With three straight division titles, resulting in a pair of ALCS trips sandwiched around an AL pennant, the Detroit Tigers have been the class of the American League Central division for some time now.
Entering the 2014 season, expectations were high for the team once again, and rightfully so with a roster as talented as any in the league, even after some offseason retooling.
They remain atop the standings here at the midway point of the season, but it appears as though the rest of the division has started to close the gap.
Could we finally be witnessing a changing of the guard in what has been a Detroit-dominated division for the past three years?
At this point last season, the Tigers had an identical 42-32 record and the exact same four-game lead in the division, albeit over the Cleveland Indians. When all was said and done, they wound up winning the AL Central title by just one game, as the Indians used a late-season push to reach the playoffs themselves as a wild-card team.
So what's different this time around that could signify the end of the Tigers' divisional dominance? It starts with a look at their roster.
Last season, their starting rotation was very much in the conversation as being the best in all of baseball. They led the AL with a 3.44 starter's ERA, and the foursome of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister was as good as any in baseball.
Fast forward to this year, and though the team sits a respectable fifth in the AL in starter's ERA at 3.81, they have not been nearly as dominant as a group.
Fister was moved to the Washington Nationals in the offseason, but his absence has not been the issue, with Drew Smyly stepping into the rotation and posting a 3.53 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 12 starts. Those are respectable numbers, to be sure.
The reigning AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez has been brilliant once again, pitching to a 2.64 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in his first 13 starts. The trouble starts with the vaunted duo of Scherzer and Verlander.
After winning AL Cy Young honors last year, Scherzer has seen his ERA (2.90 to 3.71), WHIP (0.970 to 1.256) and BAA (.198 to .251) all jump considerably. Is he still a plus arm? Sure, but he has not been one of the best pitchers in the game this year.
Then there is Verlander, who is set to make $140 million over the next five seasons. After an up-and-down 2013 season, he capped things off with a terrific postseason and looked poised for a bounce-back year when he threw 20 scoreless innings during spring training.
Instead, he has a 4.82 ERA and 1.51 WHIP with just nine quality starts in 16 games. He looked sharp his last time out, allowing five hits and two runs (one earned) in seven innings, but he is no longer a guy who can carry a rotation.
B/R's MLB Lead Writer Jason Catania wrote an article a few days ago breaking down whether or not Verlander's days as an MLB ace are over, and it's worth a look if you have not read it yet. It would appear that the transition from overpowering hitters in his prime to being a savvy veteran pitcher has not gone as smoothly as hoped for the former AL MVP.
Offensively, the Tigers are a very different team this year following the Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler trade during the offseason. With Fielder out for the season and Kinsler playing to a 3.4 WAR (eighth in AL) there is no question the Tigers won that deal. And with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez both putting up terrific numbers on top of Kinsler's production, the team has a dangerous offense once again.
However, Martinez is set to hit free agency at the end of the season along with veteran outfielder Torii Hunter. The following offseason, it is a trio of key pieces in Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson and Alex Avila that could be headed to free agency.
What the team does with those guys will certainly hinge on the future of the aforementioned Max Scherzer, who turned down a huge six-year, $144 million extension offer this past winter and could still very well be headed elsewhere when the season is over.
Even with his numbers dropping off from where they were last year, he still figures to easily top $100 million as the top arm on the market, and he could very well receive a contact that exceeds the amount money he turned down in the offseason.
The Tigers have some solid young arms in the system, with Robbie Ray getting his feet wet already this year and the future looking incredibly bright for guys like Jake Thompson and Jonathon Crawford. Losing Scherzer would be a huge blow, though, and it could set the franchise back.
Finally, there is the bullpen, a group that is tied with the worst ERA in baseball at 4.75 and has converted just 21 of 29 save chances. Veteran closer Joe Nathan has been shaky at best in a roller coaster of a season so far, and outside of the Joba Chamberlain-Al Alburquerque duo, the team has really had no one they can truly rely on.
For what it's worth, GM Dave Dombrowski says the team is not looking for a closer, according to Tony Paul of the Detroit News.
"Well, we do not need a closer at this point, so we would not look for that. We may need a little bit of help in the bullpen, maybe middle relief," said Dombrowski. "But we’re not looking for that closer, and that gives you a very comfortable feeling."
The Tigers could certainly be active at the trade deadline, but it's this coming offseason that will shape the future of the franchise. That being said, the rest of the AL Central pack has closed the gap, regardless, and things don't figure to get any easier moving forward.
The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox remain at the bottom of the division, but both represent franchises on the rise, as each possesses good young talent with room to add on to rosters that have already begun to undergo the rebuilding process.
The Cleveland Indians have seemingly taken a step back from where they were at last year, but they have enough talent to be right back in the thick of things with a few minor additions. Big decisions lie ahead for them as well, though, with key pieces in Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera set to hit free agency this winter.
The real team to watch in 2014 and beyond is the Kansas City Royals, who recently overtook the Tigers for first place in the AL Central on the heels of a 10-game winning streak. Granted, they have lost six of seven since, but if anyone is going to challenge the Tigers for the division title in 2014, it will be them.
It's been a slow rebuilding process for a team that has not seen playoff baseball since they won the 1985 World Series, but the Royals have finally begun to see the fruits of their labor. After a strong finish to the 2013 season left them still contending for a wild-card spot into September, manager Ned Yost feels the team is better prepared for a second-half push this time around.
"I feel like the experience that they had last year, when they went through it last year, I don't think that they knew that they could get out of it," Yost told Dick Kaegel of MLB.com. "This year they've been through it before, and they know they can get out of it. There's a lot more confidence this time now than there was this time last year."
Workhorse starter James Shields is a free agent at the end of the season, and Billy Butler has an option year in 2015 before he hits free agency as well. But for their most part, the Royals' good, young core figures to be around for a while.
Budding stars Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer are leading the offensive charge this season alongside Alex Gordon, but it is the pitching staff that has been the team's biggest strength by far in 2014.
The loss of Ervin Santana in free agency initially looked like a major blow, but the signing of Jason Vargas has gone a long way in offsetting his departure.
Flame-throwing rookie Yordano Ventura has shown flashes of ace potential and done a nice job holding down his rotation spot, but it's the move of Danny Duffy from the bullpen to the No. 5 starter spot that has really solidified things.
Behind them is a bullpen that led the AL with a 2.55 ERA last year and looks strong once again with the one-two punch of Wade Davis and Greg Holland having All-Star-caliber seasons.
Pitching wins championships, and as long as they can stay healthy and continue hitting at a league-average level, the Royals won't be going away any time soon.
The Detroit Tigers are still the most talented team in the AL Central, and they may very well go on to win their fourth straight division title this season. That being said, however, it would appear that their hold on division supremacy is tenuous at best looking to the future, and this season may very well represent a changing of the guard.
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