Tigers-Yankees ALCS preview

Here we go again.

For the third time in seven years, the Tigers will face the New York Yankees in the postseason. Detroit won the first two matchups — they are the only major-league franchise to have beaten New York twice in the playoffs without losing — but those were five-game series in 2006 and 2011. This will be the first time the teams have played in a seven-game series.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of Yankees-Tigers III.

CATCHER: Alex Avila and Gerald Laird vs. Russell Martin.

Avila was the starting catcher last year but has never seemed to recover from the workload he took on down the stretch last year. He’s now platooning with Laird and hit just .243 during the regular season. He did hit a big homer in the ALDS win over Oakland, but struck out six times in 12 at-bats. Laird hit .282 during the regular season, but didn’t get a hit against the Athletics.

Martin hasn’t been a star for several years now, and bottomed out this season. He hit .211 and even a decent number of walks only got him to a .311 on-base percentage in the regular season. He did pop 21 homers, but that’s all he has left.

ADVANTAGE: Martin’s got a little bit of power, but he’s going to struggle to make contact against Detroit’s power pitchers. Avila and Laird aren’t great, but they give the Tigers a small advantage.

FIRST BASE: Prince Fielder vs. Mark Teixeira.

After a big regular season, Fielder hit just .190 against the Athletics. That was a little misleading, though, as he was robbed several times by the Oakland defense and hit the ball hard in several other at-bats. Fielder isn’t going to win games with his defense or on the bases, but his enthusiasm is contagious when his teammates are pressing.

Teixiera isn’t the player he was a few years ago, either, and he battled injuries for the first time in his career this season. He still hit 24 homers and draws enough walks to drive up a pitcher’s pitch count. He also remains one of the best defensive first basemen in the game.

ADVANTAGE: Tigers. Even though his numbers were off against Oakland, Fielder was hitting the ball hard, and he’s certainly not going to mind hitting at Yankee Stadium.

SECOND BASE: Omar Infante vs. Robinson Cano.

Infante was one of the few Tigers to show up offensively against Oakland. He hit .353 and scored a team-high six runs despite hitting as low as ninth in the order. He also looked more comfortable at second base than he had in much of August and September.

If Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera didn’t exist, Robinson Cano would probably win the AL MVP. All he did this season was play 161 games, hit .313 with 33 homers, score 105 runs and play outstanding defense at second base.

ADVANTAGE: Huge edge to the Yankees. Infante’s a decent player, but Cano is the best second baseman in baseball and the second-best everyday player in the series.

SHORTSTOP: Jhonny Peralta vs. Derek Jeter.

This is one of the few match-ups where Peralta will have the advantage when it comes to range at short, and he had a decent ALDS with the bat. He hit .294 and only struck out three times in five games.

Derek Jeter is what Derek Jeter has been for the past 17 years. He’s almost immobile at short these days, especially after suffering a foot injury in Game 5 against Baltimore, but he’s still The Captain and it is still October. Offensively, he doesn’t have the power he used to have, but he still popped 15 homers while hitting .316.

ADVANTAGE: Peralta could outplay Jeter in a short series, but it is almost a rule of baseball that Kalamazoo Central’s most famous graduate will make some kind of highlight-reel play to win a game at some point in every postseason.

THIRD BASE: Miguel Cabrera vs. Eric Chavez.

You are probably familiar with Cabrera’s season — the first Triple Crown in 45 years and all that — but he didn’t look like himself against Oakland. He started the series well, but struggled badly late as he tried to carry the anemic offense by himself. Instead, he looked like he was pressing at the plate, and his biggest contribution came when he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in Game 5.

As for the Yankees, yes, that really says Eric Chavez. The Yankees might be paying Alex Rodriguez $30 million a season, but Joe Girardi pinch-hit for him in Games 3 and 4 against Baltimore, and then benched him outright in Game 5. At this point, it looks like A-Rod would only start against lefties, and the Tigers don’t have any of those in their rotation. So the job belongs to Chavez. Ten years ago, Chavez was the best third baseman in baseball, only to have his career destroyed by injuries. He’s had a second life as A-Rod’s caddy this season, hitting .281 with power and walks.

ADVANTAGE: There was a point where Chavez and A-Rod would have beaten anyone in this category. In 2012, though, even Chavez’s mini-revival isn’t enough to make this close. Big edge to Detroit.

LEFT FIELD: Quentin Berry vs. Ichiro Suzuki.

Berry is what he is, and Jim Leyland has chosen to focus on the things he can do to help the Tigers win instead of the many things he doesn’t do well. Berry is Detroit’s most dangerous runner, and if he can get on base ahead of Cabrera and Fielder, he’ll give the offense a huge shot in the arm.

Ichiro has been around forever, especially when you consider his years in Japan, but his game really hasn’t changed. He swings at every pitch he can reach, and specializes by torturing teams with singles slapped into any vacant area on the diamond. He plays left for the Yankees instead of right or center as he did for the Mariners, but he’ll still gun down any baserunner crazy enough to run on him.

ADVANTAGE: Ichiro is old and he never walks, but he plays every day, hits around .300 and has driven Tigers pitchers crazy in the past by spraying singles all over the place. He’s exactly what the Tigers wish Quintin Berry could be. Yankees get this category.

CENTER FIELD: Austin Jackson vs. Curtis Granderson.

Jackson played very well in Game 5, scoring twice and driving in a pair of runs, after a rough start to the series. He’s still the best center fielder in the American League, and the Tigers offense is at its best when he’s getting on base.

Granderson almost lost his fan base in Detroit when he became the last threat to Cabrera’s Triple Crown. Luckily, he took himself out of the game before he angered everyone in Michigan. He’s become a one-trick pony — hitting just .232 this season with 43 homers — but that’s good enough for 102 runs and 106 RBIs. He had a terrible ALDS until he gave the Yankees a key insurance run late in Game 5.

Granderson is a much better power hitter, but Jackson is the more complete player at this point in his career.

RIGHT FIELD: Andy Dirks vs. Nick Swisher.

Andy Dirks hit .322 in the regular season and hit .294 against Oakland. He’s not spectacular, and he looks more like a football player than an outfielder, but he keeps getting the job done. Avisail Garcia will see time against lefties, with Dirks moving to left, and as a late-inning defensive replacement.

Swisher is Generic Yankees Player 101. He hits 25 homers, he walks, he plays decent defense and he drives pitchers crazy by taking dozens of pitches.

ADVANTAGE: Dirks has outplayed expectations this season, but he doesn’t have Swisher’s track record, and Garcia isn’t ready for primetime quite yet.

DESIGNATED HITTER: Delmon Young vs. Raul Ibanez

Young had a great series against the Yankees last season, and has been a disaster ever since. He drew the ire of Tigers fans for swinging at every pitch within two feet of home plate and got into off-the-field trouble in, of all places, New York. He can’t be looking forward to returning to the Big Apple.

Ibanez, on the other hand, is a hero in New York after his ninth-inning, game-tying homer in Game 3, followed three innings later by a walk-off homer. Otherwise, he’s pretty much every other Yankee, except that he looks oddly like his manager.

ADVANTAGE: Ibanez is on a roll in the postseason, while Young continues to struggle. Advantage Yankees.

STARTING ROTATION: Justin Verlander/Doug Fister/Anibal Sanchez/Max Scherzer vs. CC Sabathia/Andy Pettitte/Hiroki Kuroda/Phil Hughes.

Both teams had to use their aces in a win-or-go-home Game 5, and both Verlander and Sabathia pitched complete-game masterpieces. The advantage for the Tigers is that Verlander pitched his on Thursday while Sabathia did it on Friday. That means if the pair match up as expected in Game 3, Verlander will be doing it on full rest, while Sabathia will be on short rest.

The Tigers and Yankees both got outstanding pitching from their starters in the ALDS, and there’s no reason to expect that to change in the ALCS. Scherzer looked healthy despite his late-season shoulder problems, but both he and Sanchez are probably going to be limited to 100 pitches.

ADVANTAGE: Hughes is the weak link in New York’s rotation, while all four starters are pitching well for Detroit. The Tigers will also get a big edge from getting Verlander an extra day of rest.

CLOSER: Jose Valverde vs. Rafael Soriano.

Valverde looked awful while blowing Game 4 — his motion looked wrong and his velocity down. Even if he’s healthy, he’s an adventure almost every game, and he didn’t look healthy in Game 4. Jim Leyland isn’t going to replace him unless his arm falls off, so Tigers fans should prepare to bite what is left of their fingernails.

Soriano, on the hand, has had the incredible responsibility of replacing Mariano Rivera after Rivera’s freak knee injury. Soriano picked up 42 saves with a 2.26 ERA, allowing just 55 hits in 67.2 innings.

ADVANTAGE: Soriano has picked up where Rivera left off. He’s probably not going to be as dominant as Rivera in the postseason, simply because no one has ever been close to that level. He’s still way ahead of The Big Potato at this point. Detroit also has Joaquin Benoit’s gopher to worry about — the Tigers deny that he is tipping pitches, but he’s giving up home runs at a staggering pace.

Both teams struggled offensively in the ALDS, and both teams got outstanding starting pitching. Detroit, though, has young arms and will probably get more production from Fielder and Cabrera against the Yankees. They also have New York’s number, having beaten them twice already. This time, they win in five games to become the first franchise to win three straight playoff series against the Yankees.