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What’s Wrong with the Detroit Tigers?

The Tigers began the season 15-8 and looked poised for another AL Central crown. Now, the team sits in third place and falling. What’s wrong in Detroit?

Right now, it’s not looking good for Detroit.  The Tigers, four-time defending American League Central champions, are heading in the wrong direction while rivals in the division from Kansas City and Minnesota are going strong.

We wrote yesterday that the Tigers had seemingly solved part of the bullpen problem, one of the only things that hampered Detroit during last season’s first-place finish. But the resurgence of Joakim Soria as a ninth-inning stopper hasn’t been quite enough to stop a May slide that has seen the Tigers fall from first to third.

21 MAY 2015:  Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joakim Soria (38) delivers a pitch during the ninth inning of a regular season game between the Houston Astros and the Detroit Tigers played at Comerica Park in Detroit, MI.  The Detroit Tigers defeated the Houston Astros 6-5 in 11 innings.

Soria’s been good, but the Tigers are still struggling this month.

This time around, things are different for the Tigers, who haven’t had the benefit of three aces in the starting pitching rotation and a lineup with holes that small enough to be sufficiently masked by one superstar.

But just how worried should the Tigers be? On the one hand, a 28-23 record in late May certainly isn’t bad, and Detroit is 18-10 against the AL Central. On the other, the Tigers have lost three in a row and are trying to avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the Angels, and are just 4-6 in their last 10.

Going back even further, a 13-15 record in May has undone a lot of the good of a hot 15-8 start in April. From Detroit’s perspective, it doesn’t help matters that the Twins have been red hot all month and the Royals haven’t suffered their traditional May meltdown. Take into account that Cleveland, Sports Illustrated‘s World Series pick in the preseason, and the White Sox both also have potential, and the division has the ability to make it quite tough on Detroit the rest of the way.

But you also have to consider that the Tigers have had some tough luck so far. The starting rotation that last year featured three Cy Young Award winners has been whittled down to just David Price, at least until Justin Verlander returns from injury.

April 6, 2015: Detroit Tigers starting pitcher David Price (14) tips his cap to the crowd as he's taken out of the game with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning during the Opening Day game on Monday afternoon, Comerica Park, Detroit, Michigan.

With Scherzer in DC and Verlander on the DL, David Price is the lone Cy Young winner still pitching for the Tigers.

And while Verlander is the big name missing right now, he’s far from the only Tiger spending time on the disabled list. Reliever Joe Nathan is out for the year, while Victor Martinez and Alex Avila are both on the 15-day disabled list. Martinez, even before his DL stint, was a shell of himself as he recovered from spring knee surgery.

Their eventual return should be a significant boost to the lineup, and Avila adds quite a bit of value simply because he can effectively play multiple positions and give manager Brad Ausmus options to play around with.

But while having a Cy Young pitcher in Price and an MVP-quality asset in Miguel Cabrera, who is hitting .333 with 11 home runs and a 1.023 OPS, means the Tigers are bound to look unstoppable at times, it also leaves them lacking in other areas.

It is beginning look a lot like spending so much money on a few superstars at the expense of depth is costing Detroit. Look at it this way: Cabrera contributed six wins above a replacement player (WAR) last season, which is tremendous. But no other position player on the Tigers roster came close to that kind of production.

MLB: SEP 26 Twins at Tigers

Cabrera is one of the game’s best, but are the Tigers lacking depth because of his monster contract?

Meanwhile, Kansas City got only a slightly smaller WAR from Alex Gordon, thanks largely to the Gold Glove left fielder’s defense, and had room on the payroll for plenty more good players.

Perhaps the injuries are the best example of where the Tigers struggle more with depth. With Martinez and Avila out, Detroit has often struggled to put runs on the board, a big problem when the starting pitching after Price has been shaky at best.

Yet down in Kansas City, the Royals were without right fielder Alex Rios for more than a month, only to replace him with rookie Paulo Orlando, who leads the American League in triples and whose speed has been a big asset both offensively and defensively.

June figures to be an absolutely huge month for the Tigers. If they stay in the race, there’s no reason to think they won’t eventually make moves to bolster the roster and maybe eventually move back into their seemingly rightful place on top of the AL Central.

After all, Price is in Detroit right now because the Tigers were willing to give up enough to get him and take on a big contract for a year and a half. The Price deal turned heads last summer, so don’t be surprised if general manager David Dombrowski gets bold again when this time around the Tigers have more glaring needs. Especially because, if he doesn’t, the Tigers’ stranglehold on the AL Central may just come to an end.

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