ALDS 2013 preview: Athletics vs. Tigers

Photo credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE | USA TODAY Sports

The defending AL champions take on the A's in a rematch of last year's ALDS.

How they got here

The Tigers were expected to win the AL Central once more, especially now that they had Victor Martinez back in the fold and were minus one Delmon Young, so anything less would likely have led to disappointment. Disaster almost occurred towards the end, with the Tigers playing pedestrian ball during the season's last couple of weeks while the rival Indians surged, finishing up the year with 10 straight wins. The Tigers held on, though, and finished one game up on Cleveland, in no small part due to their 15-4 record against the Indians in head-to-head play. Without that season-long trouncing, we're likely looking at no play-in game 163, and possibly no Tigers in the postseason at all for the first time since 2010. They took care of business where Cleveland could not, though, and find themselves matched up with the Athletics in the ALDS because of it while the Indians watch from home after being eliminated in the Wild Card round.

The A's once again won the division, but this time without any late-season drama. It wasn't a boring season by any means, but it's difficult to top sweeping the Rangers out of the division lead in the season's final series, so spending 84 days in first place and finishing 5.5 up just looks a bit blah by comparison. There is a reason they had a relatively easier time of things, though, and it's because the A's are an excellent baseball team, one which ranks third among AL playoff clubs in OPS+ and managed a 105 ERA+ as a team despite losing Brett Anderson to injury early and getting 37 starts from pitchers who weren't supposed to be rotation regulars.

Tigers Offense

The Tigers have a mostly balanced offensive attack, with Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, Prince Fielder, and Omar Infante all producing OPS+ between 111 and 120 on the season. Their most potent weapon is the best active hitter in the game, Miguel Cabrera, who managed to produce a .348/.442/.636 slash despite playing with and through injuries for significant chunks of the season. There are a few problem areas that keep them from being a force entirely up and down the lineup, however, as Alex Avila had a somewhat miserable season, needing to hit .343 in September to finish at .227/.317/.376, while regular left fielder Andy Dirks was similarly poor but at a position that requires more pop. It should be said, though, that Dirks could be replaced by Jhonny Peralta, who is on the ALDS roster after the end of his 50-game, Biogenesis-related suspension. Jose Iglesias' glove was a welcome mid-season addition, but his bat has cooled since coming to Detroit, and he's by far the worst regular hitter in the lineup.

20130921_mbr_aa1_243Photo credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Athletics Offense

The A's might not have the name recognition of the Tigers, and their numbers don't always pop out from the page because of their pitcher-friendly home park, but this is a team that can hit just as much as their opponents. Only second baseman Erik Sogard and right fielder Josh Reddick finished with below-average lines among regulars (though Reddick finished hot), and the addition of Alberto Callaspo helped offset some of the former's meh performances. Brandon Moss somewhat inexplicably showed that 2012 was no fluke by bashing 30 homers and slugging .522 in the second year of his new lease on baseball life. Josh Donaldson might not be Miguel Cabrera, but he's an MVP candidate in his own right thanks to exceptional defense at third combined with a .301/.384/.499 line, half of which occurred in the cavern that is O.co. Jed Lowrie (.290/.344/.446) and Coco Crisp (.261/.335/.444, 21/26 on steals) make up the other major pieces in the lineup, but there's little in the day-to-day that isn't productive here.

Edge: If only there were one to easily discern -- these two clubs are evenly matched, but the presence of one-man wrecking crew Cabrera might give the Tigers the slight advantage, if there's one to be had.

Tigers Pitching

This is where the Tigers can shine, as their rotation, free of the fluff that's required to get through the lengthy regular season, is maybe as good as what anyone else in the playoffs has, if not better. Distilled to Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez -- it is an entirely factual and accurate statement that Verlander was the worst of this group in a year he threw 200 innings with a 121 ERA+ -- it's hard to imagine anyone without some offense beating the Tigers. Luckily for the A's, they have the bats, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily going to succeed with them.

Their bullpen is where things can get a bit shaky, but the Tigers had a much better relief performance in the second half, thanks to closer Joaquin Benoit, as well as the contributions of Drew Smyly (2.37 ERA, 4.8 K/BB), Luke Putkonen, and the emergence of a useful version of rookie Bruce Rondon. It's certainly not a strength, but with those starters, they can likely get by most nights while only utilizing their top relief arms.

Athletics Pitching

180919862Photo credit: Thearon W. Henderson

The A's won't be able to use A.J. Griffin in the ALDS, though, if we're being real here, that's not a significant loss for this style of game. Griffin, as something of a league-average workhorse, is more valuable in the slog that is the regular season. Dan Straily can likely do a good enough impression of Griffin to make it work in October, and having Sonny Gray around for more than just the end of the season could make things more productive for the A's compared to their most oft-used rotation, anyway. Bartolo Colon will take the ball in Game 1, and he's been so good in 2013 that he's certainly up to the task of beating anyone the Tigers can throw at the A's. Game 2 will feature the aforementioned rookie Gray lining up against Verlander -- the 23-year-old Gray made 10 starts in the regular season, posting a 2.85 ERA with 61 strikeouts against 19 walks in 60 innings. If he can keep it up, he and Colon should be a scary 1-2 combination in the playoffs. Jarrod Parker and Straily will pitch games 3 and 4, respectively, and this is where the A's might run into trouble, as it's two league-average arms facing off against Fister and Sanchez.

Edge: The Tigers might not necessarily have the edge in the first two games, but their deeper rotation puts them over easy.

Defense

Just like the Tigers have the clear advantage on the mound, the A's win the glove war with ease. The Athletics led the American League, and finished second in the majors, in Defensive Efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs. The Tigers... well, it's a good thing their pitchers are so good at missing bats. Even if you adjust for park, the Tigers were rated "Poor" by Defensive Efficiency's standards, while the A's were more in the realm of greatness. A Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick outfield is just unfair to opposing hitters, and Donaldson's work at third has already been noted.

The Tigers have Jose Iglesias, and no one can take that away from them.

Edge: The A's, in spite of Iglesias.

Managers

Jim Leyland knows a thing or two about managing, as he's certainly been doing it long enough. Hell, he's even evolved with the game, as he hasn't shown any particular disdain for new ideas like shifts, and doesn't let all of his pitchers throw 150 pitches per game like they might have back in the days when Leyland wasn't the only guy smoking cigarettes at the stadium. He has his head-scratching moments, as all managers tend to, but it's hard to feel strongly negative about Leyland's time in Detroit.

The A's have Bob Melvin, who took over during the 2011 season. His players like him, and he's a Billy Beane guy, so you have to assume, to a degree, he's doing thing the way the front office would like. He's basically the blueprint of what you want an inoffensive manager to be: hand him the right players, and he'll do the right things more often than not.

Edge: Leyland has the experience, but trying to figure out which capable manager is going to outsmart the other capable manager seems like a good way to waste verbiage.

Breakout Player

Josh Donaldson should get his moment in the spotlight, but Sonny Gray, facing off against the Tigers in his rookie season, could provide the breakout performance that puts the A's in control of the series.

Prediction

The Tigers have the obviously better rotation, but the A's can hit, and their defense can help make up for what their arms might lack. A's win in five games by not wasting the opportunities afforded them in games 1 and 2 by Colon and Gray.

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