The Detroit Tigers ran away with the American League Central Division last season and then added the scary, productive bat of Prince Fielder to the clean-up spot in the batting order. It figured to be the recipe to a title rout.
Instead, .500 has been elusive and as we reach the All-Star break the Tigers would be on anybody's list of baseball's most disappointing teams. They're far from out of it and it might take little more than a modest second-half burst to rule the mediocre Central, but the roar has yet to be restored in Motown during 2012.
Fielder has done his part. So has Miguel Cabrera, who is again putting together MVP-type numbers. The 3-4 punch in the lineup has been everything experts and fans expected and Austin Jackson has been superb at the top of the order. Ditto the ace, Justin Verlander, although he has absorbed some maddening losses unlike during last year's Cy Young/MVP march.
The mistake, perhaps, was presuming that guys like Doug Fister, Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch, Jhonny Peralta, Ryan Raburn, and a bullpen that fit like a glove from the sixth inning to sheer perfection, Jose Valverde, at the end would provide repeat performances. Some had career years -- and career years are just that -- and youngsters hinted at spectacular careers, perhaps prematurely.
Avila and Boesch have been sub-par in some part due to nagging injuries and an Achilles ailment took Andy Dirks out of the lineup after a fast start. The starting rotation has been inconsistent -- Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have shown life of late -- but ERAs are not impressive.
Nothing, perhaps, has been a bigger problem than the No. 5 spot in the batting order. Following Cabrera and Fielder should be one of baseball's best DH gigs but Delmon Young had been ineffective until suddenly breaking loose for three home runs in as many games.
Manager Jim Leyland certainly has been patient and maybe Young, who was striking out regularly, is finally going to produce.
The White Sox have a decent team with above-average pitching and the Indians have been stubborn. But the thought here is that the Tigers still win the Central in a stretch-run fight that few would have predicted the day the Fielder signing was announced.
Now, our first-half awards:
AL MVP -- It's a coin flip, but the New York Yankees' Robinson Cano is in position for some offensive numbers few second basemen have ever compiled. Runner-up: Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers.
AL Cy Young -- I hate to be a homer considering Verlander's 9-5 record, but he leads in so many key categories and his ERA is in the same ballpark as a year ago. It's a crowded race, though, and it's close. Runners-up: Chris Sale/Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox; Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels; David Price, Tampa Bay Rays.
AL Rookie -- This is neither crowded nor close. When Mike Trout was called up on April 28, the Angels were 6-14. They have baseball's best record since and Trout has arguably been the league's best player. A second half like the first and the 20-year-old will be in the MVP discussion. Runner-up: One-horse race.
AL Manager -- Buck Showalter has a Baltimore Orioles team that is anything but statistically impressive in the playoff hunt. Of course, the same thing could be said for the Tribe. Runners-up: Manny Acta, Cleveland Indians; Robin Ventura, White Sox.
National League MVP -- Andrew McCutchen, the game's most complete player, has the long-woeful Pirates in first place with a very average supporting cast. The race will go to the wire, though, with lots of candidates, including Melky Cabrera of the San Francisco Giants, maybe baseball's best-kept secret on this side of the Mississippi. Runners-up: Cabrera; David Wright, New York Mets; Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds.
NL Cy Young -- R.A. Dickey of the Mets has fluttered the knuckleball to the tune of a 12-1 record and a 2.40 ERA. The 37-year-old went a month between earned runs. Any questions? Runner-up: Not in the first half.
NL Rookie -- A 19-year-old leads the first-place Washington Nationals in hitting and on-base percentage. There's a sentence you don't see everyday. Runners-up: None.
NL Manager -- Don't even have to think about this one. Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates. Runner-up: Davey Johnson, Nationals.