Tigers Were Good Enough
By Chris Hannum
The Tigers are not the Yankees and we are not like Yankees fans. An early exit from the playoffs is a disgrace in New York leading to loud assignments of blame and calls for heads. Yankees fans (and baseball analysts) routinely call for big changes to a team with the best record in the AL on no basis other than a close loss in a short postseason series. We don’t, or shouldn’t think that way. All I ever asked for as a Tigers fan was a pennant race. I didn’t get one this year, because the Tigers absolutely ran away with the division. I’ll still take it.
Barring big changes outside the Motor City they will be heavy favorites to win the Central again. And getting to the playoffs isn’t half the battle, that’s far more than half the battle in baseball. Once you’re there, anything can happen: just look at the Phillies, or the 2001 M’s, or the 2006 Cards. Short series come down to getting hot at the right time and getting breaks when you need them. One thing, above all else, shouldn’t be forgotten despite yesterdays 15-5 drubbing: this season was a success. A big one.
I was going to write this as a comment on John Verburg’s piece earlier today, but decided that a full-page comment might as well be a post. The line “Texas put a complete team on display for the Tigers and their fans. Texas possesses talent on offense, defense and pitching at levels which Detroit just simply couldn’t match” stuck in my craw. I simply can’t agree. I don’t disagree that the Texas Rangers are a good baseball team, of course they are. So were the Yankees, the Rays and even that colossal flop in Boston. The Rangers won one more game in the regular season than the Tigers did and if we count the regular season won only 7 of the 15 matchups between the two teams. The Tigers do not need to make big changes to be the equal of the Texas Rangers, they need to look forward to a rematch.
Nelson Cruz is batting 7th for the Rangers because he doesn’t usually homer in every game of a series. His .821 OPS in 2011 is no better than the .823 that Tigers 7-holer Jhonny Peralta put up this year. I did wonder who in the heck Derek Holland was, but it turns out that the answer is “some guy”. Holland, like the rest of the Rangers rotation, beat any and all expectations over the course of 2011 (especially Harrison and Ogando) but they are every bit as hittable as the Tigers’ starters – especially if you can stack a lineup with righties. The appearance of depth on the Rangers roster was a factor of Tiger injuries and marginal guys getting hot for Texas in October and ice cold for Detroit. Think David Murphy and Scott Feldman vs. Wilson Betemit and Al Alburquerque. The Rangers made some important moves during the season to fix the team’s second-biggest problem area – relief pitching outside of Neftali Feliz – and it paid off. The Rangers are now as close to a ‘complete’ team as you will find – with one exception – not because every spot has a star, but because players at every position are making a positive contribution.
The Tigers, though, made their own big moves during the season to fill their own holes on the roster and wound up just as close to a complete team as Texas when the calendar ticked over to October – and a team marked more by depth than by stars. Fister was the real deal and gave the Tigers a rotation (or at least a top 4) as good as any other in the league. Young added outfield depth, and in the end compensated for the loss of Brennan Boesch. Betemit and Inge, amazingly, combined to form an average third baseman. Once Raburn finally started to hit, the offense/defense platoon at second was as good as any but the very best. Purcey and Pauley tanked – though they could yet make important contributions in 2012 – but Alburquerque, Coke, Perry and Schlereth gave the Tigers bullpen depth that we had expected – but hadn’t seen prior to the all-star break.
In the playoffs, it all started to unravel. Al Alburquerque seemed to have no feel for the ball and wasn’t getting the break on his slider that he needed either. The Rangers put very few left-handed bats in the lineup, neutering Phil Coke and Dan Schlereth but giving at least a potential advantage to Tigers starters. Tigers starters did pretty well, all things considered, but the Tigers weren’t able to put enough runs on the board – or pitch late enough into ballgames – to keep the pressure off the right-handers in the ‘pen. Ryan Perry pitched in the spots where Alburquerque should have (or Zumaya, but that’s water under the bridge) and continued to be strangely hittable. Leyland leaned on Benoit and Valverde until they finally cracked. This should have been Alburquerque’s series, a la Alexi Ogando, and the Tigers sorely missed the contribution he made during the regular season. He did finally show some of what we expected at the tail end of game 6 – so maybe some of this was nerves. That, ironically, would be a good thing – because what the Tigers need going into 2012 isn’t a big bullpen makeover it’s for Alburquerque to pitch like the Alburquerque we saw during the regular season. That’s no guarantee, of course, nothing is. Failing that, it would be nice if Ryan Perry could mean-revert or if Joel Zumaya could finally get healthy. He’d like to stay, and I can’t see Dombrowski saying no to a minor-league make-good deal. On the left side of the ‘pen, the Tigers have no problems and an abundance of depth on the 40 with Schlereth & Coke in Detroit and Purcey, Ni, Wilk and Below waiting in the wings. Lefties just weren’t going to be very relevant in the ALCS – and in retrospect David Pauley might have been a better pick than Dan Schlereth.
The bullpen wasn’t the biggest story, obviously, but we’ve all been stewing over the big one for a while already: the Tigers offense was crippled by injuries. Alex Avila was hurt and playing badly. Martinez was swinging a decent stick, but not up to his own standards and not able to play a single inning behind the plate. Delmon Young was key against the Yankees, but playing hurt against Texas he went 2-15. The fact that those two hits were home runs was nice, but not enough to compensate for the lack of any offensive contribution outside of game 5. Ordonez was a guy we were relying on, and he’s done for good. Given how Betemit performed in the spotlight, Detroit actually missed having the ever-injured Carlos Guillen on the bench. The Tigers didn’t need a better lineup to hammer the Rangers – they needed to have their own lineup at full strength and to get clutch hits. Over those 6 games, Tigers batters put up an OPS of approximately .800 but with a WPA of -.581. Over the course of a 162 game season that would have given an offense worse than the Houston Astros, but in this case not because they couldn’t hit but because they hit lots of solo bombs while striking out with two men on. Again, though, this is a rotation that the Tigers could and should have dominated – had they been healthy – to the extent that bad timing might not have even mattered.
The biggest problem area that the Rangers face is first base, where Mitch Moreland posted a .734 OPS with below-average defense. He hits 9th. As a first baseman. Second base is a problem area for the Tigers, but Ramon Santiago alone was worth a full win more than Moreland. A defense-first platoon of Santiago and Worth would give league-average production overall at a bargain price. Third base is a problem area for the Tigers, but a platoon of Inge and Betemit was plenty adequate before and would be plenty adequate again – provided Inge gives us an OPS closer to .650 than .450. Maggs is gone and will be missed, but Young isn’t going anywhere and a place needs to be found for Raburn (that isn’t the second sack) and the returning Brennan Boesch. As a fifth starter Penny stunk, but he was easily good enough for the Tigers to make the playoffs and the 5th starter wouldn’t start a single game in the postseason anyway. If the Tigers want a stopgap before throwing their young arms in the fire, that would be fine, but it wouldn’t have made much difference in the regular season and it wouldn’t have made any difference in the ALCS. All teams have problem areas, even World Series Champions, and they win in spite of them. If your problem area is a guy you thought would help carry your team (like, say, Adam Dunn) your team has a big problem. If your problem area is a slightly below average player or combination or players, your team is probably fine anyway and your team is going to have a difficult time finding a replacement for whom the reward is worth the cost.
As my closing argument: What the Tigers and their fans need to be concerned with is not giving the team a makeover so that they can compete with the Rangers. The Rangers do not “possess talent… at levels which the Tigers simply could not match”. They were and are good enough to beat the Texas Rangers – and certainly would have been had the series been played a month earlier before the team had been hobbled. Even with those injuries, all the Tigers needed was for players with talent to play to that talent level. But, this is baseball, you don’t win a series just because you match up well on paper. The Tigers and their fans need to be concerned with preparing for and fighting the potential regression that could keep us all from getting that rematch that we crave in October 2012 – and that’s what you can expect me to be writing about for the next several months.