There are a lot of reasons to believe that assumption is correct. After all, the Tigers have the second-best record in the American League (28-19) entering Tuesday's action, and they possess a five-game lead in the division.
No other AL Central team is above .500. The White Sox (26-27) enter Tuesday in second place, but they are closer to last place than first. Chicago, Kansas City (24-26), Minnesota (23-25) and Cleveland (24-28) are separated in the standings by just 1.5 games.
Is there any reason at all to believe the Tigers can be had this year? Well, you have to look pretty hard, but here's one thing Detroit should be concerned about: Veteran ace Justin Verlander is no longer pitching like a Cy Young award candidate.
The 31-year-old is 5-4 with 4.04 ERA in 11 starts this year. Those numbers are ordinary to say the least, and his peripherals are also not impressive. Verlander's 1.514 WHIP is well above his career mark of 1.203, and above the career-worst 1.403 he posted during his struggling 2008 season.
Moreover, Verlander's K rate has fallen off a cliff. He has fanned just 50 batters in 71.1 IP this year. That's not good for a pitcher who has averaged roughly one strikeout per inning in every season since 2009.
Verlander's month of May has been terrible. He's 2-3 with a 6.03 ERA in his last five starts, and he has surrendered five earned runs or more in each of his last three outings. That's not like Justin Verlander.
Maybe this is a just a slump, but Verlander was coming off a "down" 2013 by his standards, in which he went 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA. In fact, if you look at the last five years you can see that Verlander is on a decline since his 2011 peak:
|2010||18-9, 3.37 ERA||219 Ks in 224.1 IP||1.163 WHIP|
|2011||24-5, 2.40 ERA||251Ks in 251 IP||0.920 WHIP|
|2012||17-8, 2.64 ERA||239 Ks in 238.1 IP||1.057 WHIP|
|2013||13-12, 3.46 ERA||217 Ks in 218.1 IP||1.315 WHIP|
|2014||5-4, 4.04 ERA||50 Ks in 71.1 IP||1.514 WHIP|
From these numbers, we can't say Verlander is bad now. However, he's starting to profile more as a No. 3 starter than the ace he has been in the past. There's really not much question Max Scherzer has overtaken him as the Tigers' best pitcher.
Starting pitching is the edge Detroit enjoys over the rest of the division, but that advantage becomes a little less if Verlander's day to pitch becomes more of a coin toss than a likely Detroit victory. That's where things stand now. It remains to be seen whether Verlander can regain his ace form. The Tigers need him to if they want to make it back to the World Series and win it.
But, even if Verlander is no longer an ace, it remains a open question whether the other teams in the AL Central, all of which have significant warts, will play well enough to take advantage anyway.