The Division Series portion of the MLB postseason kicks off on Thursday as the Tigers head to Baltimore to take on the Orioles (5:30 first pitch).
To determine the winner of the best 3-of-5 ALDS, I will be breaking down each positional matchup.
Starting Pitching: Max Scherzer (18-5), Justin Verlander (15-12), David Price (15-12), Rick Porcello (15-13) vs. Chris Tillman (13-6), Wei-Yin Chen (16-6), Miguel Gonzalez (10-9), Bud Norris (15-8)
Through acquiring David Price at the deadline, Detroit put the rest of the baseball world on notice- that they were loading up their rotation for another postseason run. Scherzer, Price, and Verlander are as good a three-headed monster as we’ll see in the playoffs, while Rick Porcello was no slouch either this season, sporting a 3.43 ERA over 31 starts. And although Verlander struggled throughout the season, he did become more consistent in August and September and, as we saw last year, can really turn it on in the fall. Over in Birdland, the Orioles rotation was certainly dependable this season but in comparison to the Tigers, is completely lacking in top end arms.
Catcher: Alex Avila vs. Nick Hundley
Detroit has a catcher in Avila who is a seasoned vet when it comes to fall baseball but with a .218 AVG and 11 HR, really struggled this year. Meanwhile in Baltimore, the Orioles are left with their third choice behind the plate, with Matt Wieters out for the year, and Steve Pearce plying first for the suspended Chris Davis. Hundley and his .243 AVG and 6 HR over 218 ABs is certainly a comparable to Avila, but Alex gets the edge based on his postseason experience.
First Base: Miguel Cabrera vs. Steve Pearce
This matchup is extremely unfair to Pearce, who has had a very under-the-radar season and filled in admirably for Chris Davis, with 29 HR and a .293 average. Unfortunately, he goes up against the best pure hitter in baseball in Miggy Cabrera, two-time defending AL MVP.
Second Base: Ian Kinsler vs. Jonathan Schoop
Ian Kinsler was Detroit’s reward for unloading Prince Fielder’s mammoth contract and has, for the most part, lived up to expectations. His slash of .275/17/92, as well as 15 SB is all you can ask for, and more, from a second baseman. The 22-year-old (!) Schoop has shown some nice power this season with 16 HR but hasn’t put it all together at the plate, batting just .209.
Third Base: Nick Castellanos vs. Kelly Johnson
This as truly as mediocre a matchup as we’re going to see, so I’ll take the durability of Castellanos and his 533 ABs this season, over Kelly Johnson, who has now played for every AL East team since 2012.
Shortstop: Andrew Romine vs. JJ Hardy
Hardy got off to a tremendously slow start this season and the defending Silver Slugger award-winner was disappointing in the power department with just 9 HR. But he did manage to finish the season at .268, which is better than his career average. Meanwhile, the young Romine lacks experience, appearing in 168 career games, and hit just .227 this season. If Hardy can regain his power stroke, this is a lopsided matchup.
Outfield: JD Martinez, Rajai Davis, Torii Hunter vs. Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis
Although Baltimore looks overmatched in the infield, they boast an outfield that can stack up against any in the playoffs. Cruz led the bigs in HRs this season, Jones was a stellar .281/29/96, and Markakis (the former Ottawa Lynx!) was a very solid .276/14/50. Although JD Martinez put together one of the best seasons you didn’t hear about (.315/23/76), Davis can steal bases with the best of them, and Hunter has as much fall experience as anyone, the O’s get the edge here. This is where they have a chance to stay in the series.
Designated Hitter: Victor Martinez vs. Delmon Young
Probably with the help of moving out of the field and becoming a full-time DH, old-man Martinez put together an extremely efficient season. The veteran former catcher had a flashback power year with 32 HRs and 103 RBI AND bat .335, while only striking out just 42 times. If I had an AL MVP ballot, Martinez may be just under Mike Trout on my voting list. Delmon Young is certainly a dependable pro, seen in his .302 83-game average, but Martinez is a driving force in Detroit’s potent lineup.
Bullpen: Joe Nathan (C), Blaine Hardy, Joakim Soria vs. Zach Britton (C), Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day
Another area where Baltimore has a shot at pulling off the “upset” (they actually had the better record this season) is when the manager takes the ball out of the starter’s hand. Detroit was very shaky in this area this season. At times the usually-dependable Joe Nathan faltered (and battled injury) and no one could seem to hold it down, even after acquiring former All-Star closer Joakim Soria, from Texas. The Orioles lacked a top tier closer heading into the season but Zach Britton emerged as a reliable closing man, putting up 37 saves in 41 opportunities, while showing off a 1.65 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. Darren O’Day had a tremendous year in relief, Tommy Hunter transitioned very smoothly from a starting role, and the acquisition of lefty Andrew Miller from the Red Sox has proven to be an important move.
With the Division Series portion of the postseason being a best 3-of-5 series, top tier pitching at the top of a rotation can really put a team over the top. Detroit and its three-headed monster of Scherzer/Price/Verlander makes them heavy favorites in this series to me. Baltimore does not have the studs to compete with these guys and, to be honest, are lacking a real ace against a rotation with arguably three of them (or four, even, if Anibal Sanchez weren’t out with an injury). It is extremely possible that this series could be over before Baltimore gets a chance to see Rick Porcello. Now if we see more bullpen problems from the Tigers, combined with monster series from Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz, the outcome could be in doubt. But in all likelihood, the Tigers will be returning to another ALCS.