Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A's: Who Is the Team to Beat After Deadline Madness?

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Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A's: Who Is the Team to Beat After Deadline Madness?
USA Today

The American League is the Detroit Tigers' and Oakland Athletics' world. Everyone else is just living in it.

That's how it feels after Thursday's action, anyway.

The Tigers and A's made enormous upgrades to their starting rotations ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The A's picked up ace lefty Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox, and the Tigers acquired 2012 AL Cy Young-winning lefty David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays in a three-team trade.

Thus did the market's two best starters end up with clubs that have met in two straight American League Division Series. After losing both in five games, it's clear after dealing for Lester and their earlier trade for Jeff Samardzija that the A's aim to be ready for the Tigers this time. After picking up Price, however, it's obvious that the Tigers' goal to be able to beat the A's again.

We could just wait for an October rematch to find out which is the better team and, perhaps, the class of the American League. 

But nah. As people of the Internet, we have the option—nay, the obligation—to determine the answer now.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
And now meet Oakland's newest weapon.

At the start of deadline day, the question we're after here really wasn't much of a question.

The A's began Thursday with a 66-41 record and a plus-162 run differential. Never mind the best marks in the AL—both were the best marks in the majors.

The Tigers, meanwhile, began the day at 58-46 and plus-41. Their record was good enough only for fourth in the AL, and their run differential was only good enough for fifth. As such, there was some distance between themselves and the A's in the discussion of the AL's best.

Such is life when you're dealing with one team that's considerably more well-balanced than the other. Behold, via FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus:

Key AL Ranks for A's and Tigers
Runs Scored Starters ERA Bullpen ERA Def. Efficiency
A's 1 1 2 2
Tigers 4 5 14 11

FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus

Based on all this, the Tigers needed to make a big trade if they wanted to bridge the gap behind the A's. After the A's traded for Lester, the Tigers then needed to make a really big trade.

Given his reputation, the Price acquisition feels like such a trade. But if we compare what the A's and Tigers actually gained and lost, it actually doesn't look all that significant.

Using FanGraphs' version of the stat, the A's gained a 4.6-WAR pitcher in dealing for Lester. In dealing for Price, the Tigers gained a 3.9-WAR pitcher. As far as right now is concerned, the A's did better.

It's not just WAR that says so, mind you. Lester's 2.52 ERA dwarfs Price's 3.11. And as hot as Price has been, Lester's been at least as hot. His 1.54 ERA in his last 10 starts is more than a match for Price's 2.05 ERA in the same stretch. 

Then there's the matter of what both clubs gave up. The A's sacrificed Yoenis Cespedes and his 2.3 WAR, while the Tigers said goodbye to Austin Jackson and Drew Smyly. Add Jackson's 1.2 WAR and Smyly's 1.1 WAR together and you get...2.3 WAR. By that measure, it's a push as to which team lost more.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
This is the same Jonny Gomes, of course, who's no stranger to Oakland.

But the Lester deal had other bonuses for the A's. They also received Jonny Gomes and his .875 career OPS against lefties. And because they didn't have to sacrifice any of their pitching depth, they were able to swing Tommy Milone for Sam Fuld.

The A's can now platoon Gomes and Brandon Moss (.820 career OPS against righties) in left field for an offensive combination actually more explosive than what they were getting from Cespedes, and Fuld is a defensive specialist who can step in when games get tight.

As for the Price deal for the Tigers, the loss of Smyly means their rotation didn't get any deeper with him joining the mix. And with Jackson gone, the Tigers don't have a true center fielder.

With Andy Dirks' return from back surgery recently hitting a snag, the Tigers might be forced to platoon Rajai Davis and soon-to-be-called-up left-handed outfielder Ezequiel Carrera in center. Davis hits lefties fine to the tune of an .802 career OPS, but Carrera only has a .664 career OPS against righties.

Further, Chris Iott of MLive.com is right to wonder if either can make up for Jackson's lost defense:

This is not to suggest the Tigers didn't get better in trading for Price. At the least, they're still getting more WAR than they gave up.

They did, however, create a couple of needs when they made the deal for Price. You can't say the same of Oakland's deal for Lester, which created only fixable needs that were addressed immediately. After coming into the day as the AL's strongest team, they still hold that position at the deadline. 

Granted, the Tigers weren't entirely motivated to put a strong team together for the rest of the regular season when they traded for Price. Unlike the A's, they don't have worry about fending off a dangerous Los Angeles Angels squad.

No, Detroit's main goal was really more to get a pitcher who could give it a lethal starting rotation for the postseason. And in this, it succeeded.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Along with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the Tigers now have the last three AL Cy Young winners. More importantly, joining Price with Scherzer gives them two of the 12 best pitchers in MLB as measured by WAR. There's only one other team that can claim to having as many.

And it's not the A's. For all their starting pitching depth, the newly acquired Lester is the only top-12 pitcher they have.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that they won't have the starting pitching to match Detroit's if it does indeed come down to another postseason meeting.

Consider the following:

Likely Postseason Rotations: A's vs. Tigers
A's Pitcher WAR WAR Tigers Pitcher
Jon Lester 4.6 3.9 David Price
Sonny Gray 2.7 3.5 Max Scherzer
Jeff Samardzija 2.5 2.9 Anibal Sanchez
Scott Kazmir 2.5 2.1 Rick Porcello
Total 12.3 12.4 Total

FanGraphs

Note: That's Samardzija's full-season WAR.

No, WAR is not gospel. But if is good for anything, it's highlighting what's arguable. 

In this case, it shows it's arguable Lester would give the A's the advantage in any Game 1 matchup against the Tigers. He may not rival Scherzer or Price in reputation, but he does in performance.

Which, you know, is to say nothing of Lester's postseason track record. That includes a 2.11 ERA in 13 career postseason appearances, a 0.43 World Series ERA and two rings.

As A's shortstop Jed Lowrie put it to MLB.com: "Jon's a bona fide ace who has done it on the biggest stage. That experience, it's an intangible, having that knowledge that you've done it before."

Another thing WAR says is it's arguable the A's would have the advantage in any Game 4 matchup as well and, overall, how it's arguable they could trot out a postseason rotation with enough depth to overcome the top-heaviness of Detroit's playoff rotation.

And this is without even considering the Justin Verlander conundrum. If the Tigers were to trust that his (very real) struggles would go away at the sight of the A's in the postseason, they'd possibly be doing the A's a favor. With a 1.8 WAR to go with his 4.78 ERA, Verlander's not fit for any October rotation.

All told, things would look mighty different if Price had joined Detroit while Lester stayed in Boston on Thursday. The gap between the teams on paper would have been significantly narrowed, and the Tigers would once again be able to threaten the A's with death by starting pitching in the postseason.

But in getting Lester and patching up the needs the trade created, the A's strengthened their standing as the American League's top team rather than compromise it. And with Lester pitching better than ever this year, they lined up a postseason rotation that's a good match for Detroit's, even with Price.

Which, of course, means it's a good match for any postseason rotation they may come across. Already the class of the American League, the A's are now armed for October.

Good luck beating them. That goes for the Tigers and everyone else.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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