By Ashley Dunkak

DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – Ten games over .500, the Detroit Tigers still look a little vulnerable.

Statistically speaking, the Tigers are hands-down one of the best teams around. Their starting pitchers had a phenomenal run, and their lineup strikes fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers with a .281 collective average bolstered by the sky-high .365 average of 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.

A closer look reveals a suspect bullpen and a worrisome lack of clutch hitting, the latter the same weakness that troubled the Tigers in the World Series last season.

The most glaring area of need has been the bullpen. Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit pitched nearly flawlessly most nights, but the rest of the group struggled more often than not. Phil Coke’s ERA is 5.83, and while Al Alburquerque showed moments of excellence, he has been inconsistent.

Many expect the Tigers to trade for relievers this month, but Detroit manager Jim Leyland maintained that he was not holding out hope for a trade to solve the problems.

“I’ve got to go win with what we’ve got,” Leyland said before the All-Star break. “If we get a pleasant surprise, that’s great, but I don’t count on that. Everyone thinks that … you just go out and make a deal and pluck another beautiful flower off the tree. It doesn’t work that way. That’s a lot easier said than done.

“[You don’t] tell Mr. Ilitch, ‘Oh, just open up your wallet a little farther and give us a little bit more,’” Leyland added. “That doesn’t work that way. That’s not fair. So I’m willing to go with what we’ve got, and if some way we would get a pleasant surprise, I would be thrilled, but I’m counting on this is what we’ve got, and I’m going to try to do the best we can with it.”

If Coke and Alburquerque in particular can iron out some of their issues, or if the Tigers bring in someone competent from outside, the Tigers would look much more solid.

That said, Detroit can do a better job of maximizing its potential in other areas too. The Tigers have fared very poorly in games in which they score three runs or fewer – they are 3-30 in such situations, to be exact – so they need their incredibly talented group of hitters to take advantage of the opportunities they get and give the pitchers more breathing room.

Cabrera is obviously the center piece of the offense. He is second in the major leagues with 30 home runs, and he has an MLB-leading 132 hits. His on-base percentage of .458 is the best in the game. Prince Fielder, who bats right behind Cabrera, is no slouch either, of course.

Those two are the Tigers batters most likely to be discussed, but the most pivotal guys in the lineup will end up being the players immediately in front of and behind them.

Torii Hunter bats second, in front of Cabrera. Victor Martinez bats fifth, behind Fielder.

Hunter’s batting average is .315, and he has nine multi-hit games in his team’s last 12 outings. As much as he has helped Detroit already, Hunter could make a big impact by walking a little more often and striking out a little less. Hunter walked just 17 times in the first 93 games and struck out 63 times, including 12 times in the last 13 games.

His strikeouts are the most of any player batting second for the five other division-leading games, while only Shane Victorino of the Boston Red Sox has recorded fewer walks. Granted, Hunter’s batting average is also the highest in the group. Still, if he can get on base just a little more often, he could further help out the team by putting Cabrera at the plate in a runners-on situation – a scenario in which Cabrera often dominates even more so than usual, with an OBP of .491.

Martinez emerged recently as hugely influential. He struggled to get going through much of the first half, still getting acclimated to the game after missing 2012 with an ACL tear. In July, Martinez hit his stride. Starting June 29, he got hits in 15 of the last 16 games before the All-Star break, including seven multi-hit games. His resurgence helped ignite the offense on several occasions and will continue to do so if he can stay hot.

A career .300 hitter, Martinez is in the best position of anyone on the lineup to drive in runs because Cabrera and Fielder get on base so often.

The Tigers suffered from a lack of clutch hitting in the first half, with a 3-9 record in extra-innings games and a 9-12 record in one-run games. Hunter and Martinez are clearly capable of making a huge impact, and if they do, Detroit could return to the World Series even if the bullpen stays mediocre.

Could the Tigers benefit from a closer? Absolutely, but Detroit already has a loaded lineup and very solid starting pitching. Will adding a closer to a team that strong have an impact like the trade deadline deals of C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers or the combination of Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro to the San Francisco Giants? I wouldn’t bet on it.

The bullpen will have to be better, either through improvement of existing players or through addition, but underestimating the importance of this offense would be a mistake.

After all, when the Tigers lost to the Giants in the 2012 World Series, the Detroit offense only scored six runs over four games. Two of the losses came by a score of 2-0.

You can’t blame the bullpen for that.


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