The Detroit Tigers are hanging around in an AL Central race that was supposed to belong to the Cleveland Indians. The Tigers have won five in a row, are just 2 ½ games back of the Tribe and are poised to gain further ground when they go to lowly Cincinnati to start this week. But to say the Tigers have been met with skepticism is to succumb to serious understatement. Detroit is a huge 35-1 longshot just to win its own division.
You can write some of that off as simply a belief that the Indians will put it together. The Tiger record of 36-37 tells you that their contention is more about being in the one division doesn’t have a team (or two) playing at a 100-win pace. Cleveland has a demonstrated ability to do that and even the most fervent Detroit fan wouldn’t argue the Tigers have that kind of ceiling.
But what makes that 35-1 number so interesting is how it stands in contrast to the Minnesota Twins, who are 8-1. The Tigers are ahead of the Twins in the standings and at a point in the year where we can’t simply dismiss results as being short-term. There’s nothing to suggest the Twins are a sleeping giant in the way the Indians are. The fact Detroit is seen as substantially inferior is striking.
The question then is this—is it realistic for Tiger fans to hope for at least a winning season and to hang around the AL Central race so long as the Indians don’t suddenly kick into gear? I think there’s at least a reason for such hope.
Detroit has veteran pitching that’s capable of giving more than what they have so far in 2018. Michael Fulmer, the 2016 Rookie of the Year and staff ace has a 4.13 ERA in 14 starts. Mike Fiers, the 33-year-old veteran also has an ERA on the high side of 4. Francisco Liriano has pitched well, but is currently on the disabled list. And Jordan Zimmerman has been awful, with a 5.20 ERA in his eight starts.
I understand that’s not a who’s who of All-Stars that’s mucking along right now, but I do believe Tiger pitching can be better. Let’s start with the fact that Comerica Park is one of the three places in the American League that can be truly called a pitchers’ park (Oakland and Seattle being the others). In spite of this, Detroit ranks 10th in the American League in ERA and are actually worse at home than they are on the road.
Playing in the AL Central also means a steady diet of the worst division in the American League to this point—not only are there no heavyweight teams, but the White Sox and Royals are utterly putrid. That means it’s fair to have higher expectations for the staff. Fulmer is a prime candidate for improvement and the arm that simply must step up is Zimmerman.
Detroit signed Jordan Zimmerman on the free agent market prior to the 2016 season. Zimmerman had established himself in Washington as being just outside the top rung of starting pitchers. As a Boston fan, I was furious when the Red Sox opted for David Price over Zimmerman in that winter’s free agent sweepstakes. But as much as a disappointment as Price has been in Boston, Zimmerman has been nothing short of a train wreck. His ERAs have ranged from the high 4s and all the way into the 6s. He’s been injured and unreliable. And that needs to change.
The Tigers have some nice young players developing, notably third baseman Jeimer Candelario. They’ve got a good young arm in the bullpen with Joe Jiminez. But if they’re going to give management a reason not to sell at the trade deadline, it’s some veteran pitching that needs to perform and that starts with the guy who got paid 2 ½ years ago, Jordan Zimmerman.
The time for baseball is coming, with spring training having opened and exhibition games beginning. When we last left baseball, Madison Bumgarner was reminding us of just how extraordinary the game can be sometimes with his once-in-a-lifetime performance in the San Francisco Giants’ World Series win over the Kansas City Royals. Now it’s a time for a fresh season and fresh storylines and the one that has me most intrigued is the AL Central race.
The Detroit Tigers have won this division each of the last four years, but the gap is clearly narrowing—most obviously by the fact that it was Kansas City who went storming through the American League playoffs. Detroit also has to keep an eye on the Cleveland Indians, who made the playoffs two years ago and posted a winning record last year under the leadership of Terry Francona. This post isn’t intended to be an exhaustive preview of the AL Central, merely a tone-setter for what we have to look forward to. Each of the three teams have unique angles and reasons why they can win:
*Kansas City may have lost staff ace James Shields to free agency, but the Royals still have the most dynamic collection of young talent in the game. Last September and October they finally put it all together and rather than being a fluke, I think that was the “real Royals” finally coming to life before our eyes.
Now they’re battle-tested and know they can win. The loss of Shields’ innings are going to be missed, but manager Ned Yost still has an extremely deep and talented bullpen.
*Detroit is still the four-time defending champs, the only team that has proven they can do it over a 162-game haul, however much potential and October success Kansas City has enjoyed. But the Tigers now have to do it without Max Scherzer, who left for Washington. And they don’t have the kind of bullpen KC has to fall back on—which is putting it mildly.
The biggest key to the Tigers is going to be whether Justin Verlander can regain his form after getting knocked around in 2014, to the tune of a 4.54 ERA in one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball. It’s also fair to wonder how much wear and tear is on the body of Miguel Cabrera, who has finished each of the last two seasons playing through health problems. I’m deeply skeptical that Detroit will make it five in a row.
*Now we come to Cleveland, more under the radar this season after failing to reach the playoffs last year. I would submit, however, that finishing with a winning record last year was a very quiet sign that the Indians are here to stay. They had almost everything possible go wrong from an injury standpoint and still won more games than they lost and produced a Cy Young winner, in Cory Kluber. What happens if things break their way this season?
There’s precedent for this. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays came out of nowhere to reach the World Series, in much the same way the Indians of 2013 just splashed onto the scene and made the playoffs. The Rays of 2009 slipped back and missed the playoffs, winning 84 games. But the quiet winning season established that the magic of the previous year wasn’t just a one-year wonder before a fall back into oblivion. And Tampa Bay stayed a contender through 2013.
Or consider the Baltimore Orioles, who came blazing out of nowhere to make the playoffs in 2012. The Orioles missed the playoffs in 2013, but finished with a winning record. What happened the next year? Established as a winner, they won the AL East.
The cycle is clear—come out of nowhere and make the playoffs. Then have a fallback year where things don’t go your way, but establish yourself as a winner. Then rev it back up for big Year 3. Cleveland is now in Year 3 of that cycle under Francona and we’ll see if that same pattern holds.
I’m pulling for the Indians and for Tito. I haven’t made a prediction yet, other than this—as a subscriber to the MLB Extra Innings package, I intend to enjoy the entire AL Central race this year.
The American League wild-card race has five teams vying for the final spot in the playoffs. Assuming that the runner-up in the Oakland A’s/LA Angels race for the AL West title will be in the wild-card game, that leaves five more teams within five games of each other for the last spot. Those teams are, in order of the current standings, the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians. Here’s nine thoughts on that race as it heads into the homestretch…
*Detroit is the best positioned of the contenders, even though they would be out of the money (by a game and a half) if the season ended today. That’s because the Tigers are also only three games back of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, while everyone else is six or more out of first place. Detroit is the one team in this group of five that will be reasonably assured of making the playoffs in some capacity, as long they play good baseball down the stretch.
*In that same vein, how much longer can a team with David Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation continue to struggle along? I know Verlander’s having a very tough year, a 4.82 ERA that would be worse if he didn’t have such a pitcher-friendly environment to work in. But Rick Porcello’s strong year has made up for that and the Tigers have swung the bats well this season. Jim Leyland would have managed this team into the playoffs. Brad Ausmus has to prove he can do the same.
*As an avowed Yankee-hater, I always tend to overestimate the boys in Pinstripes, if only because I don’t want to ever let my guard down. Consequently, I’m still thinking they have a big run left in them. Michael Pineda is pitching extremely well, a 2.05 ERA since his return from what amounts to two years’ worth of injuries. Hiroki Kuroda has gotten going, and if Masahiro Tanaka can get back on the mound and be effective again, that’s a tough 1-2-3 Joe Girardi can throw at people. And the inspirational value of Derek Jeter’s final year is the big intangible.
*Where New York has failed this year is in their offense, and I’m going to single out Jacoby Ellsbury. It’s not that the centerfielder who crossed the Rubicon from Boston this past offseason has had a bad year—he hasn’t. He’s got a .340 on-base percentage and does a great job defensively in centerfield. Boston is worse off for not having him this season. But was he really worth the 7-years/$150 million deal the Yanks gave him? Yankee Stadium hasn’t provided the upgrade in power numbers that was expected, and this early years of that contract are when Ellsbury should be most productive. Instead, he’s merely pretty decent.
*I just don’t see where Toronto has the pitching to make it. Mark Buerhle is the only starter with an ERA under 4.00, and that’s mostly on the strength of a great start to the season. The Jays can hit with anyone. Edwin Encarcion is back in the lineup, Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera are having a big years and players like Juan Francisco and Adam Lind are steady contributors. But to make up 4.5 games in a multiple team race in a month-plus requires sustained winning streaks that are only possible with starting pitching.
*Terry Francona is nothing short of a genius to have Cleveland still holding a puncher’s chance, with a 65-63 record. The Tribe’s own pitching woes have been there all year, they dealt Justin Masterson to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline and other than Lonny Chisenhall at third base, have not gotten any pleasant surprises. But Tito still has the Indians over .500. I can’t see them making up five games and leapfrogging four teams with their flaws, but Francona has done a terrific job to even have his team in this conversation.
*Felix Hernandez is a lock for the AL Cy Young Award, and in a race where everyone has vulnerabilities, is the biggest X-factor. Any team that’s on the borderline of being #5 in the league is going to have problems, but when your rotation is the one that comes around every fifth day to King Felix, that’s a very steady anchor. Not to mention an arm that scares the heck out of the A’s or Angels if Felix were able to pitch the wild-card game.
*Was Robinson Cano’s decision to leave New York for Seattle this offseason the deciding factor in this race? Cano has given at least a little bit of life to the Mariners’ punchless offense, batting .328. And though the home runs haven’t been there (11), power is down across baseball, so the effect isn’t as dramatic. And Cano’s great ability to drive the ball in the alleys still has a slugging percentage at a solid .467. If he’s in New York, this race isn’t a race.
*Time for a prediction—I’m picking the second wild card to be…the Kansas City Royals. I’ve got the Tigers chasing them down in the AL Central, but KC’s pitching is still good enough to hold on. And on that same note, watch to see if New York or Toronto can make a run at the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. It’s a tough climb (seven games), but the Orioles just lost Manny Machado for the year and could come back to the back. But those are topics for a separate column. For now we’ll just say the AL Central produces the second wild-card.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
On the surface, this seems like a year where the Detroit Tigers haven’t seen things go their way. Justin Verlander is having a bad year—not just bad for him, but bad, period. Max Scherzer is pitching decently, but isn’t the Cy Young Award pitcher he was a year ago. Miguel Cabrera is swinging a good bat, but actually looks human after two straight surreal MVP years and a Triple Crown in 2012.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
On top of all this, the Tigers are playing for a rookie manager in Brad Ausmus, with respected veteran Jim Leyland having retired after 2013. But it hasn’t slowed Detroit down.
Coming into Tuesday night, they’re 61-48, have a reasonably comfortable 4 ½ game cushion in the AL Central, and were one of the big winners at the trade deadline when they acquired Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price. So how has Detroit done it?
The success of 2014 begins and ends with offense. The Tigers are fourth in the American League in runs scored, while the staff ERA ranks 10th. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story—Comerica Park is a pure pitchers’ park, one of only two in the American League that can qualify as such (Oakland being the other). Which in practice means the Detroit offense is even better, and the pitching even worse.
Cabrera overcame a slow start and has a healthy .371 on-base percentage/.528 slugging percentage. Victor Martinez is having an even better year, at .383/.569. But the big surprise comes in left field.
J.D. Martinez has numbers of .360/.595 and has come out of nowhere to take a position that had been an offensive liability in recent years and made it a major strength. Another positive surprise has been Rajai Davis, with his .343/.432 stat line in center that gave the club the confidence to trade Austin Jackson to the Seattle Mariners. And shortstop Eugenio Suarez has at least been competent with the bat, with a .329 OBP, after taking over for incumbent Jose Iglesias who was lost for the season in spring training.
Detroit’s lineup has also benefitted from the offseason move to trade Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler. Fielder ended up with neck problems, started poorly and then hit the DL for the balance of the year. Kinsler’s .323/438 numbers aren’t earth-shattering, but are better than whomever the organization would have had to replace Fielder with. And come October, Fielder’s poor postseason performances won’t be missed.
The Kinsler deal also enabled the defense to fall into place. Cabrera returned to his natural position at first base, where his soft hands enable him to excel and his lack of range isn’t as problematic as it was at third base. I have to think playing first is easier on the groin problems that he developed toward the end of last season.
It’s all added up to a lineup that leads the American League in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, batting average and doubles. They’re only eighth in home runs, which likely explains why all that only translates into fourth in runs scored. But in this park, that’s still plenty.
If Martinez, Davis and Suarez were the pleasant surprises in the everyday lineup, then the pitching rotation was saved by an unlikely hero in Rick Porcello. The righthander has won 13 games and has a 3.18 ERA, the best on the staff prior to Price’s arrival. Anibal Sanchez, one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball is 8-5 with a 3.37 ERA.
The bullpen has the same kind of problems that bedeviled them all of last year and ultimately cost them Games 2 & 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. But the Tigers are looking to fix them. They added Joakim Soria from Texas at the trade deadline. Between Soria and Joe Nathan, hopefully Ausmus can find a hot hand to handle the ninth. Joba Chamberlain and Al Albuquerque have pitched well in middle relief and setup.
That’s how Detroit kept themselves not only afloat, but thriving for four months of this season. The offense stepped up and an unlikely pitching hero was found. Now Price makes his first start as a Tiger tonight in Yankee Stadium. Perhaps Verlander can find his form. The role players have done their job, and the time for the stars to start shining is coming soon.
The Detroit Tigers are doing it again. For the second straight year, the Tigers are the heavy favorite and clearly the most talented team in the American League Central, and for the second straight year they find themselves in a tight division race for the summer.
Last year it was the Chicago White Sox, this time it’s the Cleveland Indians who are making life a little uncomfortable in Motown. Is there anything to worry about in Detroit, or is it just a matter of time before the Tigers take over and run away with the AL Central? Today’s MLB coverage seeks to answer that question.
THE BULLPEN UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
Relief pitching is the most commonly cited cause of the Tiger woes. Although I suppose I should use the word “woes” lightly, given that we’re talking about a team that’s still in first place by 3 ½ games. But the bullpen is seen by the mainstream media as the culprit for why Detroit hasn’t been able to shake the competition. And that view is correct.
The Tigers’ rank 10th in the American League in bullpen ERA and the closer’s role has been a problem all year. The team has officially cut the cord with Jose Valverde and given up on the idea that he’ll ever find his form. Joaquin Benoit is having a good year, saving all four of his chances with a 2.01 ERA and the veteran will likely keep the ball in the ninth inning until he pitches himself out of the job.
Detroit is also getting quality work from young arms like Drew Smyly, with a 1.75 ERA and Luke Putkonen has a 2.19 ERA in just twelve innings of work.
Phil Coke, along with Valverde has been the problem. Coke, the veteran lefty who took the closer’s job last October, has been awful, with a 6.14 ERA. Does manager Jim Leyland also give up on him? I’m not suggesting cutting Coke, but do you give his innings to a Putkonen or an Evan Reed, younger arms that are more effective?
I would do just that. Bullpens are often rescued by just this type of live, young arm and you never know—maybe you find your future closer in the process. In either case, Al Albuquerque is the other veteran besides Benoit who has been consistent.
A ROTATION FLIPPED UPSIDE DOWN
If the bullpen straightens out, this Tiger team is essentially unstoppable. They have the best starters’ ERA in the American League, and that’s even with Justin Verlander being a little off this season. The ace has a 3.90 ERA in 16 starts—and considering how pitcher-friendly Comerica Park is, that ERA is worse than it looks on the surface. Doug Fister, the #2, is also on 3.90.
But the depth of the rotation has come through. Max Scherzer is having an outstanding season, highlighted by his last six starts, where he’s 5-0 with a 2.20 ERA. Anibal Sanchez had been enjoying an excellent year before a shoulder strain put him on the disabled list. Its good news for Tiger fans that Sanchez is expected back on July 1 when he’s eligible to come off. Even Rick Porcello, who has basically done nothing for four years, is starting to get better, with a 2.73 ERA in last five stars.
When you have the best starters’ ERA in the league and your top two pitchers aren’t even sharp that says something pretty good about your staff.
A GOOD LINEUP THAT CAN BE EVEN BETTER
The offense is no less outstanding, ranking third in the AL in scoring runs, in spite of the vast park they play in. You don’t need me to tell you Miguel Cabrera is having another big year, or that Prince Fielder remains a valuable sidekick in the middle of the order. But also be aware that shortstop Jhonny Peralta is swinging a very good bat, with a stat line of .383 on-base percentage/.485 slugging percentage. Austin Jackson is getting on base consistently and setting the table, and the Tigers are getting some nice subordinate contributions from second baseman Omar Infante, who’s batting .300 and Tori Hunter in right, with his .346 OBP.
Just like the starting pitching, the lineup can get even better. There’s no reason the players who are doing well can’t keep reasonably close to their current levels of production, while Leyland can expect a lot more from Victor Martinez (.285/.337), along with Alex Avila (.271/.288) when the catcher gets off the DL. Avila starts a rehab assignment this weekend.
I picked the Tigers to win 101 games and win the World Series and the start of the season. They’re 42-32 right now, a 91-win pace, so I think I should back off on the 100-win call. But I won’t back down on the notion that they will pull away and win the AL Central with minimal September stress, and that they’ll win the Series.
The reason is that the strengths—the rotation and the lineup—are already strong and can get even better. And I think Leyland can get this bullpen at least to respectability with the pieces he currently has. It was just a question of establishing what he had (or didn’t have) in the case of Valverde and the young arms. Now that decisions are being made, the manager can get pitchers slotted into roles and create some steadiness. If the front office swings a deal for a Jonathan Papelbon—pending what decision the Phillies make regarding their chances—so much the better.
AROUND THE AL CENTRAL
Cleveland (39-36): Terry Francona’s got some bullpen problems of his own. The Indians have only closed 13 of 24 save chances, a 54 percent clip that’s ten points behind Detroit’s, and both are below the league average. Chris Perez begins his rehab today and the closer can’t come back from the DL too soon.
Kansas City (35-38): The Royals are getting great pitching and still not winning. At what point does the front office finally say enough is enough when it comes to manager Ned Yost?
Minnesota (34-38): It seems hard to believe the Twins are this close to .500.
Chicago White Sox (31-42): The city’s Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup thanks to a potent offensive attack. Could they share some of that offense with the South Side baseball team, who’s the worst in the AL at scoring runs?
The Boston Red Sox have been the toast of baseball in the first four weeks of the season, rolling to an 18-8 record and the best record in the majors. After a soap opera year of 2012, a new manager and a new attitude have produced some new results. In today’s American League MLB coveragewe’ll look at how the Red Sox have been doing it, speculate on their long-term chances and take a brief look at the rest of the AL.
Boston’s strengths in a nutshell are…
Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz have been amazingly good
Dustin Pedroia leads an offense that’s filling the basepaths with runners
The return of David Ortiz has lifted a lineup that’s also driving the ball for power very well.
Bucholz is your April frontrunner for the Cy Young Award, with a 5-0 record and 1.19 ERA, while Lester is 4-0 with a solid 3.11 ERA. These were the two pitchers everyone was focused on at the start of the year. Both were part of the infamous Fried Chicken Fiasco in the collapse of 2011, where pitchers were drinking and eating fried foods in the clubhouse during games—the baseball equivalent of fiddling as Rome burned. But it was presumed the ringleader in the group was Josh Beckett. Now Beckett is gone, the old pitching coach John Farrell is back as manager, and Bucholz and Lester look like aces again.
The back end of the rotation and the bullpen were question marks. I was skeptical of signing Ryan Dempster and my mind hasn’t really changed, but Dempster does have a nice 3.30 ERA. Felix Doubront is an acceptable fourth or fifth starter—one who’s never pretty—but at least gives you a shot. John Lackey has made two starts since his return from Tommy John surgery and has an ERA of 2.61, but with one stint on the DL already behind him, you have to question how many outings he can give you.
Joel Hanrahan was acquired to shore up the ninth inning and began the season by getting hit hard and then hurt. He’s back off the disabled list, but Andrew Bailey—last year’s big acquisition to shore up the ninth inning before getting hurt, then hit hard—has found his pre-2012 form. Bailey’s closed five of six chances with a 1.46 ERA. Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa are doing excellent work in the setup roles.
What happens with Dempster is going to go a long way towards telling us if the Red Sox can continue to lead the AL East throughout the summer. While I’m sold that Bucholz and Lester are back as a legitimate 1-2 punch, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that somewhere along the line they’ll lose some decisions and that Bucholz’s ERA might rise into the 2s. If Dempster can stay steady, it will give the rotation needed stability.
While Boston’s staff ERA ranks 4th in the American League, the hitting is a little bit better, ranking 3rd. The best Red Sox teams from 2003-11 followed the Moneyball formula of churning out on-base percentage and this team is doing just that. Pedroia is leading the way with a .444 OBP, while Shane Victorino is at .385. Jacoby Ellsbury is playing reasonably well, but hasn’t really heated up yet in the leadoff spot, so there’s every reason to think the Sox can maintain their high level of getting runners on base.
This wasn’t supposed to be a vintage Red Sox team when it came to power, but they’re second in the American League in slugging percentage. David Ortiz returned from the disabled list and in nine games, he hit three home runs and delivered a slugging percentage of .917. Mike Napoli, another offseason acquisition I was skeptical about, is coming through and unlike Dempster, I’m ready to change my mind and say this is the real thing. Napoli looks very comfortable in Fenway and my biggest concern was his defensive skill at first base. At the very least, that hasn’t been a problem in the early going.
And my favorite Red Sox, left fielder Danny Nava, is finally getting regular playing time. Nava got national attention in 2010 when he hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues. When he got further chances to play, he consistently got on base and played a good left field, but was always shunted aside as the front office went in search of the next high-priced star. Now he’s getting his chance and the numbers speak for themselves–.385 on-base percentage and .500 slugging.
The disappointments in the lineup are clearly on the left side of the infield. Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks are off to horrible starts. Middlebrooks’ six home runs have somewhat obscured that, but he’s only got 19 hits total for the year. He’s a great talent and the fact the team has started so well will buy him some time to keep developing, but for long-term success, Boston is going to need him to hit.
Drew is a different story. I like his acquisition in the offseason, but he’s hitting sub-.200 and has been hurt. You know, I realize that the offseason moves I didn’t like (Dempster and Napoli) are coming through and the one I did (Drew) is a bust. The Sawx are my favorite team, and let’s just say I’m glad I’m not in charge of making these decisions. Just writing about them after the fact. But back to Drew—he’s apparently never really gotten his stroke back after the devastating ankle injury that cost him a season and a half when he was in Arizona. The Red Sox haven’t had stability at shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004 and apparently the search will continue.
So where do the Red Sox stand for the long haul in what promises to be a tough AL East race? The Yankees are only two games back, as they try and find healthy bodies. The Orioles are two and a half back, and the Rays are inching back closer to .500.
As a fan, I feel good about this team, but also realistic. Clearly, Boston is back to being fun again and will be in the race. The realistic side of me says the 3 thru 5 spots in the rotation are a question mark. And even if you’re a Dempster believer, you have to concede that at least 4-5 are big questions. In the bullpen, Bailey’s known to be fragile, so we have to see how that plays out. I’m not ready to say the Red Sox are the team to beat in the AL East, but at least this spring I don’t have to use the NBA & NHL playoffs as a way of hiding from baseball reality.
DETROIT& LOS ANGELES GO IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS
The Detroit Tigers had been off to a muddling start, but have caught fire and won five in a row. They’re getting vintage performances from Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and new free agent acquisition Tori Hunter. The ERA of the Detroit starting rotation is the 2nd-best in the American League, with Anibal Sanchez also off to a blazing start. The bullpen was a question mark coming into the season and is no less so today after some blown saves and injuries to Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel, but Jose Valverde has returned to the team and successfully closed two save opportunities. I picked this team to win 100 games and win the World Series. The century mark might have been overkill given the relief pitching, but as long as the Tigers are alive and have their stars healthy, I consider them the team to beat in all of baseball.
The Los Angeles Angels were last year’s team to beat and for a lot of people they were this year’s too. And apparently they are the team to beat—because of a lot of people are beating them. The Angels are now 9-17, thanks primarily to a pitching staff that’s 14th in the league in ERA. Everyone is to blame. The starters’ ERA is also 14th and the bullpen is an abysmal 3-of-8 in save opportunities. Say what you will about how bad Josh Hamilton has been—and with a .252 OBP/.296 slugging he’s been awful—but pitching is the big culprit here.
And now the elephant in the room is the status of manager Mike Scoscia. He’s considered in many quarter s—including this one—to be the best manager in baseball, or at least the equal of anyone else. But this franchise has spent a lot of money and is not seeing any results. If the issue is management—and that’s still a big if—I’m inclined to that Scoscia would just be better off playing on a team that was less about high-priced stars and more about finding quality, aggressive young players to fill roles. Managing egos is different than managing baseball. But whatever you think on this subject, what seemed unthinkable for a long time, is now a topic being casually broached on talk shows. egos is different than managing baseball.
nd and more about finding quality, aggressive young players to fill roles.
The Detroit Tigers are coming off their second American League pennant in the last seven seasons and have officially established themselves as the scourge of the Yankees, knocking the Pinstripes out of the playoffs for the third time since 2006. But there’s one thing Detroit hasn’t done under manager Jim Leyland and that’s win the World Series. Will the 2013 edition of the Tigers take the final step? TheSportsNotebook will evaluate Detroit and will also check in on their Rustbelt rival in Cleveland, where Terry Francona has undertaken the job of rebuilding the Indians.
Detroit’s talent was top-heavy last year, meaning that the stars were outstanding, but the depth within the starting lineup and rotation was often lacking. Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown won him the MVP, but the third baseman has been one of the best offensive corner infielders for several years now. Prince Fielder came over from Milwaukee and delivered a .412/.528 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Fielder, whose bat has provided cover for Cabrera and Ryan Braun the past two seasons, both MVP, appears to be running the best protection racket this side of Al Neri in The Godfather.
Justin Verlander did what he always does—he took the ball for a minimum of thirty starts and pitched like a #1 starter. Then he appeared to be moving past some of the problems that have plagued him in recent postseasons with a dominant showing against Oakland, virtually singlehandedly pushing his team past the A’s. Then Verlander shut down the Yankees in the ALCS.
The supporting cast in the lineup and rotation had its share of problems last year, a reason the Tigers only won 86 games, the worst of all American League playoff entrants, including wild-cards Texas & Baltimore. As late as mid-September it looked like Detroit would lose out to Chicago in the AL Central race. While the Central doesn’t look great this year, the Tigers would clearly prefer to just win 93-95 games and give themselves some comfort in the season’s final month.
If that’s going to happen, it has to begin with pitching and there’s reason for Leyland to feel optimistic. Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are all under 30. Fister was hurt much of last year and Sanchez didn’t come over until the July 31 trade deadline. A full season from both pitchers automatically makes Detroit significantly better. Scherzer can be inconsistent, but even he doesn’t level out, the lefty is good for 30-plus starts and an ERA that will hover around 4—in short, an ideal back-of-the-rotation arm.
Austin Jackson had a breakout year in the everyday lineup, with a .377/.479 stat line. Even if the centerfielder doesn’t continue to hit with that kind of power, it’s his ability to get on base that matters. Cabrera and Fielder just need someone to get on base in front of them. Furthermore, Detroit will welcome back designated hitter Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season. When last seen in 2011, Martinez was hitting .330 and driving the ball into the alleys. We should give him some time to really get back into the swing of things—no pun intended, but there’s every reason to think that by midsummer at the latest, Detroit will have another potent bat in the middle of the lineup.
The team signed 37-year-old Tori Hunter to play right fielder. Hunter can still hit and be a good supporting bat, and he’s got the veteran experience the Tigers need in the postseason. On the other end of the age spectrum, third-year catcher Alex Avila is a reliable bat. His home runs dropped from 19 to 9 last year, with the slugging percentage tailing off. But Avila’s solid on-base percentage from 2011 sustained into last year, and as long as he keeps getting on base, Detroit should be happy. And the Tigers will give Andy Dirks a shot at the left field job on a full-time basis, after Dirks posted an impressive .370/.487 stat line in part-time duty last year.
There are just not a lot of weaknesses in the Detroit lineup, even if it didn’t always seem that way last year. Even the middle infield spots—Omar Infante at second and Jhonny Peralta at short—that are the weak links, aren’t truly awful. This is a good, solid American League lineup, and I think they’ll be hitting in support of a good, solid starting rotation.
Which brings us to the bullpen. Jose Valverde has been let go, after an inconsistent regular season and awful postseason. 23-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon is getting a chance at the closer’s job, along with Joaquin Benoit. Overall, the relief corps has enough decent arms—Al Albuquerque is healthy, to go with Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel and Bryan Villarreal—to at least avoid a train wreck. But it’s far from an asset and could result in Detroit’s win total coming in below expectations.
And that brings to the question of win expectations. TheSportsNotebook’s regular readers know that a staple of our preseason MLB coverage is to look at each team’s Over/Under win projection in Las Vegas and make a pick. Detroit’s a hefty 92.5. This puts me in a tough spot—when I make my final picks online here on Opening Day and predict each team’s record, there’s a good chance Detroit will be one of the teams I pick to hit the 95-96 win level. But when picking Over/Unders, I also think you have to be cognizant of the downside. If the bullpen has problems, an 88-win campaign is also realistic. That puts the Vegas number right in the middle of where I think they’ll be. But because I think caution has to be in order when it comes to numbers this high, I’m going to pick the Under.
CLEVELAND TRIES TO REBUILD
Terry Francona was in the opposing dugout the last time Cleveland was relevant—it was the 2007 American League Championship Series, when the Indians got out to a 3-1 lead in games on Francona’s Red Sox, before losing the final three. It’s a long road back, but there are some good young position players to build with and the hope that many some talented, young starting pitchers can reverse some alarming trends.
The infield includes second baseman Jason Kipnis, third baseman Lonny Chisenhall and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, all between the ages of 25-27. Cabrera has already established himself a solid shortstop, Kipnis had a good second half a year ago and Chisenhall is one who’s shown flashes of some power to the alleys—a .430 slugging percentage last year. The Tribe went out and added Nick Swisher, perpetually underappreciated by the Yankees the past four years, to play first base. Cleveland also signed Mark Reynolds, a hero of Baltimore’s playoff run, to be the DH, and added Atlanta’s Michael Bourn to play centerfield.
Swisher, Reynolds and Bourn aren’t stars, but they’re all solid major league players who have a demonstrated ability to be contributing members to playoff teams. They join a lineup where catcher Carlos Santana is an undervalued asset. The young hitter doesn’t have a high average, but he has great plate discipline, takes his walks and shows some power.
Now we come to the starting pitching. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jiminez have the talent—particularly Jiminez—but each regressed last year. In the case of Jiminez, he’s been regressing since the All-Star break of 2010. They both need to turn it around and at least become respectable #3-caliber starters (I know, they’re at the top of the rotation in Cleveland, but one step at a time). The rotation has its own veteran addition in Brett Myers, and they’ll also give a look to 26-year-old Zach McAllister, who had a 4.24 ERA in limited 2012 duty.
Chris Perez is a solid anchor in the bullpen, and while the setup crew isn’t deep, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith are both pretty good. They’d be even better if Masterson and Jiminez could go deep into games frequently and take some pressure off.
Cleveland’s win projection number is 78.5, which I find to be on the high side. If the pitching doesn’t come through—and I’m not optimistic, I can easily see the Tribe not making it past 70. And it requires a big leap of faith on every player discussed in this article coming through to even see them getting to 75. I’m going Under. It’s going to be a long first year for Francona while they get the starting pitching figured out.
Before we get into a recap of Detroit’s Game 3 win in the American League Championship Series last night over New York, let’s be clear on one thing—the Yankees are not dead. Yes, I know they’re in a 3-0 hole in games. Yes, I know their offense shows zero signs of life. But just hear me out.
If anyone knows that a 3-0 deficit can be overcome it’s the Yankees, being the only team in the history of baseball to blow such a lead. Throughout the MLB playoffs, I’ve allowed my pedigree as a Red Sox fan to push my luck on historical references that would get the dysfunctional Sox inserted into the October baseball discussion. But in this case, the historical analogy is obvious and important.
It’s not just that the 2004 Red Sox showed winning four in a row can happen. They showed it can happen when some good pitching matchups are coming your way. The ’04 Sox needed one miracle—they needed a slumping Derek Lowe to stop the bleeding in Game 4. They got it, then Mariano Rivera inexplicably walked the leadoff batter in the ninth, then Dave Roberts stole second and the rest was history. After that Boston trotted out Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling the next two games, and before you knew it was a seventh game in which all the pressure was on the Yankees.
Consider what New York has ahead. C.C. Sabathia gets the ball tonight and the big fella has been every bit as dominant as Justin Verlander has been this October. Even if you think the 2012 Yankees are frauds, as ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor wrote this morning, you have to think they should win tonight.
Then tomorrow it’s Andy Pettite facing Doug Fister. The Tiger starter was great in Game 1, but Pettite was extremely good too. Is it really that unthinkable that the Yankees win a postseason game with Andy Pettite on the mound?
If that happens then all bets are off. The series goes back to New York. Even Detroit’s great insurance policy—Verlander on full rest for a Game 7—wouldn’t be the same big edge it appeared at the start of the series. When a series that starts 3-0 gets to Game 7 all the pressure is on the team blowing the lead.
As unbelievable as it sounds, if we’re still playing baseball on Sunday in the ALCS, the Yankees would be playing a home game with the pressure on the visiting team. Who knows what happens then.
Furthermore, the events of last night—the adventure Detroit reliever Phil Coke turned the ninth inning into—show us just how small the margin of error is in this series. Coke gave up two hits, had the tying run at second and ran Raul Ibanez to a full count before finally getting the strikeout to end the game. All of these games are close and the Detroit bullpen still doesn’t inspire confidence.
Finally let’s come to the New York starting pitching. I’m going to ask this—if the Yankees had lost the early games of this series by scores like 5-4, 7-5 and 8-7, would everyone be crying that they’re frauds? I don’t think so. People focus on hitting at the expense of pitching and the fact remains that in every single postseason game this year, New York has gotten a high-quality outing from its starting pitcher. Every single game has been close.
Sure, A-Rod and Swisher are in the tank on the bench. Robinson Cano is an epic slump. But Sabathia, Pettite and Hiroki Kuroda are all locked in and it’s these three who will define whether the Yankees have a chance to win the next three games.
Am I saying New York will do it? No, because anyone who actually predicted such would be doing it for shock value. I’m saying the same thing a friend of mine told me on a Sunday morning in October in 2004 when I was writing off the Red Sox season—if you win tonight, who knows what happens. The ’04 Red Sox didn’t have to worry about the equivalent of a rested Verlander at the end of the comeback trail, but nor did they have a rested Sabathia to start it.
Let’s just keep a cork in the champagne bottles for now. This has nothing to do with buying into Yankee mythology. This is just looking at pitching matchups, the closeness of games and Detroit’s bullpen issues and saying this is a series that could have a momentum shift in it if New York is allowed off the mat and makes it back to the Bronx.
Last night’s game seemed to fly by and Detroit missed a lot of opportunities to put the game away. The biggest came in the sixth when they had the bases loaded and one out, with Miguel Cabrera at the plate. The Triple Crown winner hit the ball hard-a bullet grounder to third. But Eric Chavez, playing in A-Rod’s stead—made a great backhand and started a double-play that kept the score 2-0 and allowed the Yanks to make it interesting in the ninth.
Similar defense was not shown by Curtis Granderson on another Cabrera hit. In this case, a long fly ball tailing to the right-field side of Granderson looked playable. I wish I had seen the play live with the full camera view, because it appeared the centerfielder got an extremely poor break on the ball and it landed for an RBI double. With Granderson looking the worst of the Yankee hitters, he needs to play defense and this hardly helped his cause.
Finally let’s come to Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Why didn’t he bring in A-Rod to pinch-hit for Ibanez in the ninth inning? Say what you will about A-Rod’s slump and Ibanez’ heroics so far in October. That was when Ibanez hit against right-handed pitchers. Here it was the lefty Coke on the mound and all that was needed was a single to tie the game. That Rodriguez didn’t even get the chance to try it suggests either that Girardi has lost his mind or there’s something even more wrong in A-Rod’s relationship to the team than has been visible so far. Take your own guess as to what it might be.
The MLB playoffs return to doubleheader action today. We start in St. Louis at 4 PM ET with a great pitching matchup as Matt Cain meets Kyle Lohse. Then it’s Sabathia trying to save the Yankee season against Tiger lefty Max Scherzer in prime-time.
The AL Central race is all but over after this weekend, and it’s because Detroit’s pitching come through, while Chicago’s big hitters did not. The Tigers won a series over the Twins, while the White Sox dropped three of four from the Rays. The end result is that Detroit is plus-3 games with the same number left.
Detroit got the usual stellar outing from Justin Verlander on Saturday, who pitched seven innings and allowed just an unearned run. Less expected was great work from Drew Smyly on Friday and Anibal Sanchez on Sunday. Though neither went deep into the game—they combined for 11.2 innings—both starters shut down the Minnesota bats, and though Friday’s opener ended up in Twins’ hands, the Tiger bullpen—with help from a big home run by Prince Fielder—delivered the Sunday victory that all but sealed this division title.
Chicago’s bats had a tough task in taking on Tampa Bay in the Trop, and the White Sox hitters certainly didn’t do anything to exceed expectations. The 2 thru 7 hitters on this team are Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and A.J. Piersynzki, and together they have given Chicago a consistent offense. Over the last four games in Tampa the quintet combined to 14-for-66, a collective batting average of .212. If we mix in the few walks they drew, the on-base percentage is still a terrible .278. Was there any power you ask? Other than a Rios home run, the other hits were all singles. That’s a good way to hit your way home for October and that’s what happened to the Southsiders.
Detroit needs one more win or one more Chicago defeat to make this official. The Tigers are in Kansas City, while the White Sox go to Cleveland for the final series. Let’s note this is the same Indians’ team that just took two of three in Chicago and now needs only one win to end their rival’s season. Let’s further note that if the miracle happens and the White Sox pull back even, it still just means a one-game playoff. And by the way, Verlander would be on full rest to pitch that game. I don’t think it’s jumping the gun to plan on watching the Tigers in action this coming Saturday when the Division Series begins.
Around the rest of the MLB playoff picture…
*Baltimore & Oakland both came up with weekend sweeps. The Orioles pulled even in the AL East with the Yanks and clinched at least a wild-card. The A’s are on the verge of doing the same, holding a three-game cushion on the Angels & Rays with three to play. Coco Crisp came up big for Oakland, with seven hits in the first two games of the wins in Seattle, Brandon Moss had a big five-RBI game on Saturday and Josh Donaldson hit a two-run shot in the ninth inning that same day, a tying blast that set up a later three-run jack by Moss.
Baltimore’s sweep of Boston was aided considerably by Chris Davis, who homered on Friday night and had two hits both Saturday and Sunday. And Jim Thome got two starts in the series and had multiple-hit games both times. The Birds’ sweep went in conjunction with New York splitting four in Toronto and allowing the Orioles to wipe out a 1.5 game deficit. The Yanks had a scare when Robinson Cano needed his hand X-rayed, but they came back negative. Cano otherwise spent the weekend giving Toronto pitching a scare, with a 10-for-16 run through the four games.
Thus, we can realistically conclude that we know the five teams that will be in the American League playoffs. Baltimore, New York and Texas are all clinched. Detroit and Oakland are right on the brink of doing so. But the brilliance of the new playoff format is now shining through, because we don’t yet know who will win the AL East & AL West. The Rangers should take care of business in the West, but they’re still only up two on Oakland and the teams go head-to-head out west. You’d like to say with certainty that Texas will pick up the one win they need to clinch, but they have inconsistent starters Martin Perez and Ryan Dempster scheduled for Monday and Wednesday. And if the Rangers do clinch, they still need to keep an eye on Baltimore/New York, whom they only lead by a game for homefield advantage.
New York and Baltimore both have tougher challenges, particularly the Orioles who go to Tampa. The Yanks theoretically have it easier with a home series against Boston, but the Red Sox have Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz set for Monday and Tuesday and all it takes is either pitcher to perform to his ability one time and the Yanks could find themselves in a one-game showdown come Friday. As a Red Sox fan, hoping for such an outcome is all I have left this season.
Over in the National League, Washington isn’t quite there in the NL East, but they are up three on Atlanta. The Braves are playing Pittsburgh, a dead team walking, so Washington likely needs to take care of its own business one time against Philadelphia at home. The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the top overall seed, a factor that can impact pitching decisions on Tuesday and Wednesday if the NL East doesn’t get settled tonight. The #1 seed doesn’t open Division Series play until Sunday, while the #2 seed plays on Saturday.
The only postseason berth really left up in the air is the final NL wild-card, which has been narrowed to St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Cards are still in firm control with a two-game cushion. They play at Cincinnati, while the Dodgers host San Francisco. In theory, both division leaders can spoil the postseason hopes of a rival they hate. In practice, Johnny Cueto for Cincy pitched yesterday and won’t see the mound in this final series.
If Los Angeles can push this race to the final day, they have Clayton Kershaw set to pitch on Wednesday against a San Francisco team that is all but locked into the #3 seed. Still, making up two games realistically requires a sweep and with Matt Cain making his last regular season start tonight that’s a lot to ask. I know it’s not over, but I’ve already started to look forward to a Cardinals-Braves wild-card game on Friday.
Every team in baseball has two series left as the MLB playoff race hits its final week. Let’s take a look at how the races shape up, who plays who and what we have to look forward to in these closing days…
AL CENTRAL: The Chicago White Sox are fading fast, having lost seven of nine, a stretch that includes series losses to Kansas City & Cleveland. Meanwhile, Detroit took advantage of the chance to play the Royals in rattling off a four-game sweep. Detroit now leads the division by two games. They close on the road, but the trips are to Minnesota and Kansas City.
Justin Verlander is scheduled to pitch Saturday, a circumstance that means he could come back on short rest for Wednesday’s season finale if necessary. Meanwhile, the White Sox are in red-hot Tampa, then go to Cleveland. The most high-stakes race in baseball—its winner-take-all, with no wild-card cushion—could be over by the end of the weekend.
AL WILD-CARD: Tampa Bay and Los Angeles have played their way back into this race right now, and only trail Oakland by two games. Baltimore currently holds the top wild-card spot, and the Rays get the Orioles in a home series to end the season. But both challengers have tough schedules. Tampa has the aforementioned matchups with Chicago and Baltimore, while LAA has to deal with Texas—a team that still has to clinch the AL West—this weekend, and then a road trip at pesky Seattle. The Angels have to face Felix Hernandez on Monday, and as NFL fans now know, some strange things can happen in Seattle on a Monday Night.
AL EAST: Baltimore’s not just looking over their shoulder in the wild-card race, they’re looking ahead in the division race. New York lost the opener of a four-game set in Toronto last night and the Yankee lead is back to a single game. The Yanks will finish out their series north of the border, and Baltimore has that tough series in Tampa ahead. That leaves the Boston Red Sox to possibly settle the division, as they pay a visit to Camden Yards this weekend and the Bronx next week. The pitching for Boston has Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester pitching against the Yankees, and while they doesn’t mean the same this year as it has in years past, I’m sure it’s not a situation Joe Girardi finds idea.
The Yanks, meanwhile, have to feel heartened by the strong outings from Andy Pettite and C.C. Sabathia of late and these two, along with consistent Hiroki Kuroda, will pitch four of the remaining games. Any time a race is this close, anything can happen, but the matchups—plus having the one-game edge—work in New York’s favor.
AL WEST: I suppose you can read Texas’ split of a four-game set with Oakland earlier this week any way you want—because the Rangers have a four-game cushion, they held the course and knocked a few more days off the calendar. But if you’re Oakland you look at that three-game home set with Texas to end the year and figure you dodged the bullet on the road and gave yourself a shot for the final games. The Rangers have hot pitchers Yu Darvish and Derek Holland set up to pitch once apiece, while Ryan Dempster will go twice.
NL WILD-CARD: The race that seemed to be heading for a glorious mess suddenly cleaned up and got stable. St. Louis mostly took care of business in games against Houston and Chicago, while Milwaukee and Los Angeles couldn’t keep pace. The Brewers, at four back, are realistically done, while the Dodgers at three out have a tough uphill fight. St. Louis does have to go on the road to play Washington and Cincinnati. The Cards have Adam Wainwright set to pitch twice, and 16-game winner Kyle Lohse goes Saturday, meaning he’s another one who can go on three days rest if need be.
The one caveat in all this is that the Dodgers have three home games with lowly Colorado ahead, while Milwaukee faces Houston & San Diego. It’s hard to see the Cards blowing this, but after last year’s ending, they’re the last franchise that would ever write anybody else off.
NL EAST: Atlanta’s gotten hot and is still chasing Washington at four games back. But unlike Oakland, the Braves don’t get head-to-head games with the leader, so this is a longshot. But Atlanta does have the favorable schedule, playing at home against the Mets, then on the road against the collapsing Pirates whose fans have again forgotten they exist. Kris Medlen, perhaps the hottest starting pitcher in baseball is going on Sunday, which works perfectly for bringing him back on normal rest for the wild-card game on Friday, so perhaps that tells you what manager Fredi Gonzalez is thinking. Washington does have to play at St. Louis this weekend and then hosts Philadelphia, a team they just took two of three from.
HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: Texas & Washington are holding down the #1 seeds, although neither one is in the bag. New York is two back of Texas and would win a tiebreaker, while Washington is only plus-one on Cincinnati. Further down the bracket, the AL Central winner is locked into the #3 seed. Over in the NL, Western Division champ San Francisco is two back of Cincy to try and get the two-spot and earn homefield for at least the Division Series.
FIGHTING FOR .500: Nothing can change the disappointment Philadelphia fans over this season, but in the big picture they’ll appreciate it if their 78-78 team can post their seventh straight winning season. Those are the kind of streaks that look very good as they build up, even if some individual years are a disappointment. On that same note, that’s the worst part of the Pittsburgh collapse—at 76-80, the Pirates have to sweep their home games with the Reds & Braves to have their first winning season since 1992, and with just two losses extend their historic streak of losing seasons.
AT THE BETTING WINDOW: Earlier this week, we reviewed how each team was doing against the Over/Under win totals that were posted in Las Vegas at the start of the season. The Yankees, Rays and Brewers were the teams whose number was in serious doubt. If you bet New York to go Over, you’re still sweating, needing them to split their last six. Milwaukee needs to sweep to go Over, although a 5-1 closing record and push is realistic. Tampa Bay’s given their bettors nervous moments, but at 86-70, they look set to go Over the posted number of 87.
LOOKING AHEAD: The wild-card games are both held Friday, with Thursday being reserved for any one-game playoffs. Please note that division races—notably the AL East—that may end in a tie, with both teams going postseason, will now be settled in a one-game playoff. Previous rules had used tiebreakers to see the teams, but with the reward of a division title so much higher under the new format, they now play it off. Any deadlocks that are just over homefield advantage in the Division Series are still settled via the head-to-head tiebreaker system. Division Series play begins on Saturday with the 2 vs. 3 bracket in both leagues, and then the 1-seeds open on Sunday against the wild-card winners.
Here at TheSportsNotebook we’ll chronicle all the races outlined here, and also mix in articles picking a season-ending All-Star team in both leagues, plus separate posts with final MVP selections. All that’s on tap between now and Friday, and then it’s time to start previewing the battles of October.
The combatants in the AL Central race played their last head-to-head game yesterday afternoon in Chicago, as the White Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 5-4 in a makeup game. Chicago, at 80-66, now leads in the division by three games with 2 ½ weeks to go. Let’s size up how each team is playing right now and what lies ahead the rest of the way…
DETROIT: Detroit’s muscle men of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder might get the attention, but the lack of overall depth in this lineup is hurting them in this race. Detroit’s rank in slugging percentage, relative to other American League teams, has been in decline since the All-Star break and hitting what they hope will be a bottom-out point of being 11th in September. It’s no fault of Cabrera who continues a torrid MVP-caliber pace, but while Fielder isn’t in any kind of epic meltdown, he has hit below his season-long totals since the All-Star break and it’s gotten a little worse in September. The biggest problem is that Austin Jackson’s power is also going down. Given that he’s a leadoff man that’s not particularly surprising, but it underscores how much of Detroit’s offense was predicated by a natural contact hitter producing abnormal power numbers. While Jackson is still getting on base at a good clip and doing his job, and catcher Alex Avila is doing the same, the rest of this lineup is dead weight.
The good news Detroit can draw is that power outages and surges can change faster than anything in baseball, and if the pendulum is able to swing back, the team is getting good starting pitching. Believe it nor, Justin Verlander does not have the best ERA on this team in the second half. Max Scherzer has been on fire, going 8-1 in his last 12 starts and both he and Doug Fister have better post-All Star break ERAs than the staff ace, who is hardly in any kind of slump. Anibal Sanchez has also pitched well at the season’s most important time, posting a 2.29 ERA in his three September starts.
What this staff is being hurt by is the lack of power production dragging their run support and a questionable bullpen that ranks 11th in the American League when it comes to closing saves. Given that closer Jose Valverde caught lightning in a bottle last year when he managed to make it the entire 2011 season without blowing a save in spite of repeatedly pitching himself into trouble, the struggles of this season cannot be a surprise and with little margin for error left, the Tigers can’t afford to blow any leads.
CHICAGO: Chicago’s offense is going the opposite direction of their rival. While the team’s overall numbers for the season are comparable, it’s the White Sox attack that’s coming together down the stretch as they are getting on base and hitting for power at better rates than the Tigers. Chicago benefits from the fact that Adam Dunn, Kevin Youkilis and Paul Konerko are all hitters who take walks in addition to having power, so in spite of low batting averages for Dunn and Youkilis, the team is rarely without at least a small contribution from its key players. Then we add in that Alex Rios and A.J. Pierzynski are driving the ball for power and up-and-down rookie Dayan Viciedo has caught fire in September, and you have the formula for winning offense.
The dark cloud hanging over Chicago is that this lineup relies more on power than on-base consistency, which is a byproduct of the strengths and weaknesses of Rios and Pierzynski. As noted above, those power surges can go as quickly as they come and if they disappear the next couple weeks, a three-game lead can disappear.
Robin Ventura’s pitching staff really needed the outing they got from Jose Quintana yesterday afternoon. While he wasn’t dominant in the 5-4 win, he was at least a serviceable #3 starter and that’s something he wasn’t in his early starts this month. Chicago is strong at the top with Chris Sale at 17-6 and a 2.78 ERA, while Jake Peavy is 11-11, but with a solid 3.26 ERA. Gavin Floyd is also back from the disabled list and can give Ventura a needed extra arm as he hits the homestretch. And like Detroit, Chicago’s bullpen is less than ideal for a contender, although setup man Hector Santiago has caught fire in September.
THE REST OF THE WAY: If Detroit can survive a three-game home series with Oakland that starts tonight, the schedule shapes up well for them to have the hot streak they need. The Tigers play seven more home games against the Twins & Royals, then close the season with six on the road against the same two teams. It’s very reasonable to think they can go 10-3 in those games, which would place considerable pressure on Chicago. The White Sox would have to go 8-5 against a schedule that includes a three-game series in Anaheim and a four-game home set with Tampa Bay. Even a 7-6 mark allows Detroit to pull even.
Thus, if you’re a Chicago fan, you look at these next three nights—the White Sox are in Kansas City, while the Tigers mess around with the A’s—as your opportunity to add at least one game of extra cushion before the schedule dynamic shifts in Detroit’s favor starting Friday.
The American League wild-card race might not be clear, but it’s starting to look we might have one fewer contestant for the two berths in the one-game showdown that will kickstart the MLB playoffs in less than a month. The AL Central race between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox is starting to look like a winner-take-all affair. The Tigers went west over the weekend and were swept by the Los Angeles Angels. The White Sox dropped two of three to Kansas City and concluded a six-game homestand where they could only split against the Royals and Twins. Detroit, currently two games back in the division race is now 4.5 back in the wild-card race and have the Angels, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles all to catch. With only three and a half weeks to go in the regular season that’s going to take a lot.
Furthermore, let’s not the obvious which is that if Detroit gets that hot, the wild-card won’t be relevant to them—they’ll win the AL Central. Both the Tigers and White Sox have to stop their current backpedal to the finish line. And since they go head-to-head in a four-game series to start the week it’s apparent that such a double hot streak can’t begin until at least Friday.
That might hurt the AL Central’s wild-card chances, but it sure ratchets up the intensity for these coming four nights on the South Side. Just a week ago Detroit beat Chicago three straight in Comerica Park, and now the White Sox try to return the favor. And just like in that previous series, the schedule works out so that Justin Verlander and Chris Sale each pitch the finale.
The Detroit-ChiSox battle is the biggest in the first half of the week, but two more showdowns are going to be crucial in the American League race, both wild-card and for division titles. The Orioles & Rays go head-to-head in Camden Yards. Baltimore split four with the Yanks over the weekend to stay one game back in the East, while Tampa grabbed two of three from Texas to keep within two games. What are the odds that when you said “AL East Showdown” for this spot in the schedule, you’d be thinking Rays-Orioles, and not Yanks-Red Sox, who hook up in the Fens? Boston is collapsing fast and if they’re interested in playing spoiler at all, we’ve seen precious little evidence on the field. If we don’t see it at home these next three nights, it’s never going to surface—and with still two more series against Baltimore and one more against New York, the Red Sox state of mind will be a factor in this race.
Los Angeles ‘ sweep of Detroit has pulled them even with Tampa Bay and both teams are only one game back of Baltimore for the last berth. Oakland, currently the #1 wild-card, has a 2.5 game cushion between themselves and elimination. Now the Angels host the A’s for a three-game set, though the hot Halos have a biceps problem for Jered Weaver looming over their heads and the ace’s start in Wednesday’s matinee finale is in question.
These three big series are where the action is at in baseball this week and over the next three days, TheSportsNotebook will essentially tune up for the playoffs, but having morning reaction to the results from all three locales, the same as will be the case for each day of the postseason.
Here’s the rundown on other series involving the contenders…
Pittsburgh-Cincinnati: The standings tell us the Pirates are a contender, only 2.5 games out of the playoffs. The results on the field tell us they just lost three straight to the Cubs, concluding a 2-4 homestand where the Astros were the other opponent. Their only hope is lack of focus from Cincinnati, who has run away with the Central.
Washington-NY Mets: Wednesday’s game will be the focal point, as John Lannan gets the ball. It’s Lannan who’s taking the place of the now-shutdown Stephen Strasburg. Keep in mind while Washington’s lead of 5.5 games is comfortable, it’s not insurmountable.
Atlanta-Milwaukee: The Braves just polished off the Mets three straight and have opened up a seven-game lead for one of the wild-card berths. After last year, no one in Atlanta is going to breathe too easy, and the Brewers are sneaking up on the .500 mark, having just knocked off St. Louis in a road series this weekend. Where I write, just outside of Milwaukee, there’s cautious talk of a miracle September run, although the Brewers would need to sweep a series like this for such talk to go beyond the hard-core fan base.
San Francisco-Colorado: Great weekend for the Giants, who grabbed two wins over the Dodgers and hold a 5.5 game lead in the NL West. Between now and the season-ending series with their rival to the south, San Fran has an exclusive diet of Arizona, Colorado and San Diego. It’s all there for the Giants to clinch before the final battle with the Dodgers even begins.
LA Dodgers-Arizona: Clayton Kershaw is dealing with a nagging injury, but is expected to pitch tonight to open the two-game series. This is a sandwich spot for the Dodgers, right between the weekend in Frisco and a coming four-game set with St. Louis, with whom they are battling for the last wild-card slot.
St. Louis-San Diego: The Cards come off a disappointing home series with Milwaukee, losing two of three and have been unable to put distance between themselves and the slumping Pirates and the sluggish Dodgers. Now they start a West Coast swing that could leave them regretting missed opportunity.
Cleveland-Texas: Ron Washington’s Rangers can’t shake Oakland and the AL West lead is just 3.5 games, but after finishing a weekend in Tampa Bay—and two series with the Rays over the last week and a half—the Texas schedule gets easier and it starts right here.