As the Detroit Tigers prepare to face the Oakland Athletics in the American League Division Series for the second straight season, there are a few concerns about their chances.
1. The health and effectiveness of Miguel Cabrera: Since just before the All-Star break, Cabrera has been dealing with an abdominal strain/hip flexor injury. The doctors and training staff said that he could not make the injury worse by playing with it, but Cabrera is very limited while running.
“I like the way he’s swinging the bat right now,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said before the team left for Oakland. “I think his timing is back pretty darned good. It’s probably not 100 percent by any means. He’s not 100 percent. He’s been playing in a lot of pain.
“He’s a real tough guy. If I told you everything he’s playing in, you probably wouldn’t believe it, because he’s playing in a lot of pain. So, he’s a trouper. I think he’s swinging the bat good right now. He hit the ball very, very good in Miami. He’ll be ready to go.”
Cabrera, a candidate to repeat as MVP, finished the regular season with a league-leading .348 average, 44 home runs and 137 RBIs.
But after batting .356 with 11 home runs and 31 RBIs in August, Cabrera faded a bit in September. He hit just .278 with one home run and seven RBIs.
Although the five-day break (Cabrera did not play Sunday in Miami) will help, it’s likely that Cabrera needs an extended period of time to heal completely.
Cabrera said Tuesday that he was feeling good and was ready to go.
“That’s what it’s all about, man,” Cabrera said. “It’s what (Derek) Jeter say always, try to make the playoffs. We live for this. Try to have success in the playoffs and try to get a chance to win the World Series.”
2. The bullpen: It’s been a point of concern pretty much the entire season and that has only increased with the announcement that veteran Phil Coke and fireballing rookie Bruce Rondon won’t be available for the first round.
Joaquin Benoit stepped seamlessly into the closer’s role and Drew Smyly adjusted well to being a reliever after starting last season.
Jose Veras, acquired just before the trade deadline, has been good but not great with the Tigers, going 0-1 with a 3.20 ERA.
Then there’s Al Alburquerque, who can be completely unhittable or completely wild. You just don’t know from day to day which pitcher you’ll get. But when he’s on, he can get out both left-handers and right-handers effectively.
“It’s gonna affect us a lot because Coke has a lot of experience,” Benoit said. “He set the tone last year and we really need an arm like that. But we have to work with what we have right now.
“We need to try to get the best out of the guys we have, make sure we don’t overuse them and try to get the right guys at the right time.”
Starter Rick Porcello will be in the bullpen and may be called upon to deliver some important outs.
3. Is Justin Verlander back to being himself: Aside from the bullpen, the thing that caused the most angst for Tigers fans this season was Verlander.
Verlander, the AL MVP and Cy Young winner in 2011 and the Cy Young runner-up last season, had his worst statistical season since 2008. He went 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA and 1.31 WHIP.
Although Verlander had just one win in six September starts, his ERA during the month was 2.27 and his WHIP 1.11.
“Definitely feel pretty good,” Verlander said. “I talked to you guys a ton throughout the season.
“At the point where I realized it was just going to be a grind the whole year, then kind of my focus turned and changed to all right, I think we’re going to make the postseason so I’ve got to do whatever I can and battle my (butt) off to try to get prepared for that.
“I put in a ton of work. I really feel like the last couple starts were a whole lot better and I’m pretty doggone close to where I need to be.”
Leyland said Verlander would start Game 2 in Oakland Saturday.
In last year’s ALDS against the A’s, Verlander was 2-0 with an 0.56 ERA and 0.75 WHIP, including the series-clinching 6-0, complete-game victory in Game 5.
4. Can Jhonny Peralta really play left field: Peralta served his 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal and was welcomed back to the team.
But when Peralta returned, Jose Iglesias had taken over at shortstop, leaving only a likely part-time role in left field available.
Peralta, who had never played the outfield in the majors before last weekend in Miami, accepted his role. He spent time in Lakeland working in left field in the instructional league.
“What I do in Miami and the Instructional League, I feel pretty good,” Peralta said. “I feel good on the balls I try to play in the outfield. I don’t got to say I’m the best outfielder, and everything, but I try to do my best.”
While the Tigers have not yet confirmed that Peralta will be on the postseason roster, you can expect him to make it after batting .303 with 11 home runs and 55 RBIs in 107 games.
5. Will the offense get back on track: Fans will have the memory of the Tigers getting no-hit by Miami’s Henderson Alvarez on the final day of the regular season fresh in their minds.
That and the fact that the Tigers scored just 14 runs in their last seven games have fans hyperventilating about the lack of offense.
“I’m not as concerned as the fans, because I know this is the way it is: either we hit or we don’t,” Leyland said. “Just that simple. I’m not going to sit around and worry about it.”
Maybe in this instance, the layoff between games will help as the A’s have the same layoff.
Torii Hunter pooh-poohed the notion that the offense won’t be able to bounce back after the late swoon.
“It’s amazing, because it don’t matter if you hit 50 home runs, five home runs, or score any runs at all,” Hunter said. “What you did in the regular season don’t mean jack. Simple as that.”
As if to prove Hunter’s point, the Cleveland Indians were shut out at home, 4-0, in Wednesday’s wild card game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
That came after the Indians won the last 10 games of the regular season.
The one thing that people are not concerned about is the starting rotation.
The Tigers have leading Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, Verlander, AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister set up to face the A’s.
“All these teams that are going to the postseason have one thing in common, that we talked about in spring training,” Leyland said. “Pitching will decide your fate, most likely.”