Make it three in a row for the Detroit Tigers.
With a little help from American League Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer, the Tigers topped the Minnesota Twins 1-0 on Wednesday night to run their magic number to win the AL Central to zero. So...it's theirs. Again.
But another division title isn't what this Tigers team is really after. After falling short in 2006, 2011 and 2012, what this team wants is the organization's first World Series title since 1984.
Making that goal into a reality isn't as complicated for these Tigers as it is for other contenders. This is a good team. A really good team. Better than the 2012 Tigers for sure, and better than the 2011 Tigers too. Their starting pitching and offense are both elite, and the bullpen is headed by a journeyman in Joaquin Benoit who's turned out to be a terrific closer.
So the checklist standing between the Tigers and World Series glory is a short one—I figured things like "score runs," "prevent runs" and "win games" could be excluded. Here are four things the Tigers need to accomplish to achieve their first World Series title in nearly 30 years.
4. Get Bruce Rondon Healthy
OK, so Bruce Rondon isn't the shutdown closer he was being teased as during spring training. The Tigers gave him his shots, but it just didn't happen.
But for anyone who hasn't been paying attention to more recent affairs, Rondon has carved out a niche for himself since the start of August.
Here are the numbers for Rondon's last 15 appearances: 14.2 innings, 11 hits, six walks, two earned runs and 18 strikeouts. That's a 1.23 ERA and a 3.0 K/BB for those scoring at home.
Pretty good stuff, but there's a reason Rondon only has 15 appearances in the last two months. He's been hurt.
Rondon was sidelined with a bad elbow from September 2 to September 24. He returned to strike out the side against the Twins on only 10 pitches on Tuesday night, but his elbow hasn't responded like the Tigers had hoped.
According to Jason Beck of MLB.com, the reliever was feeling more elbow discomfort on Wednesday. It sounds like he's day-to-day now, but Tigers skipper Jim Leyland remarked that the situation was: "Not good."
Indeed. There's nothing wrong with having Benoit pitch in the ninth inning, but the bridge to him isn't very strong. It's not going to get any stronger if Rondon is unable to pitch in the postseason, as he's precisely the kind of guy who could be an eighth-inning weapon in October. He has the triple-digit heat to blow hitters away, and walks haven't been much of a problem for him since things started to click in early August.
Granted, there's not a whole lot the Tigers can do short of resting Rondon and seeing how his elbow responds.
I'll also grant that it's not necessarily a deal-breaker if Rondon isn't there in October. A weak bullpen didn't keep the Tigers from the World Series in 2012. Their excellent starting pitching lessened the need for strong relief pitching. They still have excellent starting pitching, and their improved offense can only lessen the need for a good bullpen even more. They can get there without Rondon.
But winning the World Series? That will be a lot easier with him healthy and available.
3. Get Jhonny Peralta Up to Speed in Left Field
The Tigers will soon be welcoming back a familiar face.
Jason Mastrodonato of MLB.com reported on Wednesday that the Tigers are poised to activate Jhonny Peralta, who was suspended for 50 games in August for his connections to Biogenesis, on Thursday. That will give the Tigers three games to see what Peralta can do.
...In left field.
The Tigers don't need Peralta at shortstop, his natural position, with Jose Iglesias and his outstanding glove holding it down in October. But they could certainly use his offensive production, and his offensive production would be most welcome out in left field.
Detroit has been using a platoon of players in left field all season long. The platoon was stable in the first half, but Tigers left fielders have only posted a .644 OPS in the second half, according to FanGraphs. Only a three teams have had worse production from left field.
Peralta had an .822 OPS at the time he was suspended. My knowledge of the maths says that's better than .644. Ergo, the Tigers would be a lot better off if they had the best of both worlds: Iglesias' glove at short, and Peralta's bat in left field. I also tip my hat to John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, who pointed out that Victor Martinez could use Peralta's protection in the lineup, as he's been getting a lot of free passes in Peralta's absence.
But can Peralta handle himself in left field?
That's a question without a definitive answer. Peralta has never played left field in the majors, and he was barely able to get his feet wet at the position in limited action with the Tigers' instructional league squad.
If Peralta shows himself to be a competent left fielder in the few games the Tigers have left, he could be a huge postseason X-Factor. But if he ends up looking like, well, this, then the Tigers may have to be content to carry him as a pinch-hitter on their postseason roster, if at all.
Detroit has enough offensive firepower to get by without Peralta's bat among their starting nine in October. They've been doing so for several weeks already. Like with Rondon, they won't necessarily be barred from the World Series if Peralta proves to be unable to help them.
But also like Rondon, winning the World Series will be a lot easier with Peralta's bat than without it.
2. It Needs to Be Scherzer-Sanchez, Not Scherzer-Verlander
Scherzer pitched seven innings of two-hit, shutout ball on Wednesday night. Here's hoping you got a good look at him, because you won't be seeing him again until Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
Yeah, I'd say he's earned that right. His 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, .198 BAA and 4.29 K/BB ratio suggest as much anyway.
The really intriguing question is how Leyland is going to line up his postseason rotation after Scherzer. There's a way he should do it, and there's the way he could do it.
The latter involves him trusting Justin Verlander's track record and making him the Game 2 starter after Scherzer. If that's what Leyland does, he'll be making a mistake.
Anibal Sanchez should be the guy to follow Scherzer. Sanchez doesn't have Verlander's track record, nor is he Verlander's equal in terms of his innings count in 2013. But in every other respect, Sanchez has had a superior season.
Some key numbers, courtesy of FanGraphs:
These numbers leave zero doubt about who's been the more dominant pitcher in 2013. It's Sanchez, who has been pitching like an elite starter all season long.
Verlander's not having a bad season, mind you. His 4.8 fWAR actually ties him with Cliff Lee for ninth among qualified starters, so he's still technically one of the game's elites even though he has been up and down all season long. It's just that Scherzer and Sanchez really have been that good, so why break them up with an up-and-down guy if it can be avoided?
I feel like this should be a no-brainer, but it might not be for Leyland. He's an old-school kind of guy, so he may very well be tempted to go with the old warhorse over Sanchez.
Don't do it, Jim. Don't do it. To win the World Series, you need to trust Sanchez.
1. For the Love of All That Is Good, Get Miguel Cabrera Some Rest
Everyone knew this was coming, right?
I'd like to pause for a moment to list the various injuries Miguel Cabrera has been battling over the last few months, as compiled by Baseball Prospectus: low back tightness (x2), left hip strain, abdomen strain (x3) and left groin strain.
For a guy who was previously one of the most durable players in MLB, Miggy has gone through an awful lot of pain in a relatively short amount of time. It's cost him some games, and recently it's been hurting his production.
Cabrera went into Wednesday night's action hitting .271/.400/.329 with one homer in his last 22 games. He added another 0-for-4 to the pile against the Twins, so the funk he's in went unsnapped.
The Tigers only have three games left, and those three games are against the lowly Miami Marlins. Also, Miggy's pursuit of a second straight Triple Crown season died ages ago (or what feels like ages ago).
Point being: now's the time to give Cabrera his rest. He's earned it, and goodness knows he needs it. The Tigers need him as close to 100 percent as possible for the postseason.
This is the biggest potential deal-breaker of them all. The Tigers' odds of winning the World Series won't drop to zero if they don't have Rondon in their bullpen, Peralta in their starting nine or Scherzer and Sanchez leading the charge in their rotation.
But if Miggy isn't Miggy...
Well, good luck.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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