The implosion of the Detroit Tigers

Let's get this out of the way: The Kansas City Royals are in first place, the Detroit Tigers are in second place. It's the middle of August and we have baseball fever in the AL Central.

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Who would you rather have? David Price ... or Doug Fister, Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly, Jhonny Peralta and Joaquin Benoit?

I know that's a little unfair to Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski since those players weren't all involved in the same transactions, but it's related to this point: For the past four seasons, the Tigers have been the ultimate stars and scrubs team, top heavy in big-name performers who have delivered some monster seasons but a team that has lacked depth and won three consecutive division titles despite some obvious holes.

Trading for Price sort of doubled down on this philosophy. He provided an upgrade over Smyly -- although smaller than most people acknowledged when the trade was made -- but it also came at the expense of losing your starting center fielder in Jackson, a solid, league-average player both at the plate and in the field. In trading away Jackson, Dombrowski and the Tigers were also doubling down on the emergence of J.D. Martinez, and on Rajai Davis continuing to play well as an everyday player.

One big problem with the stars and scrubs approach: What happens when the stars don't play like stars?

Justin Verlander had been suffering through a bad season and on Monday we finally got an answer as to perhaps one reason why: He left after one inning, five runs and 40 pitches with a sore right shoulder, in a game the Pirates eventually won 11-6. Verlander has said all season he's healthy, so maybe it's unfair to speculate that he has pitched through an injury, but it certainly makes you wonder. Maybe this just happened at the most inopportune time, the day after Anibal Sanchez landed on the disabled list with a right pectoral strain, and also on the day that the Royals had a chance to take over first. If Verlander does join Sanchez on the DL, it will be the first DL stint of his major league career.

Obviously, let's hope that Verlander's injury isn't serious. But Jim Leyland worked this guy extremely hard over the years; he led the majors in pitches in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013 and was second in 2010. And that doesn't include the 71 innings and over 1,100 pitches that Verlander has pitched in the postseason since 2011. As much of a workhorse as he's been, that arm has a lot of high-velocity mileage on it, and we all know that velocity has been down this season. It's possible that his greatness was gone even before he exited Monday's game (and that, as much as anything, may be why Dombrowski pulled the trigger on the Price trade, figuring it's now or never with Verlander in decline and Max Scherzer likely leaving after the season as a free agent).

As for Monday's game, there doesn't appear to be a sudden drop in velocity or a moment when you can pinpoint an injury, not like when Jose Fernandez blew out his elbow. Here's a chart of Verlander's pitch-by-pitch velocity readings on Monday. Did he pitch the whole inning with a sore shoulder? It will be interesting to see the fallout here. The one-inning outing also came after a 19-inning loss, so the Detroit bullpen was already pitching on fumes. It also came after the Tigers went 2-5 last week and saw their five-game lead evaporate. It comes in a week where the Royals have four games against the Pirates and three against the Mariners, two solid playoff contenders.

Is it time to panic in Detroit? Absolutely. As I wrote on Sunday, the Royals have a better bullpen, better team defense and better team speed. And the rotations? The Royals have a 3.75 ERA, the Tigers 3.73 (obviously, that only includes two Price starts).

I'm not kicking the Tigers to the curb, but suddenly two-fifths of the team's biggest strength may be missing and you're looking at a Tigers team that doesn't have the depth of last year's squad, easily the best of its three division-winning teams. Peralta and Benoit both left as free agents after solid contributions in 2013 and prior seasons. Smyly was a huge bullpen weapon before joining the rotation this year. Fister was traded away in the controversial offseason deal with the Nationals that brought over pitchers Ian Krol and Robbie Ray, neither of whom has impressed so far in 2014 (Krol in the majors, Ray primarily in Triple-A). The Price trade was necessitated, in part, because of the Fister trade.

So now the Tigers are relying on Martinez, who was released in spring training by the Astros. He made some minor tweaks to his swing and got off to a huge start with the Tigers after beginning the season in the minors. But entering Monday's game, in 22 games since the All-Star break he'd hit .197/.256/.342 with 23 strikeouts. I think the jury is still out on whether he's the real deal.

The Tigers are relying Miguel Cabrera to hit like Miguel Cabrera. Not that he's having a bad year, but his .308/.366/.509 line is about the same Melky Cabrera's (.318/.374/.480). The Tigers aren't paying Miggy to hit like Melky.

Oh ... and the Tigers owe Verlander $140 million over the next five seasons and Cabrera $270 million over the next nine seasons.

Now or never? Maybe.

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The stars-and-scrubs Tigers remind me a lot of the late '90s Mariners. From 1995 to 1998, the Mariners had Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner. They made the playoffs in 1995, but lost in the ALCS. The 1996 team scored 993 runs but failed to make the postseason when Johnson was injured. The 1997 club won the AL West but lost to the Orioles in the playoffs. In 1998, Johnson was dealt at the trade deadline and the team finished under .500.

Those Mariners teams possessed unbelievable front-line talent. They had trouble putting together the back end of the rotation and the bullpen. They had holes like Russ Davis and left field and the bench was often weak. The stars were spectacular; the scrubs were not. There were fun and exciting but, ultimately, never even reached a World Series. (The 2000-2003 Mariners regrouped to make the playoffs twice and win 90 games four years in a row, but that was a different team, with only Martinez still around contributing all those years.)

The Tigers may be going down that route. They did reach a World Series in 2012, only to get swept.

Two weeks ago after they acquired Price we were all discussing the impending playoff death match rotation battle between the Tigers and A's.

Now they're in a battle just to get into the playoffs.

Now ... or never.