DETROIT, MI - MAY 04: Magglio Ordonez #30 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates a third inning home run with Miguel Cabrera #24 while playing the New York Yankees at Comerica Park on May 4, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
But it's early, and the Tigers have two big things going for them ...
1. Six weeks ago, they were supposed to be significantly better than the Indians;
The White Sox and Twins entered Wednesday's games 10-1/2 and 11 games out of first place, respectively. At least Chicago can think about improving soon, as the return of Jake Peavy essentially gives them a completely intact roster; the Twins, with Joe Mauer on the Disabled List indefinitely and Justin Morneau still just a shadow of his pre-concussion self, seem to have little chance of turning things around anytime soon.
Anyway, among the supposed preseason contenders, the Tigers are alone in the standings. And 5-1/2 games in the middle of May is not a large gap. In fact, according to Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report, the Tigers still rate as slight favorites over the Indians in the American League Central.
Again, we must recall that just six weeks ago, the Tigers looked better than the Indians. These last six weeks do count -- both in the standings and in terms of projecting future performance -- but everything before these last six weeks also counts, and everything before suggested the Tigers would finish ahead of the Indians this season.
The Tigers' strengths include the Miguel Cabrera-fueled hitting attack, which ranks second in the American League in scoring despite pedestrian on-base and slugging percentages. Something there has to give, so if the Tigers are going to keep scoring runs in bunches they'll actually have to hit better than they've hit. Considering that struggling second baseman Will Rhymes has been replaced by Scott Sizemore and third baseman Brandon Inge almost certainly can't doing as poorly as he's been doing, there's definitely room for improvement. Too, Austin Jackson figures to eventually find a happy place between last season's 102 OPS+ and this season's 77.
Meanwhile, Detroit's pitchers haven't been as effective, with a 4.23 ERA that ranks just 11th in the league.
But there's reason for optimism there, too. Starters Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have all pitched well, and should continue to pitch well. Phil Coke entered his Wednesday start with a 4.75 ERA but has probably deserved better. The only weak link in the rotation has been Brad Penny, but 1) Penny did pitch well for the Cardinals last season, and 2) if Penny can't get things together, the Tigers actually have a full quartet of pitching prospects with Class AAA Toledo, just champing at the bit.
Really, though, the starters haven't been the problem. Detroit's relief corps sports a 5.27 ERA, worst in the American League. There's no reason to think the Tigers will finish the season with outstanding bullpen stats, but simple regression should at least get them a little closer to the middle of the pack.
Six weeks ago, the Tigers were essentially co-favorites to win the Central, but with two other teams. Today they're still co-favorites, but now with just one other (surprising) team. That's progress, and reason to believe.