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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:08 PM

Early this season we asked if the Detroit Tigers had a starting rotation that could take them to the playoffs. Sure, Justin Verlander was a Cy Young caliber pitcher. But, he could only throw every fifth day. What was going to happen in the other four games? Heading into Sunday Night’s nationally televised game against the Cincinnati Reds on ESPN, the Tigers seem to know that they’ve become a longshot rather than a lock for the AL Central.

That’s a far cry from where things were to start the season. After some offseason personnel moves (most notably paying big money for Prince Fielder), the Tigers were a consensus pick to not just win the AL Central…but to run away with it. Nobody else looked like a contender. Detroit was supposedly a World Series team.

There’s still time to get back on track because baseball seasons are long and nobody in the division has caught fire for an extended time (the Indians had a nice run for a bit, and the White Sox have been the best of the group lately). Unfortunately, the rotation outlook is even WORSE now that it was at the time of our original article!

*JUSTIN VERLANDER is still a stud, and is still likely to be an overpowering pitcher as long as he stays healthy. Though, we are concerned that he’s feeling so much pressure to carry the team that it’s hurting his performance. He just allowed 8 runs in 12 innings to the Yankees and Red Sox in two starts prior to Saturday Night’s outing in Cincinnati.  The margin for error is so slight with this team that losses by Verlander hurt even more.

*DOUG FISTER has been on the disabled list for several weeks, starting only six games this season. He’s scheduled to come off the DL on June 13th, but it’s not known yet whether he’ll be ready, or back in form. He’s far from certain to be a big plus when healthy because of a low strikeout rate. But, given the other options…it’s CRITICAL that Fister at least come back and start munching some innings.

*DREW SMYLY has held his own as a rookie starter. His ERA of 3.71 and WHIP of 1.25 isn’t the stuff of aces, but will get the job done with normal run support. Unfortunately, those stats are frontloaded with good performances in cooler weather against teams who hadn’t seen him before. He’s struggled in second looks, and has an ERA of 6.41 over his last five starts. There’s no benefit from Fister contributing after a DL stay if Smyly is going to be throwing batting practice to teams who now have a book on him.

*RICK PORCELLO has an ERA of 5.03 this season and a very poor WHIP of 1.54. Horrible for a starter in the post-steroid era. Most teams would try to get that out of the rotation but Detroit has so few options that they keep marching Porcello out there hoping he’ll get some outs. His low K-Rate has always been a problem. You just can’t fool people for long in this sport unless you’re getting strikeouts.

*MAX SCHERZER is even worse than Porcello. He gets a lot of strikeouts, but when hitters make contact the ball goes a long way! Scherzer has an ERA of 5.88 and a WHIP of 1.59. This is a huge disappointment for Tigers fans because the team really needed him to perform if they were going to be taken seriously as a World Series threat.

*ADAM WILK, CASEY CROSBY have picked up five starts in Fister’s spot in the rotation. They have a combined ERA of 8.69. There’s no evidence yet that they’re Major League caliber starters.

Most teams won’t accept an ERA over 5 and a poor WHIP from rotation starters for very long. Detroit HAS to accept that from TWO different rotation guys because they don’t have any other workable options…they might be getting that from a THIRD rotation guy given the recent slump of Smyly…and Fister’s injury put a FOURTH spot in the rotation in the disaster zone. No wonder Verlander is feeling so much pressure!

Hey…if you’re an optimist…there’s nowhere to go but up! Fister may return and be fine. Porcello and Scherzer might get settled in and show some consistency. Smyly is still going to be a question mark given all those second looks…but maybe you can handle that in one spot in the rotation in a weak division. If you’re a pessimist…you can’t have any confidence in Porcello, Scherzer, or Smyly…and you now know that there aren’t good options waiting in the wings given how badly the spot starters pitched. Too many questions marks received negative answers.

Because expectations were so high starting the season, the Tigers have been burning money in Las Vegas like human flames. Heading into the weekend, they were only six games under .500 in the newspaper  standings, but had dropped 17 UNITS against the moneylines. Nobody else in the American League was worse than minus 9 units (and that’s the surging LA Angels). If this continues, Detroit of 2012 may go down as one of the worst preseason market misreads of all time. A team expected to win 90 could easily lose 90.

We’ll be watching the Tigers closely in the coming days. Interleague play can be the cure for what ails you if you’re an AL team off to a slow start. But, the NL may not be the pushover it used to be. Let’s see what’s ahead for Detroit.

Tonight: at Cincinnati on ESPN

Tuesday-Thursday: at Chicago Cubs (a very bad team)

Friday-Sunday: vs. Colorado (home vs. another struggler)

Tuesday-Thursday: vs. St. Louis (defending World Champs)

Friday-Sunday: at Pittsburgh (inconsistent)

That’s pretty easy as far as IL schedules go. Everyone in the Eastern divisions has gauntlets because they have to play each other. The teams in the Central DON’T because they enjoy the luxury of having to play each other! Detroit steps out of the Central to draw Colorado, which is a lucky break. If the Tigers can make a run vs. that schedule, they could trim some of their current deficit in the AL Central (though they have to hope CWS and Cleveland lose vs. similar schedules). If Detroit continues to struggle on the mound, and actually LOSES ground through Interleague…there’s probably no reason at all for optimism in the second half of the season. Given all the high ERA’s were seeing with the Tigers, we’ll be looking for Over bets in good scoring conditions against that schedule.

Tigers-Reds in prime time on ESPN may or may not be part of JIM HURLEY’S card Sunday in the bases. You’ll have to purchase the ticket to find out! NETWORK is also looking at Mets-Yankees on TBS, Rays-Marlins, Blue Jays-Braves, Nationals-Red Sox, and a few other juicy nuggets. There have been some great matchups in these early days of IL play…and the winning is just beginning!

Game day releases always go up a few hours before first pitch. You can also buy today’s games or the affordably priced seasonal package in our office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about the NBA Finals when you call. That starts Tuesday Night. We’ll run a series preview here in the NOTEBOOK in our Tuesday edition. Monday we’ll get caught up with the Miami Marlins as they get ready to host the Boston Red Sox in a national TV game.

This is going to be a huge week with the NBA playoffs and the bases. Be sure you’re with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK for the handicapping perspective that the mainstream media just can’t provide…and link up with JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK for the best plays on the Las Vegas!

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