Whenever I look at how well a baseball team might fare in the regular season and then play-offs, this is usually my thought process:

#1) Who is your ace? Must have that stud guy who the team can rally around.

#2) Who is the closer? If you can’t finish games, don’t tell me about how well you start.

#3) Do you have a big bopper? Need that guy that the other teams have to work around.

#4) Who are the second and third starters? Need some pitchers to keep things going after the ace.

#5) Got any table setters? Need some players on base for the big guy.

#6) What about bullpen depth? Can’t be losing the game in the seventh inning.

#7) Any protection for the clean up hitter? Got to make them pay if they don’t want to pitch to your big guy.

#8) What about the defense up the middle? Can they make the plays they need to make?

Somewhere after these 8 questions I start thinking about the bottom of the line-up or the 4th and 5th starters. We might argue about the order a bit, but you have answers for those first 8 questions, the rest will play out just fine.

At the start of the year, the Tigers thought they had a lot of the answers. The biggest doubt concerned the matter of setting the table rather than questioning the defense up the middle with a couple of rookies in key positions.

So now it’s time to invoke the “Sparky rule” and see what we have after 40 games. (okay, make that 43 games, I was a little slow out of the box)

Their report card looks pretty good, almost made the Dean’s list:

4 A’s with Ace, Closer, Big Bopper and Bullpen Depth.

2 B’s for the Table Setters and Line-up Protection

1 C+ for Defense Up the Middle

1 F for No. 2 & No. 3 starters.

Yikes, where did that come from?

At the start of the year, we expected the second and third starters to be at least a C, if not a B. Maybe I can now raise them to a D because Porcello seems to be picking it up a little.

But then again, Scherzer is in the minors, so let’s keep it at an F. You have to have both spots filled.

Look, we can talk about trades for a good-hitting catcher or how inconsistent Bonderman and Willis are but truth be told, we can win without that changing.

What we can’t win without is better production out of the second and third starters.

The rest of the answers can have you playing pretty well, maybe even winning the division if Minnesota falters a little.

But you are going to need those pitchers to vie for a pennant or ring. Those two spots are too important to ignore.

A championship quality team wins about three-quarters with the ace starting, and about half of the games out of the fourth and fifth and spot starters.

The Tigers are fine with that, it’s those 60 or so starts between the ace and the back end.

If we figure Verlander for 34 starts at a 750 clip that’s 25.5 wins. Now add in around 62 starts for the fourth and fifth and spot starters at 500 and it adds up to 56.5 wins.

If you win two-thirds of those last 66 starts you reach 100 wins: champagne and confetti time.

Win half of them and you have 88 wins. Close but no cigar.

But that’s just the math, the real issues go deeper than that.

First, your second and third guys need to be inning eaters. They don’t have to be hogs, but they can’t leave a lot of left overs for the bullpen.

When they consistently do not make it into the seventh inning, it puts a huge strain on the bullpen that over the long haul, and it will bring a pitching staff down.

You know you will need the bullpen when Bonderman and Willis start, any time they get into the sixth inning it’s a good start out of them.

The problem is, you can’t bring in the pitcher you want if he had to throw the night before. So now your chances to win that game are way down.

You can get away with that once in a while, which is why you have a dozen or so pitchers on the staff.

But you get in a habit of it and you’re getting too many innings pitched out of your set-up guys and depending on the 10th, 11th, and 12th pitchers too much. Next thing you know your bringing in Valverde in the eighth inning.

The Tigers are pretty deep in the bullpen with some good spares in the minors, so maybe they can struggle through that with some well-placed roster maneuvering.

Where they are going to need Porcello and Scherzer to fill their role is with momentum.

Teams need a handful of those five- to 10-game winning streaks during the season and those come from your No. 2 and No. 3 starter.

When they are winning by the time they pile on a win by the ace, you’re halfway there. Get a little lucky at four and five and you have a chance with the one, two, and three pitchers coming back up to have a nice little streak.

At the same token, if the two and three split their starts, even with a win out of the ace you have to get a win out of four or five to go above 500, and remember, you have to do that with your 10-12 pitchers filling key relief roles.

So is there any chance this turns around?

There are encouraging signs, like the seven shutout innings by Porcello against the Yankees. But then again, that was in between two pretty bad starts.

We might have to accept that Porcello will be around .500 this year, maybe a little better by the end of the year.

We really should have expected that. This is his second year and most pitchers go through that.

Hitters have seen and adjusted to him, and until he counters he will have some struggles. This is normal. Even Verlander went through it.

He’ll bounce back and be a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter down the line, just maybe not this year.

The bigger concern is of course Scherzer; the best news we have heard from him lately was a minor league start. We had him penciled him in as a two or three at the start of the year but it was with our fingers crossed.

He has great stuff and there were some great numbers in Arizona, like his 214 hits given up with 240 strike outs in 226 innings. Those kind of numbers are All-Star status.

The problem is he had a career record of 9-5 and only two years experience. Maybe we should have expected this, better figure him for another year, too.

So what do you do?

Chance are the Porcello and Scherzer combination look like a .500 combination all year and that leaves the Tigers out of the play-offs. Just short again.

Dombroski has to make a move and not just any move. The Tigers need a frontline starter, or this season will be lost.

You can add all the good hitting catchers or even replace Inge, it won’t matter if they don’t get some help for the rotation and not just another .500 guy and the closer to an Ace the better. We have to make up for the No. 3 being only 500.

They say Oswalt might be available and yes, that contract is pretty scary and his numbers say he is in decline a little, though he has some nice numbers this year, like a 2.66 ERA and 49/60 Hits/SO ratio.

32 years old is a little iffy but many pitchers like him have had a lot of great seasons after 32. He’s been effective in the playoffs (4-0 3.66), and he’s a solid locker room guy.

We have to assume the Astros would want young players, and they should be interested in young relievers especially. Their top six bullpen guys based on appearances are over 30 and young relievers are right up the Tigers alley.

I would seriously consider any trade built around Zumaya or even Perry. If it took Zumaya or Perry plus Boesch with a minor league pitcher, thrown in as long as it’s not Turner, I’m going to make that deal.

Of course, it’s not my money, and Oswalt gets a lot of money. He might be worth it but can the Tigers afford him?

That’s a fair question, Illitch has spent plenty of money already and upped the budget for top talent before, but there is a line somewhere.

The Tigers have some money coming off the books for next year, so Dombroski can probably fit the money in next year, but that’s next year. Still leaves some 10 million for this year that the Tigers would have to take on.

That’s quite a question for Dombroski or really Illitch to answer.

Do they spend $10 million to put them squarely in contention for the World Series? If you have Verlander, Oswalt, and whomever is pitching better out of Porcello and Scherzer as your rotation going into a playoff series you got a real chance against anyone.

Maybe the variables change like Cliff Lee instead of Oswalt, but the question is clear.

Two plus three plus $10 million could equal World Series rings, but take out the cash and it probably means another less than satisfying season.

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