Continuing with our look back at at our original Central Division Showdown pieces, Caitlin Boron checks back in with the Tigers to see how things have changed since she originally evaluated them in March. The original article is in gray italics while the new commentary is in black.
The Cleveland Indians are coming off of their best season of my life. They made it all the way to game seven of the World Series, leaving their usual nemesis, the Detroit Tigers, in the dust. The Indians are no longer the under-dog to win it all, but the top dog (in the American League) to beat, and the Tigers are the ones clawing their way out of a rebuild to save face. With the stories switched between these two rivals, it’s time to wonder just how they will match up going into a season where both have everything to lose. (At this point, both teams seem to be at an equal point going opposite directions, with Cleveland progressing upward with improvements and the Tigers declining and watching as the window of opportunity slams in front of them. I wish I could say I am surprised by this, but no, not really. Let’s be honest, Detroit should have started to make improvements a few years ago and now we are seeing the result of a team on the end of a run without any sort of buffer.)
The Tiger’s offense was as good as it could have been in 2016 and should stay just as solid in 2017 aside from a few aging vets (I was surprised to find out that Detroit is actually not the oldest team in baseball, with an average age of 29.2 years – the oldest being the Toronto Blue Jays with an average age of 30.2). Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez have showed their dominance without an ounce of holding back. Both Martinez’, along with Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler led their squad in BA, HRs, RBIs, OBP and Hits under the one-man show that is Miggy. His .316 average put him in the top ten (ranked nine) in the MLB, his 108 RBI had him eighth and his .393 OBP stuck him right at number ten.
(Miggy has been sitting pretty at the top of the batting leader boards for almost a decade, which is why the Tigers were so inclined to shell out $292 million to the slugger over the course of 10 years. What they seemed to have missed was that when starting this is he was getting into his year 31 season which in baseball terms, is about the time he would start receiving AARP pamphlets. This is usually a bigger issue for pitchers with hefty contracts going into their 30’s, however, with years left to pay Cabrera, one has to wonder if the Tigers are starting to kick themselves for agreeing to such a deal. He has succumbed to injuries more frequently in the last three season while his production, though still a huge threat to an opposing team, is not what it once was. Is he still one of the greatest hitters in baseball? Without a doubt, but the saying “oh how the mighty [Miggy] have fallen” could be applied in the near future.)
As a team, the Kitties finished 2016 with the third highest team average (.262) behind the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies. One would assume that all of this would set up Detroit to defeat almost any opponent, which for most of the league would be true, just not when they faced Cleveland. (Unfortunately, can’t say the same this season, as they are currently in the lead for the season series at 5-4. Detroit has played the same baseball against almost all the teams they’ve faced this year, unlike last season where they could beat the pants off everyone EXCEPT for Cleveland.)
Happily, the Indians clinched their spot in the post season while in Comerica Park. The series record between the two teams ended at 14 wins for the Tribe and 4 wins for the Tigers. With the addition of Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis and the boost from Jose Ramirez, the offense boomed. Cleveland reigned over Detroit, crushing almost everything the Tigers threw at them (ha. Puns). (Ramirez has been building on his hot 2016 with a heat wave that makes Al Gore and his global warming look like the 1970’s ice age. Whatever Napoli instilled in this kid I hope it never dissipates. He is leading the Indians in multiple categories like BA (.326) Hits (102) 2B (27) and 3B (5). The Cleveland “GOAT” is obviously doing in job in getting runs in, but over the last series against the San Diego Padres, Ramirez has had a difficult time staying safe on the base path – four times called out trying to push the limits. Don’t get me wrong, I love that he is aggressive and has enough hustle to impress Pete Rose, but just tap on the brakes a bit. It is all fun and good until it’s the last out BEFORE the run scores. Regarding his bat against the Tigers, Ramirez leads the Indians in RBI (15), HRs (5) and BA (.425) and is not showing any hint at slowing down – obviously.)
What’s more impressive, is this was done without the help of Michael Brantley. And even more, more impressive, Brantley is expected to be back this season along with the new addition of Edwin Encarnacion. Brantley has been on track to getting back for some time now and is finally starting to show legit signs of a real-live return to Progressive Field. (Brantley has barely skipped a beat since his return, batting a .301 for the first half of the season with 31 RBI and 15 2B. He is the same smooth, essential piece the Tribe has always needed, with the ability to calm fans worries and fears with a simple post-game interview. I like to look at him as the parent helping his child learn to ride a two-wheeler. Last season the Tribe proved that they could ride without him and still keep their balance. This year he’s back, doing his job to the best of his ability without the added task of needing to be THAT guy the team needs to function.)
Encarnacion, who had an amazing year with the Toronto Blue Jays last season, is projected to have a similar year with the tiniest drop in offensive production (42 homers down to 38). (Edwin is on the perfect pace to reach that high 30s mark in the HR slot, and I am content with this. His production at the plate was delayed by most fans standards, though going by Edwin’s track record, the years he has had his slowest Mays he has ended up with a better overall numbers. It’s his process and it has yet to work against him, so no, for those with the hot takes, he is not a Swisher. Encarnacion has since settled which was most apparent during the middle of June batting clean-up behind Ramirez. The two of them became some sort of unstoppable duo that pushed Cleveland through a six game win streak, their longest so far this year.)
The Tigers are in the midst of a rebuild, though I do expect that they might still put up quite a fight against the Indians offensively. They’re a team that can get into the heads of a pitching staff and wreak havoc. Though for that to be effective, the Tiger’s offense would need to get hits off the Indians pitching, which was a big part of their issue last season.
(This rebuild is starting to become more apparent with each desperate excuse after a loss. The team’s manager Brad Ausmus isn’t afraid to hide his displeasure about where the team is at and what is insane is his team is following that example. Rewind back to last season when he stopped the game to look at Bryan Shaw’s rubber wedding band assuming he was roughing up the ball, begging the umpires to step in. This season we have a pathetic attempt at a brawl leaving the Tribe bench giggling while only the Tigers stood on the field and multiple cries of “sign stealing” and fan distractions as the reason for a loss. This team needs help, that is no secret and there is not anything wrong with it. It’s a stage that every franchise goes through. With Detroit, though the signs point to something that should have started a few years ago. I wonder if Jim Leyland is sitting on his couch watching the MLB rolling his eyes at the direction Detroit has gone since he retired. Regarding the mind games, the Tigers have lost some of the intimidation factor, they have been notorious for so many seasons, though the bats have been able to crack the code on Indians pitching a fair amount better than a year ago.) The Indians upped their power even after losing Davis and Napoli. On paper, they’re better than they were this time last season. Also on paper, the Tigers bats are terrifying, so when it comes down to who has the advantage at the plate, I say it’s a wash.
Advantage: Even (<- Half way through, advantage still even)
After sending Cameron Maybin to the Angels early in the off-season, the Tigers are still in search of a solid replacement in center field. The front office has been throwing around the idea of a platoon situation, but could possibly settle on JaCoby Jones to take over. Jones’ has the most experience as a middle infielder, but did have a short stint in center back in college. (Jones started the season with the Tigers in center and lasted just a few games into May before being sent down to triple-A for his dismal .173 BA. The Tigers brought on FA Alex Presley and was dealt prospect Mikie Mahtook from the Tampa Bay Rays in the off-season, both now make up the platoon situation they Tigers originally wanted. Both guys are having pretty good seasons, especially Mahtook who is batting a .375 against the Tribe through 16 ABs.) Another issue that might hinder the Tigers in 2017 is the glove of JD Martinez, who is coming off his worst season yet. During the off-season, Martinez vowed to work on his defense more than anything after his frustrating performance last year. For him, it is a contract year, and that has the ability to put out some hidden power but a team cannot just go by a theory without seeing the proof on the field. Around those two, the defense continues to age, putting more pressure on the pitching and offense to perfection. They did resign catcher Alex Avila in the off season in hopes to get the same backstop he once was for him, while still looking elsewhere for a good backup.
(Alex Avila is doing exactly what Detroit wanted him to do behind the plate, keeping right in step with their other catcher James McCann. His biggest upside though has been his bat, especially when facing Cleveland. Avila’s slash against the Tribe is a terrifying .400/.556/.700 with 2 HR, 4R, 8RBI and 7BB through just 20 AB. Behind the plate, Avila is pretty much on par with other Tigers catcher James McCann however has a high CS% [Avila .357 to McCann’s .314%])
The Indians are a whole different story. A huge jump forward in their defense is the potential rookie debut for top prospect Bradley Zimmer. He has the build of a corner outfielder with the leadership and range of a center. He will probably start with the Indians AAA Columbus Clippers to start the season, leaving the starting spot for another young center, Tyler Naquin. Last year, Naquin had no choice, ready or not, to start for the Indians last season due to Brantley’s injury and Abraham Almonte’s suspension. He brought with him a nervous energy, something I have yet to see from Zimmer. That energy showed in his wavering confidence in the field. During the off-season and through spring training, Naquin worked on adjustments at the plate and with his glove in hopes for a smoother start to the 2017 season. (Zimmer has been a bigger asset to Cleveland with about two months of big league time under his rookie belt than Naquin ever could have – no offense. He leads the Tribe in clutch hitting, batting a .293 RISP, and does something no other Indians player can do, he can FLY on the base path and in the outfield. Over his last week, the rookie has ended up on multiple highlight reels stealing extra base hits in midair, using his stride to time the play just right before leaving the ground completely. He is missed once. I was on point in saying that he had the leadership skills and the range to command the outfield.)
Advantage: Cleveland (<- still agree)
The three best starters that took the mound for the Tigers in 2016 all struggled mightily against the Tribe. Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmerman and AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer had wonderful seasons for Detroit, having a combined total of 36 wins (42% of their total wins), with only two of those wins against Cleveland.
Michael Fulmer is probably the only one left of the three who came out of 2016 with a fire still under their butt. After winning ROY a lot of the time guys fizzle out and hit their sophomore slump, but in a similar yet totally unrelated way, Fulmer is settling into his second season as Lindor had done last year.)
Verlander, who from the looks of it, is returning to his old ways of terrorizing every batter he sees. Last season he finished with the potential to add another Cy Young to his other from 2011, along with the second best ERA in the American League (3.04). 2016 was his best year in a long time, yet like many other aspects of his team, when playing Cleveland, things didn’t come easy. Against the Tribe, he gave up 17 earned runs, seven of which were home runs, resulting in a 4.88 ERA (the highest among all teams he faced aside from the Pirates). Fulmer and Zimmerman had similar stories, putting up great numbers through their year against almost every other squad except the Indians.
(Verlander was on his way to a return of his former filth on the mound and somewhere down the line took a hard left off the trail. He has always been very hit or miss when pitching against Cleveland, only now there is a lack of confidence not so much in himself and his stuff, but in the defense behind him and the bullpen. For Cleveland, it is refreshing to see someone within the division fall from such heights [with all the respect of the game]. Verlander is that worn, old dog in the sun looking defenseless and weak, and to some point he is, however he can still tear the nonsense out of whoever lets their guard down. Cleveland got the better of him in his last start against them, keeping him from getting not even one strikeout though the 3.1 innings he pitched. I would say he has all the potential in the world to fight for that come back, but like his manager, Verlander has taken to the idea that playing the blame game for shortcomings and losses looks better than admitting to a rough game. Maybe he needs a sign from God or something?)
Cleveland is coming off of a year where a lot of their starting power had depleted over the course of the season. Josh Tomlin had a rough August, Carlos Carrasco was hit in the hand with a liner (against Detroit) and missed part of the final leg of the season and the entire post season. Danny Salazar also battled issues throughout the season staying healthy and Trevor Bauer will always be remembered as the guy who lost to a drone. The only surefire starter they had through the whole season was ace Corey Kluber, who finished his season in the same Cy Young candidacy talks as Verlander. It was a blessing that the Indians could call upon the help of a few prospects, like Mike Clevinger and Ryan Merritt, and have them be successful enough to get them to the post season. Luckily for us, the Indians have everyone fully stocked and ready for the coming season.
(I will be the first to admit that Cleveland’s starting rotation is not even close to what was expected. Kluber and Carrasco had some physical issues to work out early on, but since both player’s short DL stints they’ve been as lights out as possible. Tomlin has struggled a lot with the long ball (leads Cleveland with 17 HRs), though there is some leeway in that there have been more home runs hit in June of this year than in any single month in baseball ever – his last start though was his first without giving up a home run since June 10th, and even better, he got the win. The problem children come at the hands of Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer. When it comes to Bauer, it is hard to be upset because he has not really changed much. He is still the flame throwing, drone toting, cult classic that can go toe-to-toe with Clayton Kershaw on his best days. There are games where Bauer will look like he has turned a corner and others that leave fans wondering why they removed their hand from their eyes. Then we have Salazar, who has been a strong middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Indians over the last few seasons.
It wasn’t until last year when he changed up his pre-game routine after an injury did things start to unravel. It started with his command issues, leaving pitches on the plate for an easy hit. Even on the days he felt good, his confidence was shaken by the disbelief that it just was not working. Now, pitching rehab stints in the minors, Danny has lost what he has trusted most, his velocity, losing the ability to reach above the low- 90’s. It’s unfortunate as no one wants to see one of their better started fall apart so quickly, but could potentially make the idea of a trade less painful with the deadline approaching.)
Now, let’s just cut to the chase quickly with the relief pitching, and say that the Indians have the complete advantage. We could go so far as to say that Andrew Miller alone has the advantage over the Tigers even on a bad day. Cleveland has had a fearsome bullpen for the last few seasons, going back to the days of the not-so-long-ago Bullpen Mafia and even at that point that Tigers’ pen was iffy. (This is where all of the similarities fall away between these two teams. As stated before the season even started, the Tribe has the advantage, not just over the Tigers but also above the MLB as a whole. Cleveland’s bullpen might not strike the same fear as it did when Miller was the new guy, but has been able to do the exact opposite that the Tigers’ pen has done. In the AL, Cleveland has held on to the lowest ERA (2.80 – first in MLB), lowest amount of earned runs (81 – first in MLB), WHIP (1.14 – second lowest in baseball behind the Dodgers), second lowest K/BB (3.56 – third lowest in MLB) and second highest K/9 (10.49).
The relief for Detroit is anything but, as they gave up 36% of their team’s earned runs last season (239 of 672 ER), which created an uphill battle for their already struggling bats. The Tigers tried to put a new spin on things last season with close Francisco Rodriguez, who looked to be the only bright spot they had while playing the Tribe. Rodriguez got the only save against them without giving up a single run, but he did only see them for 1 1/3 innings. (If I may make this as short as possible, the Tigers bullpen is at the bottom in almost every category. If there is anything good I could say about Ausmus it’s that he has stood by his ‘pen to the best of his ability which is completely respectable. Aside from adding some younger, spryer defender, the bullpen is probably the biggest target for Detroit going into the trade deadline.)
Right now there is a mix of interchangeable arms at manager Terry Francona’s disposal. He’s a man who loves to match his relief with the part of the order that’s due up, and the depth is deep enough for “Tito” to do this. He can reach for Kyle Crockett if the time calls for a solid southpaw in a pinch, or Dan Otero for a quick out. Going into the new season, there will be a seven-man bullpen, currently with a single spot left to be filled that will probably be a revolving door throughout the season. The Indians’ pen has mastered the art of seek and destroy, and I have all the faith that that will continue after camp breaks.
Advantage: Cleveland (Cleveland against the World)
Aside from a few aspects, like relief pitching, I believe that the Indians and the Tigers are very evenly matched. They both have to recreate what they did in 2016, while piling on top of that the ability to beat the teams that had their numbers. That’s the kicker. The difference? The Tribe’s nemesis is in another league, while the Tigers’ is only a few hours south and in the same division. Due to the fact that if the Tigers won just a few more games against the Tribe, the entire post season might have looked different, so I believe that how these two play each other this year will determine yet again which one will be playing. (In conclusion, until we see where the teams end up at the end of this 162-game marathon, it is safe to say they are predictable when playing each other. Although, because baseball is a sick and twisted beast of beauty, you never really know what you’ll get between the white lines)