Victor Espinoza sitting on his back, too. He's 33 years old and he already has his most homers since 2013, even though his .311 avg is his lowest since 2008. TWO THOUSAND FREAKIN' EIGHT. With 436 homers, 2478 hits, a career avg of .321, 2 AL MVP's, 6 Silver Sluggers, having moved around to play all four corner infield and outfield positions (and DH), and the first Triple Crown since 1967 Cabrera's plaque space in Cooperstown should be cleared for him even as he might have another ten years left in his bat. It's a good argument that he has well surpassed Albert Pujols for the best power and average hitter of this decade and last.
The Tigers are in striking distance of the away Wild Card Spot and the power in their lineup is dominating enough that they have a shot to out slug any of the Red Sox, Blue Jays, or Orioles that they could face. With the veteran leadership of Verlander and the electricity of the young pitchers Fulmer, Boyd and Norris, the Tigers have enough upside to sneak their way through the playoffs. With the AL playoff contenders that also include the Indians and Rangers who are in the driver seat for their respective divisions and the Royals, Mariners and Astros who would be willing to step in in a pair of teams tank their final stretches, we are in for an exciting October for baseball.