When I was in Lakeland, Florida, covering the Detroit Tigers in spring training this year, I heard something from a very respected baseball person that I partly dismissed as wishful thinking.
This person told me he thought the Tigers might have a chance to challenge for the American League Central Division title because the division wasn’t very good.
I nodded and said something like, “That’s an interesting thought.” But I was skeptical. The opinion was based somewhat on having high hopes for new team president Scott Harris, his regime and all their fancy do-dads and what’s-its that are supposed to help the Tigers “dominate” the strike zone on both sides of the ball.
Harris’ plan sounded like a solid one when I heard it at his first news conference in September. But, as Mike Tyson used to say, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
But a couple of months later, here we are. The Tigers are getting punched in the kisser, but they’re also punching right back.
The very respected baseball person has proved right almost a third of the way through the season. Entering Monday, the Tigers were 20-24, just 3½ games behind the division-leading Minnesota Twins — and six games out of the wild-card spot.
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Division-leading should come with an asterisk, in bold face and probably with a poop emoji. Because the AL Central is by far the worst division in Major League Baseball. Before Monday, the AL Central’s five teams boasted a combined .421 winning percentage, 37 games below .500.
Next worst? Even with the putrid 10-38 Oakland A’s, the AL West couldn’t approach the AL Central’s stench. The next-worst division is actually the NL Central, “winning” at a .470 clip, 14 games below .500.
I hate doing math, but I love my Free Press readers so much that I whipped out my Casio calculator watch in order to tell you the awful NL Central is still 23 games closer to .500 than the abysmal AL Central.
Even though it’s hard to quantify what a “good” team really is, I can tell you with confidence the Tigers sure ain’t one of them. But they don’t need to be. They just need to show improvement, keep stealing a series here and there, and be just one game better than the best team in baseball’s worst division in order to lock up a playoff spot.
Yeah, I know. Putting “Tigers” and “playoffs” in the same sentence is like putting “Mario” and “Rod” in the same sentence — with one chair.
But as wild and improbable as it is to think it might happen, it truly isn’t out of the question to imagine the Tigers either winning the division or making it a race late in the season.
All that has to happen is the Tigers have to keep getting strong performances from Javier Baez, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson in the middle of the order, plus continued strong starting pitching from Eduardo Rodriguez and Michael Lorenzen, and decent outings from Alex Lange and his bullpen pals.
Oh, and of course the Tigers need help from the Twins, who are doing a good job of letting the division stay close, thanks to Carlos Correa’s nose dive toward the Mendoza line and their terrible bullpen. As Yogi Berra used to say, if you ain’t got a bullpen, you ain’t got nothin’.
So what can go wrong for the Tigers?
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Honestly, a lot, starting with the trade deadline on Aug. 1. It would be surprising, and perhaps shocking, if Harris didn’t look to the future and move several assets. I imagine the Tigers would almost have to be leading the division for Harris to hold off on shipping out players.
But even if Harris held firm, the Tigers face a more difficult finish in September, when they play three-game sets on the road against the Yankees and the Dodgers. The Twins, meanwhile, host the Rays for three games, but load up with three-game home sets against the Angels and A’s toward the end of the month.
There’s also a teeter-totter vibe to the Tigers. They’re solid and win for a couple of weeks, then they can’t win a series for nearly a fortnight. If you’ve watched the games, I don’t have to tell you this. The Tigers are good enough to get your hopes up, but bad enough to dash your dreams.
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If you prefer to dismiss all of this as delusional thinking from a sportswriter who needs something else to write about than the Lions’ offseason, feel free. After all, the smarty-pants who work at metrics sites and traffic in predicting the future definitely don’t believe in the Tigers.
FanGraphs gives the Tigers a 2.9% of making the playoffs, a 2.7% of winning the division and predicts a final win total of 71.8 victories, fourth in the division behind the 85.3-win Twins.
Over at Fivethirtyeight.com, the Tigers are also projected to finish fourth in the AL Central, with 71 wins, far behind the 88-win Twins. But at least 538 gives the Tigers a 5% of making the playoffs and 4% of winning the division.
If the Tigers win both of their series this week at Kansas City and against the visiting White Sox, you can bet those predictions will change. It would still make a playoff spot improbable, but if you had heard what I heard in the spring and a wise, old voice had told you the Tigers’ would be in second place in the division by late May, you probably wouldn’t have believed that, either.
Contact Carlos Monarrez: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.