The best thing about the enduring baseball season for teams sniffing contention is they have as late as the beginning of October to win a division and make the playoffs. Tigers fans are all too familiar with that feeling after last season's heartbreaking Game 163 loss to the Twins, despite leading the division by seven games in September.
This season already seems to be taking its toll on fans. Last week, Detroit was a Twins win away from being down 5.5 games, causing some fans to start prematurely looking toward 2011 (and the MLB Draft probably helped play tricks on the mind, too). However, just a week later, the Tigers find themselves only 2.5 back, on a four game winning streak, and well within pouncing distance of 1st place.
Realistically, the Tigers are contenders, but the death of the team is clear, and their most recent skid that could've put them in a deep divisional hole really drove their flaws home. The Tigers will compete for a division title, but if they want to be sure to win it and make a run at the World Series, they'll still have to make some changes.
Without further ado, the top five things the Tigers need to do to enhance their chances of winning the division, aside from simply winning ball games and asking certain rookies to continue to hit out of their minds.
5. Stay Healthy
This should go without saying, but the Tigers have had problems with injuries in recent years. Carlos Guillen, for one, is about as frail as a grandma with osteoporosis. Joel Zumaya seems to be in 2006 elite set-up man form, but every 102 MPH fastball makes any fan who can't forget Zoom's last three seasons of injuries worry his finger or arm might fly off with the ball on the next one. Brandon Inge's 2009 All-Star season turned into a disaster with two knee injuries, and after surgery, this season started no different (although he's starting to come around now that his knees are getting healthier). Magglio Ordonez, who is 36-years-old, has already missed time due to two separate nagging injuries, but he's bounced back nicely both times. And let's hope the rejuvenated Jeremy Bonderman doesn't have any health relapses or Miguel Cabrera ... actually, no, I'm not going there.
Obviously, teams that aspire to win a division usually can't have significant injury problems holding them back, but some can overcome them (see Twins last year when Morneau went down and this year with Nathan out). The Tigers, unfortunately, are probably not one of those teams.
4. Adjust Lineups Accordingly
Jim Leyland loves to keep his lineup consistent. If he wants to give Magglio a day off, he'll plug his replacement, no matter who it is, into Magglio's three-hole to keep everybody else in their same slot. Some might wonder if that's lazy managing or simply keeping everybody else comfortable in the lineup. I respect the latter theory, but there are zero games in which Don Kelly should be batting third in an MLB lineup. It's an easy fix really -- move the team's best hitter up to the three-spot and adjust the rest of the lineup accordingly.
3. Continue to start Avila
Alex Avila is clearly the better hitter than Gerald Laird, gives the Tigers another left-handed bat, and he's throwing out runners at a higher clip than Laird this season (38% to 32%). In the last 14 games, Avila is hitting .333 with a bomb and two stolen bases. Laird, who is on a three game hitting streak and had three hits last night, is hitting .227 in his last two week's worth of games. Leyland has also admitted the young guys bring a little extra energy to the team and Avila's doing that. He also seems to be motivating Laird because G-money is actually starting to come around lately (or maybe it was the Everett DFA?).
2. Trade for a LHP
Aside from the question marks that plague the Tigers starting rotation, it consists of five right-handed pitchers. If not for helping the team get into the playoffs, a lefty could be instrumental in beating teams like the Yankees and/or Rays, who have multiple big lefty bats in their lineups. I know the Tigers got burnt by trading with the Mariners last season for a lefty, but they need to make a serious run at Cliff Lee.
1. Trade for a better SS
The Tigers knew when they signed Adam Everett that he wasn't a good hitter. However, they made it painfully clear ten days ago that Mendoza or below wouldn't cut it by designating Everett for assignment. Well, his replacement isn't doing much better. Since Ramon Santiago's .326 April, he's hitting .205. Rookie Danny Worth was recalled when Everett got the red slip, but he's also fallen off considerably since his hot start (he's hitting just .065 in five games since being recalled). The Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew has been a name tossed around amongst the Tigers blogsphere and would provide the team with both steady hitting and the same type of fielding the Tigers are getting out of Santiago, if not better. There were rumors awhile back that the Marlins would consider trading Hanley Ramirez. If there's any truth to that and the Marlins would consider trading Hanley, I'd confidently say, "Sell the farm."