SweetSpot: Detroit Tigers

Randy JohnsonRich Pilling/Getty ImagesRandy Johnson should be a unanimous selection in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Hall of Fame season is kind of like Christmas season: It brings gifts and memories but also a lot of acrimony and stress, and it lasts way too long. Hall of Fame ballots were mailed out Monday to eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which means the next six weeks will feature many Hall of Fame columns, debates, analyses and other assorted name-calling and belligerence.

Here are 10 main questions of conversation this Hall of Fame season:

1. Who are the new names on the ballot?

Last year's star-studded ballot that featured the election of first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas is followed by another long list of intriguing newcomers: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Gary Sheffield and Carlos Delgado are the top names.

2. How many of those guys get in?

Johnson should be a unanimous selection with his 303 career wins, five Cy Young Awards, four ERA titles, nine strikeout titles and six 300-strikeout seasons, but 16 of the 571 voters last year failed to vote for Maddux, so Johnson likely awaits the same slight and will get 95-plus percent of the vote but not 100 percent.

Martinez would certainly appear to be a lock to get the required 75 percent, but Hall voters tend to emphasize wins at the expense of everything else for starting pitchers and Martinez has just 219, so you never know. The BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with that few wins since Don Drysdale, who had 209, in 1984. Still, with the second-best winning percentage since 1900 of any pitcher with at least 150 wins (behind only Whitey Ford), three Cy Young Awards, five ERA titles and the best adjusted ERA for any starting pitcher in history, Pedro should cruise to Cooperstown at well above the 75 percent line. Really, like the Unit, there is no reason not to vote for him.

Smoltz has a little more complicated case and may suffer in comparison to being on the same ballot with Johnson and Martinez. While Pedro was 219-100 with a 2.93 ERA, Smoltz was 213-155 with a 3.33 ERA. He did pick up 154 saves while serving as a closer for three-plus seasons and maybe that will resonate with voters. Smoltz also has a great postseason record -- 15-4, 2.67 ERA -- but similar postseason dominance didn't help Curt Schilling last year when he received just 29 percent of the votes. I believe Smoltz does much better than that, but I don't see why Schilling -- 216-146, 3.46 in his career with 79.9 WAR compared to Smoltz's 69.5 -- would receive just 29 percent and Smoltz 75 percent.

Sheffield, with the PED allegations, has no chance despite 509 career home runs and over 1,600 RBIs and runs. Delgado put up big numbers in an era when a lot of guys were putting up big numbers, and his 473 career home runs with 1,512 RBIs may not be enough to even keep him on the ballot (you need to receive 5 percent to remain on).

3. Does Craig Biggio get in this year?

He fell just two votes short last year on his second time on the ballot, so you have to think at least two voters will add him, assuming some of the holdovers don't change their minds. Biggio's Hall of Fame case is kind of ironic in that he was probably one of the more underrated players in the league while active. He finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting three times (10th, fifth, fourth), but the same writers who once dismissed him as an MVP candidate will now be putting him in the Hall of Fame. He's a deserving candidate, but if he hadn't played that final season when he was terrible and cleared 3,000 career hits, you wonder if he'd be even this close. Voters love their round numbers.

4. What's the new 10-year rule?

Candidates will now be allowed to remain on the ballot for only 10 years instead of 15. Three current candidates -- Don Mattingly (in his 15th season), Alan Trammell (14th) and Lee Smith (13th) were allowed to remain on the ballot.

For the first time, the names of all voters will also be made public, although neither the Hall of Fame nor BBWAA will not reveal an individual's ballot.

5. Who will be most affected by this?

Well, all the steroids guys, obviously. Mark McGwire, for example, is on the ballot for his ninth year, not enough time in case voter attitudes toward PEDs starts reversing course. Aside from that group, Tim Raines is on the ballot for the eighth year. He received 46 percent of the vote last year; that was actually a drop from the 52 percent he had in 2013. Historically, nearly every player who received 50 percent of the vote from the BBWAA eventually got elected, but now Raines has just three years left and was affected by the crowded ballot last year.

6. But the ballot is still crowded, right?

Yep. Remember, voters are allowed to vote for up to 10 players -- although most ballots don't get to 10, so the "crowded" ballot is somewhat of an overrated issue. Still, it's there, and several players saw their vote totals decrease last year. Anyway, I would argue there are as many as 22 or 23 players who have some semblance of a Hall of Fame case based on historical precedent. In order of career Baseball-Reference WAR: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Trammell, Smoltz, Raines, Edgar Martinez, Biggio, McGwire, Sheffield, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent, Fred McGriff, Delgado, Lee Smith. Plus arguably Nomar Garciaparra and Mattingly, who had high peak levels of performance but short careers.

Anyway, those who believe in a big ballot will once again have to make some tough choices on whom to leave off.

7. For which players is this an important year?

Raines needs a big increase this year, but it's starting to look slim for him. That makes Bagwell and Piazza two of the more interesting names. Piazza was at 62 percent last year on his second year, a 4.4 percent increase from 2013. If he sees another vote increase, we can assume he's on his way to election; but if he holds at the same percentage, we can probably assume there are enough voters who put him in the PED category and are thus keeping him permanently under that 75 percent threshold. Similar issue with Bagwell; he was 54 percent last year, actually down from 59.6 percent in 2013. If he gets back up over 60 percent, he may be back on a Cooperstown trek.

8. Hey, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling look like pretty good candidates.

That's not a question, but, yes, yes they are. Mussina (270 wins, 82.6 WAR) and Schilling are overwhelmingly qualified by Hall of Fame standards, even by BBWAA-only standards, especially when factoring in Schilling's postseason success. That both received fewer than 30 percent of the vote in their first year on the ballot was a little shocking and definitely disappointing.

9. What about the steroids guys?

No changes -- or progress, if you prefer -- here. Clemens (35.4 percent) and Bonds (34.7 percent) both received fewer votes than the year before. Rafael Palmeiro already fell off the ballot, and I suspect Sosa (7.2 percent) falls off this time.

10. What about Jack Morris?

Mercifully, Morris is no longer on the ballot so we don't have to spend all December arguing his case yet again. His candidacy goes over to the Expansion Era committee, which will next vote in 2016. I suspect Morris gets in then.
video

When Mariano Rivera called it a career after the 2013 season, David Robertson graduated from eighth-inning reliever to closer. In 2014, he went 4-5 with 39 saves and a 3.08 ERA while allowing a .192 batting average. This fall, he turned down the Yankees' $15.3 million qualifying offer -- which would have been the largest single-season salary ever paid to a relief pitcher – and decided instead to seek a multiyear contract on the free-agent market.

MLB Free Agency: Half-Full, Half-Empty Logo
Robertson probably won't get $15 million per season, but Jim Bowden predicted a three-year, $39 million contract for Robertson. ESPN's Andrew Marchand reported earlier this offseason that Robertson is looking to match or exceed the four-year, $50 million contract Jonathan Papelbon received from the Phillies a few years ago.

Is Robertson worth it? Let's do another half-full, half-empty.

HALF-FULL

This year's World Series teams showed the importance of a deep, dominant late-inning bullpen crew, as both the Royals and Giants (with the exception of Madison Bumgarner) had mediocre rotations but terrific bullpens. Just ask the Nationals or Tigers about the importance of a shutdown reliever. The Nationals might have won two World Series titles by now if Drew Storen hadn't blown crucial save opportunities in the 2012 and 2014 postseasons, and the Tigers have struggled with their bullpen for years. Both teams could be interested in Robertson.

There's no denying Robertson's late-inning dominance. Over the past four seasons, his 2.20 ERA is sixth in the majors among pitchers with at least 200 innings in that time span -- and that's come in Yankee Stadium, where routine fly balls to right field land three rows deep in the stands. He's allowed a .201 batting average over those four years with a strikeout rate of 34 percent -- again, sixth overall in the majors. Not bad for a onetime 17th-round draft pick.

He's showing no signs of slowing down; indeed, his 2014 strikeout rate of 37.1 percent was the highest of his career. Robertson throws a cutter and a curveball (and a very occasional changeup). It's that curveball, one of the best in the game, that has made him an elite reliever:

David Robertson heat mapESPN Stats & Info


The curveball is a swing-and-miss pitch and generates a lot of ground balls, owing to that sharp 12-to-6 break and location down in the zone. Obviously, it's Robertson's go-to pitch when he's ahead in the count. Since 2011, batters have hit .161 against it with one home run, 140 strikeouts and just seven walks.

Robertson has had two minor DL stints in recent seasons, but neither was an arm-related injury. He repeats his delivery well, and considering he's entering his age-30 season, he's a good bet to remain healthy over a three- or four-year contract.

Importantly, he's pitched in New York. If he ends up leaving the Yankees, there should be no concerns about how he will handle the pressure of closing elsewhere.

HALF-EMPTY

There's a reason the Papelbon contract was much derided at the time: Relievers, even good ones, just don't create enough value to be worth huge, multiyear contracts. Plus, it's not that hard to come up with good ones. Look at the Phillies; They have Ken Giles ready to take over as closer but are stuck with Papelbon's big contract.

Even if a team is desperate for a closer, where's the guarantee that Robertson does the job in October if you get there? He has one season of closing under his belt and has never had to save a postseason game. There are a lot of great regular-season closers who haven't done the job in October.

SportsNation

What's your view on David Robertson as a free agent?

  •  
    44%
  •  
    56%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,769)

Plus, Robertson is coming off a 3.08 ERA -- that's nothing special these days for a reliever. Sixty-nine relievers who threw at least 50 innings had a lower ERA in 2014. He saved 39 games in 44 opportunities. That's a save percentage of 88.6. Sounds good, but again, it's nothing special; 13 closers with at least 20 opportunities had a higher percentage in 2014. Robertson also allowed seven home runs in 2014, six to right-handed batters. Whoever signs him has to hope that number was either an aberration or Yankee Stadium inflation.

Yes, there has been consistency in his performances over the past four seasons. But relievers tend to burn out quickly. Do you want to gamble $40 million that Robertson will remain healthy and productive in a role that's fairly easy to fill?

What do you think? Will he return to the Yankees or will the Tigers be desperate and give him a Papelbon-like deal?
video

We've looked at Jon Lester and Nelson Cruz in our half-full/half-empty series. Now let's examine the pitcher everyone views as the prize of the 2014-15 free agents, right-hander Max Scherzer.

MLB Free Agency: Half-Full, Half-Empty Logo
Scherzer hits free agency at age 30, coming off a great two-year run with the Detroit Tigers in which he went 39-8 with a 3.02 ERA. The 2013 Cy Young winner, Scherzer really pitched just as well in 2014 and finished fifth in the voting.

Scherzer reportedly turned a six-year, $144 million extension from the Tigers last offseason. Colleague Jim Bowden predicts that Scherzer will receive a seven-year, $189 million contract, an average annual value of $27 million. If that contract materializes, it would be the second-largest total ever given to a pitcher, behind the $215 million deal Clayton Kershaw signed with the Dodgers.

Scherzer is a Scott Boras client, so don't expect him to sign anytime soon. Obviously, all the big-market teams will be rumored to have interest. Will Scherzer be a good investment?

HALF-FULL

With Scherzer, you start with the stuff. Few pitchers have the raw arsenal that Scherzer possesses, with four plus pitches: four-seam fastball, slider, changeup and curveball. He added the curveball during the 2012 season, and the addition of that pitch is one reason Scherzer took his game to a new level.

Good pitching starts with a good fastball and fastball command. Scherzer's four-seamer has a natural tail to it and some sinking action. While its average velocity of 92.8 mph doesn't blow you away, he cranked it up as high as 98 mph in 2014, so he keeps a little in reserve when needed.

For the most part, however, he lets that natural movement work. He does tend to throw the pitch up in the zone, but it's still an effective pitch: It sets up the off-speed stuff, and he generates a good share of strikeouts with it. Look at how he pitches with his fastball to left-handed batters:

Scherzer Heat Map ESPN Stats & Info


Lefties have hit .226/.292/.380 against Scherzer's fastball the past two seasons. When you limit damage against your fastball, it makes your other pitches that much tougher. Scherzer has 143 strikeouts the past two seasons against left-handers with his fastball, most in the majors. (Felix Hernandez is second with 124, but only four other pitchers have 100.) As a comparison, Stephen Strasburg struggles somewhat against lefties because his fastball isn't a great strikeout weapon against them, with just 59 K's over the past two years.

With pitchers, you always worry about injuries, but Scherzer has made 30-plus starts in each of his six seasons in the majors. He's also a student of the game. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote last offseason:
Max Scherzer is meticulous, the sort of person who sees baseball as a game of centimeters, because inches are too big. Every so often, in the middle of a long season, Scherzer will pore over video of his last start, pause it mid-delivery and vow to change things. A centimeter can mean that much.

His right arm is his gift and his treasure, and if ever he notices his elbow above his shoulder line -- even a hint of the dreaded Inverted W, which is correlated with though not scientifically proven to cause arm injuries -- he corrects it. Little gets past Scherzer.

"You've seen in history guys blow out that way," he told Yahoo! Sports last September. "I've never been a guy who does it, but every now and again, it'll creep higher than that plane, and I'm very cognizant of it."


Seven years is a long time. A lot can happen. But his health history is a big plus.

Then there's this: Scherzer has put up good numbers while pitching in front of some lousy defenses in Detroit. The Tigers were 28th in MLB in defensive runs saved in 2014, 28th in 2013, 25th in 2012. Imagine him pitching in front of a good defense, or in the National League, where he'd get to mow through the bottom of the lineups.

HALF-EMPTY

You want to make Scherzer the second-highest-paid pitcher in the game? A guy with one career complete game? A guy who has had an ERA under 3.00 exactly once in his career, and even then it was barely under, at 2.90? A guy who has been just OK in the postseason with a 3.73 ERA? A guy who has pitched 220 innings just once in a season? Hernandez, by comparison, has topped 230 innings five times.

There's no denying Scherzer's stuff or strikeout rates, but he's had the luxury of being the No. 2 guy behind Justin Verlander in the Detroit rotation. Can he handle the pressure of a megadeal? Is he the guy who will take the ball in a big game and give you eight innings? Pitch efficiency has never been Scherzer's strength, which is why he's been more of seven-inning starter than an eight- or nine-inning guy.

You also have to factor in leaving Comerica Park, or the AL Central. Scherzer does pitch up in the zone, so he will give up fly balls. Comerica isn't the supreme pitchers' park everyone thinks, but it's been about average in giving up home runs, and more than a few balls hit to that deep area in center and right-center would have left other parks. Pitching in Wrigley Field might not be as enjoyable as pitching in Comerica. Plus, Scherzer has faced a lot of weak offenses through the years in that division.

SportsNation

What's your view on Max Scherzer as a free agent?

  •  
    39%
  •  
    61%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,220)

As for Detroit's defense, it doesn't necessarily explain why the only season Scherzer has had a below-average batting average on balls in play was his Cy Young season (.260 that year, but above .300 every other season). For example, in hitter's counts in 2014, Scherzer allowed a .380 average -- 74th among 88 qualified starters. His OPS allowed in hitter's counts ranked 86th. Basically, when he was behind, he got hammered; only Jason Hammel allowed a higher slugging percentage. It appears that Scherzer just grooves too many pitches when he's behind in the count, and that explains why his hit rate is high given his strikeout rate.

And, of course, you simply can't ignore this: Seven years for a pitcher in his 30s ... how often does that work out? Maybe you reap the rewards of two or three great seasons, but we've seen seemingly durable pitchers like CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee go down with injuries. Pitchers get hurt.

What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?

video
Most Valuable Player voting is often about the narrative that develops during the long march of the season as much as the numbers -- in some cases the narrative may be more important than the numbers. In the American League, there was really only one narrative to consider this season: Mike Trout. He was the obvious choice and the voters made him just the 18th unanimous MVP winner and the first in the AL since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997.

In the National League, there were season-long debates between Clayton Kershaw and Giancarlo Stanton and then Andrew McCutchen -- who made a late push, hitting .347 with five home runs in September as the Pirates surged into the playoffs. There were those in the analytical regions of the Internet pushing for Jonathan Lucroy, who had a terrific offensive season as a catcher for the Brewers while getting recognition as one of the best pitch framers in the business.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has now won three Cy Youngs and an MVP award, and he's only 26.
But, really, those other narratives never took off. Stanton had the big power numbers, but it wasn't enough to separate him from McCutchen or Lucroy as the clear top candidate among position players. Even if Stanton hadn't been hit in the face and missed the final two weeks of the season, I don't think he would've won, as no player from a losing team has won an MVP award since Alex Rodriguez in 2003. McCutchen had slightly better offensive numbers than 2013; he improved his slugging percentage from .508 to .542 -- but the Pirates weren't the same surprise story as 2013 and McCutchen's 25 home runs and 83 RBIs don't jump out.

Stanton and McCutchen were great; just not great enough. Kershaw collected 18 of the 30 first-place votes, placed second on nine other ballots and easily outdistanced the runner-up, Stanton.

It's easy to see why. Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. At one point, the Dodgers had won 20 of 21 games he started. He was the best pitcher in the majors in 2013 and he got better in 2014, improving his strikeout/walk ratio from 4.46 to 7.71. After his one bad outing of the season -- he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings to Arizona on May 17 -- he posted a 1.43 ERA over his final 23 regular-season outings. That start against the D-backs was his only one all season in which he allowed more than three runs. The numbers were so juicy that even though he pitched just 198 innings in 27 starts, the voters couldn't deny him MVP honors.

The debate heading into the MVP vote was whether Kershaw could overcome the pitcher bias existent in MVP balloting; no NL pitcher had won MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968, and Justin Verlander's win in 2011 was the first for a starting pitcher in the AL since Roger Clemens in 1986 and just the second since 1971.

The advanced metrics tell us Kershaw was the most valuable player in the NL in 2014. He led the NL in Baseball-Reference WAR at 8.0, topping Cole Hamels (6.9), Lucroy (6.7), Stanton (6.5) and Anthony Rendon (6.5). He led in FanGraphs WAR at 7.6, topping McCutchen (6.8), Rendon (6.6), Lucroy (6.3) and Stanton (6.1).

But Kershaw didn't win because of those metrics. He won because of the narrative. He won because he went 21-3. (He actually had a higher WAR in 2013 but finished seventh in the voting as he went just 16-9.) He won because he was clearly the most dominant player in the league.

Even if he was a pitcher.

* * *


The past two American League MVP races were hotly contested debates between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout -- well, hotly contested in cyberspace. When the voters in the Baseball Writers' Association actually got around to turning in their ballots the results weren't close at all: Cabrera received 22 of 28 first-place votes in 2012 and 23 of 30 in 2013.

Trout's obvious advantages in advanced metrics, defense and baserunning were trumped by Cabrera's Triple Crown and RBIs and the fact that Cabrera's Tigers made the playoffs and Trout's Angels didn't (although Trout's team actually won more games in 2012).

Anyway, in 2014, Cabrera didn't put up the monster offensive numbers, the Angels had the best record in the majors and Trout led the league in both runs scored and RBIs. The writers couldn't mess it up this year.

The ironic part of Trout's win -- he became the third Angels player to win after Don Baylor in 1979 and Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 -- is that by the advanced metrics that us stat guys love, Trout had his worst season:

2012: 10.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.1 FanGraphs WAR
2013: 8.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.5 FanGraphs WAR
2014: 7.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 7.8 FanGraphs WAR

Now, that 7.9 WAR was still the best in the league, making Trout the obvious choice on top of his conventional numbers. The main reason for the decline in WAR was a drop in defensive and baserunning value. In 2012, he was credited with 21 defensive runs saved (which Baseball-Reference uses) while that figure has been -9 the past two seasons. He's also declined in FanGraphs' defensive metric, ultimate zone rating (-8.4 runs). His steals have dropped from 49 to 33 to 16.

Of course, Trout didn't win because of advanced metrics. The fact that Victor Martinez -- who started 116 games at designated hitter -- finished second in the voting shows the voters still place an emphasis on offensive numbers while essentially ignoring the value of things like defense, position and baserunning. Martinez had a terrific season, but he wasn't the second-best player in the AL. On the other hand, it was nice that the voters recognized the great season that Michael Brantley had by putting him third in the voting even though the Indians didn't reach the playoffs.

Otherwise, it was scattershot results in the voting, as expected. Martinez did receive 16 second-place votes, but seven different players were placed there on the ballot. Ten different players received third-place votes.

Anyway, I have the feeling this won't be Mike Trout's only MVP award.video

Two good moves for the Tigers

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
12:20
PM ET
Wednesday was a big day for the Detroit Tigers, as they reportedly agreed with Victor Martinez on a four-year, $68 million deal and also acquired outfielder Anthony Gose from the Blue Jays for minor league second baseman Devon Travis.

Let's look at these deals.

As you know, Martinez is coming off the best year of his career at age 35. He hit .335/.409/.565, including a career-high 32 home runs; his previous best homer total had come when he hit 25 back in 2007, in a completely different offensive context (the average AL team scored 4.90 runs per game that year compared with 4.18 in 2014). The .335 average isn't a fluke -- he hit .330 in 2011 -- but the power spike turned him into a top-three MVP finalist.

But what can the Tigers expect moving forward? The Steamer projection system predicts a .309/.377/.486 line with 20 home runs in 2015, still good enough to make him one of the better hitters in the league. Here's a quick list of the best wOBA totals over the past 10 years for players 36 or older with at least 400 plate appearances (Martinez had a .411 wOBA in 2014):

  1. Chipper Jones, 2008: .445
  2. Manny Ramirez, 2008: .432
  3. Barry Bonds, 2007: .428
  4. Jim Thome, 2007: .412
  5. Barry Bonds, 2006: .409
  6. David Ortiz, 2013: .400
  7. Manny Ramirez, 2009: .398
  8. Moises Alou, 2005: .396
  9. Frank Thomas, 2006: .392
  10. Matt Stairs, 2007: .388


Well, you can see some of the issues with that list. Plus, only Ortiz makes the top 10 before offensive numbers start taking a big downturn in 2010. After Ortiz, the next-best figure from the past five seasons is Paul Konerko in 2012 at .371, Todd Helton in 2011 at .371 and then Ortiz again in 2014 at .369. Steamer's triple-slash line equates to a .371 wOBA for Martinez in 2015, so he's still projected as one of the best "old" hitters of recent vintage.

Maybe the most interesting comparison for Martinez is Chipper Jones -- another switch-hitter who didn't strike out a lot. As you can see above, Chipper had a monster season at age 36, leading the NL with a .364 average and .470 OBP. His totals from 37 through 39 weren't nearly as good, though:

    Age 37: .264/.388/.430
    Age 38: .265/.381/.426
    Age 39: .275/.344/.470


Would the Tigers be happy with that kind of production? American League DHs hit .250/.320/.425 in 2014, so you'd still be looking at better-than-average production.

Anyway, the key for the Tigers is they need Martinez for 2015. This team is built to win now with David Price in his final year before free agency, Miguel Cabrera still one of the most feared hitters in the game but getting older, and Ian Kinsler entering his age-33 season. If Justin Verlander's decline is permanent and Max Scherzer signs elsewhere, the Tigers' window to compete for a title may be gone when Price departs as a free agent. So they had to bring back Martinez, even if the final year or two of the contract ends up being an overpay.

As for Gose, he's an ultra-athletic center fielder who hasn't produced much at the plate in stints over three seasons with Toronto: a career .234/.301/.332 batting line (that was even worse in 274 PAs in 2014). Considering he owns a .259 lifetime average in the minors, the bat will likely never play up in the majors. But he's just 24 and allows the team to move Rajai Davis back to left field (despite his speed, he's not a good center fielder) with J.D. Martinez replacing Torii Hunter in right. This should make for a better defensive outfield, as Gose is an upgrade in center, and Martinez, while not great, is probably better than Hunter, whose defense has slipped a lot over the past two seasons.

The Tigers give up one of their better prospects in Travis, who hit .298/.358/.460 at Double-A. But with the return of Jose Iglesias to play shortstop, the Tigers still have Eugenio Suarez as a future replacement for Kinsler. The Blue Jays have a big hole at second base, so Travis should have the opportunity to win the starting job, or at least surface as a midseason call-up.

All in all, it looks like a good day for the Tigers.

End-of-season Haiku for every team

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
10:35
AM ET
Congrats to the Giants on their World Series victory. Let's look back at the year on the diamond for all 30 teams, in regular season win total order, through traditional Japanese verse:

ANGELS
Trout league's best player?
Shoemaker pleasant surprise
Yet steamrolled by Royals

ORIOLES
Stoic Showalter
Lost Manny, Matt, Chris but still
Ran away with East

NATIONALS
Fateful decision
In playoffs shouldn't dampen
League's best rotation

DODGERS
The Bison is back
But Clayton couldn't kill Cards
Donnie gets last chance?

CARDINALS
Death of Taveras
Casts pall on terrific year
Still class of Central

TIGERS
Flammable bullpen
Undermined starting pitching
Now replace V-Mart

ROYALS
Who needs walks, homers?
An "abundance" of bunting
Outfield defense ... whoa!

ATHLETICS
Cespedes got dealt
Team's offense dried up with it
Beane's "stuff" didn’t work

GIANTS
Three titles -- five years
Bumgarner otherworldly
Can they keep Panda?

PIRATES
Burning Cole last game
Trying for division tie
Might have cost Play-In

MARINERS
Cano did his thing
Felix, Hisashi duo
Not quite good enough

INDIANS
Kluber conquered all
But rest of staff slogged through year
Michael Brantley ... star!

YANKEES
Jeter’s farewell tour
Now A-Rod longest-tenured
Not your dad's Yankees

BLUE JAYS
All five starters had
Double-digit wins, but four
Had ten-plus losses

BREWERS
Led till late August
Won nine all of September
Lucroy's framing tops

BRAVES
Shutout 16 times
NL's next to last runs scored
Let's just watch Kimbrel

METS
DeGrom great story
Wheeler looked good, stayed healthy
Harvey's back, Big 3!

PADRES
Last in all slash stats
No-hit by Timmy ... again
Front office rebuilt

MARLINS
Stayed competitive
Despite losing Fernandez
Can they sign Stanton?

RAYS
Friedman, Maddon gone
Price dealt for cheaper prospects
Has their window closed?

REDS
Votto hardly seen
But Mesoraco burst out
Cueto stayed healthy

WHITE SOX
Abreu? Real deal
Chris Sale's elbow still attached?
Thank you, Konerko!

CUBS
Top prospects galore
Renteria won't see them
Maddon works magic?

PHILLIES
Vets went untraded
Amaro kept job somehow
Get used to last place

RED SOX
Bradley, Bogaerts ... meh
Buckholz saw ERA triple
Lester will be missed

ASTROS
Altuve a star
If only they could have signed
1st rounder Aiken

TWINS
Hughes K'd 1-8-6
Is that allowed on their staff?
Mauer's bat slumping

RANGERS
Pro-Obamacare
Given multitude of hurts
Washington bowed out

ROCKIES
League-worst ERA
Tulo missed 70 games
Fast start, then crash, burn

DIAMONDBACKS
Gibson, Towers done
Can Hale, Stewart make team rise
Like a phoenix? Eh!

Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
As the offseason speeds ahead into full rumor mill hysteria, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look at each team’s biggest weakness in 2014 (excluding pitchers). This gives us a start on which positions teams might be most desperate to fill or should be desperate to fill in the upcoming months, although it doesn't include potential holes such as the Giants needing a third baseman if Pablo Sandoval doesn't re-sign or the Dodgers needing a shortstop if Hanley Ramirez departs.

For a quick assessment of value at each position, I used wins below average, via Baseball-Reference.com, which includes both offense and defensive value at the position.

1. Detroit Tigers 3B: 3.7 wins below average

This might surprise you since Nick Castellanos had a solid rookie season at the plate, hitting .259 with 46 extra-base hits. But solid isn't the same as good, as the Tigers ranked 18th in the majors in wOBA at third base. But the biggest liability here was Castellanos' defense: His -30 defensive runs saved ranked worst in the majors -- at any position.

Fix for 2015: It's still Castellanos' job. The Tigers have to hope for improvement in all areas.


2. Houston Astros 3B: 3.5 wins below average

Matt Dominguez started 147 games here, but the Astros ranked last in the majors with a .255 OBP and .252 wOBA at third base as Dominguez hit just .215 with 29 walks. He comes with a better defensive reputation than Castellanos, but grades out about average with the glove. First base wasn't much better for the Astros -- 3.4 wins below average as their first basemen hit .168 (!).

Fix for 2015: Dominguez is just 25, but his sophomore season showed decline instead of improvement. There is no obvious internal fix other than giving Dominguez one more shot. Could the Astros be a dark horse to sign Pablo Sandoval or Chase Headley? If only they had drafted Kris Bryant in 2013 instead of Mark Appel.

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Alex BrandonLooks like the Phillies might be stuck with Ryan Howard again in 2015.
3. Philadelphia Phillies 1B: 3.3 wins below average

No surprise here: Ryan Howard is awful, even if he did drive in 95 runs. He had a .302 wOBA -- the same as Alcides Escobar. The Phillies slugged .392 at first base -- 22nd in the majors -- and backed that up with Howard's poor defense and baserunning.

Fix for 2015: Howard will make $50 million the next two years. No, I can't see a scenario where he gets traded.


4. Cincinnati Reds RF: 3.3 wins below average

If there's an award for Most Disappointing Player of 2014, it probably goes to Jay Bruce, who hit .217 with a .281 OBP and 18 home runs. Bruce had knee surgery in early May, came back quickly and simply never got going. The knee might have played a role as he actually homered just as often on fly balls as in 2013, but his fly ball rate dropped 10 percent.

Fix for 2015: Bruce turns 28 in April, so he's certainly a good bet to bounce back.


5. Tampa Bay Rays C: 3.1 wins below average

The Rays love the defense Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan provide, but it's hard to overcome a .191/.274/.250 batting line.

Fix for 2015: Both are under contract for 2015, and Curt Casali is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. Molina looks done as a hitter so the Rays are going to need Hanigan to catch more.


6. Atlanta Braves 3B: 3.1 wins below average

Chris Johnson and his .292 OBP and below-average defense helped this position score worst overall, but the Braves also scored lowest in the majors at center field (-2.6 wins) and second base (-2.8 wins).

Fix for 2015: The Braves foolishly signed Johnson to a long-term deal after his BABIP-driven .321 season in 2013. While the salaries aren't prohibitive, the deal also means Johnson probably returns in 2015. Phil Gosselin, who hit .344 without power at Triple-A, might get an opportunity, although he hasn't played much third in his career.


7. St. Louis Cardinals RF: 3.1 wins below average

Cardinals right fielders ranked last in the majors in wOBA.

Fix for 2015: The death of Oscar Taveras means the Cardinals will probably look for a right fielder, as Randal Grichuk isn't primed for full-time duty. They could move Jon Jay back there and give Peter Bourjos more time in center; but considering the Cardinals' lack of power in 2014, look for them to seek a right fielder with some ability to hit the ball over the fence -- maybe Nelson Cruz, if they're willing to take the hit on defense, or maybe Carlos Gonzalez in a trade with the Rockies.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
AP Photo/David GoldmanWhat were the Braves thinking with that long-term deal for Chris Johnson?
8. Cleveland Indians RF: 3.0 wins below average

This was mostly David Murphy, who put up lukewarm numbers at the plate while seeing his defensive metrics slide (-16 defensive runs saved). The Indians also had -2.2 wins from DH (Nick Swisher had the most PAs there with 143), so if they can improve these two positions, they're a good sleeper playoff pick for 2015.

Fix for 2015: Murphy is still under contract, but he's 33; I wouldn't bet on a better year. The DH problem can be solved by just putting Carlos Santana there and maybe there's room in the budget for a first baseman like Adam LaRoche, leaving Swisher to share time in right, first base and DH.


9. Chicago Cubs LF: 2.9 wins below average

Cubs left fielders -- Chris Coghlan had the most playing time out there with 394 PAs -- actually ranked 11th in the majors in wOBA, but they were a collective -19 defensive runs saved.

Fix for 2015: Outfield prospects Billy McKinney and Albert Almora are still two to three years away from the majors, so it could be more Coghlan and Junior Lake unless the Cubs make a trade or sign a veteran free agent.


10. Miami Marlins 1B: 2.9 wins below average

Their first basemen (mostly Garrett Jones) hit .258/.313/.403, putting them 19th in the majors in wOBA, and mixed in below-average defense and a lack of speed.

Fix for 2015: Jeff Baker is still around as a potential platoon mate against LHP. Jones is signed for $5 million; so while LaRoche would also make a nice fit here, that contract might mean the Marlins stick with Jones.


11. Texas Rangers 1B: 2.8 wins below average

Obviously, Prince Fielder's neck injury was the story here as Texas first basemen hit just .216 with 16 home runs.

Fix for 2015: Hope for Fielder's return to health.


12. Chicago White Sox RF: 2.8 wins below average

Avisail Garcia was supposed to be the solution here, but he hurt his shoulder in early April and Dayan Viciedo ended up getting most of the time in right. He combined a below-average OBP with terrible defense.

Fix for 2015: Garcia returned in August and hit .244/.305/.413; he’ll get another shot. He should be an upgrade, but he's another guy who might struggle to post a league-average OBP.


13. San Diego Padres 2B: 2.8 wins below average

Jedd Gyorko would rate right behind Bruce in that most disappointing category. After signing a six-year, $35 million extension in April following his 23-homer rookie season in 2013, Gyorko collapsed and hit .210 with 11 home runs in 111 games, missing time with plantar fasciitis. He went on the DL in early June with reports saying he injured his foot in late May. He wasn't hitting before then, so it's possible he tried to play through the injury or maybe the pressure of the contract got to him or maybe he just didn't hit. Anyway, when he returned in late July, he hit .260/.347/.398 the rest of the way. (Just three home runs, however.)

Fix for 2015: Like Bruce, Gyorko is a good bounce-back candidate.

[+] EnlargeWill Middlebrooks
AP Photo/Chris BernacchiHow much longer can the Red Sox afford to wait on Will Middlebrooks?
14. Los Angeles Dodgers C: 2.7 wins below average

Dodgers catchers hit .181/.283/.261 as A.J. Ellis got on base (.322) but didn't hit otherwise, and the backups were even worse. Dodgers pitchers like throwing to Ellis, but the defensive metrics have never rated him as a good pitch-framer.

Fix for 2015: Speculation suggests the Dodgers could go after free agent Russell Martin.


15. Boston Red Sox 3B: 2.7 wins below average

Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts and Brock Holt got the majority of playing time here and Holt was the best of the three. He isn’t the 2015 solution, however. Overall, Boston's third basemen hit .211 with just 10 home runs.

Fix for 2015: With Bogaerts likely moving back to shortstop and Middlebrooks just about out of chances, the Red Sox could give Garin Cecchini, a career .298 hitter in the minors, a shot, although he has just 21 home runs in four minor league seasons. There are several third basemen out there in free agency: Sandoval, Headley, Hanley Ramirez (if you want to move him off shortstop) and Jed Lowrie (ditto). Seems Boston is likely to go after one of those guys.

OK, we'll do Part 2 of the list on Thursday.
Nelson CruzRick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNelson Cruz rips into David Price's pitch in the sixth to power the game's decisive home run.


The Baltimore Orioles are advancing to their first American League Championship Series since 1997. I think it's pretty clear the better team won here. The edge everyone believed the Detroit Tigers had -- starting pitcher -- just wasn't the big edge everyone presumed, not with the way the Orioles' rotation had pitched down the stretch. And the edges that Baltimore had -- bullpen and defense -- proved key in this three-game sweep.

Here are five key moments/thoughts from Sunday's 2-1 victory:

1. Nelson Cruz takes David Price just deep enough.

Cruz didn't crush his sixth-inning home run off Price, who had been in complete control until that point. It's 330 feet down the right-field line at Comerica Park and Cruz snuck it just inside the foul pole and just over the line. Cruz didn't even seem to think it would stay fair, not even running out of the box.

It was a tough-luck inning for Price. Adam Jones had singled on a 1-1 changeup that was low and well off the plate. Jones, a notorious free swinger, managed to get just enough wood on it to sneak up the ball the middle with shortstop Andrew Romine playing Jones to pull. Good pitch, bad result.

The pitch to Cruz was also off the plate, another changeup. It was off the plate and thigh high, maybe not as low as Price wanted, but he wanted it off the plate, as Cruz -- like Jones -- will chase. Again, a decent pitch with a bad result.

As for the cries to tie up Cruz inside, that just isn't Price's style. Check out Price's heat map versus right-handed batters this season:

David Price heat mapESPN Stats & Infomation


That's what he does: He pounds the outside corner. As for not allowing Cruz to extend his arms, that's simply not true either. Cruz's numbers this season on inside and outside pitches:

Inside: .255/.352/.516
Outside: .242/.325/.408

With his open stance, Cruz is actually pretty adept at getting his hands in and pulling inside pitches. He does have the strength to hit it out to the opposite field (10 of his 40 home runs went to right field or right-center), but for the most part pitchers do work Cruz outside more often than in. Give Cruz credit here: He just beat Price.

2. Buck Showalter rolls the dice.

This took a serious pair of ... dice.

After Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez had doubled off Zach Britton to lead off the ninth to cut the score to 2-1, Showalter intentionally walked No. 7 hitter Nick Castellanos. The potential winning run. No matter who the Tigers had coming up, that's playing with fire.

It worked. The Tigers had already used Rajai Davis, their one potential useful guy on the bench (who is battling an injury as it is). Due up were weak-hitting shortstop Andrew Romine and weak-hitting backup center fielder Ezequiel. Brad Ausmus sent up Hernan Perez, who had all of six plate appearances in the major leagues this season after hitting .287 in Triple-A. Tough spot for a guy coming off the bench who hasn't played much in September. Britton induced a 5-4-3 double play and Showalter looked like a genius.

Of course, it also exposed the same weakness the Tigers have played through the past four seasons: A weak bench.

3. Buck Showalter gives the ball to Bud Norris.
Miguel Gonzalez was the assumed Game 3 starter but Showalter told Norris on the flight from Baltimore that Norris would get the Game 3 start.

What prompted the change? From Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun: "As for Showalter’s decision to start Norris in Game 3, he said there were a variety of factors what went into the decision, among them Norris’ dramatic day-night splits, the ability to use him out of the bullpen in a possible make-or-break Game 5 and getting him back on the mound after 10 days off."

That would make sense, except the facts don't line up. This was a day game. Norris had a 5.57 ERA during the day and 2.99 at night. The other assumption is that Norris is a little more excitable than Gonzalez, so pitching him in Game 3, with a 2-0 series lead, would have less pressure than a Game 4.

Either way, you can forget that 5.57 ERA during the day in the regular season. It's now 0.00 after he threw 6⅓ scoreless innings, allowing just two hits. His biggest out came in the third with two outs and runners at second and third when he got Victor Martinez to fly out to shallow center on the ninth pitch of the plate appearance, getting a 95-mph pitch in on Martinez's hands.

4. Andrew Miller comes on.

This guy is starting to look like a huge, huge weapon this October. He replaced Norris with one out in the seventh and faced five batters and retired all of them. Fun matchup for the final out in the eighth: He got Miguel Cabrera. When the Tigers acquired Cabrera from the Marlins back in 2008, Miller was supposed to be the prize catch for the Marlins: The sixth pick in the 2006 draft with No. 1 potential as a starter. He never panned out with the Marlins and moved to the bullpen with the Red Sox. He has found a home there and his ability to go more than one inning has provided Showalter a great bridge between his starters and his closer.

5. Silence in Detroit.


Has the window closed?

The past four years the Tigers won 95, 88, 93 and 90 games, reaching one World Series and two ALCS. But Max Scherzer is a free agent, Victor Martinez is a free agent, Torii Hunter is a free agent, Justin Verlander had a bad season, and the bullpen and bench remain messes. For the years, the Tigers took advantage of a weak AL Central, but the Royals and Indians have had back-to-back solid campaigns and the White Sox and Twins have some young players to build around or are about to arrive in the big leagues.

The Tigers have a had great core of star players, but in the end, this group may go down in history like the 1995-1998 Mariners, who had enormous star power with the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez, but never won a title (never even made it to the World Series).


So, yeah, I have no idea what Tigers manager Brad Ausmus will do with his bullpen in Game 3. David Price, get ready for nine innings of work. The Orioles won a dramatic Game 2 by the score of 7-6, leaving the Tigers and their fans in a state of shock. Five big moments:

1. Delmon Young, postseason hero.

Did this really happen? As the bottom of the eighth inning began, I emailed my friend Thomas, a big Tigers fan. I jokingly said: "Joba and Nathan can hold a three-run lead, right?"

Nope. The Tigers didn't even get to Joe Nathan; Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria self-combusted as the Orioles scored four runs in the eighth. It all began when Chamberlain hit Adam Jones with one out, which nearly sent Dennis Eckersley into hysterics in the TBS broadcast, and ended with former Tigers postseason hero Young pinch hitting and haunting them with a bases-clearing double into left field. Three quick notes on that hit:

A. Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones visited the mound after Soria had walked J.J. Hardy to load the bases.

B. Young hit a first-pitch slider. Probably not a bad pitch because Young is known as a first-pitch fastball hitter. But the location, as you can see above, was terrible.

C. J.D. Martinez slightly bobbled the carom off the wall, Ian Kinsler's relay throw was to the outside of home plate and Hardy made a great slide.

2. Anibal Sanchez comes into the game . . . and then exits.

Everyone knows about the shaky Detroit bullpen, so when Justin Verlander could only go five-plus innings and left after a leadoff single in the sixth, it was up to Sanchez to hold things down. He had pitched just once since missing seven weeks with a right pectoral strain but retired all six batters he faced, throwing 30 pitches. Apparently that was enough because Ausmus didn't let him go back out there for the eighth, which ... well, see above.

3. Tigers foolishly send Miguel Cabrera.

This has to be on third-base coach Dave Clark. Victor Martinez had just doubled off the wall in center, scoring Torii Hunter, but Clark rescued Kevin Gausman and the O's by waving home Miggy. Unlike the Tigers, the Orioles completed a good relay -- second baseman Jonathan Schoop has a hose -- and Cabrera was easily out at home, defusing a potential big rally that in the end was very much needed. (Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs has a take on the play, suggesting it made sense to send Cabrera if he can make it 82 percent of the time. Which looked unlikely from the positioning of Cabrera when Schoop received the relay throw.)

4. J.D. Martinez hits a three-run homer.


Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen had cruised through the first three innings, but everything fell apart in a 10-pitch span in the fourth that erased Baltimore's 2-0 lead -- a Hunter single, Cabrera's double off the center-field wall, Victor Martinez's RBI single and then J.D. Martinez mashing a first-pitch slider to left for a three-run homer followed by Nick Castellanos hammering the next pitch out to right. It blew up so quickly on Chen that manager Buck Showalter didn't have time to get Gausman properly warmed up and into the game.

J.D. Martinez's storybook season continues. Cut in spring training by the Astros, he now has become part of the monster 3-4-5 middle of the Detroit lineup. He had cooled down somewhat in July and August but rebounded with a big September, when he hit .354 and six home runs. He's kept going in the postseason.

5. That double play.
Ryan Flaherty with the diving stop, Schoop with the excellent turn, Miggy's lack of speed once again hurting the Tigers. Pretty stuff.
Nick MarkakisPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesNick Markakis' third-inning home run gave Baltimore a 2-0 lead.

The Baltimore Orioles took a 2-0 lead over the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of their ALDS on Friday when Nick Markakis' two-run homer stood up after an umpire review. Markakis' shot came with two outs in the third inning off Justin Verlander.

The ball bounced off the top of the bullpen dugout's roof in right field. It's a bit of an awkward alignment as the roof juts out from the back of the fence in front of the stands, but if a ball hits the roof it's apparently considered a home run by Camden Yards ground rules.

Verlander had retired the first eight batters before Jonathan Schoop singled on an 0-2 fastball with two outs. The rookie second baseman is still undisciplined at the plate -- 122 strikeouts and just 13 walks this season -- so throwing him such a hittable pitch with two strikes was questionable. Schoop hit just .153 against curveballs, so 0-2 seemed to be a good count to throw him a curveball off the plate, or another slider like the 0-1 slider that Schoop swung at and missed.

Against, Markakis, Verlander threw seven straight fastballs, with Markakis fouling off three before connecting on a 3-2, 94 mph heater that was up and middle-in.

Verlander's fastball isn't what it once was, of course, and batters slugged .456 against it this year, a number that had Verlander ranked 98th out of 147 pitchers with at least 100 innings.

The offense quickly picked up Verlander, however, scoring five runs in the top of the fourth off Wei-Yin Chen, as Miguel Cabrera doubled off the center-field wall, J.D. Martinez belted a three-run home run and Nick Castellanos followed with a solo shot.

The first game of the division series between the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers was much closer and exciting than the 12-3 final score. Your five key moments ...

1. Chris Tillman gets Torii Hunter with the bases loaded in the fifth.

Tillman had retired 11 in a row after allowing back-to-back home runs to Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez in the second inning before Andrew Romine and Rajai Davis, the bottom of the Detroit lineup, singled with two outs in the fifth. Ian Kinsler then worked a nine-pitch walk (after battling for 14 pitches in his previous at-bat), bringing up the crucial showdown with Torii Hunter. Tommy Hunter had started warming up in the Baltimore bullpen during the Kinsler plate appearance, but Buck Showalter stuck with his starter, who was at 99 pitches.

This had the feeling of a game-turning or game-deciding battle. Tillman was going through the lineup for a third time and the numbers show that, on average, starters don't fare as well the third time through the order. Tillman was still cranking his fastball up to 95 mph, however. On the other hand, he throws a lot of high fastballs and Hunter is a pretty good high fastball hitter, hitting .273/.346/.470 on fastballs up in the zone, ranking him 49th out of 147 qualified regulars against that type of pitch.

Hunter fouled off a fastball, took a cutter for a ball and then fouled off a changeup that was well off the plate. Hunter will chase pitches out of the strike zone, but with the bases loaded it's a little more difficult to throw pitches out of the zone. Tillman went after Hunter with two high fastballs, which Hunter fouled off, and then Tillman finally induced a 5-4 force play with a good curveball at the knees.


2. Buck Showalter goes early to Andrew Miller.

One thing bloggers and writers like myself constantly pound managers for in the postseason is not going to their best relievers earlier in the game or in the game's most critical situations -- see Ned Yost in the sixth of the AL wild-card game, when he refused to bring in a guy he prefers to save for the seventh or eighth innings, Kelvin Herrera, and instead brought in a starter who had thrown 73 pitches two days before. At least Yost was willing to think outside the box.

Showalter's decision was made a little easier by the fact that Tillman had thrown 105 pitches in his five innings, but instead of bringing in Tommy Hunter -- his fourth-best reliever, at best -- he brought in the left-handed Miller, even though two of the next three batters were Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, two right-handers. Miller, acquired from the Red Sox at the trade deadline, had been primarily a LOOGY the past two seasons with Boston, but elevated his game to a dominant level this season, with 103 strikeouts in 62.1 innings and a .145 average against right-handed batters.

He walked Cabrera but struck out both Martinezes and got Alex Avila on a popup and ended up getting five outs. Showalter brought in closer Zach Britton with two outs in the eighth, when it was still a one-run game. Kudos to Showalter for his willingness to extend his best relievers a few extra outs.

3. Torii Hunter lines into a double play in the eighth.

The Tigers are one of the slowest teams in the majors, although they did rank fourth in the AL in stolen bases thanks to Rajai Davis' 36 steals. Kinsler is one of the other guys who can run, and after reaching on an infield single to start the eighth with the Tigers down 4-2, he was running on the 2-2 pitch to Hunter, who hit a line drive to shortstop J.J. Hardy for an easy double play.

It was a good call by manager Brad Ausmus to send Kinsler, just bad luck. Hunter grounded into 18 double plays and had a double play percentage of 17 percent (double plays grounded into given possible opportunities), well above the major league average of 11 percent. O'Day gets a lot of ground balls with that sidearm sinker. It just stung even more when Cabrera followed with a home run.

4. Nelson Cruz strikes early.

Nelson Cruz Rob Carr/Getty Images


Tigers fans remember Cruz all too well from the 2011 American League Championship Series, when he popped six home runs and drove in 13 runs as the Rangers knocked out the Tigers in six games. One of those came off Max Scherzer, a game-tying home run in the seventh inning of a Game 2 the Rangers would eventually win in 11 innings. That home run came on a 1-2 fastball, lined out to left field.

Now, Scherzer faced Cruz in the bottom of the first with two outs, after he had just gotten Adam Jones on a 6-4-3 double play after the first batters had reached. Jones had swung at the first pitch and maybe Scherzer figured Cruz would take a pitch. He didn't, unleashing that quick, powerful stroke on a 94 mph fastball over the plate and drilling it out to right field for a quick 2-0 lead.

In 35 career postseason games, Cruz now has 15 home runs, tied with Babe Ruth for 10th on the all-time list (yes, Ruth didn't have multiple rounds to accumulate his home runs, although he had 167 plate appearances while Cruz hit his 15th in his 138th career PA).

Anyway, Cruz got off to that monster start in the regular season, with 20 home runs through May. He then hit .214 with 15 home runs from June through August before heating up again in September, with a .349 average and five home runs. Cruz's power hasn't been a product of Camden Yards -- he hit 15 home runs at home and 25 on the road -- and if he keeps his hot bat going the Tigers may end up with a sense of déjà vu.

5. Orioles add insurance as Detroit's flaws exposed.

By that, I mean defense and relief pitching. First, with a runner on, Ausmus pulled Scherzer after 98 pitches and a runner on in the eighth.

Then shortstop Andrew Romine, in there because his glove is better than Eugenio Suarez's, made an error, with Alejandro De Aza scoring from second thanks to an aggressive send by third-base coach Bobby Dickerson (White Sox fans tweeted about De Aza often getting thrown out on the bases, but I have to think Dickerson waved him home here).

Then some more hits off Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria and suddenly it was a blowout and the confidence in Detroit's bullpen for the rest of the series takes a hit. There may be some talk about the bullpen's performance in the eighth inning, but the Orioles still scored five runs off Scherzer. That's the bigger story of the night.




In this age of parity, no team enters the postseason without at least one significant flaw. Let's look at the four American League teams and how their flaws may affect their postseason run.

Baltimore Orioles: Low OBP

The Orioles led the AL in home runs but ranked just 11th in the league in on-base percentage. In other words, they rely on home runs to generate a large percentage of their offense.

You would assume that the rate of home runs goes down in the postseason as teams face better pitching. While that's been true the past two postseasons, it's not always the case:

2013 regular season: HR every 35.6 at-bats
2013 postseason: HR every 45.3 at-bats

2012 regular season: HR every 33.5 at-bats
2012 postseason: HR every 41.4 at-bats

2011 regular season: HR every 36.4 at-bats
2011 postseason: HR every 26.9 at-bats

2010 regular season: HR every 35.8 at-bats
2010 postseason: HR every 36.4 at-bats

2009 regular season: HR every 32.9 at-bats
2009 postseason: HR every 32.2 at-bats

The bigger problem facing the Orioles: The Angels, Royals and Tigers were the three best teams in the AL at preventing home runs (in the case of the Angels and Royals, in part due to the parks they play in). For the Tigers, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello each gave up 18 home runs in over 200 innings, not an excessive total. The most interesting matchup will be David Price, who allowed five home runs in his 11 starts with Detroit but 25 overall. He loves to pound the strike zone, but you wonder if he will look to expand it a bit against an Orioles team that doesn't draw many walks.

Remember, the Orioles reached the 2012 postseason with a similar type of offense -- that team hit 214 home runs and had a .311 OBP while this team hit 211 home runs with a .311 OBP -- and hit just .187 in a division series loss to the Yankees, hitting just three home runs and drawing only eight walks. Adam Jones went 2-for-23 in that series with six K's and zero walks, and he walked even less this season than two years ago.

Detroit Tigers: Defense

Yes, the bullpen is a potential liability; Mike Petriello outlined the problems with Joe Nathan & Co. the other day on ESPN Insider, although Anibal Sanchez could prove to be a viable weapon.

Aside from that, Detroit's defense is another issue. The Tigers ranked 28th in the majors in defensive runs saved at minus-65 runs. The biggest problem has been the lack of range of third baseman Nick Castellanos and the aging Torii Hunter in right field. Rajai Davis has also not graded out well in either left field or center field, despite his speed. He is actually a question mark for the division series due to a strained pelvic ligament suffered Saturday, although he is on the roster. If he can't go, Ezequiel Carrera is the likely starter in center.

Another possible issue if they end up meeting the Royals in the ALCS: The Tigers allowed the most stolen bases in the AL -- although they had the third-best caught stealing rate. Nathan is a huge liability here, allowing 10 steals, while none of the starters allowed more than 13.

Los Angeles Angels: Starting rotation

The Angels' finished sixth in the AL in rotation ERA -- ahead of the much-vaunted Detroit rotation -- but that includes the superlative season from Garrett Richards, who went down in late August with an ankle injury. Here's an interesting catch, however: The Angels had a 3.72 rotation ERA when Richards went down and 3.21 after. Much of that was due to the emergence of rookie Matt Shoemaker, who had a 1.13 ERA in six starts after Richards was injured. Shoemaker, however, missed the final two weeks of the regular season with a rib-cage injury. The Angels have him scheduled to start Game 2 of the series, with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson in Games 1 and 3.

The rotation is thin after those three. The Angels could bring back Weaver on three days' rest for Game 4, with Shoemaker going on regular rest in Game 5, so the division series setup with its two off days will help the Angels. Considering the depth of their bullpen, they won't expect the starters to go deep anyway. Still, with Shoemaker's health and Wilson's control as possible issues, the Angels may have to rely on their league-best offense to outscore their opponent.

Kansas City Royals: Lack of power

And you thought I was going to say Ned Yost! The Royals hit just 95 home runs, not only last in the American League but last in the majors. On the other hand, the Cardinals were 27th in the majors in 2013 (125 home runs) and reached the World Series and the Giants (103 home runs) were last in 2012 and won the World Series.

Still, for the Royals to win, they are going to have to hit some home runs or receive extraordinary pitching. The Cardinals hit six home runs in five games in beating the Pirates in last year's division series and then held the Dodgers to 13 runs in six games in the NLCS. But they hit just two home runs in the World Series and went down in six games. In 2012, the Giants hit 14 home runs in 16 playoff games (outhomering their opponents), so they picked up the pace.

Maybe the Royals can scratch and claw their way to enough offense, but they are not going to steal seven bases every game. To advance past the Angels, they are going to need a few big pops. Yost will presumably keep the same lineup he's used his past nine games, with Alcides Escobar, Norichika Aoki and Lorenzo Cain hitting 1-2-3. Those three combined for nine home runs all season. Meanwhile, his two leading home run hitters -- Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez -- have been batting sixth and seventh (and both struggled in September).

Tigers pull it off, like you knew they would

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
7:55
PM ET
You can sort of feel sorry for the Detroit Tigers, even as they clinched their fourth straight AL Central title, because this one might have been their hardest-fought yet. But for all the expectations, they’ve never truly had it easy.

That’s because while every one of those four titles were expected and predicted, the last three involved the Tigers fending off late challenges: From the White Sox in 2012 (the two were tied on September 25), the Indians in 2013 (the Tribe had to win 10 straight to finish one back, but Detroit’s 13-13 September stumble made that matter), and now the Royals. After this past month, just barely overtaking Kansas City two weeks ago and then having them nipping at Detroit’s heels ever since, there’s something understandably desperate about celebrating a four-game series split against the Twins to clinch.

Feel sorry for them? Sure, if only because nobody gives you a gold star for winning when you were expected to. But it would have been easy to blow any of those opportunities, but the Tigers did not, and in each of the last three years, they’ve advanced at least as far as the ALCS.

[+] EnlargeDetroit Tigers
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMax Scherzer and the Tigers celebrated winning the AL Central.
The Tigers can easily suck you into a “glass half-empty or half-full?” debate. Consider this checklist of disappointments: If you knew in March that they’d have to deal with may be Justin Verlander’s worst season (according to ERA+, second-worst per FIP), that Anibal Sanchez would get hurt, that Joe Nathan would not solve their closer questions but perpetuate them like Jose Valverde had never left, and that Rajai Davis and J.D. Martinez would log regular playing time in their outfield, you’d be forgiven (then) if you thought they’d be lucky to win the division.

But the Tigers did win again. And they weren’t lucky. Certainly not if you use their extrapolated record from runs scored and allowed, which suggest this was supposed to be an 85-win team, not when they did what you’re supposed to do in one-run games, splitting those 23-20. Their 13-6 record head-to-head against the Royals didn’t just decide the division, it was also their best mark against any AL Central foe.

Explaining their win goes towards crediting them for their strengths, which are easy to take for granted. Even after dealing Doug Fister and with Sanchez’s injury and Verlander’s struggles, they nevertheless finished third in the AL in quality starts. They did that because of Max Scherzer delivering another excellent season, Rick Porcello finally did come into his own, and because GM Dave Dombrowski took this team’s present-day possibilities seriously enough to trade for David Price. And they had the benefit of having stable producers in the lineup like Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter, guys as notable for their durability as the productivity.

If you want to talk about luck and the Tigers, you might put that on the Martinezes. There was no reasonable way you could anticipate that Victor Martinez would have the best year of his career, or that J.D. Martinez would be the waiver-wire find of the season. But even there, I’d suggest luck was the residue of design: Standing by their multi-year commitment to V-Mart through injury and recovery generated the opportunity to reap the benefit of this season. And because the Tigers didn’t have a big-money solution already in place in left field, they were free to take a chance on an Astros discard and discover his entirely remade swing was totally worth taking that flyer, because there was no chance they’d have found a guy who could slug .553 this year on the free agent market, as J.D. Martinez just did.

So now that the regular season is done and the Tigers don’t have to sweat the one-night terror of the wild-card play-in game, you might still be wondering what they’re capable of doing. A strong rotation, stable lineup assets, power ... those are the things that usually serve you as well in a short series as they do over a six-month season. But there’s still that bullpen to worry about. Nathan might be the most frightening presumed closer on a postseason team since Brad Lidge just a few years back, or Mitch Williams in 1989 and 1993. Lidge had the last laugh; “Wild Thing,” not so much. Add in how badly Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke have done in set-up roles (allowing more than 36 percent of inherited runners to score), and you can’t hope Joakim Soria solves all of their relief problems simultaneously.

The easy escape is to say that we’ll see what happens, that this is why they play the games. Maybe Brad Ausmus shows us something with his in-game and in-series problem-solving skills as manager. Maybe Nathan finds redemption, as Lidge did. Maybe this lineup cranks out enough runs that a return to the ALCS or the World Series doesn’t rely on sweating the small stuff. But if there’s a lesson to this particular Tigers season, it’s that you can count on them to punch that ticket themselves, and not rely on luck to get them there.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Jose Altuve told the Houston Astros he wants to start Sunday's finale rather than sit to preserve his lead in the batting race over Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers.

Altuve enters the day hitting .340, and Martinez is at .337. If Altuve didn't play, Martinez would have to go 3-for-3 to pass Altuve, giving him a .3407 average compared with Altuve's .3399. If he plays the whole game, Altuve risks lowering his average and giving Martinez a better chance to catch him. Of course, if Altuve goes 1-for-1 and then sits down, then Martinez has to go 4-for-4 to catch him.

That's what Jose Reyes did back in 2011 when he won the NL batting title with the Mets with a .337 average. Reyes reached on a bunt single in his first at-bat and then pulled himself from the game, to much criticism. Ryan Braun needed to go 3-for-4 to pass him (he didn't and finished at .332).

But Reyes was hardly unusual in his decision. Bill Mueller of the Red Sox sat on the final day of the 2003 season, pinch-hitting in the eighth inning, and finished at .326, one point ahead of teammate Manny Ramirez (who also sat that day, so it could have been a manager's decision with the Red Sox heading to the postseason) and two points ahead of Derek Jeter, who went 0-for-3. Bernie Williams of the Yankees left the 1998 finale after six innings and a 2-for-2 performance that gave him a .339-to-.337 edge over Mo Vaughn.

One of the most famous "sits" occurred in 1976. Ken Griffey Sr. of the Reds entered the day leading the NL race with a .338 mark, while Bill Madlock -- a guy who obsessed over batting titles (he would win four) -- was hitting .333. With a seemingly safe lead, Griffey was on the bench in Cincinnati when the game began. Sparky Anderson originally had Griffey's name in the lineup, but several teammates urged Griffey to sit. So he did. When asked about the decision, Anderson replied, "Is this for print? Because I have two different ways to answer that."

But in Chicago, Madlock would go 4-for-4 to raise his average to .339 (he was pinch-hit for in the eighth inning). Seeing what had happened in Chicago, Griffey finally entered the game in the seventh but would go 0-for-2 and finish at .337.

Bill James once wrote of Madlock, "Sometimes it seemed like all he cared about was winning the batting title. The last month of the season, if he was in the hunt for a title, the guys in the press box used to run a poll to see who could pick the days that Madlock's hamstring would keep him out of the lineup."

Madlock's last title came in 1983, when he hit .323 for the Pirates, while Lonnie Smith of the Cardinals hit .321. Check out Madlock's final week:

Game 157: Played the entire game
Game 158: Started, played three innings
Game 159: Started, played four innings
Game 160: Started, played four innings
Game 161: Started, played one inning
Game 162: Didn't play

Seems a little weird, doesn't it? Madlock did tear a tendon in his calf muscle in early September and missed some time, and it was clearly an issue all month. But why did he keep trying to play? By then he had accumulated enough plate appearances to qualify for the title (he finished with 530). Maybe he knew of his reputation and didn't want the perception that he was sitting on his lead. Smith made a late run -- he was hitting .314 with a week left in the season -- and went 2-for-4 on the final day to fall just short.

An incident similar to the Griffey-Madlock episode occurred in 1982, when the Royals' Willie Wilson led the Brewers' Robin Yount .332 to .328 on the final day. The Royals were at home, but the Brewers were in Baltimore (needing a win to beat the Orioles for the AL East title), and Yount went three for his first four (two home runs and a triple!) to raise his average to .331 and lead the Brewers to a big win. By then, the game in Kansas City had started with Wilson on the bench. The Royals called Baltimore to keep track of Yount's progress. With Yount possibly getting one more at-bat, the Royals stalled their game to see if Wilson would need to enter. Yount was hit by a pitch in the ninth. Wilson sat and the batting title was his.

In 1986, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly were in a tight race down the stretch, with Boggs leading by four points with six games to go. The Miami Herald reported, "Though the Red Sox have clinched the AL East title, Boggs, 28, says he intends to play every remaining game."

He didn't. He missed the final five games with a hamstring injury. The Red Sox and Yankees played each other the final series, and by the final day, Mattingly had to go 6-for-6 to catch Boggs. "What if I go 5-for-5. Will they pitch to me the sixth time?" Mattingly asked. He went 2-for-5, and Boggs had the title. He was back in the Boston lineup for the ALCS.

These episodes don't even touch on some of the other controversial batting races. Most notably, 1910 between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, when Lajoie caught Cobb by going 8-for-8 -- including several bunt hits -- in a season-ending doubleheader against the Browns, who basically kept their third baseman way back to allow the hits out of spite for Cobb. Then there was 1976, when Royals teammates George Brett and Hal McRae were dueling for the title. It came down to the final inning, and Brett needed a hit to pass McRae (who was on deck). Brett's fly ball fell in front of Twins left fielder Steve Brye and turned into an inside-the-park home run. McRae grounded out, made two obscene gestures to the Twins dugout and had to be restrained from going after Twins manager Gene Mauch after the game, accusing Brye and the Twins of letting Brett's ball drop on purpose. (More on that whole episode here.)

Anyway, it's nice to see Altuve electing to play the finale. Or at least start it. Now, if he goes 1-for-1 and then sits ... well, it won't be the first controversial batting title. [Postscript: He didn't come out, had two hits in his first three at-bats, so yeah, this is awesome.]

The implications of Game No. 162

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
2:30
AM ET

We began Saturday with six teams playing for something: Trying to win a division title, trying stay alive for a division title, trying to clinch a wild card, or, in the case of the Seattle Mariners, just trying to keep alive the faintest of hopes that the final game of the regular season on Sunday might mean something.

It will. After the Texas Rangers held on to defeat the Oakland Athletics 5-4, the Mariners needed a win against the Angels to avoid elimination. They tied the game 1-1 in the seventh and had a runner on third with one but couldn’t score. They loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth and couldn’t score. They got a leadoff single in the 10th but couldn’t score. In the 11th, Brad Miller doubled with one out and Chris Taylor blooped a single to center, but Miller had to hold up and didn’t score, even after center fielder Tony Campana bobbled the ball. The Mariners had just one walk-off win on the season -- every other team has at least four -- and it looked like Miller’s hesitation might haunt the Mariners.

With five infielders in for the Angels, Austin Jackson -- who failed to come through in the seventh and ninth, bounced a two-hopper to second baseman Grant
Green, who paused briefly before finally deciding to turn two instead of throwing home. The flip was slow and Jackson beat the relay. That led to my favorite moment of a strange day of baseball, when none of our other five teams had won: Felix Hernandez, celebrating on the field with his teammates, his hat off, his hair looking like he just crawled out of bed, with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face.

You see, Felix is going to start on Sunday. It will be the most important start of his career, a chance for redemption after he lost his last in Toronto with his worst outing of the season.

Felix is the biggest winner of the day. Here are some other winners and losers as we set up Sunday’s slate of action when, once again, we’ll have six games that mean something.

Loser: The Oakland A’s. They have to be feeling the pressure now, don’t they? A little bit? After owning the best record in the majors at the All-Star break they’ve now lost 20 of 29 games and have to win Game No. 162 to clinch a wild card. They’ll send Sonny Gray to the mound against Nick Martinez of the Rangers, so they have the starting pitcher advantage on paper. But the Rangers have now beaten them five out of six times this month.

Winner: Josh Donaldson. He hurt his ankle Friday and despite looking a little hobbled went 3-for-4 with a home run in Saturday’s losing effort.

Winner: David Price. He’ll get the chance to show everyone why the Tigers acquired him. Throw a gem on Sunday and those rocky outings will be forgotten. Win and the Tigers clinch the AL Central. Lose and the Royals will have opportunity to tie with a win of their own.

Winner: The Kansas City Royals. They’re still alive and they have a good matchup with Yordano Ventura going against Chris Bassitt in a battle of rookies. Ventura has allowed more than three runs just once in his past 10 starts and has a 2.08 ERA and .195 average allowed over that span.

Winner: The Minnesota Twins, for being a thorn in the side all season to the Tigers. They’re 10-8 against Detroit and have averaged over six runs per game, including outbursts of 20, 12 twice and 11. In other words, it’s no guarantee that Price shuts them down.

Loser: Clint Hurdle. The Pirates manager faces a tough decision. Do you start Gerrit Cole as scheduled on Sunday, knowing the Cardinals will be starting 20-game winner Adam Wainwright later in the day in Arizona, and thus eliminate Cole as a possible starter in Wednesday’s wild-card game?

While winning the division is important, think of all that has to go right for the Pirates for that to happen: You have to beat Johnny Cueto, who is going for his 20th win; you have to hope the Diamondbacks somehow beat Wainwright; then you have to beat the Cardinals on Monday with Jeff Locke starting.

Hurdle didn’t make an announcement on Saturday, since the Pirates played in the afternoon before the Cardinals result was in. But I have to think he’ll scratch Cole to line up the guy generally considered the No. 1 or 2 guy on the Pittsburgh staff (behind or ahead of Francisco Liriano) in the wild-card game. Put it this way: You’re probably more likely to beat the Reds without Cole than you are to beat the Giants with Edinson Volquez.

Loser: Liriano. He’s supposed to be the Pirates’ ace, but he walked five in five innings against a Reds lineup that didn’t exactly resembled the ’75 Big Red Machine. That’s 14 walks for Liriano in his past three games; he avoided damage his past two starts but the walks haunted him on Saturday. No matter what happens to the Pirates in the division race, if they reach the Division Series, Liriano would be the guy to start Game 1. He needs to rediscover the strike zone if the Pirates advance that far.

Winner: The Giants. If Cole ends up starting on Sunday.

Potential loser: The St. Louis Cardinals, if they blow Sunday’s game and the Pirates win. Luckily, they do have Wainwright going, but if they have to play a tiebreaker game on Monday, neither of their top two starters will be available since Lance Lynn pitched Saturday. And neither would presumably be available for the wild-card game on Wednesday if they lose on Monday.

Winner: Bud Selig. Isn’t this what Bud dreamed of with the wild card and then the second wild card? Teams battling to the final day to win division titles, more teams with meaningful games down the stretch, small-market teams like the Pirates and Royals in the playoffs. You can debate the merits of calling the wild-card game a postseason game, and two of these teams we’ve been paying so much attention to lately will be gone from the playoffs after a few hours of baseball, but there’s no denying Selig’s version has made September baseball more interesting.

Winner: The fans in Arizona and Texas. Their teams entered the night with the worst records in baseball but give them credit for creating playoff atmospheres in those parks. They haven’t had much to cheer about but it was nice to see them on their feet in the ninth, cheering like it was the Diamondbacks and Rangers playing for a division title or wild card.

Winner: Sunday baseball. We could have had no meaningful baseball on Sunday, instead of six games with potential playoff implications.

Potential winner: Monday baseball. If the Pirates win, Cardinals lose, Royals win, Tigers lose, Mariners win and A’s lose, we get three Game No. 163s. We can dream, can’t we?

SPONSORED HEADLINES