Sabermetricians are not big fans of Brennan Boesch, with a full host of reasons. He doesn't walk enough. He doesn't have enough power for a corner outfielder. He's not a very good defensive player. He doesn't exactly run like Austin Jackson. He just had a couple hot months in 2010. He's got a weird reverse platoon split that he won't be able to maintain.
Maybe they're right, but on the other hand ... well, maybe Brennan Boesch isn't so bad. After wrapping a two-run homer around the foul pole in Thursday's 4-1 victory over Seattle, Boesch is hitting .281 with eight home runs on the year. He's drawing enough walks and hitting for enough power to produce an .805 OPS, a figure that may not have had you writing epic poems about Boesch a decade ago but is good enough for 24th in the American League. He's eighth in the league in runs and tied for 18th in RBIs. In 2011 you can win division titles with players like Brennan Boesch.
Which gets us to our issue of the night. The Tigers have the best pitcher in the AL Central. They have the best hitter in the AL Central. Do they have the best team?
With Justin Verlander striking out a season-high 10 (yes, Thursday was his first double-digit strikeout game), the Tigers won for the ninth time in 11 games. They kind of snuck up on us, and now they're just one game behind Cleveland, which isn't simply looking at Detroit in its rear-view mirror but seeing the Tigers race by at 85 mph.
The Tigers scored barely four runs per game in April, but several guys had extremely slow starts: Magglio Ordonez hit .169, Jackson .178 and Brandon Inge .198. Will Rhymes won the second-base job out of spring training but hit .211 with no power to lose the job.
Now the Tigers are starting to mash. Miguel Cabrera and the Brewers' Ryan Braun are the only two players in the majors with at least 45 runs and 45 RBIs. Catcher Alex Avila hit two triples -- yes, two -- deep into the right-center gap on Thursday, and is now hitting .297/.359/.564 and looking more legit by the day. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta is having his best season in years, hitting .313 with eight homers. Victor Martinez is hitting better than .300.
But Boesch is a potentially critical component. If he's the guy who is going to hit in front of Cabrera in Jim Leyland's lineups, then Boesch has to produce -- he's going to get pitches to hit and Miggy needs guys on base to drive in. Boesch is hot right now, hitting .400 in June to raise his average from .254 to. 280. He hit a long two-run homer off Edwin Jackson last weekend in a 4-2 win over the White Sox, went 5-for-6 with two homers Monday in Texas, and then homered again on Thursday against Seattle. If he keeps producing, that gives the Tigers five big threats in the lineup, the kind of offensive depth that is matched by just the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL. (I don't put that Rangers up there, as many of their offensive totals are park inflated.)
For the Tigers, I see five keys:
Lineup selection. Jackson's recent streak has raised his average to .243, but his OBP remains a substandard .302. Leyland seems determined to turn Jackson into a leadoff hitter, but I'm not sure it's in the cards. He strikes out way too much (73 times in 62 games) and doesn't draw many walks. Thursday, Leyland had Peralta and Avila buried in the seventh and eighth spots in the order, while hitting Jackson leadoff and Don Kelly (.303 OBP) second, which makes no sense. It's not 1988 anymore; you don't have two fast, scrappy guys who don't get on base batting one and two in the order. The Tigers lack a classic leadoff hitter, and Jackson is really the speed on the team, but why hit these two guys in front of Cabrera? Why not go Peralta, Boesch, Cabrera, Martinez and Avila, and bunch your best hitters together?
The return of Magglio Ordonez. Does he have anything left? And if he does, where does he play? With Avila mashing, Martinez has basically become the team's everyday DH. Considering Mags plays right field about as well as Al Kaline -- and I mean the statue outside the ballpark -- he may not have a job beyond platooning in the outfield with Andy Dirks.
What's on second? Five guys have played there so far. Ryan Raburn started Thursday, but after a couple good years at the plate, he's lost all semblance of the strike zone with a 63/8 K/BB ratio. Ramon Santiago offers a better glove; if Raburn doesn't start hitting soon, Santiago may become the regular by default.
How good is the bullpen? Jose Valverde comes in with his goggles, shaggy goatee, meat-and-potatoes girth and two-step antics on the mound, but he usually gets the job done as the closer. But the rest of the pen is thin. High-priced setup man Joaquin Benoit has been better of late but remains a question. Rookie Al Alburquerque has 35 strikeouts in 19 2/3 IP but a minor league track record that suggests he won't be able to sustain this. Outside of that, they'll need some of these rookie call-ups, such as Adam Wilk and Charlie Furbush, to surprise and pitch.
Justin Verlander is great, but how good is the rest of the rotation? The Tigers entered Thursday eighth in the AL in ERA among starters, seventh in innings and tied for sixth in quality starts. In other words, decidedly middle of the pack.
In the AL Central that may be enough to win. And if Brennan Boesch continues to defy the skeptics, the Tigers may be the team to beat in the division.
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