- Phil Rogers
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Forgive Jim Leyland and his Detroit Tigers if they choose not to fraternize with the Cleveland Indians this week at Comerica Park. The Indians' pain has to hit close to home for a Tigers team swimming upstream in the American League Central.
Entering the season, many expected Cleveland and Detroit to be playoff teams. But the two-game series that started Tuesday night found them far behind the surprising Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins.
It's been that kind of a season. White is black, up is down and everyone is chasing the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Parity, parity, parity," is the way Cubs manager Lou Piniella put it over the weekend. "Every team out there can beat you. There isn't what you would call an invincible team, unless Tampa Bay's that team. There is some real competitive balance."
This week's Cleveland-Detroit series provides a grim reminder of how fleeting success can be.
CC Sabathia was traded to Milwaukee on Monday, a gesture of surrender that should reverberate in both clubhouses.
The Tigers, after all, are still seven games behind the first-place White Sox and 4½ behind the second-place Twins as they continue to try to dig out from a 16-26 start in which the giddiness of March turned into the fear of a colossal disappointment. Detroit played better in June, getting guys like Gary Sheffield and Joel Zumaya back from the disabled list, but can't hide its widespread underachievement.
Despite a payroll of almost $138 million, the third largest in the major leagues, the Tigers were one of six teams that wouldn't have had an All-Star if not for the rule requiring each franchise to be represented.
This is not a ringing endorsement for the work of general manager Dave Dombrowski, who has kept adding pieces to the team that lost to St. Louis in the 2006 World Series. Sheffield was acquired in '07. Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and the already released Jacque Jones followed last winter.
The challenge in evaluating Cabrera, Willis and Jones is in ranking their disappointing performances in order.
Willis, currently working on his mechanics and conditioning at Class A Lakeland, and the overweight Cabrera have been bigger problems than Jones ever was. But those two can't be wiped from view easily, not with the $181 million in contract extensions they received after the trade that sent Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin and four others to Florida.
For Cabrera (.291, 15 HR, 53 RBIs), Willis and the rest of the Tigers, the job is to get Detroit into serious contention before Dombrowski must consider dealing his movable parts -- free-agents-to-be Ivan Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones and possibly Edgar Renteria (Atlanta must pay his buyout if the Tigers don't exercise his 2009 option) -- and looking toward next season.
Before the season began, some were predicting that the muscular, seemingly balanced Tigers could score 1,000 runs. But scoring has been a problem for both Detroit and Cleveland, with the Tigers tied for fifth in the AL at 4.8 runs per game and the Indians ninth at 4.3.
Injuries took a toll on both lineups.
Curtis Granderson, Detroit's prototypical leadoff man, broke a bone in his right hand at the end of spring training and missed the first 17 games of the season. Sheffield and Magglio Ordonez have both had stints on the disabled list, and top reserve Brandon Inge recently went on the DL after losing a wrestling match with a pillow. True story.
Cleveland's injury situation has been worse. Travis Hafner, arguably the AL's top slugger in 2006, has been bothered by shoulder problems since midway through '07. He was hitting .217 in 46 games before admitting that he needed help. Switch-hitting catcher Victor Martinez, a cleanup man when healthy, underwent elbow surgery in mid-June.
This team has heart. Whether we're in first place or last place, we play hard. That's one of the marks of the Cleveland Indians.
--Indians RHP Paul Byrd
The Indians' decision to target Double-A outfielder Matt LaPorta in the Sabathia trade reveals the team's disappointment in corner outfielders David Dellucci, Franklin Gutierrez, Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo.
Sabathia and Fausto Carmona combined to win 38 games last season before flaming out at the end of Cleveland's seven-game American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. But Carmona has joined third starter Jake Westbrook (Tommy John surgery) on the sidelines since May 24 with a strained hip. Carmona has resumed throwing and could be close to beginning a rehabilitation assignment, but the Sabathia trade signals that general manager Mark Shapiro believes there's no hurry to rush him back.
Pitching carried Detroit to a seemingly ahead-of-schedule pennant in 2006, only three years after it had gone 43-119. But the Tigers haven't been able to recapture that ability to consistently neutralize opposing lineups.
With Jeremy Bonderman out for the season after problems with blood clots, Willis bedeviled by control problems and ace Justin Verlander an uncharacteristic 6-9, the Tigers have a 4.39 staff ERA, which ranks 11th in the AL. Cleveland's is 4.36, which ranks 10th.
Before trading Sabathia, the Indians essentially released closer Joe Borowski, who had saved 45 games in 2007. Opponents were hitting .333 against him this season, and his ineffectiveness weighed on his fellow relievers. Cleveland's bullpen is last in the AL with a 5.16 ERA.
The Indians have lost nine in a row and 12 of their past 14. Before leaving on a trip to Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit on June 30, manager Eric Wedge put his players on notice.
"This is going to tell everyone what they want to know about us, one way or another," Wedge said.
Paul Byrd, the journeyman starter who won 15 games a year ago, insisted the Indians weren't going to roll over.
"This team has heart," Byrd said. "Whether we're in first place or last place, we play hard. That's one of the marks of the Cleveland Indians. That's why I love being here. That said, things are not going our way this year. The ball is not bouncing our way. But that's the way it is."
Kansas City climbed past Cleveland in the AL Central standings on June 30, putting the Indians into last place this late in a season for the first time since 1993. Back-to-back 10-inning losses to the White Sox on July 1 and 2 forced Shapiro to concede that the season was lost.
Dombrowski could soon find himself facing baseball's most sobering decision. The Tigers finish the first half with a four-game series against Minnesota and are due a visit from the White Sox July 25-27. Their play in those series, and their situation as the month draws to a close, should determine whether Dombrowski invests even more heavily in the hope of salvaging the season or decides it's time to get younger and, yes, cheaper.
The jury is out, but for how much longer?
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
The Indians and Tigers were expected to be playoff contenders this season. And while Cleveland has essentially given up on its season, Detroit clings to hope.