In a post-game interview after the Tigers lost 1-0 to Kansas City on Saturday in a game that ended with a spectacular play at the plate, Jim Leyland again insisted: “I will never take Prince out of a game. Or Miggy either if he’s healthy.”
If you already have a red flag, hoist it higher. As we approach the postseason, I dread that once again Detroit will fall short of the world championship that its owner is spending so much to try to get and his players are all dreaming about and striving for.
Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski have assembled a very good team. However, it’s built more solidly for the long haul of the regular season than it is for the playoffs.
I’m one of those old-school types who liked when there was no “postseason” and the best teams in each league simply met in the World Series. Quite obviously, those days are never to return, and now every October is a potential nightmare in Detroit in this current era.
With a strong starting rotation and a bunch of bashers in the lineup, the Tigers are a dominant team over the long season. You can be sure the homers will come, the runs will score, and the pitchers will rack up strikeouts. But if you’re a power pitching and hitting squad, you’re inevitably going to have power outages. There will be days when the lumber short out and those fastballs get turned around by the opposition.
One unintended by-product of the extended postseason is that “small ball” has been reinstated to prominence. Despite the sabermetric proof that bunting and stealing don’t pay off over the long run, we’re not talking the long run in October. We’re talking a series of short series.
And here’s where the worries pile up for Detroit. Take their likely first opponent, Oakland. The As have plenty of bash, but they also have speed and savvy. Coco Crisp is a lot older than Austin Jackson, but he can cover almost as much ground in center field, and he can steal bases. Yoenis Cespedes can do it all. If you look at their lineup, it doesn’t scare you that much. If you look at their starting rotation, it’s obvious the Tigers’ is superior. The As know how to win games, though, using their multiple weapons.
And if they get past the As, the Red Sox loom — another team that is so much better on the field than they look on paper. It’s not an easy path to the World Series, but even if the Tigers navigate it, they will have to face the likes of the Dodgers, or the Cardinals, or the Braves, or the Pirates. Any of these teams could capitalize on the Tigers’ soft spots: that bullpen, the lack of speed on the base paths, the inability to stop the opponents’ running game — it’s not necessary to list them all.
With Iglesias instead of Peralta, the club has become more versatile, and Torii Hunter tends to come up big on the bases, in the outfield, and at the plate when the game is on the line. So the Tigers look a lot stronger than in postseasons of recent years.
But there’s still Leyland’s stubborn refusal to consider options. It’s no wonder the players love him, but Leyland’s job isn’t to make the players happy: it’s to maximize the team’s chances of winning games. And ruling out even the possibility of ever taking Fielder or Cabrera out for a pinch-runner? That’s foolish.
Say it’s game seven of a postseason series, and it ends as the game against Kansas City did. Prince, hustling all he can, sliding as best he can, getting thrown out with the tying run to end the game and the season while faster runners are sitting on the bench. Didn’t that disastrous image flash in your mind last weekend? And wouldn’t every other manager in MLB, or, really, any league, have pinch-run in that situation?
Maybe the Tigers will be lucky and the World Series won’t come down to something like that, where the team’s soft underbelly is shown to the world. On paper and even statistically speaking, the Tigers match up well against anyone, even the Dodgers. But the post-season is a crapshoot, and those managers willing to take risks have an advantage. Those teams who can adapt, who can mix in a little small ball and some daring and inventiveness, have an intangible edge. So, despite their cast of very good, very likeable, and very successful players, I’m not sure I’d bet it all on the Tigers.