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Pitching Makes the Tigers a Threat in the Postseason

flickr.com/Keith Allison

flickr.com/Keith Allison

After suffering through the Lions and Pistons seasons this year, as well as a loss in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Red Wings, you can imagine why Detroit sports fans are really excited about their first place Tigers.  What’s even better for these fans is that the Tigers have opened up the AL Central race, and with the nearest contender 6.5 GB and going in the wrong direction, any playoff tickets that have been raffled away appear to have value.

So the question is: will the Tigers make a splash in the postseason as well?

They can, but they’ll need to find other sources of offense.  It’s probably a little cliched to speak of defense and pitching when talking about postseason baseball, but the Tigers have gotten this far behind defense and pitching.  That’s not going away.  But they will need to find some offense if they want to beat their divisional series opponent, which as of right now, would be the New York Yankees.  The Yankees are near indisputably the best team in baseball.

Let’s look at four players who will determine the fates of the Tigers in October–3 position players and a pitcher:  C Alex Avila, OF Carlos Guillen, OF Magglio Ordonez, and P Edwin Jackson

Avila is the hot prodigy.  He’s a 2008 2nd round draft pick who soared up to the majors in mid-August, and has posted a spectacular small sample line of .295/.380/.629.  He is so crucial because he provides a back-up catcher who can bring the lumber in relief of the more defensive-minded Gerald Laird (63 OPS+), but also because he offers a platoon option at DH that can help against a right hander like oh, say, A.J. Burnett in the playoffs.  No, he’s not going to replace Laird in the postseason lineup, but having him for at least an at bat a game is a big advantage in the playoffs.

Carlos Guillen is a fantastic baseball player having a mediocre year in which he spent the first part of it injured.  What the Tigers need from Guillen is to get back to his career level of production, while re-establishing himself as a starter in the outfield or even at first base (moving Miguel Cabrera to DH).  This might be a real unrealistic, however, since the decline in bat speed of players at Guillen’s age (33) appears to be real.  The Tigers would benefit a lot, however, from just a small bump in his on base percentage, which should come with improved two strike hitting (abnormally high K rate).

Magglio Ordonez is the most crucial piece of all.  He seems to have lost his power stroke with only 7 homers this year.  A Tigers playoff push can absolutely not afford to have Magglio Ordonez taking up space in the lineup.  Even if the decline is completely real, they need him to get hot and stay hot into early November to be a threat.  At this point, it appears that his $18 million dollar option for next season will vest, so there’s going to be plenty of pressure on the player as well to show that he’s not just a dead weight salary on the books for next year.

But the only player whose postseason performance pretty much decides whether the Tigers are just a nominal AL Central winner, or a championship threat is SP Edwin Jackson, who has been one of the best pitchers in the American League this year, although just a No. 2 on this team with Justin Verlander as an ace.  The thing is that Jackson’s rate statistics are good, but really don’t support a 3.10 ERA.  If he goes out in the playoffs, and pitches two games and has no quality starts, gives up 8 runs in 10 IP, well, the first series will be the last for this team.

But on the flip side, he wouldn’t be the first player that improves his rate stats in the postseason if he does so, and if he can do so, an opponent would be facing Verlander, Jackson, and rookie phenom Rick Porcello in the first three games, and even optimistically, could be down 2 games to 1 against that trio.  And we’re talking about the best teams in the league who might not be able to survive that three man rotation.

Because of the way the Tigers have been built–I’ll stop short of saying that they are built for postseason success–I think they can be very dangerous for anyone to play in October.  They don’t really make defensive mental lapses, they have proven (if declining) offensive talent, and they’ve gotten the pitching all year.  If they continue to get it, I think they can get to the ALCS, and probably further.  If anything, it’s the uncertainty of the quality of their own pitching that makes them a questionable pick.  But at this point, one thing appears to be certain: that they’ll win the AL Central and at least one team will have to beat this pitching rotation in the playoffs.  The Yankees can’t be happy about that.

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  1. September 9, 2009 at 7:28 pm

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