World Series position-by-position preview
It has only taken 109 years since the invention of the modern World Series, but the Tigers and Giants finally will face off for the ultimate baseball prize.
(Of course, John McGraw, the great Giants manager of the first quarter of the 20th Century, went to his grave believing that the Giants and Tigers should have played in the 1908 World Series. If Fred Merkle had touched second base, it would have been New York playing Detroit in that year’s series, not the Cubs.)
CATCHER: Buster Posey vs. Alex Avila and Gerald Laird
Posey has a real shot to be named the NL MVP after an outstanding season that saw him hit .336/.408/.549 as an everyday catcher. Posey hit for power — 39 doubles and 24 homers — drove in 103 runs and drew 69 walks, while playing outstanding defense. His career was in jeopardy a year ago after breaking his leg in a home-plate collision, but he’s now the unquestioned leader of the Giants. He’s only hitting .178 in the postseason, but the Tigers can’t count on that to continue.
Laird and Avila will continue to platoon in the World Series, with Laird expected to get the start in Game One against Barry Zito. He also would catch if Madison Bumgarner moves back into the San Francisco rotation, while Avila will start against Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum. Laird has been ice-cold during the playoffs, but has the “experience” of having won a World Series last year with the Cardinals. Avila probably could have won the full-time job with a better offensive performance against the A’s and Yankees, but that didn’t happen.
EDGE: Giants and it isn’t close.
FIRST BASE: Brandon Belt vs. Prince Fielder
Belt hasn’t turned into the superstar the Giants fans expected, but he’s still only 24. He did hit .275 with a good number of walks and doubles power, but he’s a long way from making people forget Willie McCovey or Will Clark. After a terrible NLDS against Cincinnati, he hit .304 against the Cardinals and homered in the Game 7 rout.
Fielder still hasn’t gotten going in the postseason, something the Tigers desperately need to change in the World Series. He only has one extra-base hit in nine games — a homer against Oakland — and only has driven in three runs. Still, he provided one of the most memorable images of the playoffs with his emphatic wave-off of Omar Infante on the series-clinching pop-up against New York.
EDGE: Tigers by a long way.
SECOND BASE: Marco Scutaro vs. Omar Infante
Scutaro is 36, started the season with Colorado and wasn’t having much of a year. In late July, the Rockies sent him to the Giants and Scutaro found some kind of magic elixir in the Bay Area. He hit .362 in 61 games for the Giants, including good doubles power, then won the NLCS MVP by hitting .500 against the Cardinals. Fittingly, he made the final out of the series, catching a pop-up in an incredible rain storm to end Game 7.
Although Infante and Scutaro both started their major-league careers in 2002, Infante is six years younger. He’s seen everything in Detroit, from the 119-loss season in 2003 to the World Series disappointment of 2006 and now he’s come back for another trip to the Fall Classic this season. He solidified the second base position after coming over from Miami, and has done what the Tigers needed in the postseason.
EDGE: Giants, only because Scutaro seems to be a one-person team of destiny.
SHORTSTOP: Brandon Crawford vs. Jhonny Peralta
Crawford is the stereotypical good-field, no-hit shortstop that people expected before the days of Robin Yount, Cal Ripken and Alan Trammell. He’s got a nice glove, but is a serious weak spot in the San Francisco lineup. That hasn’t changed in the postseason, where he’s hitting .206.
All season, people have pointed to Peralta as one of the main reasons the Tigers were underachieving, and then he had an incredible ALCS. Delmon Young walked away with the MVP, but Peralta hit .389, made defensive plays that no one had seen from him in years, and homered twice in the Game 4 clincher.
EDGE: Tigers, and the gap gets much bigger if Peralta keeps playing defense like he has thus far in the postseason.
THIRD BASE: Pablo Sandoval vs. Miguel Cabrera
Sandoval is called the “Kung-Fu Panda,” which should give you a pretty good idea of his strengths and limitations as a player. He’s big and he’s not fast. Sandoval missed two significant chunks of the season with injuries — a broken wrist and a hamstring pull — and his production slipped as a result. He only hit 12 homers in 108 games and his batting average dropped 32 points to .283. He hit .320 in the first two rounds of the playoffs, though, with three homers, so he might be getting healthy at the right time.
As you may have heard, Cabrera won the Triple Crown and is the favorite for the AL MVP. He’s only hitting .278 in the postseason, but his Game 4 homer against the Yankees sparked the rest of the team into a rare hitting display. If he heats up, he’ll take the rest of the offense with him. That’s the Giants’ worst fear right now.
EDGE: Pandas are cute, but they don’t win Triple Crowns.
LEFT FIELD: Gregor Blanco vs. Delmon Young
Blanco spent a lot of the season in right field, but moved to left when the team acquired Hunter Pence. He’s a weak hitter with a decent glove, and hasn’t done anything in the postseason to change that description. The Tigers need to keep him from drawing walks and building their pitch counts, because that’s his best talent. The job, of course, belonged to Melky Cabrera until Major League Baseball game him a season-ending suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
Young is, unfortunately for Tigers fans, going to be back in left field for the games played in San Francisco. He’s a terrible outfielder, but he’s also Detroit’s career postseason home run hitter after just four series, so the Tigers are hardly going to bench him. He has seven homers and 14 RBIs in 18 playoff games with Detroit, so he’s clearly a big part of the offense when October rolls around. When the series goes back to Detroit, Young will go back to DH with Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia platooning in the outfield.
EDGE: Blanco is a much, much better fielder, but the Tigers get the edge because of Young’s postseason heroics with the bat.
CENTER FIELD: Angel Pagan vs. Austin Jackson
Yes, Angel Pagan is a man whose name itself is an oxymoron, but the man they call Crazy Horse is also a speedy center fielder who hit 38 doubles and 15 triples and stole 29 bases. He’s also very good defensively, but he has struggled in the postseason. He is hitting just .208, although he does have a pair of homers.
Jackson was one of the biggest bright spots of the regular season, more than recovering from a sophomore slump, and he hit .353 in the ALCS against New York. If he consistently gets on base, it will make life much more unpleasant for the San Francisco pitching staff.
EDGE: Tigers, with Jackson being better on offense and defense, even though Pagan has a better nickname.
RIGHT FIELD: Hunter Pence vs. Andy Dirks
The Giants were expecting a lot more when they got Pence from the Phillies to fill Cabrera’s spot in the order. He hit .219 in 59 regular-season games, is hitting .188 in the postseason and has drawn attention for his unusual routes to normal-looking flyballs. At his best, he’s a .300 hitter with 35 doubles and 25 homers, but the Giants haven’t seen that player yet. They are getting impatient.
Dirks, on the other hand, looks like a fullback, comes with very few expectations and just keeps performing. He hit .322 in the regular season, and had a good series against Oakland. He struggled against the Yankees, but he’s still given the Tigers more than they ever expected from him.
EDGE: On paper, Pence is a much better player. Right now, Dirks is performing at a higher level.
With a possible four games in San Francisco, this becomes important. Cain and Bumgarner are both good-hitting pitchers — Bumgarner outhomered Cain 2-1 in the regular season — and the Giants have gotten several postseason RBIs from their starters. In contrast, the Tigers went 0-13 during interleague play, and Game 1 starter Justin Verlander has a famously atrocious bat. Anibal Sanchez has National League experience, but isn’t a good hitter. The best chance for hits from the pitching spot, especially since Rick Porcello probably won’t bat, is Max Scherzer. He had a very good offensive year, for a pitcher at least, in his one full season with Arizona.
EDGE: Huge edge for the Giants, although it would be just like Verlander to somehow get his first major-league hit in a World Series game.
STARTING ROTATION: Cain/Vogelsong/Zito/Bumgarner vs. Verlander/Sanchez/Scherzer/Doug Fister
Cain is the unquestioned ace, but had to pitch Game 7 against the Cardinals, so won’t be available until the series moves back to Detroit. That leaves Zito to pitch Game 1, with either Bumgarner or Lincecum to take Game 2. Given Detroit’s struggles against left-handed pitching, you would expect it to be Bumgarner. Zito won 15 games, thanks to a lot of offensive support, but wasn’t actually very good. He stepped up in a key start against the Cardinals, though, and could be the type of starter that gives Detroit trouble.
Detroit’s rotation simply has been incredible in the postseason, setting records for ERA and consecutive shutout innings. Verlander has been the star, but he’s gotten plenty of support from Sanchez, Scherzer and Fister. If the Tigers get the same kind of starts they got against Oakland and the Yankees, they will win the World Series with ease.
EDGE: The Tigers came into the postseason with a better rotation, and are entering the World Series with the hottest foursome in playoff history. The Giants know they have to find a way to break up Detroit’s performances in a hurry if they want to have any shot at the title.
CLOSER: Sergio Romo vs. Phil Coke or Joaquin Benoit or Al Alburquerque or Rick Porcello
Romo eventually inherited Brian Wilson’s role (and most of his beard) after the famously bonkers Wilson needed Tommy John surgery. That’s good news for the Gatorade containers at Comerica Park, which Wilson trashed in a tantrum that is still a YouTube hit, but not as good for the Tigers. Romo finished the season with a 1.79 ERA and is exactly the type of lock-down closer teams crave in October.
On the other hand, the Tigers have, well, no one really knows. Jose Valverde blew a pair of ninth-inning leads and lost the closer job at the same time. Coke took over the job against the lefty-heavy Yankees, but might not keep it against a more balanced Giants offense. The obvious choice as the late-game righty would be Benoit, but he’s struggling himself, giving up a ridiculous number of home runs since the All-Star break. That would leave Alburquerque, who is barely back from surgery, or Porcello, who has never pitched in anything like a closing role.
BULLPEN: Santiago Casilla/Jeremy Affledt/Javier Lopez/Tim Lincecum vs. Everyone left in the Tigers bullpen
Casilla was the closer before Romo took the job, and is still a very good set-up man, while veterans Affeldt and Lopez give the Giants a pair of experienced lefties for late-game situations.
Will Valverde pitch at all? No one knows. Drew Smyly and Octavio Dotel both played key roles in Detroit’s 12-inning win in New York, keeping things going while their teammates tried to recover from Valverde’s meltdown. Dotel became a bit of an emotional leader late in the season when he compared Detroit’s attitude to the one shown by last season’s never-say-die Cardinals — a team that employed both him and Laird.
PREDICTION: Both managers are career baseball men that have managed World Series champions, so there isn’t likely to be a decisive edge there. If Detroit’s starters keep pitching the way they have, no team in baseball is going to beat them. The Giants have had to pull out six straight elimination games already, and it says here their luck runs out against Detroit’s Big Four. TIGERS IN FIVE.