MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Tigers not exactly toothless, but lacking bite

Missing Martinez, lineup still vaunted but not producing

Tigers not exactly toothless, but lacking bite

DETROIT -- We haven't seen a Tigers team like this in a long while. It's not a bad team, it's not a fatally flawed team, it's not a frightened team, it's not an unmotivated team.

But it is a vulnerable team. One that has had unexpected difficulty generating runs and momentum. One that can no longer be considered the outright, obvious favorite to win an American League Central in which the Royals have captivated the baseball world, the Twins have shocked it and an upwardly mobile Indians team might still very well have considerable say.

"I think it's more pressure on us," Miguel Cabrera said, "because the last four years, we won. So we want to win it again. The pressure's on us."

Not that Detroit hasn't been tested over the course of winning four straight division titles. The Tigers outlasted the eventual AL-champion Royals by just a single game last year and the Tribe by just one game the year before that.

Right now, though -- with Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander still on the mend, with five straight losses on the ledger, with a 17-23 record since April 21, with an overall record that puts them as close to last place as it does to first -- the Tigers find themselves truly wallowing in the middle of a division that is, as advertised, deeper and more dynamic than it has ever been.

And right now, the supposedly deepest and most dynamic element of the Tigers themselves -- their vaunted lineup -- is letting them down.

"We've had some ups and downs in other years, too," said team president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski. "But for us, this is the most trouble we've had scoring runs on a consistent basis."

To be more specific, this is the most trouble that Detroit has had scoring runs since 2003 -- a season that, um, didn't go particularly well.

There are many amazing, unforeseen statistics that make up a Major League season. Here's one that really stands out so far in 2015:

The Tigers have scored two runs or fewer in 47 percent of their games. That's, like, almost half.

We expect more from Detroit. This is a club with a sure-fire Hall of Famer in Cabrera, an igniter in Ian Kinsler, potent corner outfield bats in Yoenis Cespedes and J.D. Martinez. All things are relative in this age of depressed offensive numbers, but the Tigers profiled as a team with a well-above-average offense.

Heck, if you would have known going into the season that they'd get OPS marks around .800 from Anthony Gose and Jose Iglesias -- two guys whose contributions were expected to be almost totally on the defensive end -- you'd have assumed Detroit was more loaded than ever.

Of course, at the moment, this is a team without Martinez and left-handed-hitting catcher Alex Avila, both of whom are sidelined with knee issues. Those ongoing absences have hurt the Tigers' balance.

Martinez has begun swinging a bat while rehabbing at his home near Orlando, Fla. Avila is slightly ahead of V-Mart in his progression from a knee injury that initially appeared as though it would require surgery.

In the meantime, manager Brad Ausmus, acknowledging that "things weren't working," shook up his lineup for Tuesday's tilt against Oakland, moving the struggling Kinsler down to the No. 5 hole and Iglesias up to the No. 2 spot. For one night, at least, the moves didn't move the needle. Detroit lost, 5-3.

"Somebody's going to pay eventually," Ausmus said, referring to opposing pitchers and the law of averages.

Possibly. But it's also possible that the Tigers, who are 6-for-their-last-50 with runners in scoring position, will continue to sputter offensively until V-Mart is back to grind out at-bats in the middle of the order. Even then, we'll have to see if the 36-year-old Martinez can get to a point where he's truly comfortable swinging from the left side, a post-surgery problem for him in the early portion of 2015.

And let's not forget that Detroit has another more predictable concern -- a starting rotation that hasn't consistently delivered quality starts in the post-Max Scherzer Era.

Look, David Price is as electric as advertised in his contract year. And Alfredo Simon has arguably been the most stable of the Tigers' starting five.

But with Anibal Sanchez serving up home runs at an alarming rate, Shane Greene posting an ERA north of 8.00 over his past eight starts and Kyle Lobstein out with a sore shoulder, Detroit just can't seem to get in a groove from a starting standpoint.

Let's face it: Verlander, who will likely make one more Minor League rehab start before rejoining the rotation, was a major question mark before injured his triceps. Now the Tigers need him to come back from his first career DL stint and get back to an elite level quickly.

"If you can throw five good starters out there that are above average, then you can get on a roll at some point," Dombrowski said. "I think that'll be much easier with Justin."

How weird is this? Though you wouldn't know it from Tuesday's loss, the Tigers have a solid bullpen, an above-average defense and the most stolen bases in the AL.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when typing that sentence would have caused your computer to explode. It did not compute. Detroit's formula was quality innings from the starting staff and a lethal, mostly station-to-station lineup that covered over many issues.

The rotation isn't the strength it once was, but that's not a major shock. What's shocking is the inability of the offense to create crooked numbers. And yes, it has made the Tigers look particularly vulnerable in a division that does not appear to be forgiving.

"When you're in a good division," Cabrera said, "you've got to play at a high level."

The Tigers simply haven't reached that level yet.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.