Cleveland Indians: Checking In On the Detroit Tigers’ Season

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The Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers haven’t faced each other since the end of April, and since then, both clubs have had an interesting few weeks. The Tribe took off in May, but the Tigers stumbled, and now only two and a half games separate the two teams. Detroit is in third place, while the Tribe is in last, just behind the White Sox. This will be a key series for the teams, and it could either send Cleveland down in the standings or help them overtake the Tigers.

With that in mind, it seemed like a good time to check in with Motor City Bengals editor Dave Holcomb, who has been paying close attention to Detroit’s struggles and successes over the last month. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions to get Tribe fans up to speed on what’s been happening with the Tigers lately:

Justin Verlander is back on Sunday – how did his rehab go, and do you think he’ll have a big impact right away, after so much time off? 

May 31, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Toledo Mud Hens starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) pitches in the second inning against the Indianapolis Indians at Victory Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kryger/Indianapolis Star via USA TODAY Sports

DH: His first rehab start didn’t go so well, but the defense behind him didn’t help. Verlander was much better in his second rehab outing, throwing 5 2/3 innings and allowing just one unearned run while striking out nine hitters. His fastball topped out at 94 MPH, so the Indians might see some heat from him on Saturday.

But honestly, I’m still unsure what kind of impact Verlander will make in the rotation. He needs to be better than last season in order to make the impact the Tigers want, but what Detroit really needs is to get their offense back on track. Another good starting pitcher is a great addition, but at this point, Tigers fans would be more excited if Victor Martinez was returning than Verlander.

Watching Jose Iglesias brings back memories of watching the Indians’ Omar Vizquel as a Tribe fan. Where would you rank him among major league shortstops this season, and do you think he’s headed to the All-Star game?
DH: It’s funny you say that because I was recently thinking about this. I’m 24 years old, and I’ve never seen a better fielding shortstop than Omar Vizquel. He and Roberto Alomar are still the best double-play combination I’ve ever seen.

Iglesias obviously needs to play more years in order to reach Vizquel status, but defensively, I think he is the best fielding middle infielder since Vizquel. The irony of it all is that Vizquel coaches first base, and the infielders, for the Tigers.

And yes, I think Iglesias should make the All-Star team. There are no stand-out offensive shortstops in the AL anymore, so if we are going to base our votes more on defensive skills, Iglesias is in a class of his own.

Detroit has slumped recently, winning just three of their last ten games. What happened to the Tigers during their struggles?
DH: As mentioned before, the offense is really struggling. It has been better over the last four games, but for a nine-game stretch at the end of May, the Tigers averaged just 2.0 runs per game.

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During that time, everyone but Miguel Cabrera was in some really bad slumps. Ian Kinsler had an 11-game stretch from May 22 to June 3 where he went 3-for-42 (.071). J.D. Martinez is proving his stellar 2014 season where he hit .315 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI was a fluke. He is batting just .258 this year and his OPS is 150 points below last year’s OPS. Finally, Yoenis Cespedes was hitting below .200 in his first 25 at-bats in the No. 4 spot without Victor Martinez in the lineup.

Furthermore, the Tigers are sixth in the American League in offensive strikeouts and lead all of baseball with 64 double plays. When the offense stalls, teams needs to be able to manufacture runs, and the Tigers have been unable to with all the strikeouts and double plays.

Is it time to be worried about the extension that Detroit gave Victor Martinez? How is his injury impacting the team?
DH: This team is in win-now mode, so I don’t think many fans care yet about Martinez’s contract. That being said, his absence is a huge problem. I would argue that J.D. Martinez isn’t seeing good pitches to hit like he did last season because he doesn’t have Victor batting in front of him. Cespedes has been better in the No. 4 spot lately, but at first he really struggled there, and that affects the quality of pitches Cabrera receives.

Even with Cespedes hot in the cleanup spot recently, the Tigers lineup is much better if he can bat sixth rather than fourth. To sum up, without Victor Martinez, there is more pressure on Kinsler, Cespedes and J.D. to produce around Cabrera, and for the most part, those three guys have failed to do that.

The Tribe is slated to face David Price, Justin Verlander and Alfredo Simon this weekend. The first two are Cy Young winners, but Simon has been hot so far this season – who should the Indians fear the most?
DH: It’s definitely Price. He is the ace of this staff now. Price has pitched into the seventh inning in all his starts but two and in one of those, it snowed in Detroit, so it wasn’t exactly his fault he couldn’t hold onto the ball that night. To me, an ace gives a pitching staff innings and provides his team a chance to win every game he starts.

The Tigers are 10-2 in games where Price starts. The two losses are the snow game and a start in Los Angeles where the Tigers offense only provided two runs.

One final thing Tribe fans should keep in mind as this weekend series begins?
DH: The days of trying to get through the Detroit starter and into the bullpen are over. The Tigers are eighth in the MLB with a 3.19 ERA from relievers. Joakim Soria has filled in nicely for the injured Joe Nathan, who is out for the season. Soria is 16-for-18 in save chances and has a 1.46 ERA and 0.73 WHIP this year.

Next: Reasonable expectations for Urshela in Cleveland

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