At the All-Star break, the Detroit Tigers sit a half-game out of first place, behind the Chicago White Sox. Perhaps even better, the Tigers are three games ahead of the Minnesota Twins, thanks to winning two out of three against them before baseball took its midseason recess.
Some of us didn't think the Tigers had enough to win the AL Central this season. (I'll raise my hand there.) But many fans and observers expected this team to be exactly where it is, right in the middle of a tight race for a division title. Yet how the Tigers have gotten to this point is something of a surprise. A few players that were expected to make major contributions have been disappointments. Others have emerged from obscurity to become major factors, indispensable parts of the Tigers' playoff drive.
Nothing goes completely as expected over the course of a 162-game season. But there have been plenty of surprises for the Tigers during the 86 games they've played so far. Here are five players whose contributions haven't followed the script that was written before the season:
No. 5: Jose Valverde
When Valverde was initially signed to a two-year, $14 million contract, there didn't seem to be much joy in Tiger Town. Yes, Valverde was an established closer, and the Tigers' bullpen was in need of a veteran relief pitcher. But with so many young relievers in the minor league system, was giving that much money (and a two-year deal) to a free agent a smart use of resources?
Yet Valverde has shown just how important a lights-out closer can be for a team. After years of riding the roller coaster with the likes of Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney, the ninth inning has become a smooth ride for the Tigers. When The Big Potato comes into the game, it's over. Valverde's 19 saves (in 20 opportunities) are tied for eighth in the American League, but his 0.92 ERA is easily the best among relievers with 10 or more saves.
No. 4: Rick Porcello
Coming off an outstanding rookie season (14-9, 3.96) in which he was arguably the Tigers' second-best pitcher at the end of last season, Porcello was generally expected to regress this year. Opposing lineups would have a better idea of what they'd see from Porcello, unless he could develop other pitches to go with his sinking two-seam fastball.
Not only hasn't Porcello added a slider, curve, or change-up to his arsenal, but he hasn't gotten the same movement on his sinker, allowing batters to center the pitch and drive it. What were groundballs last year have become line drives this season. It's been so bad that the Tigers sent Porcello down to the minors, hoping he can regain the feel for his pitches against lesser competition.
So far, however, Porcello has still struggled to figure out how to approach hitters and what sort of pace to work at. He's being called up for a spot start in a day-night doubleheader after the All-Star break, but manager Jim Leyland won't commit to anything after that. Meanwhile, the Tigers are also denying that Porcello could be used in a potential trade deadline deal.
No. 3: Armando Galarraga
Galarraga couldn't win the fifth spot in the Tigers' rotation out of Spring Training, losing out to Dontrelle Willis. (Though you never know if there was a financial consideration to that decision, given how much money the Tigers were paying Willis.) He was called up to Detroit in mid-May, pitching relatively well (1-1, 4.50) in three appearances. That provided no hint of what was to come, however.
On June 2, Galarraga cruised through 8.2 innings against the Cleveland Indians, allowing no hits and no walks, one out away from pitching the 21st perfect game in major league history. As we know painfully well, that achievement was stolen from him when Jim Joyce mistakenly ruled Jason Donald safe at first base, giving him an infield hit, and ruining Galarraga's attempt at perfection in what may have been the worst call ever seen.
But Galarraga's graciousness in accepting Joyce's apology after the game probably brought him more attention than if he had actually recorded 27 straight outs. For the next four or five days, Galarraga became the center of the baseball universe, and a topic of conversation in greater pop culture. But since then, he's posted a 5.61 ERA in six starts. That made Galarraga expendable when the Tigers needed to shuffle the roster after the All-Star break, and he was sent to the minors. (That near-perfect game ensured he drove down to Toledo in style, however.) Once a fifth starter is needed again on July 20, Galarraga will return.
No. 2: Phil Coke
Coke wasn't exactly a throw-in to the big trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, Edwin Jackson to Arizona, and brought Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson to Detroit. But he wasn't necessarily seen as a key piece to the deal, either. Last season, Coke posted a 4.50 ERA in 72 appearances for the World Series champion Yankees. And with the Tigers, he was seen as perhaps a second left-handed reliever to go with Bobby Seay in late-inning match-ups.
But Coke has probably been the Tigers' best relief pitcher, other than Valverde. Among the set-up men that provide the bridge between starting pitcher and closer, he's been the best. Coke isn't just pitching to lefties, either. He comes in whenever Leyland needs him, appearing in 42 games thus far, and compiling an impressive 30 strikeouts in 36.1 innings. And of the relievers who have made at least 20 appearances, Coke's 2.48 ERA is the lowest. His 5-0 record doesn't look too bad, either.
No. 1: Brennan Boesch
Unless you followed the Tigers' minor league prospects rather closely, did you even know who Boesch was when the season began? The 26-year-old put together an impressive 2009 season in Double-A Erie, with 28 home runs and 93 RBI, but he wasn't really considered one of Detroit's top prospects. Besides, the Tigers were already set in the outfield, having to juggle veterans Johnny Damon and Carlos Guillen between left field and designated hitter, while also finding at-bats for Ryan Raburn.
But when Guillen went down with his annual injury, Boesch -- who was hitting .379/.455/.621 in 66 plate appearances with Toledo -- got the call to fill in. And what looked to be a temporary stay in Detroit has been anything but, as Boesch has simply hit too well to even consider sending back down. When Guillen returned to the lineup, the Tigers moved him to second base so Boesch still had a spot in the outfield.
Boesch's .342 average is among the top five in the majors, now that he has enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title. His 12 homers are second on the Tigers, behind Miguel Cabrera. And he's handled both right- and left-handed pitching well. The kid doesn't take a seat against tough lefties like CC Sabathia. No, he takes them deep instead. Leyland applauds Boesch's aggressiveness at the plate and won't let anyone mess with his approach. On a team with very little offense, Boesch has become one of the Tigers' most consistently dangerous hitters.
Whether or not the Tigers can stay near first place in the AL Central is a question the next 76 games can answer. But to be in this position with poor performances from several veterans who played significant roles in last seaon's second-place finish, while benefiting from contributions made by a handful of players who weren't with the team a year ago is truly impressive.
To stay competitive with the Twins and White Sox, the Tigers need to receive continued production from these sources. But a few more surprises along the way would certainly provide some much needed help. If this 2010 season has taught us anything, it might be to expect the unexpected.
Agree or disagree with this week's Top Five? Have comments or a Top Five list of your own? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.