- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The talk in spring training wasn’t how good the Detroit Tigers would be this season; it was how many games it would take for them to win the World Series. It could have been preseason hype gone awry, or it could have been genuine infatuation with how deep their lineup was. But with all the bouquets being tossed the Tigers’ way - including some in the preseason predictions of this newspaper - it seemed a foregone conclusion the team at least would make the playoffs.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, the flaw in that line of thinking can be seen. The Tigers were 10 1/2 games behind the White Sox and Twins as of Sunday, chiefly because of a bullpen that everyone should have seen wasn’t up to snuff and a lineup filled with aging hitters that brings a lot more in reputation at this point than in actual productivity.

There likely will be no World Series for the Tigers; in fact, there might not be so much as a winning record. And that’s because all the issues that Detroit’s vaunted lineup was supposed to suppress eventually popped up.

The bullpen was the one concern everyone had about the Tigers at the beginning of the season. Closer Todd Jones’ walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) had been on the rise each of the last three seasons, and Joel Zumaya, though an overpowering eighth-inning presence, has been an injury concern most of his career. The rest of the corps, while functional, didn’t have enough staying power to get the Tigers through a whole season.

But the thinking went that Detroit wouldn’t need a bullpen, because it would be up by eight runs every night. That’s where the rest of the hype surpassed the reality - that some of the key players in the Tigers’ lineup had been declining for several seasons.

Gary Sheffield is perhaps the most prominent example. The 39-year-old outfielder hadn’t hit 30 home runs since 2005, hadn’t driven in 100 runs since that same season and had played just 172 games the previous two years.

Getting on base has always been the strength of Sheffield’s game - his on-base percentage topped .400 for nine straight seasons from 1995 to 2004 - but as he has struggled at the plate, he has been less selective. Sheffield’s walk totals are down, and he’s on pace to set a single-season high for strikeouts. One of the great hitters of his generation, Sheffield isn’t consistent enough to be a middle-of-the-order presence anymore.

Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen have had solid seasons, but neither one is slugging like he would have needed to in order to keep Detroit winning games in spite of its pitching woes. Ordonez’s slugging percentage is down more than 100 points from last season, and Guillen’s has dropped 67.

That has left much of the heavy lifting to Miguel Cabrera, who has hit 25 homers and driven in an impressive 95 runs through Sunday. But he has quickly turned into the only consistent power threat in a lineup that was supposed to be full of them.

Detroit still could put together a run to catch Chicago or Minnesota, but the Tigers are more likely left to analyze what needs to be repaired before next season. They could start with the aging lineup and shaky bullpen.

And that doesn’t even count the meltdown of Dontrelle Willis.

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