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Tigers can’t hide much longer

Things could be worse for the Detroit Tigers.

“They’ve got a mulligan now,” Derek Lowe said.

From his corner locker in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, Lowe keeps a close eye on his hometown teams. He’s a Michigan man, a Michigan sports fan.

He figures the Tigers can hide for now but not for long.

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The Pistons are in the final four of the NBA playoffs. The Red Wings are in the NHL’s Stanley Cup finals.

“Three weeks from now, when they’re done . . . " Lowe says, lowering his voice as it trails off.

He did not complete the thought. He did not need to. Three weeks from now, when Detroit turns its eyes to the Tigers, the kings of the winter meetings had better not be looking up at the Minnesota Twins in the standings.

The Tigers have not run away with the American League Central. We’re two months into the season, and the Tigers could fly to Anaheim tonight in last place.

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They are not on pace to challenge the 1927 New York Yankees for the most feared offense of all time. They are on pace to become the biggest busts of all time.

Never has a team spent so much money with so little return, at least so far. Of the 14 teams to spend at least $110 million on payroll, only one -- the 2003 New York Mets -- finished with a losing record.

Those Mets spent $117 million. These Tigers are at $138 million.

“You don’t have that type of payroll if you don’t think you’re going to play well,” Detroit General Manager Dave Dombrowski said.

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You don’t clear out your farm system if you don’t think you’re going to play well either.

The Tigers traded six minor leaguers, including their top two prospects, to the Florida Marlins last winter, for slugger Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis. They already had traded two prospects to the Atlanta Braves for shortstop Edgar Renteria.

Torii Hunter, the Angels’ center fielder, played in Minnesota for the previous nine years, competing against the Tigers in the AL Central. And how did Hunter react when he heard the Tigers had added Cabrera and Willis to a team one year removed from the World Series?

“I thought, ‘That’s it. There’s no way they could lose,’ ” Hunter said.

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They had All-Stars at catcher, at designated hitter, in right field, in the starting rotation -- and at every position in the infield.

The Tigers did not start printing World Series tickets right away, but they cut off the sale of season tickets. The city awaited a season that surely would rival the Tigers’ last championship summer, in 1984.

Not so fast. In 1984, the Tigers started 35-5.

In 2008, the Tigers started 0-5, then 0-7, then 2-10. They haven’t spent a day at .500.

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The Twins swept them. The Chicago White Sox swept them. The Kansas City Royals -- the Royals! -- swept them twice.

“We just haven’t played well,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t think you can single out any one area.”

The Tigers have been shut out seven times, most in the majors. They’re middle of the pack in runs scored, trailing among others the Pittsburgh Pirates. They’re starting to hit a bit, but Gary Sheffield is batting .208, with three home runs and a sore shoulder.

Can we interest you in Barry Bonds?

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“No,” Dombrowski said. “We have a veteran-laden club right now. We’re not looking to add more veterans. We think we can fill the DH role. There isn’t a need for us.”

He has a point about the veterans, and not just because rookie outfielder Matt Joyce replaced Jacque Jones on the roster and hit five home runs in nine games.

The Tigers are one of the oldest clubs in baseball, and Dombrowski hopes the bats will heat up with the weather. When he called last week, the midday temperature in Detroit was 47.

Sheffield is 39. Ivan Rodriguez, the catcher, is 36. Magglio Ordonez, the right fielder, is 34. Renteria, Placido Polanco and Carlos Guillen -- the shortstop, second baseman and third baseman -- are 32.

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Guillen, not Cabrera, is the third baseman. Cabrera is 25, the kid in the infield. The Tigers guaranteed him $152 million, then had to move him to first base, after looking at his defense and conditioning and deciding third base was a bad idea.

The Tigers also guaranteed $29 million to Willis, whose earned-run average had gone up and strikeouts had gone down for three consecutive seasons in Florida. He made two starts, walking nine and striking out none, then went on the disabled list because of tendinitis.

Dombrowski said the Tigers have learned nothing new about Cabrera and Willis since they made the trade.

“We did our homework before we made the deal,” Dombrowski said. “We’re very happy with the deal. We’re glad those guys are on board, even if they haven’t had the start that we hoped.”

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That the Tigers activated Willis last week and put him in the bullpen is telling, since the starting rotation is their weakest link. When the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006, their starters had the lowest ERA in the majors. They rank next to last in starters’ ERA this year, at 5.43.

Kenny Rogers is at 6.66, Nate Robertson at 5.88, Justin Verlander at 5.61, Jeremy Bonderman at 4.48. The Tigers have the fewest quality starts in the majors.

They are not suffering in silence, at least. After former Tigers pitcher Jason Grilli told USA Today last week that “the atmosphere was stale and stagnant” in the Tigers’ clubhouse, Detroit Manager Jim Leyland erupted in a tirade that would have made Tom Lasorda proud.

You can find it on YouTube, bleeping this and bleeping that. Leyland lectured Grilli to worry about his own job, reminding him the Tigers had traded him to the Colorado Rockies last month because he pitched so poorly in Detroit.

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Leyland went on from there, and on, and on. The Tigers erupted too, for 30 runs in a three-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners. Then they went out the next night and lost to the Twins.

From a distance, Lowe doesn’t see why his hometown team won’t win. He’ll see the Tigers up close in three weeks, when the Dodgers visit Detroit.

“They’re way too good to continue to play like this for 162 games,” Lowe said.

“I may be wrong. I hope I’m wrong the weekend we go there. But they have too much talent. It’s bound to come out at some point.”

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Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com


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