Last October’s ALCS matchup between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers was one for the ages. Though it didn’t stretch to seven games, it was a hotly contested series where either team could have emerged the victor – in fact, without some phenomenal heroics on the part of the Red Sox, the Tigers could have swept the series. The classic encounter featured four one-run games, including two 1-0 shutouts: the first a near no-hitter on the part of Anibal Sanchez and the Detoit bullpen at the expense of Jon Lester, another featuring John Lackey outdueling Justin Verlander. And of course, there was David Ortiz‘s huge grand slam in Game 2 — already in the pantheon of all-time Red Sox moments.
That was last year. The Tigers roster, while familiar, got a bit of a face lift during the offseason, the biggest move being the departure of Prince Fielder in exchange for Ian Kinsler. MVP Miguel Cabrera has shifted to first base with rookie Nick Castellanos at the hot corner in his place. Doug Fister is gone, Drew Smyly is in, and the new-look bullpen features Joe Nathan.
The retooled Tigers already have a six-game lead in their division. They look to be a favorite for the postseason, and if the Red Sox can get there, Detroit will be an imposing roadblock.
BSI: I bet the first question everyone asks about the Tigers in 2014 is the Ian Kinsler-Prince Fielder trade. How is Kinsler working out in Detroit and what’s your take on his impact this year and going forward?
MCB: Ian Kinsler has been great in Detroit. He brings the “speed and defense” component that the Tigers seemed to be emphasizing in the offseason and he fit a great position of need. With Omar Infante leaving via free agency, swapping Fielder for Kinsler allowed them to plug a hole at second, slide the big fella Miguel Cabrera back to first base, and opened a spot for top prospect Nick Castellanos to take over at third base. There were concerns that Kinsler’s offense would dip away from Texas, but his OPS has been floating around the .800 mark for most of the season to-date.
The biggest long-term win of this trade (to me) was always getting out from under Fielder’s contract in the later years. The advantage here has been compounded by the fact that Fielder has also started the season slowly. We all “knew” that he wouldn’t be a very productive player in 2018, but might he be further down the age curve than we all anticipated a year or two ago?
BSI: The Tigers throw Rick Porcello on Sunday, who is off to a 6-1 start. He’s 25 years old and coming off a 13-win season in which his FIP indicated he was better than the ho-hum ERA he compiled. In your eyes, is he a future ace or a back-of-the-rotation starter?
MCB: I think the “future ace” label that he got as a prospect is now gone, but he’s already been a solid back-end starter. If he continues his trend of year-over-year improvement — and if he can get his ERA to better line up with his FIP — there’s no reason why he couldn’t be a solid mid-rotation starter or even a fringe number two. He’s probably never going to develop a dominant strikeout rate at this point in his career (though he’s still only 25 in his sixth year), but his control is excellent and his FIP and xFIP have steadily improved each season.
BSI: The left side of the infield looks pretty weak on paper. What are your expectations for rookie Nick Castellanos at the hot corner, and do you think the Tigers will make a trade for a notable shortstop or third baseman by July 31?
MCB: The best thing to happen to Nick Castellanos is that the team got off to a hot start. He’s been allowed to work through these struggles at the plate without drawing too much ire from the fanbase or forcing the team to have to think about sending him down. He has a history of quickly adjusting to each league as he’s moved up the ladder — so I’m not concerned about his future — but he’s going to have to control the strike zone better going forward. He’s looked good defensively though, and that was actually the bigger question mark heading into the year.
I still think the Tigers will be in the running to sign Stephen Drew following the June draft. They very clearly didn’t want to lose a pick to sign him, but I could see something like 1-year, $6-8 million for him to play in the second half of the season. Andrew Romine has held down the job defensively, but the Tigers probably don’t want to roll into October with a .500s OPS shortstop if they can avoid it.
BSI: And finally, sabermetrics or traditional scouting? Would you make the argument that Miguel Cabrera is more valuable than Mike Trout?
MCB: No. I’m fine admitting that Mike Trout is better/more valuable and it’s not even particularly close.
And I thought I might find a fellow Miguel Cabrera MVP apologist in Matt and bring him over to the Dark Side! Come on, Matt, you know the only stats that matter are on the back of a baseball card!
The series kicks off Friday night with a doozy: Jon Lester (4-4, 2.75) against 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (5-1, 2.04) at 7:10 PM. The Red Sox hit Scherzer better than any other team in baseball (7.02 ERA against).
John Lackey (5-2, 3.57) takes the hill for the Sox in Game 2 of the set on Saturday night at 7:10 PM. The opposition throws Rick Porcello (6-1, 3.22), who similarly has a bumpy history at Fenway (14 runs allowed in 11/23 innings).
Jake Peavy (1-1, 3.94) looks to get back on track in the finale opposite Anibal Sanchez (0-2, 3.13), who is returning from the disabled list after lacerating his finger. The “Sunday Night Baseball” matchup will start at 8:05 PM.