The traditional strategy when readying a playoff roster for a short series like the ALDS is to stuff it full of position players and run fewer pitchers than normal. I would argue that in the Tigers case, this would be wrong-headed.
The idea (aside from needing fewer pitchers since you have a 4-man playoff rotation) is that the team ought to run more pinch-hitters out there when everything is on the line in a playoff game. But can the Tigers really do that?
The problem here is that the Tigers have relatively few good offensive options on the bench. Ryan Raburn hasn’t hit and isn’t going to be considered. Brennan Boesch hasn’t hit and probably shouldn’t be considered. Don Kelly is a glove guy. Ramon Santiago is a glove guy. Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia are the two halves of what has become a corner outfield platoon – but would you want either guy to pinch hit for anyone else on the team (other than that second half of the platoon?) Nobody’s pinch-hitting for Cabrera or Fielder, but… Would you want Berry to pinch-hit for Jhonny Peralta? Omar Infante? Austin Jackson? Would you want Avisail Garcia pinch-hitting for Andy Dirks? I know I wouldn’t. Now, a couple of bench players HAVE to be on the team just in case someone leaves a game with an injury: Ramon Santiago and Gerald Laird. Laird is the ideal complement to Alex Avila, who is the only guy (other than Berry and Garcia themselves) that I can see a realistic desire to pinch hit for. Santiago isn’t going to hit, but he’s an ideal defensive replacement either in case of injury (God forbid) or if Berry or Garcia is used late in a game to pinch-run for an infielder – and both Berry and Garcia would be exceptional in that particular bench role.
That only makes 12 position players. Avila, Cabrera, Peralta, Infante, Fielder, Young, Berry, Jackson and Dirks in the starting lineup and Garcia, Santiago and Laird on the bench. Against a lefty, Garcia and Laird start and Berry and Avila are the left-handed bats on the bench. If the Tigers take a 13th (much less a 14th, which is the common playoff practice) what is he going to do??? If it’s Don Kelly, he would be second in line to pinch run and third in line to fill in on defense – but you would never, ever want him to hit. He could also be valuable if more than one infielder went down to injury in the same game. If it’s Brennan Boesch he would be the third lefty off the bench. He could pinch-hit for Delmon Young (or start in his stead) but why on earth would you want him to? He has a little bit of pure power, but his 2012 OPS vs. right-handed pitchers is a meager .671 – worst than most Tigers righties. A case can be made for adding either Boesch or Kelly, but I feel that both cases are a little weak.
And now: Pitching. It IS obviously true that the Tigers need one fewer starter than they did during the regular season, so an 11-man pitching staff would give them the same number of bullpen arms that they have normally had. That’s one reason that playoff rosters usually feature 14 batters. The second reason, though, is the normally large number of travel days in playoff series and this year those are absent. If it goes 5 games, the Tigers will be playing those 5 games over 6 days and not 7.
You can also make the argument (and I will make that argument) that teams need a deeper bullpen in the playoffs than they would during the regular season. In playoff games, it is normal for pitchers to get pulled earlier as soon as they seem to be showing signs of reduced effectiveness, which puts additional stress on the bullpen. Remember last year’s series against the Rangers? In games that count more than usual, we also see relievers come in to face fewer batters, so not only do we see bullpens throw more innings we see more relievers used during a nine-inning game. Since hard-fought games between talented teams might very well go into extra innings the game can come down to bullpen depth. Remember that 2009 play-in game against the Twins? Porcello got pulled early despite allowing only 1 earned in 5 and 2/3 and Rodney ultimately coughed up the lead in the 12th – after initially entering the game in the 9th. With a deeper bullpen that game could have gone very differently.
Running at least 12 (and conceivably even 13) pitchers on a playoff roster limits the possibilities of depleting your bullpen due to short starts (maybe due to, you know, rain delays), extra inning games or over-managing. We aren’t going to get a travel day before game 5, so this is a little more likely to be an issue than normal (and it’s always an issue). Some teams have also elected to run 11 pitchers, but with only a 3-man rotation – another thing that will not be a reasonable option in this years’ ALDS. Running 13 (and conceivably only 12) position players would, for all intents and purposes, only allow (if it’s Boesch) to pinch-hit for Avisail Garcia when Avisail already entered from the bench. Or (if it’s Kelly) allow the Tigers to use pinch-runners earlier in games and worry less about potential injuries to infielders. In my mind, that 12th pitcher is much more likely to be relevant than the 14th position player – and it’s possible that the risks and rewards of that 13th pitcher come out ahead of the 13th position player as well.