The Detroit Tigers have completed 71 games, or 43.8% of the regular season, and remain in contention for first place in the crowded American League Central.
In any other division, the Tigers would be one of the worst teams, but in the AL Central, all five teams entered Tuesday with losing records: Minnesota Twins (36-37), Cleveland Guardians (33-38), Tigers (31-40), Chicago White Sox (31-43) and Kansas City Royals (19-53).
The Tigers, four games behind the first-place Twins after taking three games off of them recently, have the fourth-worst record in the AL.
“We’ve been trying to preach a single-minded pursuit of winning today,” Scott Harris, Tigers’ president of baseball operations, said Monday. “There’s going to be plenty of time next month to look up, see the forest and determine our path forward. We’re not really ready. We think it’s a little premature to commit to something right now.”
The commitment — to contend or not to contend — will need to be set in stone by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, when the Tigers could shop several players if they decide to concede in the race for a division title and focus on the long-term vision.
Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, recovering from a ruptured pulley in his left index finger, represents the organization’s best trade chip in recent history. Shopping Rodriguez, who can opt out of his contract after the season, would signify the Tigers as sellers at the trade deadline.
Other trade chips could include right-hander Michael Lorenzen, left-hander Matthew Boyd, righty reliever José Cisnero, lefty reliever Chasen Shreve, righty reliever Will Vest and second baseman Jonathan Schoop.
“I’m on Twitter,” Harris said. “I’m exposed to a lot of chatter out there, but the best thing we can do for our team and our organization is to beat the (Kansas City) Royals tonight, so we’re going to focus on that. There will be plenty of time to sort the rest of it out.”
One reason the Tigers could find themselves in contention is the return of several key players from injuries.
Rodriguez, left-hander Tarik Skubal (left elbow sprain), right-hander Matt Manning (right foot fracture) and center fielder Riley Greene (left fibula stress reaction) should be activated from the injured list in July.
Rodriguez, Skubal and Greene are the best players on the roster.
Before the injury, Rodriguez posted a 2.13 ERA with 16 walks and 67 strikeouts across 67⅔ innings in 11 starts, with the Tigers winning five of those games. His 1.7 fWAR ranked 13th among 69 qualified starting pitchers from the beginning of the season until May 28, when he injured his index finger.
“He feels great,” Harris said. “How the player feels definitely influences the future with his plan.”
Skubal registered a 3.52 ERA with 32 walks and 117 strikeouts across 117⅔ innings in 21 starts last season. He had a 2.33 ERA in his first 11 starts and fired 17 scoreless innings in his final three starts.
The 26-year-old underwent flexor tendon surgery on Aug. 17, 2022.
“On the pitching side, we’ve done a really good job of putting pressure on hitters,” Harris said. “I think we have the lowest walk rate of any bullpen in the big leagues right now. Our (starting) rotation is banged up, as we’ve talked about, but we have guys that are stepping up, and we’re excited to see what it looks like when we get healthy.”
After a 2-9 record to start the season, the Tigers posted a 23-19 record from April 13 through May 30, followed by a disappointing 6-12 record since Greene’s absence began May 31.
Greene carried the Tigers’ offense from April 13-May 30, hitting .306 with a .839 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. His 137 wRC+ during that stretch ranked 15th among 68 hitters with at least 170 plate appearances.
“On the offensive side, our top-line performance as a whole is not where we want it to be,” Harris said. “I think part of that is due to us missing some key bats that should be hitting in the middle of our order, at the top of our order right now. Part of it is that some players are just not performing to the level that they would want to be right now.”
The Tigers rank 27th in MLB with an average of 3.77 runs per game.
There have been peaks and valleys throughout the season, but in the past 11 games, the Tigers are hitting .279 with a .329 on-base percentage and 18 home runs (1.6 per game). As a result, they have won five of those 11 games. In the first 60 games, though, the Tigers hit .221 with a .298 OBP and 48 homers (0.8 per game).
The Tigers, aside from the recent uptick in production, have displayed season-long improvements in other areas compared to last season. The improvements align with the third pillar of Harris’ three-part vision that he revealed in his introductory news conference last September.
“We’re walking more than we did last year,” Harris said. “We are making more contact than we did last year. We are hitting the ball hard a lot more frequently than we did last year. We are lifting the ball more frequently than we did last year. And we’re seeing a lot more pitches than we did last year.
It’s all about controlling the strike zone.
“Again, the top line is not where we want to be, our offensive is not where we want to be as a whole,” Harris said, “but those are some positive trend lines that are predictive of future improvement.”
Maybe, just maybe, there will be enough improvement to leave the Tigers with no choice but to contend down the stretch.
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.