The good news, for the understaffed Detroit Tigers, is that Justin Verlander came back last night from his back tightness. The bad news, however, is that he is still not the Justin Verlander the Tigers remember or need if they are going to keep pace in the AL Central.
At his height, of course, Verlander was almost certainly the best pitcher in baseball. A workhorse and a thoroughbred who somehow got stronger as he went deeper into games. He won the Cy Young and the MVP in 2011 and somehow was almost exactly as good the very next year. His average fastball velocity was 95 miles per hour. As a starter. And it made his changeup and curveball so much more effective. Hitters, quite simply, were unfairly outmatched by the incredible Verlander.
Then, he turned 30, and like so many of us, began the slow, sad descent toward middle age. His velocity started to fall as his body began to fail him. Last year, in particular, he required abdominal surgery and suffered from a sore shoulder. This year, a triceps strain kept him out until early June, and he only made two disappointing starts before his back problems cropped up. And last night? In his big return, Verlander struggled to top 93 MPH and walked five batters. No, this is not Justin Verlander. Not as we knew him.
And this Justin Verlander simply is not equipped to help the Tigers. This, of course, prompts the most important question: do the Tigers have the pitching necessary to compete in 2015 if the Verlander they get is a shadow of his former self. It doesn't seem likely. Despite being two games above .500, the Tigers have actually been outscored in 2015. Anibal Sanchez has struggled, especially at keeping balls in the park, and the 5th starter brigade of Shane Greene, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, and Buck Farmer have all proven inadequate. Tigers pitchers rank 11th in the American League in ERA and FIP. American League starters have a 4.06 ERA overall, while Detroit's rotation has a 4.24 ERA. Yet, Tigers pitchers have an average number of quality starts, suggesting that the problem is isolated toward the back of their rotation.
After last night's loss, the Tigers remain six games back of the Royals, who look awfully unassailable at the moment with their 20 all-star roster. But at just a game out of one of the Wild Card spots? With no team looking poised to go on a run? The Tigers still are in this fight to get to the postseason. Baseball Prospectus agrees, giving Detroit still a 43.2 percent chance at making the playoffs.
Once there, David Price and Alfredo Simon still give the Tigers a strong pairing to lead with in any series. The time to make a deal to bolster the rotation is now, especially with an aging core of talent and a closing window to stay competitive. This may be the last hurrah for these Tigers, and it makes sense to leverage what little they have left in the farm system to make their move.