By Will Burchfield
Though six months of the 2016 season, the Detroit Tigers are…what?
A bounce-back success story, contending for the playoffs after a last-place finish in 2015? Or an underachieving disappointment, struggling to keep up despite their loaded payroll? It’s a matter of perspective, of course, and either narrative rings true.
But really, who cares?
With 23 games remaining, here’s the simple truth: this team’s legacy is still up for grabs.
The Tigers’ season will be defined in the firestorm that lies ahead. Between Friday night at Comerica Park and Oct. 2 in Atlanta – a span of 23 games in 24 days – the Tigers will either rise to the occasion and make the playoffs or come up small and miss out. There’s no middle ground for a team with championship aspirations. It can go one of only two ways.
As it stands today, the Tigers are one game behind Baltimore for the second wild card spot and six games behind Cleveland in the A.L. Central. Fan Graphs lists their playoff odds at 47.2 percent. One race offers significantly more hope than the other: the Tigers have a 43.7 percent chance of securing a wild card berth and a 3.5 percent chance of winning the division.
Looking ahead, they have one big factor on their side. More than their experience, their late-game spunk and the probable return of Nick Castellanos, the Tigers will benefit from their favorable schedule.
For a team needing to gain ground while piling up as many wins as possible, the road ahead couldn’t be any clearer. When they’re not playing teams directly in front of them, the Tigers will be playing teams that have been buried for months. This ball club controls its own destiny and won’t have to bend over backward to secure it.
Aside from a three-game series with the Kansas City Royals in the last weekend of September, Detroit’s remaining games come against the Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves. They play the Indians and Twins seven times a piece.
If they’d like to redeem themselves against Cleveland, they’ll get every chance down the stretch. The two teams meet for three games next weekend in Ohio, before convening for a potentially massive four-game set at Comerica Park to close out the month.
But that’s looking too far ahead.
What matters right now is the series at hand with the Orioles. Baltimore took three of four from the Tigers during Detroit’s horrific slide back in May, but it was the fourth game of that series, a 6-5 Tigers win, that may have pulled their season back from the ledge. Hope has been restored since, but it lingers between here and gone. The Tigers must put forth a strong performance this weekend.
From there, plenty of “gimmies” lie in their path. Of the Tigers’ final 20 games, half – yes, half – come against the Twins and the Braves, the two worst teams in baseball. Detroit has pummeled Minnesota this year to the tune of 10 wins in 12 games. Meanwhile, if the Tigers head into the final weekend of the season needing, say, three straight wins, a road series in Atlanta will never be more welcome.
With a 75-64 record through 139 games, the Tigers are on pace for 87 wins. Since the MLB expanded the playoffs in 2012, the second A.L. wild card team has averaged 90 wins. And that’s just about the pace we’re looking at right now, with Baltimore trending toward 88 wins and Toronto, the first wild card team, trending toward 89.
So the Tigers will likely have to outplay their current winning percentage down the stretch, but not by much. Let’s put the target for the wild card at 90 wins. To get there, the Tigers will need to finish 15-8 — a strong push, to be sure, but not quite a hair-on-fire surge.
If the Tigers take seven of ten from the Twins and Braves – a totally realistic expectation – they’ll have to win eight of 13 games against the Orioles, Indians and Royals. There are a number of ways to achieve that goal, but suffice to say the Tigers simply need to win series.
The most important one begins Friday against Baltimore.