In light of trade deadline moves, are the Tigers built for a postseason run?

Max Scherzer (2013), David Price (2012), and Justin Verlander (2011) have won the last three American League Cy Young Awards.

Max Scherzer (2013), David Price (2012), and Justin Verlander (2011) have won the last three American League Cy Young Awards.

With the addition of David Price, the 2014 Detroit Tigers are the first team in history to have the most recent three Cy Young award winners in their rotation (not to mention the MVP of the last two seasons).

Dave Dombrowski is hell bent on winning the World Series this year, and his blockbuster trade for Price was designed to put his team over the top. Detroit is banking heavily on its excellent starting rotation and the “best hitter on the planet.” But individual awards don’t necessarily translate into team trophies. And the World Series winners of recent years have had a very different makeup than the current Tigers.

Last year’s Boston Red Sox were essentially the same group of players that have fallen into last place this season, but everyone had solid years. The Red Sox had an OPS+ of 111 at every position except third base (where Will Middlebrooks had an 88). They had a very good bullpen with a closer who by some measures had the best season by a reliever in MLB history. Their starting rotation, however, included mediocrities like Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster.

The previous year, the San Francisco Giants swept the Tigers in the World Series. They got there with a spectacular MVP season from catcher Buster Posey, five of eight field positions manned by over 100 OPS+ players, and a solid bullpen—but only one dominant starter, Matt Cain.

The 2011 champion St. Louis Cardinals won with a similar profile: six of eight positions that had players with 100+ OPS, two bullpen aces—but a starting rotation featuring no one who had more than a 109 ERA+. (For both OPS+ and ERA+, 100 is league average.) The 2010 Giants were similar to the 2012 Giants, but with a better starting rotation. The 2009 New York Yankees had Mariano Rivera…

You can keep going back, but you get the picture. All recent World Series champions have had two features in common: (1) a strong bullpen and (2) solid production from at least five—and usually six or more—positions on the field. Their starting rotations, however, were all vastly inferior to this year’s Tigers.

Detroit has a very productive DH and first baseman and an out-of-this world two months from J.D. Martinez. But the Tigers have average or below-average production at catcher and from the two rookies on the left side of the infield. Second base and the outfielders besides J.D. have OPS+ numbers around 110. And with the deletion of Austin Jackson, the outfield is now terrible on defense all around. Most importantly, the bullpen has been leakier than a sieve all season. The addition of Joakim Soria seemed like a good move to shore up that weakness, but when he went down with an injury it nixed that notion. The Tigers have now been forced to call up Jim Johnson, a 31-year old reliever who saved 50 games in both 20113 for the Baltimore Orioles, but who was released earlier this year by the Oakland A’s after posting an astronomical 7.14 ERA.

Is this the kind of team that could win it all? Many will say the Tigers’ excellent rotation and decent offense will carry them through. Even with Justin Verlander’s recent sore shoulder Detroit has an incredibly good starting five—but with the way the playoffs are scheduled, you only need four.

With the Tigers likely facing versatile teams with solid pitching in the post-season (Oakland and the Los Angeles Dodgers?), you can envision a lot of low-scoring close games. The Tigers don’t have the kind of offense to blow away teams with good pitching—at least not very often. They don’t have a very good defense, which is crucial in close games. And the importance of the bullpen can’t be overstated.

Although Dombrowski says his 2014 trades were meant to put the team in position to win it all, its result—a team with a tremendous starting rotation but a weak defense and spotty offense—actually correlates more into season-long success than post-season prowess. They’ll need Price and Max Scherzer and rick Porcello (the healthiest of the starting five) to survive what looks like a battle for division crown or even a wild card spot in the American League.

Some creative thinking is needed to navigate the playoffs by maximizing the teams’ greatest asset. Two strategies are possible: send a starter to the bullpen (if so, it will probably be Porcello again, but I would nominate Verlander, who could go all-out for a couple innings, or Price, to put a reliable lefty arm in the pen). Or: Use all your starters in relief roles as needed; pitch all five on long rest, six to eight days’ worth, and then use them in relief on between-starts days. This would require a lot of adept managing and versatility from your staff—but in October, does it matter if arms are tired after the World Series is over?

If you did something like that, you should replace a couple of useless middle relievers with some more useful bench players to pinch-hit and pinch-run. One thing for sure: I don’t want to see Phil Coke in the deciding game of a playoff series ever again. Nor do I want to see the inconsistent and fan-hating Joe Nathan trotting in from the bullpen to try to close a World Series game.