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Series preview: Detroit Tigers' age finally beginning to show

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I love interleague play -- I don't get to watch American League teams as much as I'd like, and it's always fun to watch a few games against a new team and assess their strengths and weaknesses. The Bucs did play three games against Detroit back in April, but they'll see two different starting pitchers this time. Here's what to expect from the 39-36 Tigers.

POSITION PLAYERS: .276/.335/.421. 12.2 fWAR, third in the American League. Any offense containing Miguel Cabrera will have a gigantic head start on most others, but the Tigers have done a great job this year surrounding their slugger with complementary talent. Yoenis Cespedes (.304/.334/.502) turns out to have been an inspired addition, and J.D. Martinez (.274/.331/.533) is one of the best free talent acquisitions in the last decade. (I'm trying to think, offhand, of what the best ones have been. The Reds' trade for Josh Hamilton? The Mets' signing of R.A. Dickey? Then there was the Padres' trade for Tyson Ross, which probably technically wasn't a free talent acquisition, but was awfully close. Oh, who are we kidding -- the best one was the Blue Jays' trade for Jose Bautista.)

The Tigers' next tier of position players is good, too. Ian Kinsler isn't the star as he once was, but he's still a solid hitter and an above-average defender. I have no idea how Jose Iglesias has a .380 OBP this year, but that and his outstanding defense make him a big asset. Rajai Davis, who's still a useful player eight years after being dealt in the awful Matt Morris trade, is currently hitting .280/.346/.445. New catcher James McCann has hit just enough to be useful, too.

The lineup's only obvious weak spots have been Nick Castellanos (.225/.274/.344) at third base and Victor Martinez (.243/.320/.324) at DH. Martinez is only one year removed from a monster season, although, at 36, it's fair to wonder how many he has left in him. He's been dealing with knee issues for most of the season, and he hasn't hit the ball nearly as hard as he did last year, with his average fly ball distance shrinking by more than 30 feet.

PITCHING: 4.05 ERA, 4.12 FIP, 4.08 xFIP. 4.6 fWAR, 14th in the American League. Here's the Tigers' soft underbelly. More than half the team's pitching WAR has been generated by David Price, who the Pirates won't face this week. Tuesday starter Justin Verlander, who's recently dealt with triceps and back issues, has appeared just twice this season and hasn't pitched well; even last year, he wasn't the Justin Verlander of old, and his velocity remains down from his 2011-2012 heyday. Wednesday starter Alfredo Simon has mostly been dependable in his first (and perhaps only) season in Detroit, although he's allowed at least four runs in four of his last five starts. And Thursday starter Kyle Ryan is in over his head at the big-league level. The soft-tossing lefty got by in the minors with control, but he never really struck batters out, and that formula usually doesn't work well in the majors.

The Tigers' bullpen isn't strong, either, which won't surprise anyone who watched the Tigers in the playoffs last year. This month, in particular, has been rough, as Tigers relievers have a 5.27 ERA in June. Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain and Alex Wilson are reasonably capable, and Blaine Hardy has had an effective season so far despite an absence of convincing peripherals. But Al Alburquerque and especially Tom Gorzelanny have had significant control problems, and the bullpen has shuffled through other pitchers who've mostly been ineffective (including Ryan, Ian Krol, and promising young righty Angel Nesbitt). The reliever to watch this week will be Bruce Rondon, who the Tigers recently reinstated from a rehab assignment after he missed a couple months with a biceps injury. Rondon throws ridiculously hard and has struck out three of the five batters he's faced this season.

OUTLOOK: The Tigers are still a quality team, but after four years of AL Central dominance, their flaws are on full display. That's to be expected, obviously -- being as good as they have for as long as they have isn't easy, and with an 85-year-old owner (Little Caesar's founder Mike Ilitch), they've been built to win now for quite awhile. Now that Max Scherzer is gone and they're getting less from veterans like Martinez and Verlander, though, it's getting tougher for them to keep up with their competition, especially when they're paying Verlander, Cabrera, Price, Anibal Sanchez, Kinsler and Martinez a combined $115.75 million this season. The problem is only going to get worse next season, with Price (who's expensive, but very effective) and Cespedes set to depart.

Martinez's struggles this year illustrate the problems with depending on aging players. For the most part, older players are paid based on what they've done, not on what they're going to do. While there was no way for the Tigers to anticipate that Martinez would be so bad this season, some decline should have appeared likely, given his age. And while injuries have been a big reason Martinez has struggled, injuries at his age are to be expected. Now the Tigers will have to pray he'll rebound, since they owe him $54 million after this season.

Meanwhile, the Tigers' pool of young talent has mostly dried up, as the team has shipped young players out while trading for Price, Soria, Simon, Shane Greene and others. The Tigers have, for the most part, made fantastic trades, and in particular, the deals that brought Cabrera, Price, Sanchez, Cespedes and Iglesias have thus far been huge wins for the organization. Partially as a result, though, when the Tigers' roster has a problem, they now have to lean on someone like Kyle Ryan.

These problems are likely to get worse in the coming years, particularly once Cabrera finally starts to decline. (A couple seasons from now, you're probably going to see some tortured and unfortunate comparisons between the Tigers and the city of Detroit itself.) But the Tigers knew what they were getting themselves into. They made a deal with Father Time, and they negotiated it well. Their recent run of strong seasons hasn't resulted in a World Series victory, but it easily could have. And there's still this year.