Why the Tigers won the AL Central

Twenty-two teams won’t play in baseball’s postseason, but the Tigers will. Because while most teams ignored or failed to do necessary maintenance, the Tigers acted. Sometimes the leaky faucet needs to be fixed.

The Tigers were 49-45 as late as July 16. They were 39-18 in the next two months, clinching the American League Central exactly two months later; the improvement in their record had everything to do with the improvements in their personnel.

To wit:

  • The Tigers didn’t look at third baseman Brandon Inge’s sub-.200 batting average and sub-.600 OPS and expect Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez and Alex Avila to offset it. They added Wilson Betemit when Mike Moustakas’ promotion made Betemit expendable to the Royals. Betemit hasn’t been great — 32-for-114 through Friday –but he’s been a big improvement over Inge. Who wouldn’t be?
  • Their starting pitching was wretched, and is still mediocre, but less so after acquiring Doug Fister from Seattle. Fister might not have Ubaldo Jiminez’s reputation, but he’s been far more effective — 6-1 with a 2.12 ERA, 5 walks and 46 strikeouts in nine starts. As a bonus, the Indians paid a far more costly price.
  • The Tigers belatedly ditched the idea of making Ryan Raburn (109 strikeouts, 18 walks) a full-time outfielder and added Delmon Young, whose potential, like Peter Pan, never grows old.

Not every move worked. Trading platoon-infielder Scott Sizemore for lefty reliever David Purcey was a mistake, and Purcey was soon released. Rookie starter Jacob Turner wasn’t ready. Reliever David Pauley, who accompanied Fister, hasn’t helped.

But the Tigers knew inaction would only abet incompetence. Other teams idled: how many at-bats vs. lefthanders did the White Sox need to know Adam Dunn was done? how many starts did the Red Sox need to see that John Lackey was a burden heavier to carry than his contract? how many months and how much money did the Giants allow Miguel Tejada to waste?

Acting, though, didn’t mean overreacting. The Tigers didn’t jettison reliever Joaquin Benoit, whose ERA was still more than 5.00 as late as June 20; since July 1 Benoit has allowed but 13 hits and four runs in his last 27.1 innings. He’s made the eighth inning as secure as a Justin Verlander start. Judgment matters.

(You can argue the Tigers may not have had much choice. They were fairly criticized for paying Benoit — the best reliever on last year’s free-agent market — $5.5 million; the Yankees muted that by paying Rafael Soriano nearly twice as much and received a bad elbow in return.)

You can’t argue, as the New York Times did Sunday, that the Tigers benefited from the 2009 trade which sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer and two replacement-level lefty relievers to the Tigers and Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson to the Diamondbacks.

That’s revisionist evaluation. It’s like suggesting the Matt Millen tenure as GM was positive for the Lions because they’re 2-0 this year. The Tigers are winning in spite of the 2009 trade, not because of it. It should be inarguable that the Tigers would be an even better team today if they had Granderson instead of Scherzer and Austin Jackson, even if it meant they were stuck with Edwin Jackson, too.

Two of three teams improved in that trade; the Tigers just weren’t one of them. “We achieved what we needed to,” Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski told the Times, but it’s hard to believe that dumping an MVP candidate on a team that has several annually is really what the Tigers needed to do.

None of that should detract from what the Tigers did this summer. Because they really did do what they needed to. If nothing else, they showed their competitors that hope is not a strategy.

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