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Springtime Storylines: Can the Tigers win their first division title since 1987?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Everyone’s favorite chain-smoking skipper.

The Big Question: Can the Tigers win their first division title since 1987?

They’ve had some close calls–including a final-week fade in 2006 (that ended in a trip to the World Series) and a Game 163 loss in 2009–but the Tigers haven’t won a division title since 1987, when they took the AL East with a league-high 98 wins. In the 23 years since the Tigers have just seven winning seasons and one playoff appearance.

However, the Tigers have been .500 or better in four of five years under manager Jim Leyland, twice finishing just a game out of first place, and this year Detroit is very much a contender in the stronger-than-usual AL Central thanks to adding free agents Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit to a team that went 81-81 in 2010. Johnny Damon was their only significant offseason departure and the Tigers have an impressive collection of frontline talent, but depth and defense loom as potential issues

Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, and Martinez are an elite 3-4-5 trio, but the Opening Day lineup also figures to include sub par bats Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Inge, and Will Rhymes, who’s filling in at second base for the injured Carlos Guillen. And while Guillen’s return would boost the lineup, a double-play duo of Peralta and Guillen should give nightmares to every pitcher on the staff. Ordonez in right field every day won’t do the pitchers any favors either and as always teams will run at will whenever Martinez is behind the plate.

Similarly, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are an elite top of the rotation, but the Tigers are counting on Brad Penny to stay healthy, Rick Porcello to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore year, and Phil Coke to successfully transition from the bullpen. If everything breaks right the rotation could be one of the league’s best, but there are questions that need to be answered first. Martinez and Benoit were bold signings for general manager Dave Dombrowski, but also contribute to a top-heavy roster relying on old and/or injury prone guys like Ordonez, Benoit, Guillen, Penny, and Inge to stay off the disabled list.

So what else is going on?

  • Detroit loves pitchers with big-time fastballs, as the staff led baseball with an average fastball velocity of 92.4 miles per hour last season and then added Benoit (94.0 mph) and Penny (94.1 mph) while moving Coke (93.6 mph) into a bigger role. Joel Zumaya is the king of the big-time fastballs and his health status is once again uncertain, but with Verlander, Scherzer, Valverde, Benoit, Penny, Coke, and Ryan Perry the Tigers have a staff filled with flame-throwers.
  • Verlander led AL starters in average fastball velocity at 95.4 mph and Scherzer ranked 10th at 93.2 mph, and together they racked up more strikeouts (403) than any duo in the league while combining for a 3.43 ERA in 420 innings. If a third starter steps up they could be scary in the playoffs.
  • Brennan Boesch got everyone’s hopes up by hitting .345 in the first half, but the rookie turned back into a pumpkin by hitting .163 after the All-Star break. He’s obviously not as bad those post-break struggles, but Boesch’s minor-league track record isn’t particularly impressive and despite a reverse platoon split as a rookie he’s probably best suited for no more than a platoon role with Ryan Raburn.
  • Miguel Cabrera got arrested for a DUI while driving to spring training and his off-field behavior has been making headlines for several years, but throughout the personal problems he’s never ceased being one of the best hitters in baseball. He shook off the pre-camp incident to hit .300 with power once the exhibition games started, homered in Game 163 two years ago shortly after being arrested, and is coming off the best season of his career. Whatever you think of him as a human being the guy is on a Hall of Fame path and so far at least the off-field problems haven’t hurt him on the field.
  • Austin Jackson finished runner-up in the Rookie of the Year balloting and would have gotten my vote over Neftali Feliz, but it’ll be interesting to see how he fares as a sophomore. Projecting improvement is natural for a 24-year-old, but Jackson’s rookie production was based largely on an unsustainably amazing .396 batting average on balls in play that led the league. That almost can’t help but come back down to earth at least somewhat, so unless Jackson cuts down on his league-leading 170 strikeouts or develops more power an even better second year isn’t guaranteed.

So how are they gonna do?

Much like the Twins and White Sox, the Tigers have a good but flawed roster that seems headed for 88-92 wins. I’d peg them for third place, but realistically all three teams are basically co-favorites and the Tigers may have the division’s highest ceiling.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 24:  Rich Hill #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the fifth inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. And here are the highlights:

Astros 5, Pirates 4: Evan Gattis and Carlos Correa homer as the Astros scratch out five runs off of Gerrit Cole. Finishing the road trip 5-2 has to make the Astros feel a bit better about things at the moment. They’re still four and a half back with four teams ahead of them in the Wild Card, but there’s still time.

Brewers 7, Rockies 1: Two homers from Ryan Braun, driving in three while Zach Davis allowed one run over six, striking out eight. Four wins in a row for Milwaukee. That means nothing for playoff purposes — they ain’t in the conversation — but they can mention it in the holiday letter.

Athletics 5, Indians 1: Kendall Graveman allowed one run while pitching into the seventh while his teammates scratched out runs with singles, sac flies and reaching on errors. The Indians scored three runs total in this three game series. They somehow managed to win one of the three games but, boy howdy, that’s not what a playoff team wants to do against a losing team with the worst defense in baseball.

Yankees 5, Mariners 0: Gary Sanchez homered again, his seventh in his past nine games and his ninth overall. The Mariners intentionally walked him twice, which had Joe Girardi talking about how unusual it is for a team to do that to a rookie and how much respect it shows for his power. Probably worth mentioning that the guy they walked him in order to get to was Mark Teixeira, who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a friggin’ boat anymore, but I get why Girardi didn’t mention that. Masahiro Tanaka tossed seven shutout innings.

Cubs 6, Padres 3: Kyle Hendricks allowed two runs over six innings which actually increased his ERA from 2.16 to 2.19. He leads all of baseball in that department nonetheless. Ben Zobrist had two hits including a triple which knocked in two.

Orioles 10, Nationals 8: Zack Britton allowed a run on an Anthony Rendon RBI double but his ERA remains a nice 0.69. The reason he was in the game was because Daniel Murphy hit a late grand slam while the Nats were down by seven, transforming a blowout into a save situation. I wonder if Britton had sort of mentally written off his need to pitch before going in. Who knows. Manny Machado and Matt Wieters each drove in four. The win plus the Blue Jays and Red Sox losing brings Baltimore back to within one game of the division leaders.

Angels 8, Blue Jays 2: Albert Pujols homered, pushing him past Mark McGwire on the all-time list. He’s now 10th in history with 584 bombs. He had four hits in all and three RBI. Mike Trout homered too and Matt Shoemaker tossed six shutout innings.

Rangers 6, Reds 5: Yu Darvish of all people homered and Adrian Beltre hit a tiebreaking RBI double in the eighth. The Rangers had a three-run lead, blew it, but pulled it out in the end. Speaking of Rangers, y’all should go see the movie “Hell or Highwater.” I took a night off of baseball last night and saw it and it was amazing. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger of the law enforcement variety and he’s fantastic. Chris Pine was something of a revelation, though, playing a west Texas dude who finds himself living an outlaw life due to desperate circumstances. Just a good, tight, well-written and well-acted flick.

Marlins 3, Royals 0: The Royals nine-game winning streak ends thanks to Jose Fernandez’s nine strikeouts in seven shutout innings. Christian Yelich singled in two. Best news of the night for Miami, though, was trading for Jeff Francoeur. That’s not great for baseball purposes, but he really is a nice young man who will light your day up with his smile.

Rays 4, Red Sox 3: Boston had an early three-run lead that was cut to 3-2 before Evan Longoria‘s eighth inning homer tied things up and forced extras. In the 11th Boston reliever Heath Hembree got two outs before giving up a double to Luke Maile. Then Hembree dropped the toss while covering first base on a Kevin Kiermaier grounder, allowing Maile to score from second. That doesn’t exactly make Kiermaier a hero in this situation, but he made the contact that resulted in the winning run so he is still The Cool Cat of the game, and is still worthy of an award: a video from one year ago today of my kitty cat Scully eating cold oatmeal out of a cup on my desk. She’s the cuuuuuutest. Congratulations, Kevin!

Phillies 5, White Sox 3Tommy Joseph and Cesar Hernandez homered. The White Sox sure had a crappy day yesterday. 

Tigers 9, Twins 4: Miguel Cabrera had four hits, including a homer. The suddenly useful Justin Upton homered as well. Cabrera was a triple shy of the cycle, which we’d like to remind you still isn’t a notable thing.

Cardinals 8, Mets 1: The Cards smacked three homers off of Jacob deGrom who wasn’t too deGreat last night. Carlos Martinez allowed one run over eight innings, however, and that’ll do just deFine.

Diamondbacks 10, Braves 9: Brandon Drury hit a walkoff sac fly in the 11th. Drury was a Braves draft pick once upon a time. They traded him to Arizona to get Justin Upton. That seems like it was about 10,000 years ago.

Dodgers 1, Giants 0: Rich Hill made his Dodgers debut and it was worth the wait: six shutout innings. Four members of the bullpen tossed three more to complete the shutout, which allowed Justin Turner‘s fourth inning solo homer to stand up. A three-game lead in the West now for L.A. This Giants second half is a nightmare.

Albert Pujols passes Mark McGwire with 584th career home run

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 11: Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs out a double during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Angels 14-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Angels DH Albert Pujols passed Mark McGwire for sole possession of 10th place on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard, slugging his 584th career home run in the first inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays.

Mike Trout had already slugged a solo home run off of Jays starter Marco Estrada to bring Pujols to the dish. Pujols jumped on an 0-1 cut fastball, sending it out to left-center field, clearing the fence by a few feet.

Pujols, who finished 4-for-4 with the homer and an RBI double, is batting .257/.321/.441 with 24 home runs and 99 RBI on the year. His next target on the home run leaderboard is Frank Robinson at 586.