2013 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Are the Tigers the American League’s best team?

Last season the Tigers won 88 games, beat the A’s in the ALDS, swept the Yankees in the ALCS, and then lost to the Giants in the World Series. And on paper at least they got significantly better this offseason. Delmon Young and Jose Valverde are the only major departures from last year’s team and that qualifies mostly as addition by subtraction based on their 2012 performances.

Jim Leyland has yet to decide who’ll replace Valverde as closer, but the Tigers’ overall bullpen depth isn’t bad and playing things by ear in the late innings worked well in the playoffs. Torii Hunter essentially replaces Young, which is a big upgrade offensively and a massive upgrade defensively. Victor Martinez returns to the middle of the lineup after sitting out all of last season following knee surgery, which is basically like adding an elite free agent signing. And both Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante will be around for the entire season after arriving as midseason pickups last year.

If you take an 88-win, AL-champion team and subtract Young and Valverde while adding Hunter, Martinez, and full seasons from Sanchez and Infante it’s hard not to think the Tigers are improved. And even if there’s a little doubt about that there’s no doubt that Detroit has the easiest path to the playoffs among AL contenders, as the rest of the AL Central once again looks weak. Can the White Sox, Indians, or Royals (or Twins, in some alternate universe or something) provide a legitimate late-season challenge by winning 85-plus games?

If that were to happen–which seems unlikely to me, at least–there’s a strong chance that the Tigers will make it a moot point by beating up on the unbalanced schedule so much that they clear 90 wins with ease.  Of course, it’s worth noting that I thought the Tigers would run away with the AL Central last season as well and instead they ended up having to overtake the slumping White Sox in September. However, now the Tigers appear stronger, the White Sox appear weaker, and I’m not buying into the Indians or Royals being ready to take a big leap yet.

There’s plenty of room for debate about whether Detroit is the best team in the American League, but more so than any other team in the league– or in baseball, period–I’ll be shocked if the Tigers don’t win their division. They’re too good, the rest of the division is too mediocre, and the unbalanced schedule is too favorable for it not to happen.

What else is going on?

• I’m fairly convinced that the Tigers have the best rotation in baseball. Justin Verlander is obviously amazing, Max Scherzer led MLB in strikeout rate last season and went 15-4 with a 3.14 ERA after a rough April, Anibal Sanchez has averaged 196 innings with a 3.70 ERA in the past three seasons, and Doug Fister has largely flown under the radar despite a 3.48 career ERA. And while Rick Porcello has underwhelmed so far he’s still a helluva fifth starter. For all the focus on Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder putting up huge numbers in the middle of the lineup, starting pitching can carry the Tigers.

• This time last year the Tigers’ defense was a big worry and that proved accurate, as Detroit turned the league’s second-fewest balls in play into outs and ranked 27th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Defense cost the Tigers a bunch of runs, but the pitching staff racking up the league’s second-most strikeouts minimized that somewhat and the rest of the team was strong enough that it didn’t matter. This season the pitching staff again looks capable of missing a ton of bats and the defense should be improved with Hunter in the outfield and Infante full time at second base.

• Nick Castellanos will begin the season at Triple-A because he’s 21 years old and has spent all of two months above Single-A, but if Dirks struggles as the primary left fielder the Tigers could turn to their top prospect pretty quickly. Castellanos was a first-round pick in 2010 and shifted from third base to the outfield last year. MLB.com and Baseball America each rated him as a top-25 prospect and he’s hit .316 in 276 pro games (although he did struggle some at Double-A). And if the Tigers decide Castellanos needs a bit more time in the minors Avisail Garcia is another outfield option.

• Cabrera begins his 30s this season, so it’s a good time to look back at how amazing his 20s were. Because he debuted at age 20, was almost immediately an elite hitter, and has avoided injuries Cabrera has piled up some incredible totals. Among all hitters in MLB history through age 29 he ranks third in doubles, fourth in intentional walks, sixth in RBIs, seventh in extra-base hits, eighth in total bases, eighth in times on base, and is also in the top 20 for hits, homers, runs, and games. His defense leaves a lot to be desired, but purely in terms of hitting Cabrera is on track to truly become one of the all-time greats.

Prediction: First place, American League Central

Marlins clinch 1st playoff berth since 2003, beat Yanks 4-3

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NEW YORK (AP) Forced from the field by COVID-19, the Miami Marlins returned with enough force to reach the playoffs for the first time since their 2003 championship.

An NL-worst 57-105 a year ago, they sealed the improbable berth on the field of the team that Miami CEO Derek Jeter and manager Don Mattingly once captained.

“I think this is a good lesson for everyone. It really goes back to the players believing,” Mattingly said Friday night after a 4-3, 10-inning win over the New York Yankees.

Miami will start the playoffs on the road Wednesday, its first postseason game since winning the 2003 World Series as the Florida Marlins, capped by a Game 6 victory in the Bronx over Jeter and his New York teammates at the previous version of Yankee Stadium.

“We play loose. We got nothing to lose. We’re playing with house money.,” said Brandon Kintzler, who got DJ LeMahieu to ground into a game-ending double play with the bases loaded after Jesus Aguilar hit a sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th. “We are a dangerous team. And we really don’t care if anyone says we’re overachievers.”

Miami (30-28), second behind Atlanta in the NL East, became the first team to make the playoffs in the year following a 100-loss season. The Marlins achieved the feat despite being beset by a virus outbreak early this season that prevented them from playing for more than a week.

After the final out, Marlins players ran onto the field, formed a line and exchanged non socially-distant hugs, then posed for photos across the mound.

“I can’t contain the tears, because it’s a lot of grind, a lot of passion,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “It wasn’t just the virus. Last year we lost 100 games. But we came out this year with the hope everything was going to be better. When we had the outbreak, the guys who got an opportunity to help the organization, thank you for everything you did.”

Miami was one of baseball’s great doubts at the start of the most shortened season since 1878, forced off the field when 18 players tested positive for COVID-19 following the opening series in Philadelphia.

“Yeah, we’ve been through a lot. Other teams have been through a lot, too,” Mattingly said “This just not a been a great situation. It’s just good to be able to put the game back on the map.”

New York (32-26) had already wrapped up a playoff spot but has lost four of five following a 10-game winning streak and is assured of starting the playoffs on the road. Toronto clinched a berth by beating the Yankees on Thursday.

“I don’t like any time somebody celebrates on our field or if we’re at somebody else’s place and they celebrate on their field,” Yankees star Aaron Judge said. “I’m seeing that too much.”

Mattingly captained the Yankees from 1991-95 and is in his fifth season managing the Marlins, Jeter captained the Yankees from 2003-14 as part of a career that included five World Series titles in 20 seasons and is part of the group headed by Bruce Sherman that bought the Marlins in October 2017.

Garrett Cooper, traded to the Marlins by the Yankees after the 2017 season, hit a three-run homer in the first inning off J.A. Happ.

After the Yankees tied it on Aaron Hicks‘ two-run double off Sandy Alcantara in the third and Judge’s RBI single off Yimi Garcia in the eighth following an error by the pitcher on a pickoff throw, the Marlins regained the lead with an unearned run in the 10th against Chad Green (3-3).

Jon Berti sacrificed pinch-runner Monte Harrison to third and, with the infield in, Starling Marte grounded to shortstop. Gleyber Torres ran at Harrison and threw to the plate, and catcher Kyle Higashioka‘s throw to third hit Harrison in the back, giving the Yankees a four-error night for the second time in three games.

With runners at second and third, Aguilar hit a sacrifice fly.

Brad Boxberger (1-0) walked his leadoff batter in the ninth but got Luke Voit to ground into a double play, and Kintzler held on for his 12th save in 14 chances.

Miami ended the second-longest postseason drought in the majors – the Seattle Mariners have been absent since 2001.

Miami returned Aug. 4 following an eight-day layoff with reinforcements from its alternate training site, the trade market and the waiver wire to replace the 18 players on the injured list and won its first five games.

“We’re just starting,” said Alcantara, who handed a 3-2 lead to his bullpen in the eighth. “We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.”

TOSSED

Yankees manager Aaron Boone was ejected for arguing from the dugout in the first inning. Plate umpire John Tumpane called out Judge on a full-count slider that appeared to drop well below the knees and Boone argued during the next pitch, to Hicks, then was ejected. Television microphones caught several of Boone’s profane shouts.

“Reacting to a terrible call and then following it up,” Boone said. “Obviously, we see Aaron get called a lot on some bad ones down.”

ODD

Pinch-runner Michael Tauchman stole second base in the eighth following a leadoff single by Gary Sanchez but was sent back to first because Tumpane interfered with the throw by catcher Chad Wallach. Clint Frazier struck out on the next pitch and snapped his bat over a leg.

SLOPPY

New York took the major league lead with 47 errors. Sanchez was called for catcher’s interference for the third time in five days and fourth time this month.

REMEMBERING

Mattingly thought of Jose Fernandez, the former Marlins All-Star pitcher who died four years earlier to the night at age 24 while piloting a boat that crashed. An investigation found he was legally drunk and had cocaine in his system. The night also marked the sixth anniversary of Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium.

UP NEXT

RHP Deivi Garcia (2-2, 4.88) starts Saturday for the Yankees and LHP Trevor Rogers (1-2, 6.84) for the Marlins. Garcia will be making the sixth start of his rookie season.