After missing out on the playoffs last year and spending almost all of October watching meaningful baseball from the comfort of their collective couches, the Detroit Tigers are making a concerted push to snag a postseason berth in the final month of the 2016 regular season.
The team's well-documented struggles against the Cleveland Indians have been costly thus far, with critical ground ceded to the American League Central Division-leading Tribe. Don't count the Tigers out of the division race yet, however, as they look to give Cleveland a fight over the next four weeks. Detroit also has ample opportunity to nail down one of two wild-card spots. (According to FanGraphs.com, the Tigers have a 50.4 percent chance of making the postseason.) Let's take a look at how the playoff picture is shaping up for the Tigers.
Where things stand: The Tigers enter Wednesday trailing the Indians by 4.5 games, and following a huge series win in Kansas City this past weekend, they lead the reigning World Series champion Royals by three games. Detroit is currently one game behind the Baltimore Orioles for the second wild-card spot. And the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays now lead the Orioles by one game with matching 77-61 records, tied for the lead in the AL East and the top wild-card spot. This sets up a potentially entertaining slugfest for the final two spots, not to mention the streaking Houston Astros, who have gone 7-3 in their past 10 games to put some heat on the trio from behind.
What's left: 24 games (14 home, 10 away). Average opponents' winning percentage: .478, which ranks first among the top-five teams in the AL wild-card standings, according to research from ESPN Stats & Info.
Key series: Sept. 9-11 vs. Orioles; Sept. 16-18 at Indians; Sept. 23-25 vs. Royals; Sept. 26-29 vs. Indians.
Biggest threat: The good news for the Tigers is that they are rolling. The bad news? So are the Indians. And if history is any indication, the Cleveland should be plenty confident heading into the final two series against Detroit. So far this season, the Tribe has dominated with an 11-1 record against the Tigers, who finally solved the puzzle with the first win of the season against Cleveland on July 6.
Justin Verlander: The club's resident ace has had a resurgent season, and with so much of the rotation in flux, the Tigers have needed his steady presence on the mound. Should Verlander, 33, continue to perform as well as he has of late, he could pitch himself into a wide-open AL Cy Young race. Not many people would have predicted this sort of season for Verlander, but the Tigers were banking on it. His trade-deadline turnaround last season emboldened the team to make some key offseason additions, and the Tigers are now reaping the rewards of having faith in their battle-tested veteran.
Ian Kinsler: The sure-handed second baseman was the team's most consistent performer last season and, despite his recent struggles, remains one of the team's most essential offensive contributors and the bedrock of the defense at age 34. Kinsler's production took a hit in August, but he is still batting .279 with 25 home runs and 72 RBIs this season. He was held out of the Tigers starting lineup for the second straight night Tuesday, however, because of a finger injury he suffered in the Kansas City series.
Cameron Maybin: Call him what you may -- a catalyst, a spark plug, a source of boundless energy and positivity within the Tigers' dugout -- but the 29-year-old center fielder has been an excellent addition to the Tigers this season. With his speed and offense, he has been a dynamic presence for the team, augmenting a lineup rife with big bats and star power in Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Upton. The biggest concern with Maybin is his durability. He has been hampered throughout the 2016 season with a number of ill-timed injuries and is currently playing through an ailing thumb.
Michael Fulmer: The 23-year-old phenom remains the odds-on favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year honors, and the attention he has garnered is well deserved. Acquired in a trade with the New York Mets at the 2015 trade deadline, he has posted a 10-6 record with a 2.77 ERA and 1.08 WHIP since being called up to the big club at the end of April. Though Fulmer, a former first-round draft pick, was regarded as a promising young prospect in spring training, no one predicted that he would ascend this quickly. Suffice it to say that the Tigers would not be in the playoff race if it were not for his precocious pitching. Workload is a concern, however, with Fulmer already having pitched 136 2/3 innings this season, not counting the 15 1/3 innings pitched in the minors before his call-up. He pitched a total of 124 2/3 innings last season, and the Tigers want to protect Fulmer as a cornerstone of the rotation for years to come.
Biggest concern: Pitching. Though Verlander has been phenomenal in returning to vintage form, several question marks linger as the Tigers jockey for a playoff spot. The team recently activated No. 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann from the disabled list and will depend on him to stabilize and solidify the top of the rotation behind Verlander and provide the sort of veteran experience the staff is conspicuously lacking. The Tigers moved veteran Mike Pelfrey to the bullpen this week, which means that youngsters Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris as well as Anibal Sanchez will be the three candidates to fill the final two spots of the rotation. Consistency has been a challenge for each of the three this season, but that's what the Tigers will require if they want to stay within striking distance of the Indians or in contention for a wild-card spot.