2014 playoff team preview: Detroit Tigers
SI.com is previewing all 10 playoff teams as they begin their chase for a World Series title. You can find each team's individual capsule here.
Regular-Season Record/Finish: 90-72, first in AL Central
How They Got Here: The Tigers won the AL Central for the fourth year in a row, and while they led for all but 21 of the season's 183 days, it was no easy task. They had to stave off a strong challenge from the Royals, who knocked them into second place for most of August and took things down to the season's final day. After starting the year 27-12 and building a seven-game division lead, Detroit went just 63-60 the rest of the way and was outscored by three runs. Not even the July 31 acquisition of David Price in a three-way trade that cost them Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson could give the team what it needed to break from the pack, though it ultimately did prevail.
Once again, the Tigers put together a potent offense centered around Miguel Cabrera. The team scored 4.68 runs per game, second in the league, and hit a combined .277/.331/.426, tops across the board. Cabrera didn't come close to matching the numbers from his back-to-back MVP seasons, but thanks to a dynamite September (.379/.409/.709 with eight homers while playing through a bone spur in his right ankle), he finished at .313/.371/.524 with 25 home runs.
Designated hitter Victor Martinez helped pick up Cabrera's slack, setting a career high in homers (32) and batting .335/.409/.565, good enough to rank second in batting average and first in on-base percentage — all while striking out just 42 times. Leftfielder J.D. Martinez, cast off by the Astros in the spring, came out of nowhere to add another 23 home runs while hitting .315/358/.553 via a revamped swing, and the ageless Torii Hunter put up another solid season (.288/.321/.449).
Run prevention was not Detroit's strong suit; the team's 4.35 runs allowed per game ranked 10th in the AL, and even with Cabrera back at first base after playing third base the previous two years while Prince Fielder was around, its .672 Defensive Efficiency ranked second-to-last in the league. Of course, that has a whole lot more to do with new third baseman Nick Castellanos (-30 Defensive Runs Saved), the loss of glove whiz shortstop Jose Iglesias to shin splints and the lousy outfield defense of Hunter (-18 DRS) and Rajai Davis (-11 DRS) than it does with Cabrera.
Why They'll Win: In Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the Tigers boast the last three AL Cy Young winners, and they're joined in the rotation by Rick Porcello, who enjoyed a breakout season. Porcello had a 3.43 ERA, a 68-percent quality start rate, a league-high three shutouts and a miniscule walk rate of 1.8 per nine, though he did get some extra defensive help (.299 BABIP, 15 points below his previous career mark). Scherzer (3.15 ERA, 10.3 K/9) was nearly as strong as he was during last year's award-winning campaign, and Price (3.36 ERA and 9.8 K/9 overall) gives Detroit the kind of dominant lefty it has lacked during its past few Octobers; the Tigers haven't even had a southpaw start a single postseason game since 2006.
As for Verlander, his ERA (4.54) was his highest since 2008, and his strikeout rate (6.9 K/9) was his worst since 2006. But he put together one of his best stretches of the season after returning from a bout of shoulder inflammation in mid-August; over his final seven starts, he allowed just two home runs in 47 1/3 innings en route to a 2.42 FIP, though a .347 BABIP swelled that to a still-respectable 3.80 ERA.
Why They Won't: The offense has too many holes; Castellanos, Davis, catcher Alex Avila and second baseman Ian Kinsler all had mediocre seasons with an OPS+ at or below 100. Furthermore, for as good as the rotation looks on paper, the reality is that it could be in much better shape. Price has been uneven since being acquired from Tampa Bay; he's pitched to a 3.59 ERA, well above his 2.50 FIP in that span. Verlander's lack of velocity is still a concern, and the confinement of Anibal Sanchez to the bullpen due to his strained pectoral muscle deprives manager Brad Ausmus of a pitcher who has performed quite well — 2.95 ERA and 10.1 strikeouts per nine — in six postseason starts over the previous two Octobers.
Ultimately, it’s the bullpen that is this team's real Achilles heel. The unit's 4.30 ERA ranked 13th in the league, and its 3.4 unintentional walks per nine, 2.3 strikeouts-to-unintentional-walk ratio and 33-percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score are all 14th. Any time a starter can't go deep into a game, Detroit will be in for a white-knuckle ride.
Closer Joe Nathan blew seven of 41 save opportunities en route to a 4.89 ERA with 4.6 walks per nine, but Ausmus never got comfortable enough with July acquisition Joakim Soria, who was roughed up in his first three outings and soon went on the disabled list. Top setup man Joba Chamberlain saw his ERA nearly double from the first half (2.63) to the second (5.11) amid a plummeting strikeout rate. For some reason, Phil Coke is still around and still pitching to righties (who hit .333/.394/.476 against him in 146 PA) more often than lefties (.257/.310/.381 in 114 PA). Perhaps Ausmus will shake things up by trusting Sanchez and the underutilized Al Alburquerque in key late-inning situations, but don't bet on it.