Detroit Tigers: Their 10 Most Important Players for the Postseason Run
With the addition of Prince Fielder, the Tigers came into the 2012 campaign with the highest expectations in team history. Anything less than a division championship would be a monumental disappointment.
Detroit began the year according to plan, winning its first five games, and looked to be in the AL Central driver's seat. But after the first week of the season, the Tigers began to show alarming inconsistencies that would plague them all season.
They have been as many as six games under .500 and six games out of first place. But Detroit quickly clawed (pun intended) its way back and has remained in contention all season.
With 26 games left, the Tigers are 73-63 and one game back of the White Sox. At this point, everyone is important to Detroit's success, but there are a handful of players who the Tigers will count to carry them to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Here are the 10 most important players for the Tigers' run at the postseason.
10. Quintin Berry
There are so many things that Quintin Berry brings to the Tigers on and off the field.
The Tigers took a chance on the 27-year-old rookie, calling him up after he spent over six years in the minors. When Berry made his MLB debut on May 23, he instantly gave Detroit a shot of energy it desperately needed.
Berry opened his career with a six-game hitting streak. In his first 11 games, Berry hit .362 (.423 OBP), with four RBI and six steals.
He led the Tigers in steals after playing just 20 games and made several dazzling plays in the outfield, garnering national attention.
Berry will be a key player down the stretch because of his many tools. He can hit for average, has a little bit of power, can steal bases and is a defensive asset.
Berry doesn't have to start games to make an impact. He can be valuable pinch-hitting or filling in as a defensive replacement.
9. Omar Infante
The Tigers' second basemen were anemic before the arrival of Omar Infante in the trade that sent pitcher Jacob Turner to the Miami Marlins.
His arrival gave the Tigers a legitimate offensive threat at second base. And if the Tigers want to make the playoffs, Infante will need to produce.
The 30-year-old has played 38 games in his second stint with the Tigers and is batting a disappointing .248 with three home runs and 13 RBI.
Although his batting average is much higher than any of the other Tigers second basemen, Infante came to Detroit with a .287 average in 85 games with the Miami Marlins.
Infante has been steady defensively since coming back to Detroit. But he often hits No. 2 in the Tigers' lineup when left-handers are on the mound, so he'll need to pick up the pace and the urgency down the stretch.
8. Jose Valverde
"Papa Grande" was more like "Hermano Poquito" earlier this season.
After finishing last season with a team-record 49 consecutive saves and pitching the entire season without blowing a save, Jose Valverde blew one on opening day this year. So far this season, he has four blown saves with a 3.59 ERA—almost 1.5 points higher than last season.
As bad as his numbers were, he's steadily picked it up lately. The Tigers have won 11 straight games that Valverde has made an appearance, and he hasn't blown a save since July 14.
He finished April with a 5.59 ERA, went into June with a 4.43 mark and has slowly lowered his ERA since.
Every great team has a dominant closer. The Tigers need Valverde to return to the 2011 version of himself to have a shot at baseball in October.
7. Alex Avila
Catcher Alex Avila is the captain of the infield. But so far this season, Avila has been extremely disappointing at the plate.
After batting .295 with a .389 on-base percentage, 19 home runs and 82 RBI in 140 games last season, Avila's numbers have dropped dramatically. He's hitting .243 with seven home runs and 38 RBI in 100 games this year.
Although Avila usually hits in the No. 6 or No. 8 spot in the Tigers' lineup, if he doesn't start producing like he did last season, the Tigers will have a lot of trouble making the playoffs.
Avila was the best offensive catcher in the American League last season, but is among the worst of the AL's everyday catchers in 2012.
The Tigers don't need Avila to be an offensive juggernaut to make the playoffs, but his offensive mediocrity seems to be affecting his performance behind the plate. All of his defensive numbers are down from a year ago, and that's where Avila is most important.
If he can improve his average to at least .260 and perk up his power numbers down the stretch, it would give his confidence and the Tigers a huge lift.
6. Austin Jackson
When he's healthy, Austin Jackson has been the only outfielder to start every day for the Tigers this season.
The Tigers found out how important Jackson is to the team the hard way when the center fielder missed 21 games with an abdomen injury. During Jackson's absence, Detroit went 8-13.
The Tigers welcomed Jackson back after almost a month by winning eight of the first 10 games that he was back in the lineup.
Jackson has sat out only one game since returning in June and is sporting a career-best average of .304 and OBP of .387.
He's also having the best year of his career in the outfield, with only one error in 287 chances, a fielding percentage of .997.
5. Max Scherzer
Max Scherzer was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during the first half of the season. But in the last few months, he has been extremely consistent and has proven himself as the No. 2 pitcher in the Tigers' rotation.
Scherzer has done his best Justin Verlander impression the last month, earning victories in each of his last five starts. Since Aug. 10, the Tigers' right-hander has given up just four earned runs in 35 innings, while striking out 44 batters and walking nine.
On June 23, Scherzer was 6-5 with a 5.12 ERA. Since then, the 28-year-old has gone 9-1, lowered his ERA to 3.93 and now ranks No. 2 in MLB with 204 strikeouts.
Other than Scherzer and Verlander, the Tigers' rotation has been mediocre at best for the majority of the season, putting even more of a premium on the performance of these two.
Scherzer, who leads the team with 15 wins, will need to continue to bring his best stuff and continue to rack up strikeouts for the Tigers to have a good chance at the postseason.
4. Delmon Young
A couple months ago, I, as well as most of Tiger Nation, was calling for the Tigers to trade Delmon Young.
The 26-year-old designated hitter has made general manager Dave Dombrowski look like a smart man for keeping him, tearing the cover off the ball lately. He has .410 average (16-for-39) with four home runs and 12 RBI in his last 11 games.
Going into the Tigers' game against the Los Angeles Angels on August 25, Young had a .265 average with 13 home runs and 49 RBI. Since then, he's raised his average to .277 and now has 17 home runs and 62 RBI.
Young has cemented himself in the No. 5 spot in the lineup and will provide a monumental boost to the Tigers if he can consistently pick up Miguel Cabrera and Fielder, who will be on base more often than not ahead of him.
3. Miguel Cabrera
You can pretty much pencil in at least 30 home runs and 110 RBI for Miguel Cabrera every season. But he still has to go out and get the job done on the field.
And he has.
The Tigers' slugger leads the AL in average (.330), RBI (116), slugging (.595), and is in the top five of the league in doubles, home runs and OBP.
Cabrera has battled injuries and a position change, but is still vying for AL MVP and has a shot at the Triple Crown.
He leads the surging Tigers in almost every major offensive category. He's put off-field issues from the preseason behind and is on the verge of the best season of his 10-year career.
Cabrera is coming off his best month, hitting .357 with eight home runs and 24 RBIs in August, and has been at his best in clutch situations, boasting an incredible .450 average with three home runs and 24 RBI with RISP and two outs this year.
2. Prince Fielder
Cabrera is the MVP contender this season, but Prince Fielder's production is paramount for the Tigers' postseason run.
Fielder has been the MLB iron man the last few seasons, playing in 317 straight games, the longest current streak in baseball.
Fielder is hitting .314 with a .411 on-base percentage, 24 home runs and 94 RBI. He's projected to finish with 29 homers, 112 RBIs and a career-low 78 strikeouts.
The Tigers' first baseman has been important all season, but his production was especially valuable in August. Last month, when Detroit's No. 4 hitter produced, the Tigers won. When he didn't, they lost.
The Tigers lost 11 games in August, and in eight of those losses, Fielder either went hitless or had just one hit. In the Tigers' 16 wins last month, he had multiple hits nine times. In Tigers wins, Fielder is hitting .363. In losses, he's hitting just .258.
Fielder has been especially productive in clutch situations, when the Tigers' offensively challenged team has needed him the most. With runners in scoring position, Fielder is hitting .341. In the seventh inning or later, he's hitting .348 with three home runs and 22 RBI.
1. Justin Verlander
The Tigers won't go anywhere without Verlander at the top of his game. As Verlander goes, so go the Tigers.
The 29-year-old ace has started 28 games and is projected to make six more regular-season starts, every one of which the Tigers need to win.
Verlander has been inconsistent in four of his last eight starts, including giving up eight earned runs on Aug. 28 against the Kansas City Royals. When Verlander doesn't pitch well, the Tigers don't win.
But more often than not, Verlander brings unhittable stuff to the mound. He's proved over and over that he can put this team on his back, even when it is not hitting, and guide it to victory.
Verlander is 13-7 with a 2.73 ERA, a MLB-best 209 strikeouts and just 52 walks. The right-hander is averaging 9.21 strikeouts per nine innings, and the opposition is hitting .212 against him. He has thrown at least seven innings in 18 of his 28 starts and leads the majors in innings pitched.
If Verlander doesn't continue to put up Cy Young-like numbers down the stretch, the Tigers will be in major trouble.