Goal remains same for Tigers: World Series title
On verge of third straight AL Central crown, it's Fall Classic or bust in Detroit
We're taking a tour of October as the playoffs approach, with an in-depth look at those who are postseason-bound.
There has been a sense of eminent domain with regard to the Tigers and the AL Central all season.
Winter activity made it clear the Royals and Indians -- and, ergo, the division itself -- had improved, but you would have been hard-pressed to find a rational soul who didn't acknowledge that the Tigers had the most talent of any AL Central club. It was just a question of whether or not that talent would come together as prescribed.
As was the case a year ago, Detroit's road toward the division crown could not be labeled Easy Street. From the club's early season bullpen maladies, to the slight regression of Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder, to the suspension of Jhonny Peralta, to the recent health issues for Miguel Cabrera, that road has had a number of potholes along the way. But the Tigers, on the whole, have never been anything less than an elite AL team, and, benefitting from the Royals' slow start, they essentially sealed the Central -- mentally, if not mathematically -- by posting a 15-4 record against the second-place Tribe.
And so the Tigers, who clinched a postseason berth Tuesday night, should have their third straight AL Central title locked up any minute now. Their magic number is one. Once the crown is clinched, they can turn their attention to what has always been the grander task at hand -- a World Series title, for their fiscally frustrated yet dedicated fan base and their impassioned owner.
When Mike Ilitch doled out all those dollars for Fielder before the 2012 season, it was an aggressive response to the Victor Martinez injury, and it played no small part in Detroit reaching the Fall Classic for the second time in seven seasons, only to come up empty-handed yet again.
With Martinez again a healthy part of the picture, and a playoff-prone veteran Torii Hunter brought aboard, the Tigers seem even more poised to go the distance, especially after Dave Dombrowski's midseason tinkering addressed the looming hole at shortstop with defensive whiz Jose Iglesias.
No wonder Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds report was, entering this week, giving Detroit a 23.7-percent chance of winning it all while no other team surpasses 13.4 percent.
That's no lock, of course. However, given the relative parity among the contenders and the vagaries of October and the beneficial bounces it requires, that's a pretty bold percentage, when you think about it.
Jim Leyland has a lot to think about as October approaches. For starters, there are the starters. A positive "problem" exists in the decision of how to align Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello -- all right-handers. Porcello, despite major strides, is likely to be dispatched to the bullpen, and Scherzer, despite an AL Cy Young Award-worthy season, is likely to follow the more tenured Verlander. Leyland has an ample array of options, though the lack of a lefty starter could be an issue against the A's or Red Sox, in particular.
The bullpen also could use another steady lefty presence beyond setup man Drew Smyly, as Phil Coke has had an inconsistent season. But Leyland certainly feels a lot better now about his 'pen -- with Joaquin Benoit having settled the closer situation -- than he did in April and May.
What matters most is how Miggy is feeling. His lingering groin and abdominal issues (he was pulled from Saturday's game with groin soreness and was out of the lineup Sunday) will prompt some extra rest in these remaining days of the regular season. Even with his health issues, Cabrera can still hit, but at what level his lower body will cooperate come October is a major mystery. One thing's for certain: Cabrera's situation doesn't make a slow Tigers team any swifter.
So, no, the Tigers are not without their issues. But 2013 has been all about exactly one goal -- a World Series title. And with the regular season winding down, they are right where we expected them to be, with as good a chance as any team to make that goal a reality.
The bats: With Cabrera posting another AL MVP Award-worthy offensive season, the Tigers are second only to the Red Sox in runs per game and OPS. Cabrera has looked quite a bit more human in recent weeks in light of his health woes, but the good news for Detroit is that Fielder has turned it up a notch offensively, and the lower half of the lineup has been helped by the surge of once-struggling catcher Alex Avila. If the Tigers put Peralta back in the mix -- and more on that in a minute -- they'll be even deeper.
The arms: Even with Verlander taking a step back from Best Pitcher on the Planet status, the rotation has been boosted by the AL Cy Young Award-quality season of Scherzer (20-3, 3.00). The Tigers have the best rotation ERA (3.49) in the AL. The aforementioned depth will serve Detroit well in the postseason setting, as it will need quality innings from the starters. While the bullpen is much better than it was early in the year, consistency remains a concern.
The MVP: The stunning surge of Chris Davis turned out to be the only thing standing between Cabrera and an unheard-of second consecutive Triple Crown. It will be interesting to see if Cabrera's injury-induced statistical decline in recent weeks will affect him on the overall AL MVP Award ballot, but obviously he's the Tigers' MVP.
The ace: Scherzer seized the statistical title with his breakout season, which he credits to an increased confidence in his curveball and a strong strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course, Verlander is still decreed the ace of this staff. You don't lose that title overnight, and, again, don't be shocked to see him in Game 1.
The unsung hero: Omar Infante has been banged up at times this season (he missed more than a month with a sprained ankle). But when he has been healthy, he's been an extremely valuable piece because of his stout defense at second and the most productive offensive season of his career. FanGraphs gives him a 3.0 WAR mark for the year.
The pressing question: Beyond Miggy's health is the Peralta situation. What will his October role be, if any? He's been working out and will be eligible to return for the final regular-season series against the Marlins. Iglesias has already meant so much to this team from a defensive perspective, so Peralta isn't expected to return to shortstop. But with Cabrera ailing, it's not out of the question that Peralta would fill in at third base. Or he could be a defensively challenged but altogether-worth-considering option for left field, given the dearth of production there this season.