A little over two weeks ago, the Detroit Tigers were flying high. Enjoying a seven-game lead in the AL Central, Detroit seemed assured of winning its fourth straight American League Central title. But since July 24, when Detroit beat the Angels to create that seven-game advantage, things have narrowed considerably in the division, with the Tigers' lead now down to a mere 1 1/2 games entering Sunday thanks to a combination of a tough 6-9 stretch and a red-hot run by Kansas City. And on Sunday, Detroit learned that it'll have to keep that minuscule lead without a pair of key pitchers, as both Anibal Sanchez and Joakim Soria are headed to the disabled list for an extended stay. It's a pair of injuries that the scuffling Tigers could do without.
Sanchez was the first to go down, suffering a strain of his right pectoral muscle during Friday's start against Toronto. The 30-year-old right-hander was forced to leave that outing after only 4 2/3 innings, in which he allowed four runs on 10 hits. Soria, meanwhile, went down with an oblique strain on Saturday, leaving his outing after just two batters faced. Both were placed on the DL on Sunday, with Sanchez expected to miss close to a month, and Soria likely out for a similar period of time. That would rob Detroit of two valuable pitchers for the immensely important August playoff drive.
Of the two injuries, Sanchez's is the more costly. The Venezuelan was putting up stellar numbers as the Tigers' fourth starter, posting a 3.53 ERA and a 117 ERA+ to go with a strikeout-per-nine ratio of 7.3 and a healthy 2.2 walks-per-nine rate. Sanchez had been struggling as of late, though, with a 6.03 ERA in five July starts, only one of which was quality. That rough patch marred what had been a sterling season up to that point, as the righty had posted a 2.63 ERA through the end of June in 14 starts. Frustratingly enough for Sanchez, this isn't his first trip to the DL this year; he missed three weeks in late April and early May with a particularly bad blister on his right hand.
The problem for Detroit is that the team lacks any strong option to take his place in the rotation. Left-hander Robbie Ray, a first-round draft pick in 2010 who was acquired in the offseason trade that sent Doug Fister to Washington, is the most likely candidate to join the Tigers' rotation, but the soon-to-be 23-year-old hasn't had the easiest time in his first season with Detroit. At Triple-A Toledo, Ray has put up a 3.72 ERA in 18 starts and 96 2/3 innings, but that comes with a weak 6.6 K/9 rate and equally problematic 3.7 BB/9 rate. What's more, right-handers have crushed the southpaw Ray, with a .326 batting average against and .392 on-base percentage this season. Ray did make a brief appearance in the majors back in May — appropriately enough, in place of Sanchez — but didn't make a notable mark, tossing two quality starts but getting battered in his final turn.
Ray may win the job by default, though. The only other starter the Tigers have in Triple-A with any major league experience is Duane Below, who has made just three starts above the minors and been thoroughly uninspiring in his few trips to MLB. Below's also not on Detroit's 40-man roster, so his call-up would require some personnel movement. Detroit has prospects Drew VerHagen and Casey Crosby in its Triple-A rotation as well, but neither has any MLB experience. Detroit could also explore a move for a veteran starter, but that would require said starter passing through waivers unclaimed, and the trade market for starters looks barren.
As for Soria, the former Royals and Rangers closer was having a tough go of it in his time with Detroit, having allowed five earned runs on 10 hits and two homers in 4 1/3 innings with the Tigers. But Soria's numbers in Texas were excellent, with 42 strikeouts and just four walks in 33 1/3 innings, so odds are that he would have rebounded from the rough patch. Now, however, Soria won't get a chance to do so likely until September. That's a bad turn for someone the Tigers were already going to be getting few innings out of, having acquired Soria in mid-July, and for a Detroit bullpen that once again looks like the weak link in the team's chain.
With Soria down, Joba Chamberlain emerges as the top setup option for the Tigers, though the burly right-hander had already held that job before Soria arrived in Motown. The one-time Yankees prospect has had an impressive bounce-back season for Detroit, with a 3.13 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 46 innings. But the less said about the rest of the Tigers' bullpen, the better. Joe Nathan has crashed and burned his way to a 5.36 ERA as Detroit's closer and recently took an extra-innings loss in Toronto, giving up a run on two hits and two walks in a 2/3-inning stint. Al Alburquerque has been reasonably good behind Nathan and Chamberlain, but the bullpen aside from him is Phil Coke, who continues to trick teams into giving him chances, and a rotating assortment of Triple-A castoffs and low-leverage long relievers.
Soria was supposed to give manager Brad Ausmus a reliable name to call on to bridge the gap between the starters and Nathan (and maybe even take over for the latter should his season-long struggles continue), but that won't be the case again until September. As is, Ausmus will have to hope that Nathan can right himself (which looks more unlikely by the day) and that his troika of ace starters — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and the recently acquired David Price — can handle the extra innings. He'll also have to hope that Verlander, Scherzer and Price can up their games enough to make up for Sanchez's absence. Luckily, those three and the resurgent Rick Porcello should be up to the task. If not, Detroit's AL Central lead is all but certain to vanish.