The Detroit Tigers have continued to be dominant against the American League Central this season. Now, they just need to learn to beat everyone else.
With the Detroit Tigers in the early days of a road trip that ends at American League Central rival Cleveland, it’s a key stretch for the franchise that has won the division four years in a row, but currently sits in third.
The Tigers dominated the standings in the AL Central for as long as they did, and have managed to hang around four games behind first-place Kansas City, thanks largely to their record against the other four Central teams.
Detroit, just 34-32 overall, is 22-12 against its own division. It’s not exactly a new trend either. Last year, the Tigers went 43-33 against the Central, two games better than their record against everyone else, and had a winning record against every division rival except Minnesota. They finished 9-10 against the Twins.
But it was their stellar record versus the Royals that made the difference in 2014. Kansas City finished 89-73, just one game behind the Tigers, but Detroit won 13 of 19 against the Royals and outscored them by 34 runs.
That the gap between how well Detroit plays within its own division and against the rest of baseball has grown this year highlights how important the rest of June is for a team that is trying to stay in contention. The current road trip was scheduled for five games against the Reds and the Yankees.
The Tigers have struggled against the Yanks going back to last year and they are 1-3 against New York this season. That leads into six games against the AL Central bottom dwellers, the Indians and White Sox.
The rotation schedule worked out nicely for the Tigers, who got to go with David Price, Justin Verlander and Alfredo Simon for the first three games as they worked to get some momentum back after going sub .500 since the start of May, but despite that, the trip is off to a sour start.
A rain delay forced an early exit for Price Wednesday night in Cincinnati, and the Reds, who sit in fourth place in the National League Central, pulled off an extra-inning victory. Verlander didn’t get his opportunity to face a less than stellar Reds lineup after Thursday’s game was washed out.
Now they head to the Bronx, where getting wins against the Yankees won’t be easy.
It is no coincidence Detroit raced to first place early by playing 16 division games in April, a month in which it won every series except against the Yankees, when the Tigers lost three of four.
Dropping games to teams such as Cincinnati with your ace on the hill is not the way to turn things around, and if the Tigers have similar results against New York this time around they will need to be equally dominant against the Central when they see Cleveland and Chicago.
The Tigers’ fortunes are going to be of interest across baseball. If Detroit continues its slide there will come a point in the relatively near future when it must decide if it will be a buyer or seller when the July 31 trade deadline approaches.
The Tigers won’t give up easily, but the cost of fielding contenders all these years is a depleted farm system. Detroit may not have the pieces needed to acquire enough help to make the playoff via trade and they are in possession of some players winning teams may find intriguing if they are on the market.
Price and Simon are free agents after this season, along with catcher Alex Avila, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, reliever Joba Chamberlain and closer Joakim Soria. Smart deals involving any combination of those could go a long toward replenishing the talent in the minors and free up dollars to hit the free agent market hard again this winter.
But as of right now, the Tigers are still in the playoff hunt. That could change of course, meaning the next few weeks could have a major impact not only on this season, but the future of the franchise.