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It’s not so much a single thing that happened, or even something that transpired during their last stand in the playoffs. It’s a mixed bag of fatal flaws the Tigers had been hoping would disappear all season. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they didn’t.
After three ALCS appearances in three years a very vocal contingent of fans and analysts began to popularize the slogan “World Series or bust.” This is partly based on an increased payroll after the signing of Prince Fielder and Anibal Sanchez, and the extension of Justin Verlander‘s contract. All the pieces appeared to be in place for another World Series appearance, and with a top-five payroll, expectations rightfully went up. But for all the recent success, the Tigers were never a World Series caliber team, for a few key reasons.
For all the offensive star power the Tigers boasted in 2013, the lineup was never a very balanced one. Austin Jackson, while putting up reasonable leadoff numbers, never really blossomed into a base-stealer. Given his speed, Jackson isn’t a natural base-stealer. During the regular season, Jackson stole only eight bases, and was caught four times.
Following Jackson in the lineup were Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez, none of whom could be considered speedy. In fact, it could be said that the Tigers 3-4-5 hitters were perhaps the slowest in all of baseball. For the sake of pointing out weaknesses, we can skip right to Fielder.
After coming of a strong 2012 campaign where he hit .313 and drove in 108 runs, Fielder rebounded in 2012 hitting .279 with 106 RBIs and only 25 home runs. Saying “only” 25 home runs might seem a bit odd, but not so much for a cleanup hitter who was paid $23 million in 2012. His nine-year, $214 million contract now looms heavily over the head of Tigers GM David Dombrowski, who will undoubtedly field questions regarding the slugger’s struggles. Fielder was brought in to mash, and so far, Detroit has been left wanting more.
Unfortunately, this says nothing about Fielder’s postseason issues. In five playoff series with the Tigers, Fielder has hit .195 with one home run and three RBIs. What’s more, his anemic persona when dealing with the media has done nothing to help his image with restless fans. Fielder’s lack of production in the postseason has without a doubt been part of the Tigers ineffectiveness in the playoffs over the past two seasons.
Back to the imbalance — The Tigers lineup was top-heavy, literally and figuratively. After Austin Jackson, there was essentially no speed until much later in the order. The Tigers were famous this year for being a station-to-station ball club. Austin Jackson’s eight stolen bases were the most for any player on the team, and the 2013 Tigers ended the season with an MLB-worst 35 stolen bases. To provide some perspective, the next worst team in this category was St. Louis with 45, and this year’s top base-stealing team was Kansas City with 153. To be fair, Jim Leyland doesn’t deserve much of the blame as his cast of everyday players mostly lacked speed, or were on the slow side. With any great offensive team, there has to be the ability to steal, or advance baserunners. The Tigers found this out the hard way in the 2013 playoffs.
It started during spring training when GM David Dombrowski committed to giving rookie Bruce Rondon a shot as closer. For the record, Rondon had never started a Major League game, nor had he pitched more than two innings above AA. The Tigers found out in April that Rondon wasn’t ready for the job. Dombrowski’s next move to was to bring back closer Jose Valverde, who famously collapsed during the 2012 playoffs, and singed him to a minor-league deal. After a week of pitching to minor-leaguers in extended spring training, the Tigers organization decided Valverde’s velocity was back, and his split fastball was back to its dominant form. This also, was a mistake. Valverde gave up six home runs in 19.1 innings of work, and ended the season with a 5.59 ERA and three blown saves. During his last appearance on June 19th, Valverde gave up four runs in one inning of work.
Joaquin Benoit stepped in as the Tigers everyday closer, and did well, converting 24 of 26 saves, and the addition of veteran reliever Jose Veras at the trade deadline bolstered the Tigers back end for the time being. However, Detroit’s bullpen never found its stride and ended up 24th in the Majors with an ERA of 4.01, and a win-loss record of 17-25. Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque each had disappointing years and the Tigers struggled throughout the season in keeping a late lead. Of course, none of this was helped by losing Octavio Dotel in mid-April due to an elbow injury.
Miguel Cabrera’s Lingering Injury
Throughout the second half of the season, Miguel Cabrera battled a slew of injuries. From abdominal strains to hip-flexor issues, the Triple-Crown winner was clearly not able to drive the ball from the ground up during the second half, resulting in a decline in offensive production. Through August, Cabrera had driven in 130 runs, and hit 43 home runs, but during the last month of the season (21 games), Cabrera only managed to hit one home run with seven RBIs. One can only imagine how the Tigers might have ended their season had Cabrera been healthy down the stretch. The same question can be posed for the postseason, where Cabrera hit .261 with only one home run.
Starting pitching can take a team far, as we saw with this year’s Tigers. No team in postseason history had pitched three consecutive games with no-hitters heading into the sixth inning, and the Tigers starters didn’t stop there. Over eleven games during the postseason, Detroit’s starters posted a 2.26 ERA with an opponent’s batting average of .194, and struck out 94 batters (mostly Red Sox).
But starting pitching isn’t all. Championship teams have a balance of starting pitching, bullpen, extra-base power, speed on the basepaths and strong defense. The Tigers glaring (bolded) weaknesses finally caught up with them during the postseason.
The Tigers stole only two bases during the playoffs, and were caught stealing three times. They grounded into 13 double plays (further citing the lack of speed), and batted only .196 with six runs from the seventh inning and on.
It will be a long offseason for David Dombrowski and Tigers brass, as they decide what to do about the contracts of Max Scherzer, Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante. Scherzer is arbitration eligible this offseason, while Peralta and Infante are free-agents.
In addition to contract negotiations and signings, the organization will have to address deficiencies in the bullpen, and find a way to mobilize runners on basepaths if the Tigers are to continue their dominance of the American League Central.
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