You can’t predict baseball, but you can at least lay out the parameters. So let’s take a look at what the Tigers and Athletics have in store for us in the American League Division Series.
Detroit Tigers (93-69) vs. Oakland Athletics (96-66)
Game 1 Friday in Oakland: Max Scherzer vs. Bartolo Colon
Game 2 Saturday in Oakland: Justin Verlander vs. Sonny Gray
Game 3 Next Monday in Detroit: Jarrod Parker vs. Anibal Sanchez
Game 4 (if necessary) next Tuesday in Detroit: Dan Straily vs. Doug Fister
Game 5 (if necessary) next Thursday in Oakland
This is a rematch of last year’s ALDS, which lasted the full five games and ended with Justin Verlander throwing a four-hit shutout. The difference this time around is that the A’s will begin the series at home and will have resurgent Bartolo Colon available to pitch Game 1 and a potential deciding Game 5. As you’ll recall, Colon was unavailable for the playoffs last year following his 50-game PED suspension.
As opposed to last season, the Tigers didn’t have to pass anyone during the final month of the season in order to win the American League Central, but their September swoon (13-13) resulted in them winning the division over the Indians by just one game. With Miguel Cabrera hurting, they scored one run or fewer in seven out of 26 games in September. That’s not going to fly in October. On the bright side, Jim Leyland has one of the best starting rotations in the majors to fall back on, led by this year’s Cy Young Award favorite Max Scherzer, last year’s Cy Young Award runner-up Justin Verlander, and this year’s AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez. It takes a pretty good group for Doug Fister to be listed fourth.
The Athletics have won back-to-back American League West titles, but there’s still a perception out there that they are a surprise team. Maybe it’s because they play on the West Coast. Maybe it’s because they don’t have many familiar faces. Whatever the case may be, don’t underestimate them. The Athletics were fourth in the majors in runs scored this season and seventh in ERA. Bob Melvin’s mix-and-match lineup featured four players (Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Coco Crisp) with at least 22 home runs. They also ranked first in the American League in defensive efficiency rating, which measures the amount of balls put into play which are converted into outs. In short, calling them an underdog would be a mistake.
- What can the Tigers realistically expect from Miguel Cabrera? The slugger has been hobbled for weeks with lingering issues with his groin, abdominal, and hip area. He’s also coming off an uncharacteristic September for his standards. Cabrera at 50 percent is probably better than most hitters at 100 percent, but he won’t be able to truly heal until the offseason. Getting contributions from their other key bats like Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, and Torii Hunter will be critical.
- While Cabrera is hurting for the Tigers, the Athletics have their own concerns about Cespedes and his right shoulder. He received a cortisone shot a couple of weeks back to deal with the pain, but aggravated the injury while swinging the bat over the weekend and may be limited to the DH spot initially during the series.
- The Tigers have the clear edge in the starting rotation, but that doesn’t mean it’s a weakness for Oakland. Colon finished second in the AL in ERA this season while Jarrod Parker bounced back nicely from a slow start to the season and rookie Sonny Gray impressed down the stretch. A.J. Griffin is unavailable for the ALDS due to elbow tendinitis, so the A’s will turn to Dan Straily in Game 4.
- What role with Jhonny Peralta play during the series? While he was the starting shortstop prior to his 50-game PED suspension, that job now belongs to defensive wizard Jose Iglesias. Peralta was groomed in left field during the instructional league and played a couple of games there over the weekend, but he’s still quite green out there. He figures to platoon with Andy Dirks at the very least.
- Donaldson should garner support for the AL MVP Award and Cespedes is probably the closest thing the A’s have to a household name, but don’t sleep on Brandon Moss. He has a .550 slugging percentage dating back to the start of last season. Only Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Chris Davis, David Ortiz, and Miguel Cabrera have been better during that time. Moss does most of his damage against right-handed pitching, which is noteworthy since the Tigers won’t be throwing any left-handed starters during the series.
- To their credit, the Tigers have come a long way with their bullpen since the start of the season, as Joaquin Benoit has pitched well in the closer role while Drew Smyly has emerged as a trusted late-inning arm. As for the A’s, they ranked sixth in the majors this season in bullpen ERA, with Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, Jerry Blevins, and Dan Otero proving to be an effective bridge to closer Grant Balfour. Having Rick Porcello available out of the bullpen in the middle innings could be big for the Tigers, but the A’s would still appear to have the advantage here.
The Tigers have the star power and the dominant rotation, but this matchup is pretty darn close. The Athletics won 96 games for a reason and are solid in all phases of the game. With a raucous crowd at O.co Coliseum, having homefield is big for them. Melvin’s deep and dominant bullpen could be the difference-maker in this series, but it might not matter if Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, and Fister shut down the A’s bats. The Tigers just can’t count on Cabrera to carry the load here. He’s a huge question mark going into this series.
I think that Detroit’s starters, especially Scherzer, will prove to be too much for Oakland in the end. I’m picking the Tigers in another five-game series.