Baseball season just entered its second half and the Detroit Tigers are sitting just four games out of first place in the American League's Central Division.
But recent developments on the injury front have the Tigers further from the division lead than the numbers indicate.
The Tigers lost half their infield and a third of their outfield in a span of six days, starting with Brandon Inge's broken hand last Monday and culminating with Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen going down on Saturday. Couple that with the season-ending elbow injury to set-up man Joel Zumaya (not to mention incumbent disabled listers Zach Miner and Bobby Seay) and you have an impressive list of talent sitting in street clothes.
While it looks like Guillen's strained calf is not as serious as his hamstring issue earlier this season, the injuries to Ordonez and Inge will hurt the Tigers significantly in their pursuit of the Chicago White Sox for the AL Central crown. Inge broke his hand after being hit by a pitch in the third inning of last Monday's game with Texas and will miss 4-6 weeks. Ordonez fractured his ankle, which was already injured, sliding into home plate on Saturday and will be out 6-8 weeks.
To top it all off, they've come at the worst possible time.
The Tigers fell on their faces right out the gate when play resumed after the All-Star break, losing six straight games to start the second half of the season. That included a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians---the last-place Cleveland Indians. They also got no-hit by the Tampa Bay Ray's Matt Garza on Monday, the first no-no in the history of the Rays organization.
And if there was any time the Tigers couldn't afford to lose three of their better hitters, it's now. The Tigers were sputtering on offense with all three in the lineup, averaging just under three runs a game since the mid-season break. Five-hole hitter Brennan Boesch is mired in a horrific July slump after tearing up AL pitching in his first two big league months. His average has dropped from over .340 to .305, leaving Miguel Cabrera as the Tigers' only real run-producing threat.
The only thing keeping the Tigers in the race has been the inability of the teams in front of them to do much better. The White Sox have cooled off after a torrid run to pry away the division lead and are just 6-6 since the break. The Minnesota Twins also dropped a series to the Indians, but have managed a winning record post-All-Star to surge past the Tigers into second place.
But don't hang your hat on the White Sox and Twins tanking to keep Detroit in the race. If there's one thing we've learned as Tigers fans the past five years, it's never count on a division opponent to help you out. That makes the injuries to Inge and Ordonez much more devastating.
Inge was finally starting to get his bat going, and he wasn't just lobbing a hit here and there either. Inge was hitting .326 in July, driving in 10 runs and posting a .937 OPS. His June wasn't bad either, where he hit .287 and had 7 RBI. It's was a far cry from the start of his 2010 campaign, where he was flirting with the Mendoza line. And Inge, as we all know, is more revered in Detroit for his glove than for his bat. Inge will be missed most at third base, where he is one of the top defenders in all of baseball.
As for Ordonez, it looked like he was finally able to put a horrible 2009 behind him, solidifying himself as the third hitter in the Detroit lineup this season. Ordonez was hitting above .300 as we all expect out him, but his power also returned in 2010, dinging 12 home runs so far this season. And to add a little salt to the wound, his stay on the disabled list will prevent him from accumulating enough plate appearances to kick in his option for 2011.
The Tigers called up Scott Sizemore and purchased the contracts of Jeff Larish and Will Rhymes from Triple-A Toledo to fill the roster spots, but if you're hoping for those guys to pick up the slack you're going to be in for a big disappointment. Sizemore was tearing up Triple-A pitching, but he was there for a reason---he's hitting just .204 at the big league level after a 2-for-4 effort last night. Larish hasn't been able to stay with the big club yet, and Rhymes you've probably never even heard of before Monday.
It makes the looming trade deadline much more interesting for the Tigers in terms of what hopes the front office has for the rest of the season. Detroit has already lost out on the Dan Haren sweepstakes and General Manager Dave Dombrowski has said he won't give up top prospects for two-month rentals. If Detroit is buying at the deadline, then Dombrowski won't be giving up on this team just yet. If Detroit does nothing (or is selling), then it's a pretty good indicator that the Tigers are looking toward next year.
Should the front office bail on 2010, it doesn't necessarily mean that we should too. If there's one thing that overcomes all in baseball, it's outstanding pitching.
Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer both have elite skills that will give this team a chance to win every time they pitch, regardless of the inane batting order Jim Leyland puts together that night. Verlander is 12-6 with a 3.74 ERA this season---his ERA actually dropped after losing last night. Scherzer has turned himself around after rough start, winning five of his last seven starts before losing the no-hitter to Garza on Monday. Even then he was effective, matching Garza's no-hitter until he was tagged for a grand slam in the sixth inning.
The Tigers will need more than just Verlander and Scherzer though if they are going to stay in the hunt. The rest of the rotation has to step up, which to this point, they haven't. Armando Galarraga has been steady, but he hasn't been the same since his almost-perfect game bid on June 2. He's only picked up three wins this season and doesn't have one since June 24.
Jeremy Bonderman looked like he might be returning to his All-Star form early on, but he's been inconsistent at best. Bondo's got an ERA over 5.00 and has given up at least three runs in his last six starts. Rick Porcello has looked good in two starts since coming up from Toledo, but still doesn't have a win since May 23.
And it's not like the Tigers are going to have a complete list of nobodys coming to the plate when it's their turn to bat. Triple Crown threat Miguel Cabrera is always going to have a chance to produce runs---even if he doesn't get any help. Johnny Damon has banged out over 2,500 hits in his career and is still dangerous on the base paths even though he's approaching the wrong side of 40. Austin Jackson is on his way to a 180-plus hit season, and Boesch can put runs on the board, assuming he can bust out of his current funk.
The injuries to Inge and Ordonez are not insurmountable. At this point in a 162-game schedule, every single team has at least one significant injury or at least a few players with some bumps and bruises. Fighting through injuries is the golden rule of sports. How teams fight through those injuries is what separates the contenders from the pretenders.
The Tigers are by no means out of it for 2010; there's way too many games left to be making that kind of prediction. But with every loss, the AL Central title is slowly slipping away.