Inside MLB | AL Playoff Preview: Detroit rides three stars as Yankees, Rangers lurk
Published: Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 5, 2012 02:10
Down the stretch, the American League divisional races were fights between the princes and the paupers. In the East, the New York Yankees, the league’s most expensive team, held off two teams in the bottom half of the league in salaries, the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, by the skin of their teeth. In the Central, the Detroit Tigers, after giving Prince Fielder a nine-year, $214 million dollar contract over the winter, rallied to overtake the Chicago White Sox. But it was the financially challenged Oakland A’s, composed of replacement-level position players and a young pitching staff, that emerged as the biggest victors in the West, winning six straight to end the season and coming from four games back to surpass the Texas Rangers, baseball’s sixth most expensive team.
Now, the battle rages into October. Baltimore and Texas will play a single game to determine who takes on New York as the AL Wild Card, while Detroit tussles with Oakland in the other Divisional Series. Who has the best chance at the pennant? The Daily takes you around the league in the AL edition of our playoff preview.
1. Detroit Tigers
It’s hard to pick against Detroit’s personnel. They have the defending MVP and CY Young award winner in Justin Verlander, who is the favorite to take home the award for best pitcher for a second straight year after putting up stats — 2.64 ERA, 9.0 K/9 — that declined only slightly from those of his historic 2011 season.
They also have Miguel Cabrera, who wrapped up the first Major League Triple Crown in nearly 50 years by hitting .330 with 44 home runs. He’s complimented by Fielder, who has the league’s second highest on-base percentage (OBP) at .412 and the fourth-best on-base plus slugging (OPS), and Austin Jackson, who hit .300 and is also in the top ten in OBP.
The biggest concern the Tigers will have is their bullpen. Last year, the team was bolstered by closer Jose Valverde, who didn’t blow a single save. But Valverde has struggled this year, and the team has a higher blown save percentage than any other American League playoff team. They’ve also allowed 31 percent of inherited runners to score, seventh worst in the Majors. But if Verlander and rotation-mate Max Scherzer can stay around deep into games, the offense will carry them deep into October.
2. New York Yankees
After a frustrating year of injuries, questionable decisions, underperformance and a complete lack of clutch hitting, the Yankees still find themselves with the best record in the American League. They did it on the back of a resurgent season from Derek Jeter, who finished the year hitting .316 with 15 home runs, and a surging finish from Robinson Cano, who is 24-for-39 with three home runs and seven doubles in his last nine games.
They also have arguably the greatest postseason pitcher of all time in Andy Pettitte. Despite missing a decent chunk of the year because of an injury, Pettitte is 2-1 with a 1.62 ERA since returning to the mound. With C.C. Sabathia finally looking like his old self in his last three starts, the Yankees are as tough at the top of their rotation as anyone.
But if New York wants to go far, they have to avoid the gaping holes in their lineup that seem to appear whenever they need offense most. Alex Rodriguez hit just .250 in September, while Mark Texiera is 1-for-12 in his three games back from injury. The return of Brett Gardner and the reemergence of Ichiro Suzuki might mitigate these issues, but they could be enough to torpedo the Yankees’ hopes.
3. Texas Rangers
Yes, Texas has to come through the Wild Card game. And yes, they have lost five of their last six. But no team is as well-rounded as the Rangers, and can’t you see them beating the Orioles at home, taking the first two from the Yankees in front of a roaring home crowd, eking out one of the three in the Bronx and then outhitting the Tigers in the ALCS just like they did in 2011?
Any conversation about Texas has to start with the bats. The Rangers led the league in runs and hit .273 as a team. Adrian Beltre led the team with a .321 batting average and 36 homeruns, but it’s the depth of the lineup that makes it so potent. They have seven players with 15 or more home runs, including Josh Hamilton with 43, and six players hitting .275 or better. There are no easy outs in the lineup, making life tough for opposing pitches.
But if the Rangers are to fall, it will be due to a rotation that has underperformed all season long. Yu Darvish, after an impressive start, finished with just a 3.90 ERA, and the Rangers will likely have to give starts to Derek Holland, who has a 4.67 ERA. Even Matt Harrison, the team’s “ace,” has only been slightly above average. For Texas to succeed, they are going to have to toughen up on the mound.