The Cleveland Indians are coming off of their best season in 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.
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. Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez have showed their dominance without an ounce of holding back. The Martinez’s, 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. 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.
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.). 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 sometime now and is finally starting to show legit signs of a real-live return to Progressive Field. 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). 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.
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.
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 had the most experience as a middle infielder, but did have a short stint in center back in college. 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 the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 through out 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.
Now, lets 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.
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.
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.
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.