DETROIT - Despite a two-year absence from the postseason, the Detroit Tigers entered the 2017 season with reasonably high expectations. Few fans expected them to win the AL Central Division, but they were, at the very least, considered a fringe playoff contender.
On paper, the first 38 games probably look like a disappointment. The Tigers don't have a winning record, they're in third place in the division and they haven't capitalized on opportunities against teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay and Chicago.
But there are a handful of reasons to be encouraged by the first six weeks of the season, even if 19-19 doesn't inspire great confidence.
Here are five reasons for optimism despite the team's inconsistent start.
1. Miguel Cabrera isn't hitting yet
Miguel Cabrera has battled slumps at times throughout his Tigers career, but this one has lasted nearly a quarter of a season.
Health has been a factor in the slow start. Cabrera played in only 28 of the first 38 games and is expected to miss the next two or three days with an oblique injury, so getting into a rhythm has been a challenge.
Cabrera has been bad by his standards, totaling just 26 hits, eight extra-base hits and 29 strikeouts in 28 games. His on-base percentage, slugging and OPS are all the worst of his career (counting full seasons), and he's striking out at a much higher clip.
Why should fans feel encouraged by these numbers? Cabrera is still among the best in baseball at making hard contact. He's been the victim of some bad luck and is due for positive regression. He's still Miguel Cabrera, and when he hits his stride, he'll make up for lost time.
Do you believe that luck evens out? If so, you probably think the Tigers have fulfilled their injury quota for the season.
In addition to Cabrera's trip to the disabled list, the Tigers have played significant stretches without Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, JaCoby Jones and J.D. Martinez. Only two of their seven Opening Day position players (excluding the catcher platoon) have played in more than 32 games.
It took only four games for the offense to realize how much it missed Martinez. He returned from the disabled list 33 games into the season and smacked two homers against the Angels on Saturday and two more against the Orioles on Tuesday.
Kinsler was the Tigers' best player in 2016, and they sorely missed him for a period during the West Coast trip. Since his return, Kinsler has 10 hits in six games.
If the Tigers ever get fully healthy, they could really make some noise this summer.
3. Poor starting pitching
There were major questions about the bottom half of the lineup and the back end of the bullpen coming into the season, but the starting rotation was widely expected to be the strength of the team. So far, that has not been the case.
Tigers starting pitchers have allowed the fourth-most runs in the American League, and their 91 walks issued is just two fewer than the league lead. Even the strikeouts are average, as the Tigers rank 10th in the AL.
Justin Verlander is the most surprising culprit. He's issued 25 walks in 48.1 innings and has a WHIP of 1.43. As a notorious slow starter, it shouldn't be long until Verlander returns to his ace form.
Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd have been predictably inconsistent as young starters, but their best starts are still ahead of them. The only starter who hasn't shown positive signs is Jordan Zimmermann, who has one quality start in his last 11 outings dating back to last year.
Michael Fulmer has been excellent so far in his Rookie of the Year encore campaign, but he needs help from the rest of his rotation mates.
It's only a matter of time before Verlander and company hit their stride.
4. Bullpen disaster
The next time you think, "Well, it can't get any worse," remember the first month of the 2017 season.
Tigers relievers have been terrible for the better part of a decade, but the first month of the 2017 season was among the worst of them all.
Through May 7, the Tigers' bullpen was the worst in baseball and had already axed its setup man and closer. Bruce Rondon lasted less than a week in the eighth inning, instead earning a quick demotion to Toledo. Francisco Rodriguez blew four saves in his first 13 outings and almost singlehandedly turned a series sweep into a series loss in Oakland.
But since that night, the bullpen has taken on a whole new feel. Justin Wilson has the electric stuff to handle the closer's role and Alex Wilson has been nearly flawless in the eighth inning. With solid performances from Shane Greene and Blaine Hardy in matchup roles, the back end of the bullpen has seemingly become a strength.
Middle relief is still a huge issue. K-Rod and Anibal Sanchez have proven that they can't get the job done, so Brad Ausmus is essentially operating with only five usable arms (including Chad Bell) in close games.
At the beginning of the year, the bullpen was a glaring weakness. With over 120 games to play, the future looks much brighter.
5. Run differential
On a game-by-game basis, run differential doesn't mean anything in baseball. A win by 10 runs is the same as a walkoff win in extra innings, and vice versa.
But run differential has proven to be a strong predictor of success, not only because teams that win are obviously more likely to have a positive differential, but also because the more dominant teams separate themselves from the pack.
The 2017 Chicago Cubs are a prime example. They won 103 games last season, which was eight more than any other National League team. Their run differential was even more dominant, as their +252 mark was more than 100 runs better than any other team.
Right now, only the three last-place AL teams have worse run differentials than the Tigers. Only two teams in all of baseball have negative run differentials with non-losing records, so the Tigers could be in a much worse position.
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