When baseball re-starts for the unofficial beginning of the second half Friday, Detroit will sit 3 12 games behind the White Sox, riding a five-game winning streak. Given their roster and pre-season hype, it was always foolish to count Detroit out, even when they sat as many as six games out of first place as they did a month ago.
But the Tigers have a major challenge ahead of them. Yes, they've won five in a row and are two games over .500 for the first time since April 25, but they accomplished that streak by beating Minnesota twice and sweeping Kansas City.
We'll know much more about where Detroit stands in about a month. Here's who the Tigers draw in the next five weeks: @Baltimore (3), vs. Los Angeles (4), vs. Chicago (3), @Cleveland (3), @Toronto (3), @Boston (3), vs. Cleveland (3), vs. New York (4), @Texas (3). That's 29 consecutive games against teams that are currently at or above .500.
They get a three-game break at Minnesota, then face Baltimore, Toronto and Los Angeles on a nine-game homestand. After that, they draw Kansas City away and face the White Sox, Indians, Angels, White Sox, Indians and Athletics -- all teams that are currently at or above .500 -- to take them into late September.
By the time Detroit gets to coast in their final 13 games against Minnesota (6) and Kansas City (7), that brutal stretch could do them in. But if they can at least tread water until the final few weeks of the season -- at which point they may actually get Victor Martinez back -- they'll be a threat, especially because the White Sox draw the Indians (6), Angels (3) and Rays (4) in the final two weeks.
But the Tigers, in their current form, are flawed. Miguel Cabrera has been great, but not as good as his elite-level 2010 and 2011 seasons. The same goes for Prince Fielder. That pair are still incredibly tough in the middle of the Tigers lineup, but not moreso than Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko.
Austin Jackson was a major All-Star snub, entering the break hitting .332.408.545 and leading the Tigers with 4 WAR. While he may regress a bit in the second half based off his .417 BABIP, he's a tremendous asset at the top of Detroit's lineup.
Quintin Berry has been outstanding, too, coming up from the minors and hitting .299.388.417 with 12 steals in 42 games. Whether he can keep that level of production up remains to be seen -- he hit .270.368.321 in Triple-A before his promotion and has a .416 BABIP in the majors.
Getting Andy Dirks back in the lineup may help, whenever that may be. He hit .328.379.515 before going on the disabled list on May 31 with Achillies tendinitis in his right foot.
But Alex Avila has taken a step back, hitting .242.336.384 a year after making the All-Star Game. Jhonny Peralta has come back to earth, too, and the Tigers have a major hole at second base.
Defensively, the Tigers are brutal, hitting the break with the second-worst UZR and fourth-worst - ratings in baseball. That certainly hasn't helped the causes of Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly, all of whom have ERAs above 4.
While FIP -- generally a pretty good predictor of future ERA -- likes those four starters, Detroit's defense could very well continue to hold back their run prevention efforts. Justin Verlander is still elite and very well could win the Cy Young again, but beyond him, there are plenty of question marks.
Jose Valverde's regression hasn't helped matters, either. While he only has three blown saves, he's walking nearly five batters per nine innings and hasn't come close to his unblemished 2011 performance. The rest of Detroit's bullpen, though, has been pretty solid.
There's plenty of room for improvement on this Tigers team, from individual player performance to an opening to add another starting pitcher. Getting Matt Garza, for example, would be huge. But simply getting improved performances out of Fister, Scherzer, Porcello andor Smyly would go a long way.
Most likely, Detroit's going to continue to hit the ball well. Whether they can pitch -- or field -- well enough to keep them in the race is the big question.