The Royals make you feel good right now. How could they not? They are the physical embodiment of their designated hitter's nickname, Country Breakfast, playing ball with a heartiness that has been rare in Kansas City. You look at the team, who just added Josh Willingham's power bat to their ranks, in first place in mid-August, and, for a moment, all things feel possible.
But you can't have the push of the Royals without the plight of the Tigers, and this is the zero-sum reality of the AL Central. Detroit remains every bit as fascinating as they were on July 31, when they swung the David Price deal. The source of that fascination, though, has shifted from emphasis on their supposedly all-world rotation to analysis about the sudden difficulty they've displayed in their attempts to win baseball games. They lost their sixth game in eight days in Pittsburgh on Monday night when Justin Verlander had the shortest and possibly ugliest start of his career before leaving with that most dreaded of pitching injuries -- shoulder soreness. (Verlander will be evaluated on Tuesday.)
You're no doubt wondering: Have the Tigers given away what once looked to be the most winnable division in baseball? Is the question no longer, "How should Brad Ausmus arrange his Cy Young winners in his October rotation?" but rather, "Which of the Cy Young winners should start the Wild-Card Game… if that?"
Let's just state, for the record, that the Tigers already did one belly flop into perilous waters earlier this season (while wearing Zubaz pajamas, no less) and successfully swam to the other side. They went 9-20 from May 19 through June 18 to fall 1 1/2 games behind the Royals, only to build their lead back up to 6.5 games by the break.
Still, it's disconcerting to see Detroit reverse course yet again here in what's beginning to resemble the home stretch.
Even moreso when you read the trend lines.
It's not just the surging Royals or their own battered bodies that the Tigers are dealing with right now. It's the aftermath of all those April rainouts that has complicated an already challenging schedule. The Tigers will have two doubleheaders before month's end, and the Orioles are the only contender with more above-.500 clubs on their remaining slate. So navigating that terrain at less than full strength is not ideal, especially if there's anything to be said for the emotional momentum the Royals are working with, now that scoreboard watching is in full effect.
Some will say the Tigers endured similar division drama a year ago, when the Indians finished just a game behind them, but that's a bit misleading. The two clubs didn't face each other at all in September, by which point the Tigers had already taken 15 of 19 from the Tribe. The Indians were fighting for their postseason lives down the stretch, while the Tigers were sending a hobbled Miguel Cabrera to the plate and merely playing the waiting game.
This Royals-Tigers race, though, looks to be the real thing. And for the first time in a long, long time, the Tigers look truly vulnerable.
Anibal Sanchez is hurt, and his rotation replacement, Robbie Ray, has had his ups and downs in Triple-A since coming over from the Nationals in the Doug Fister trade. Ray ditched his cumbersome curveball recently, a move that has led to some better results (a 3.04 ERA with 12 walks and 19 strikeouts in his last 23 2/3 innings), so we'll see how well that translates in his second big league stint.
More jarring, perhaps, is the injury to Joakim Soria that thins an already battered bullpen -- an area that's difficult to augment in August, especially when you're low on the waiver-wire pecking order.
The Tigers undoubtedly boosted their rotation with the Price pickup, but not without some present-day setbacks. Granted, if you have a chance to add Price to your rotation at the cost of Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and a 19-year-old named Willy Adames, you do it. Many executives are still marveling at the way Dave Dombrowski swooped in and stole the trade deadline's most attractive asset.
But as soul-stirring as the Price swap was for Tigers fans, Jackson had been the Tigers' best hitter in the second half (.947 OPS) and had recently returned to the leadoff role. His absence was particularly evident in Sunday's 19-inning loss, when Rajai Davis turned in a ghastly 0-for-8. Davis is a burner when he gets on base, and Ezequiel Carrera turned in one of the defensive highlights of the season in Price's debut last week, but it's asking a lot of that tandem to make more than replacement-level contributions in a regular role. And Smyly arguably could have augmented the left-handed look of the bullpen come October, when every out is precious.
Anyway, little of the above will be meaningful if Cabrera and Victor Martinez are mashing in the middle of the order and Scherzer and Price are routinely delivering shutdown innings.
The Tigers, though, are clearly asking an awful lot of their stars, because the supporting cast has struggled. J.D. Martinez is playing into the hands of anybody who wondered if he might turn back into a pumpkin in the second half, and the offensive impact of Ian Kinsler, Eugenio Suarez and Alex Avila has been negligible, at best.
Look, the Tigers' situation wouldn't seem so extreme if their expectations weren't equally high. And if their payroll realities didn't so closely align with those expectations, maybe 2014 wouldn't be all that big a deal.
But make no mistake: 2014 is a HUGE deal to these Tigers -- it's one of the prime contending years for an aging and expensive roster.
Yes, they got out of the Prince Fielder contract, a maneuver that looked wily at the time and looks downright brilliant now that there's no telling if Prince will ever even scratch the surface of his former feats. But the 31-year-old Verlander's mammoth five-year, $140 million extension doesn't kick in until next year, and the 31-year-old Miguel Cabrera has a career-low OPS two years before his gargantuan $248 million extension even begins.
More to the point, the Tigers have more than $80 million committed to four 30-somethings -- Cabrera, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler -- as well as another $10 million committed to a 40-something closer named Joe Nathan, and the expectation is that they'll make every attempt to re-sign 35-year-old slugger Victor Martinez, too.
This is why so much emphasis is put on the present. And while the Tigers' dominance over the AL Central was once considered a formality, that outlook has been altered considerably in recent days.
They remain one of baseball's most fascinating teams -- just not the way they would've liked.
Those Royals, on the other hand…