Rodriguez A Dark Horse Cy Young Contender For Surprisingly Spunky Tigers

Sportsbooks are skeptical of Detroit’s ‘hot’ start in dismal AL Central

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eduardo rodriguez tigers

With a record of 25-28, the Detroit Tigers are merely mediocre. But given that they play in Major League Baseball’s worst division, the American League Central, “merely mediocre” is good enough for second place, two games behind the 28-27 Minnesota Twins.

For a team that won just 66 games last year and had a preseason projection of 69.5 victories, three games under .500 has to feel pretty satisfying at this juncture. Leading the team with a .296 batting average, 22-year-old centerfielder Riley Greene looks on track to be a future star, while veteran starter Eduardo Rodriguez (4-4, 2.13 ERA, 67 strikeouts in as many innings) has emerged as a dark horse Cy Young candidate, and the back end of the bullpen — closer Alex Lange and setup man Jason Foley — has been rock solid thus far.

So what do Michigan’s mobile sportsbooks make of all this? Not much, as the Tigers’ odds to make the postseason are more akin to those of cellar-dwelling Kansas City than the Twins, Guardians, and White Sox.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind this was a team that was projected to win roughly 15 fewer games than the Guardians, Twins, and White Sox preseason,” said Matt Lindeman, WynnBET’s assistant director of trading. “Even with them trending closer to .500 than their preseason win total, the Fangraphs and PECOTA projections still forecast just 74 and 72 wins, respectively. Given that they haven’t acquired any new pieces or promoted any promising young talent from the minors, there simply hasn’t been enough improvement in the overall talent level to warrant a drastic shift from preseason expectations.”

That said, Caesars Sportsbook‘s lead MLB trader, Eric Biggio, pointed out that “the Tigers have taken a pretty good chunk off their highest odds” to win the AL Central. Whereas they entered the season with 32/1 odds to win the division, the Tigers are now a 15/1 shot at Caesars and BetRivers.

That still lags behind Minnesota (-275 at Caesars), Cleveland (+470 at FanDuel), and Chicago (12/1 at FanDuel), even though the latter two have worse records than Detroit. For the Tigers to hold off the Guardians and White Sox while continuing to keep pace with the Twins, certain things will have to break their way. Chief among them, said Lindeman, is that the injury-prone Twins will have to stay hobbled.

Beyond that, said Biggio, “The Guardians would have to continue to disappoint. More importantly, the Tigers would have to keep doing their thing. The bullpen has been one of their keys. They’ve got to find a power source somewhere in that lineup, whether it’s Spencer Torkelson, Javy Baez, or Riley Greene, somebody’s going to have to step up. Thirdly, find somebody outside of Rodriguez in that rotation that can carry the weight.”

A call-up could be key

While Biggio (no relation to Cooperstown’s Craig) considers the San Diego Padres to be MLB’s most disappointing team so far, he thinks “the Guardians are up there.” 

Meanwhile, Lindeman basically called out the entirety of flyover country, saying, “The league should be ashamed that they’ve allowed the Centrals to survive for this long. If they don’t want to go back to East and West divisions like 30 years ago, that’s fine. Let’s just create a relegation system with Triple-A so that poverty franchises like the Reds and Royals actually face consequences for putting a bad product on the field.”

Biggio feels that another key to Detroit keeping pace with Minnesota will be the level of progress made by Greene (who left Tuesday’s loss to the Rangers after one at-bat with lower leg discomfort) and Torkelson, a 23-year-old first baseman who “continues to improve.” Furthermore, Biggio said that if one of the team’s top minor-league prospects can ascend to the bigs and contribute, “that could really give a spark and turn a team that would have been a seller into a contender.”

The likeliest call-up candidate is third baseman Justyn-Henry Malloy, who’s hitting .281 with 7 home runs and 27 RBIs at AAA Toledo.

“He’s got some pop and could contribute this year,” Biggio said of Malloy, who should be given every chance to supplant Detroit’s hot corner/hot garbage platoon of Nick Maton (.162 with 5 homers) and Andy Ibanez (.174 with two four-baggers).

Cy boilerplates for Rodriguez

The Tigers’ only reliable starting pitcher, Rodriguez entered the season with 100/1 odds at Caesars to win his first Cy Young award. The 30-year-old southpaw is now priced anywhere from 28/1 at Caesars to 35/1 at BetRivers, slightly shorter than the 2020 winner, Cleveland’s Shane Bieber.

But Lindeman’s no believer.

“Rodriguez has been tremendous and is without a doubt one of the biggest reasons for the surprise start, but he has only thrown more than 160 innings once and his current ERA is nearly two runs lower than his career average,” said Lindeman. “Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any hope for a Rodriguez Cy Young, even after [Robbie] Ray’s miraculous win a couple of seasons ago.”

Ray, who won his one and only Cy with the Blue Jays in 2021 before signing with the Mariners in free agency, presents an interesting case study. Like Rodriguez, he was a big lefty who was pushing 30 when he had his breakout season, leading the American League in strikeouts, ERA, and innings pitched for a Toronto squad that narrowly missed the playoffs despite finishing 20 games above .500.

Then there’s R.A. Dickey, a 37-year-old knuckleballer who’d never won more than 11 games in his decade-plus career before going 20-6 with an NL-best 230 strikeouts for a Mets team that finished 74-88 in 2012.

Biggio considers Dickey’s Cy Young campaign to be a boilerplate for what Rodriguez may accomplish.

“The precedent is definitely there,” said Biggio. “If [Rodriguez] keeps the ERA around 2.00, gets close to 20 wins, and keeps the Tigers close to .500, he could get some votes.”

Photo: Duane Burleson/Getty Images