October 11, 2013
ALCS Preview: Tigers vs. Red Sox
The Detroit Tigers were founded in 1894. The Boston Red Sox were founded as the Boston Americans in 1901. Those two teams have shared a league for 112 years. Yet they have never, not once, not ever, met in a postseason series. That will change at Fenway Park on Saturday night.
Projected Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)
The Tigers’ lineup projection above is for Game One, in which they are scheduled to face a left-hander, Jon Lester, for the first time this October. Manager Jim Leyland was pleased to see Miguel Cabrera unload on a Sonny Gray fastball in Game Five, both because it was the difference in a 3-0 blanking and because it proved that the league’s best pure hitter is not completely handicapped by his myriad injuries. Cabrera’s power on outer-half offerings and his ability to stay back on curveballs are lingering question marks, but if Lester or his teammates make a mistake, the Tigers’ third baseman can make them pay.
Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta, whose three-run home run keyed Detroit’s Game Four comeback, performed well at the plate, but the same cannot be said of Austin Jackson, who spent the Division Series mired in a brutal slump. Jackson turned in a broken-bat single in Game Four, but had just one other hit in the series, going 2-for-20 with 13 strikeouts. The Tigers will need more from their leadoff man, and from cleanup hitter Prince Fielder (who was held without an extra-base hit), to keep up with the Red Sox’ deep lineup.
Speaking of John Farrell’s crew, this bunch is built to wear down even the most resilient pitchers, with no sub-.350 on-base percentages until the seventh spot in the order and only one (Middlebrooks in the nine-hole) below .330. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino reached base in more than half of their Division Series plate appearances. With David Ortiz (5-for-13, two homers, five walks) batting two spots behind the speedsters, halting their run of .500-plus OBP performance is the top priority for Leyland’s starters.
It wasn’t all rosy for the Red Sox in their four-game victory over the Rays, however. Stephen Drew went 2-for-15 at the bottom of the order, and Dustin Pedroia went 4-for-17 without a walk hitting between Victorino and Ortiz. The Rays also snapped Boston’s incredible run of 45 consecutive successful stolen-base attempts, the longest such streak in the majors since at least 1950*. Daniel Nava, who was nabbed in the top of the eighth inning of Game Four, was the first Red Sox player to be caught stealing since Ellsbury was picked off and erased at second on August 9.
* - Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.
Projected Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)
There is one notable difference between this bench and the one that Leyland had at his disposal versus Oakland: the presence of Tuiasosopo, who replaces backup infielder Hernan Perez. The right-handed-hitting Tuiasosopo was a fine platoon player for the Tigers, amassing a .275 TAv against opposing lefties. He was excluded from the Division Series roster because the Athletics’ rotation was entirely right-handed. Now, with the Red Sox slated to throw Lester in the opener and with three lefties in Farrell’s projected bullpen, Tuiasosopo could find his way into high-leverage situations as the ALCS wears on.
Don Kelly drew the start in Game Five of the Division Series, offering Detroit an extra lefty versus Sonny Gray, but he isn’t likely to see much playing time in the Championship Series unless deployed as a defensive replacement. The Tigers’ optimal fielding arrangement has Iglesias at short, Ramon Santiago at third, and Kelly in left—the setup Leyland used to close out Game Five.
Farrell’s reserves are more offense-oriented. Gomes and Carp are the two best reserve hitters on either roster, but both are liabilities in the outfield. Ross had a poor regular season but offers more thump than most backup catchers. Berry, a former Tiger, could be used as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement in the late innings; he is the only member of the group who is a safe bet not to land in a starting lineup unless a plague wipes out Boston’s outfield.
Bogaerts, the Red Sox’ top prospect, might be the most intriguing bench player in the series. He pinch-hit for Drew with one out in the top of the seventh of Game Four, worked a walk, and eventually scored the tying run. The Tigers’ all-righty rotation will likely keep the 21-year-old on the pine, but if Drew fails to shake his slump, don’t be surprised if Farrell calls on the rookie.
Projected Starting Pitchers (IP/ERA/FIP)
Scherzer’s heavy workload in a Game Four rescue effort pushed the Cy Young Award favorite back a game in this series, and Verlander won’t be rested until Game Three. That puts the opener on the right shoulder of Sanchez, who was shelled for three home runs by the A’s after allowing only nine in the entire regular season. Sanchez has ample talent to bounce back from that 4 1/3-inning, six-run clunker, and his Game One performance could set the tone for the rest of the series.
The best news for the Tigers is that Verlander, after a down spring and summer, appears to have rediscovered his vintage form. In four starts dating back to mid-September, the right-hander has logged 27 innings and permitted only 15 hits while fanning 43 and walking six. His ERA during that stretch? 0.00.
One of the few staffs that can match up one through four with the Tigers’ vaunted rotation, the Red Sox likewise have two strong performances on which to build and two starters looking for crisper stuff. Lester and Peavy fit into the former category; Lackey and Buchholz qualify for the latter.
Buchholz was outstanding before hitting the disabled list on June 8, and while he returned to post a 1.88 ERA in September, he hasn’t been quite as dominant. The right-hander issued four walks to the Yankees on September 15 and coughed up two homers to the Orioles in his regular-season finale, in which he struggled to keep the ball down. He picked up a no-decision in Boston’s Game Three loss to the Rays, but had to escape a bases-loaded jam and later surrendered a long ball to Evan Longoria.
Lackey enjoyed a resurgent regular season, pitching as well as ever in his return from Tommy John surgery, but the Rays knocked him around for four runs on seven hits and three walks in just 5 1/3 innings. He allowed five runs over 14 1/3 innings in two starts against the Tigers earlier this year, compiling a 10-to-2 K:BB ratio along the way.
Projected Bullpens (IP/ERA/FIP)
Benoit stabilized the back end of the bullpen in his third year with the Tigers, and Smyly—a former starter—emerged as an excellent eighth-inning option. Leyland could use the left-hander to throw off Farrell’s lineups, which will be loaded with lefties to match up against Detroit’s righty starters. Smyly’s OPS against was 228 points higher when facing opposite-handed hitters, but he still struck out more than four of them for each one that he walked. Veras, acquired from the Astros in July, logged 19 2/3 innings over 25 trips to the bump for Leyland and held righties to a .516 OPS, teaming up with Smyly to pave the way to Benoit.
Porcello’s presence gives Leyland the luxury of pulling a scuffling starter early, though the right-hander was torched in his lone outing against the Red Sox this year. He was charged with nine runs (eight earned) and allowed three homers in five innings as part of a 20-4 Boston romp.
Uehara’s regular-season numbers were straight out of “Rookie” mode in MLB: The Show, and despite coughing up a walk-off gopher ball to Jose Lobaton in Game Three of the Division Series, the closer is eminently trustworthy. That’s big for the Red Sox, because Farrell is otherwise low on reliable arms.
Breslow and Tazawa give Boston complementary setup men, but the middle innings are left to a slew of starters-turned-relievers who haven’t settled into their new roles. Dempster and Doubront spent most of the year in the major-league rotation, and the latter was solid through August before plunging off a cliff in September. Doubront might nonetheless prove a useful middle-inning answer to Fielder, because he limited fellow lefties to just one home run in 192 regular-season plate appearances.
Farrell told reporters on Thursday that he is “open-minded” about using one of his four projected starters out of the bullpen. He mentioned Peavy, specifically, as a pitcher who could “thrive” in that role.