The Tigers come into this series having won only 7 of their last 20 games and are even with the Indians, two losses out of the Wild Card.
I exchanged some emails with Ian Casselberry of Bless You Boys, and asked him some questions about the suddenly listless AL champs.
To see my responses to his questions you can click here.
1) The Tigers have been in a terrible rut of late. They've been outscored 185 to 145 since the All-Star Break. What needs to change for the Tigers to get back on track?
First of all, they need to get better starting pitching. The Tigers' recent streak of poor starts seems to have come to an end in the last couple of games, but there have been so many games during this bad stretch where they were down by two or three runs before the lineup even had its turn at bat. Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman need to pitch as well as they're capable of doing, and the rest of the rotation needs to get back healthy.
And really, that's probably the ultimate solution for the entire team. The pitching staff will improve once Kenny Rogers and Andrew Miller return to the rotation, and the bullpen will get a huge boost once Joel Zumaya comes back. But the lineup needs to heal up, too. The Tigers had trouble scoring runs while Gary Sheffield was out, so they definitely need him out there every day. Same with Marcus Thames. The Tigers missed his power. Carlos Guillen also seems to be wearing down a bit, which is surely why Detroit was interested in Jack Wilson at the trade deadline. But I think Jim Leyland will try to do all he can to get Guillen's legs some rest, whether it's playing him at first base or DH, or giving him a day off.
2) Your front office was quiet at the deadline. Are Tiger fans on board with that decision? What moves would you like to see in the offseason (signings or trades)?
For a couple of weeks there - leading up to the deadline and directly afterwards - I think the Tigers fan base was pretty polarized when it came to making a deal. There were some people who didn't want to see Detroit give up any more of its prized prospects, especially for a player who would end being a two-month rental. Not when the team's two best relievers, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, were set to come back. Others - and I would include myself in this group - felt that the bullpen was the primary reason the Tigers were losing games, and the front office absolutely had to do something to fix it before a playoff spot was lost.
In hindsight, however, I think everyone has realized that the Tigers played it just right. Eric Gagne's been brutal for the Red Sox, Octavio Dotel went on the disabled list, and teams like the Nationals were just asking for too much in return for their relievers. Meanwhile, Detroit's bullpen has already improved significantly just by getting a fully healthy Rodney back. He's been fantastic. Zumaya's set to return in a week or two, and if he can be close to what he was last season, that bullpen suddenly looks very good again.
As far as offseason moves, the Tigers need to improve at two of three positions: First base, shortstop, and left field. They need more extra-base power than Sean Casey is giving them, but could solve that problem by moving Carlos Guillen over to first base. Picking up a true power-hitting first baseman would be preferable, but if the Tigers can upgrade defensively at shortstop next season, they seem to be content with the lesser offense that will likely come with that. I wonder if they might need to sign a veteran starting pitcher, as well, but all of the spots in next year's rotation could already be spoken for.
3) My one solace during last season's playoffs was getting to see a great baseball city come back to life. Have you seen a carry-over into this season? If so, do you expect Mike Ilitch to reinvest the extra revenue back into the team?
The Tigers have definitely carried last season's success over to this season. Right now in Detroit, it's the Tigers and then everyone else. Comerica Park is packed most every night, and you see people wearing Tigers merchandise throughout metro Detroit. Even casual sports fans are keeping tabs on how the team is doing. I could probably start some arguments by saying that Detroit - deep down - is truly a football town, and you'll see that if the Tigers fall out of the race by September. But if this season is anything like it was last year, football will be an afterthought until November.
There aren't any questions as to the ownership's commitment to maintaining a winner. Mike Ilitch has already taken the additional revenue that's streaming in and invested it back into the team. We saw it during the off-season with the Gary Sheffield trade. Giving him the contract extension he wanted wasn't even a concern. And Dave Dombrowski essentially has carte blanche to make any move he deems necessary to improve the team. (How else do you explain picking up Neifi Perez's contract last year?) Another great example of Ilitch's willingness to spend money on his baseball team is this year's draft. Signability issues didn't even make the Tigers blink, and because of it, a lot of top-shelf amateur talent was available to them when it probably shouldn't have been.
4) Will Magglio Ordonez win the AL MVP award?
With the Yankees getting back in the race, I think Alex Rodriguez's numbers are just too impressive to be ignored. But Ordonez isn't going away quietly. He's doing all he can to keep the Tigers in the AL Central and Wild Card races. With Sheffield and Marcus Thames struggling with injuries lately, they've needed someone to carry the offense. And Magglio has come up with some big games in the last couple of weeks. He's going to make it a tough decision for the voters.
5) Sheffield: Worth the trouble?
Absolutely. Magglio Ordonez's consistent performance makes him a MVP candidate, but you could make a strong case for Sheffield actually being Detroit's most important offensive player. Whenever their offense has struggled this season, it can usually be tied to Sheffield. The Tigers had trouble scoring runs in April as he tried to get acclimated to a new team and new role (along with some cold weather). And a lot of their low-scoring games over the past three weeks correlate with Sheffield dealing with a shoulder injury. When he came back and started to hit again, the offense perked back up.
Tigers fans don't care about the uproar Sheffield's mouth has caused. He's making all that noise about another team (one that they don't like, anyway), and as long as it stays that way, the fans love him. The Tigers' front office did get irritated with Sheffield's outspokenness once it caused problems with the commissioner's office, however, and I believe they told him to give it a rest. Otherwise, he's been a really good fit in Detroit.