by Trevor Whenham - 06/01/2006
If you had asked me at the beginning of the season which team would have the best record in baseball after 50 games, you would have had to give me 25 guesses before I'd have picked the Tigers. Next to the Royals and the Rays, no team has been more pathetic and hopeless for longer. Yet, somehow, the Tigers are doing very well, and it is past the point of being a lucky streak or a fluke. This team is for real. It's a long season, so it's way too early to say whether they will hold it together and make the postseason, but for now no one can argue with their success. But will it last? Are they worth a bet? Here's a look at seven reasons to believe:
Jim Leyland - Alan Trammell was a hero as a player for the Tigers, and a wizard with the glove at shortstop, but his three years as manager were, to varying degrees, a disaster. Leyland had won a World Series in Florida, and had two Manager of the Year trophies on his mantle from his days in Pittsburgh, so if anyone could turn Detroit around it was him. Not even Leyland himself could have seen this coming, though. He's a detail-master -- he's a strong personality on a team without raging egos, and he's virtually got another Manager of the Year trophy locked up already. Leyland and Florida won it all when they weren't supposed to, so anything is possible here.
Magglio Ordonez - 2003 was a nice season for Ordonez, but the two seasons since have been injury-filled and disappointing. He's putting that all behind him this year, though. He's leading the team in batting average, home runs and RBI. Other guys have had hot spurts (Chris Shelton had 10 home runs in April, but just one since), but Ordonez has been steady and reliable. He rarely blows you away with his acrobatics or overwhelming power, but he puts up numbers.
Justin Verlander - Last year, as a rookie, the pitcher posted an 0-2 record with a 7.15 ERA. Nothing about that would make you think that the guy would come out and post a 7-3 record with nine quality starts, and a team leading ERA of 2.55. Oh yeah, he has a 101 mph fastball, too. Opposing batters are only hitting .236 against him. His inning count could get to be a problem late in the season because he's never gone past 130 innings, but for now he's hot and he looks like he'll stay that way. He's provided huge betting value so far, but that is changing as people realize he's for real. He won't be as profitable, but he's still worth a look.
The Roaster - Kenny Rogers is pitching like he's a lot younger than 41, and he hasn't punched out any cameramen all season, either. His 7-3 record is tied with Verlander for the best on the team, and his 3.76 ERA is more than respectable. When he was signed by the Tigers before the season it seemed like a bad joke, but obviously Tiger management saw something that no one else did. He's going more than six innings per start and he's keeping batters off base. Some of the credit has to go to Ivan Rodriguez, who successfully caught for him in Texas and is doing it again here.
The Pitching - I know I just singled out two pitchers, but you can't say too much about this staff. Their combined ERA, 3.51, is almost half a run better than any other team in the majors. The starters are 29-14, and they don't have a real weak spot. Verlander and Rogers are going great, Mike Maroth (5-2) is showing that he's better than the 21 losses he chalked up in 2003, Nate Robertson (5-2) is dealing stuff that he had been hiding his whole career, and Jeremy Bonderman (5-4) is pitching the same solid ball he has been for a few years now. The bullpen has been great, and Todd Jones has been a nasty closer. Pitching wins, and this staff can carry the Tigers a long way.
Defense - The Tigers almost never get let down by their defense. Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco lock down the middle of the infield tight and the rest of the D makes plays when they have to. Add great defense to outstanding pitching, add some acceptable offense, and you have a winning combination. Need proof? See: White Sox, Chicago - 2005.
Offense - This is not an offensive team that will scare anyone, and they are certainly not the best out there. In fact, the only category they lead the American League in is strikeouts. Still, with the pitching and fielding so good, good enough is good enough on offense. They're third in the league in home runs behind Chicago and Toronto. They're in the top half of the league in every offensive statistical category except for RBI, and they're still eighth out of 14 there. They have four starters hitting better than .300. In other words, their offense isn't a liability and, if the pitching stays strong, it is more than enough to win.