- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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"You're talking about two guys who can carry a team," said one scout. "Just lethal. And from each side of the plate."
Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hitting back to back? It's also quite a spectacle. We're not talking about two Breeders Cup jockeys here, you know.
"You might have to move them to Ford Field," quipped one NL executive, "and have them play for the Lions."
But girth aside, the bottom line is this: No matter what you think of the money the Tigers shelled out for Prince Fielder, no matter how messy the defensive ramifications might turn out to be, there is now no question -- none -- that the Tigers have the best No. 3-4 hitters in baseball.
"As you look at all the 3-4 hitters out there, they just went right to the top of the chart," said one exec, "because they give you the bat AND the power."
"They're better than [Ryan] Braun and Fielder were in Milwaukee," said one scout, "because Cabrera is better than either Braun or Fielder. For me, he's the best hitter in the game -- including [Albert] Pujols."
We don't know yet what kind of impact Comerica Park is going to have on Fielder's boppage from the left side. So for the moment, as we contemplate the damage he and Cabrera might inflict together, let's just keep this simple and deal with what we do know.
Prince had a .981 OPS last year. Cabrera had a 1.029 OPS. If they were to duplicate or better those numbers in 2012, here's what that would mean:
• Over the past five seasons, you'll find only one set of teammates in which both men qualified for the batting title and had an OPS over .980. Prince is eminently familiar with that duo -- since he formed half of it last season in Milwaukee. Braun (.994) made up the other half.
• Now check out the slash lines of these two men. Cabrera hit .344/.448/.586 last year. Fielder was at .299/.415/.566. To find the last set of teammates in which each hitter had a batting average of .299 or higher, an on-base percentage in the .400s, a slugging percentage of .550 or better and an OPS of .980 or more, you have to travel back a decade to Larry Walker (.338/.421/.602/1.023) and Todd Helton (.329/.429/.577/1.006), who we can't help but mention were aided by the invention of mile-high baseball in Colorado.
• So to locate the last set of teammates to do that at sea level, now we're heading back to the 2000 season, when Barry Bonds/Jeff Kent (Giants), Alex Rodriguez/Edgar Martinez (Mariners) and Jeff Bagwell/Moises Alou (Astros) all pulled it off, in the thick of the monster-numbers era. And if we have to time-travel that deep into the memory-bank annals, you know we're talking about a duo with a chance to be something special.
Maybe Fielder and Cabrera are about to wedge their way into that group. Maybe they won't. Regardless, we're still placing them first on our list of the best 3-4 middle-of-the-lineup tag teams in the sport. Now just for fun, here's how we'd rank the rest of the field (with the asterisk that we still don't know for sure exactly how all these teams will line up in the 3-4 holes):
2. Robinson Cano/Alex Rodriguez (Yankees)
If A-Rod were still in his prime, we might even place this twosome ahead of Cabrera and Prince. But that's an "if" larger than Mount Kilimanjaro. A-Rod turns 37 in July, with a degenerative hip all his own, and he's had a sub-.850 OPS in back-to-back seasons. So who knows -- it's possible he could even be supplanted in the cleanup slot by Mark Teixeira at some point. Nevertheless, Cano's stature has now grown so immense, he compensates for all of A-Rod's glitches. He's a shooting star who appears ready to ascend to the Yankees' exalted No. 3 hole, because, simply put, he has become the most powerful force in one of baseball's scariest lineups. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is saying something. The 3-4 holes in this order also get extra credit, by the way, because they get so much support from all the artillery around them.
3. Carlos Gonzalez/Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies)
Neither of these guys approached their incendiary heights of 2010 last season. And they STILL combined for 56 homers, 124 extra-base hits and an OPS just over .900. They also get to play 81 games a year in Denver, which isn't fair. And at ages 26 and 27, respectively, they're two insane talents who are still on the rise. So we'll nudge them just ahead of the groups to their south. And they could easily whoosh above the combos to their north if everything breaks right.
4. Josh Hamilton/Michael Young (Rangers)
It would be easy to make a case that these two should rank higher on this list. If only we could have any assurance that Hamilton will go all season without visiting his friendly, neighborhood emergency room. If only Young could convince the WAR crowd to love him as much as the crowd in Arlington, Texas. But the "ifs" hover just large enough over this debate that we had to slot this cute couple at No. 4. Still, anytime you can pair a one-time MVP with a guy who just led the league in hits out of the cleanup hole, you're talking about a middle of the order that any team would be thrilled to call its own.
5. Lance Berkman/Matt Holliday (Cardinals)
If we were basing these rankings solely on last year's numbers, the Cardinals would sit at No. 2, not No. 5. Bet you didn't know that no other team besides Detroit will run a 3-4 combo out there this season featuring two guys who had an OPS over .900 last year. Well, Berkman was at .959, with Holliday right behind at .912. So their team would happily sign up for another year of that. What we just can't gauge, though, is what effect the exit of some guy named Pujols will have on the big boppers he left behind. Plus, Berkman is about to turn 36. And Holliday ran into more bizarre maladies last season -- an appendectomy and a moth attack -- than Calvin Ripken Jr. suffered in his entire career. So it's hard to project what this year has in store for either of them. Isn't it?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter @jaysonst.
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