I’m going to make two assumptions in predicting the roster that Jim Leyland will select for the American League Division Series. (1) That he’ll opt to bring 14 position players and 11 pitchers as he did with the Tigers in their 2006 and 2011 playoff runs, and (2) that his usage of players over the past couple of weeks approximates how he would use them in the playoffs.
This one’s probably the easy one. Assuming Leyland doesn’t decide to buck his previous trend and go with an expanded bullpen, he’ll be afforded 14 hitters which is one more than his normal regular-season roster contained. Here’s who I think he’ll take:
Alex Avila and Gerald Laird. Obviously these two are locks. I’m not sure Laird will start any of the games, but he’s proven to be an incredibly valuable backup to Avila this year, and obviously teams need a backup catcher. Not much to discuss here.
Delmon Young, Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks, Avisail Garcia, Quintin Berry. Jackson (CF), Young (DH), and Dirks (RF/LF) have been cemented as everyday players for a while now, and Leyland has been using the Berry/Garcia platoon in the other corner outfield spot over Brennan Boesch for some time. Before the Tigers clinched, Boesch hadn’t started a game on a non-doubleheader day since September 17.
That leaves us with three reserve spots to fill. Ramon Santiago is the obvious choice to serve as a reserve utility infielder. He can play second base, shortstop, and third base relatively well defensively. He doesn’t hit particularly well, but he won’t be asked to.
I think Brennan Boesch does make the team because he’s really the only power option the Tigers have off the bench. He’s not a guy that Leyland will force into the game – his bat hasn’t been that good – but you’d probably like a better pinch-hitting option than Santiago or Don Kelly, if it came to that.
Speaking of Don Kelly, I think he’s the final hitter to make the team. Leyland has used him in recent weeks as a defensive replacement and pinch runner late in games. He’s not a sexy choice by any means, but his ability to play competent defense in the infield and outfield gives the team extra flexibility to use pinch runners and/or hitters without worrying about the defensive consequences.
The pitcher decision gets tough once we get down to the final few slots, so let’s buzz through the easy ones.
Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer (if healthy), Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez will comprise the starting rotation. If Scherzer isn’t healthy, Leyland will likely elect to use Rick Porcello as the fourth starter. Scherzer is scheduled to pitch on Wednesday, so we’ll find out a lot about his health then.
Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and Phil Coke have been Leyland’s late-inning guys all year long. Valverde and Benoit will resume their usual eighth-ninth inning spots, and Dotel and Coke will be used to play the matchups mostly in the sixth and seventh innings.
Al Alburquerque has been rather solid since re-joining the Tigers late this year (excepting Monday night). He’s the Tigers’ best chance at a strikeout if they get into a jam, and Leyland seems likes to use him if a starter gets into trouble in the fifth or sixth inning.
I think the above pitchers are all locks. That leaves two more spots to fill out the bullpen.
Rick Porcello probably makes the team as the long reliever of choice slash emergency starter. We learned last October that early-game rain delays can wreak havoc on the starting pitching situation, so having a guy like Porcello available to help out isn’t a bad thing. You probably don’t want to rely on him to give you five or six innings against a playoff caliber offense, but asking him to go through the order one time isn’t a big deal – he’s allowed a .313 OBP to his opponents the first time through the order this season.
Drew Smyly likely grabs the last spot. He hasn’t performed particularly well in relief and, but he’s done well as a starter and has good numbers overall. Detroit would probably like to have a second left-hander in the bullpen, and Smyly could serve as either a second LOOGY or second long-man in the bullpen.
I think Brayan Villarreal is probably the last guy out. He’s been used in high leverage spots at times this year, and he’s been mostly effective (2.52 ERA), but he’s allowed an OBP of .340 in the second half of the year (up from an incredible .256 in the first half), and has battled spurts of poor command. You would like his arm in the bullpen, but you probably can’t completely trust him to be effective and consistent in high-pressure spots. It’s not impossible that he takes the last spot over Smyly, though.
A case could be made for Darin Downs as a second LOOGY to Coke. He has incredible numbers in his small sample versus lefty hitters this year – a .222 OBP and a 26% K-rate – but he hasn’t been used very much recently which suggests he’s not high on Leyland’s radar. His last two outings before Detroit clinched were in the doubleheader blowout loss to Minnesota, and in Max Scherzer’s two-inning start versus Oakland. If Leyland didn’t really use him in the regular season, why would he suddenly use him in the postseason?
Leyland could very well decide to go with 13 hitters and 12 pitchers. If he does, he probably picks one of Kelly and Boesch (I say Kelly’s would be in and Boesch out), and adds either Downs or Villarreal (my choice there is Villarreal).