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September 7, 2006

Prospectus Today

Dateline: Minneapolis

by Joe Sheehan

The Twins get one last chance to put two playoff spots in play this weekend, kicking off a four-game series with the Tigers tonight at the Metrodome. They lead the White Sox by a half-game (one in the loss column) for the wild card, and trail the Tigers by four (three in the loss column) in the AL Central. The gap might have been even smaller, but the Twins no-showed against a pitcher making his fifth major-league start last night, losing 4-2 to Jason Hammel and the Devil Rays.

The Tigers got off to such a hot start that their spot in the postseason has been conceded since midsummer. At the All-Star break, I was open to the idea that they would fall out of the top spot in the AL Central while still making the postseason. Coming up big in some head-to-head series just after the break, however, created enough distance between them and the Twins and White Sox to re-establish them as a postseason lock.

Now, though, with three-and-a-half weeks to go, the Tigers once again look vulnerable. They've lost 19 of their last 28 games, scoring a mere 3.6 runs a game in that span. Five regulars have OBPs under .300 in the second half, a group that includes Sean Casey and his .236/.270/.336 line as a Tiger. It's not really a team that could afford to release a switch-hitter with some pop, so it will be interesting to hear what stories come out of the dismissal of Dmitri Young, who was one of their three best hitters post-break.

This was never supposed to be an offensive juggernaut, but it got by in the first half by hitting a bunch of homers to make up for a complete lack of walks and speed. Now, the walks are still not coming-just 120 since the break-and the homers have disappeared. The Tigers slugged .458 in the first half, but just .421 since. That's the difference between a functional no-walks offense and a very bad one. They no longer get good OBPs from the top two lineup spots, as Curtis Granderson has been awful and an injured Placido Polanco has been replaced by a series of vastly inferior options, so the homers the middle of the lineup does cough up produce fewer runs.

The Tigers are giving up a few more runs in the second half, but have still been an effective pitching-and-defense team. The uptick is the result of some defensive regression-still the best in the game, just a bit less extreme as they were in the first half-and a few more balls leaving the yard. Even with the slippage, though, the Tigers' run prevention is a strength and not responsible for the team's precarious position. The Tigers are playing meaningful games rather than coasting into October because the offense disappeared.

The Twins are in position to catch them because they've employed three of the ten most valuable players in the league this year, and would have had a fourth had Francisco Liriano not been injured. It's impossible to consider the Twins without wondering what might have been had they not broken camp with so much dead weight on the roster and in key roles, but despite that, they're a .580 team through 138 games and they control their own destiny. Their rotation is a shambles, but they score enough runs to win and they're virtually impossible to beat if they have a lead in the sixth. Their bullpen is a neverending pit of power arms, and their depth from the right side will present a problem to the heavily right-handed Tigers all weekend long.

James Click performed an interesting exercise last year where he ran the baseball season backwards. Our perception of the strengths and weaknesses of teams and players is often formed by the order in which stretches of good and bad play occur, even though we know that those stretches might not be meaningful by themselves. Well, the gap between the Tigers and the Twins and Sox is a function of the order of events. The Tigers got off to a great start and the Twins didn't, but for almost any subset of the baseball season outside of the first three weeks, the Twins have been the better team. You can't hand-wave away those three weeks or, for that matter, the decisions the Twins made that put them behind in the early part of the season, but when you look at these teams, it's helpful to realize that this isn't a case of a great team being chased down, but a good one regressing to its level.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should-we were here a year ago. Back in 2005, the White Sox stumbled around for a month, allowing the Cleveland Indians back into a race that had long been considered theirs largely because they stopped scoring. They pulled it together over the last week, then had a decent October. That team, however, was better than these Tigers in almost every way, and they weren't missing their starting second baseman and #2 hitter.

Just on the numbers, the Twins need to take at least three out of four to make this interesting. The Tigers play a bunch of games down the stretch against the Royals, who they've owned this year, and a number of others against non-contenders. A four-game lead will probably be too much to make up without any more head-to-head action, but a two-game lead…then things get interesting, with the Tigers going to Chicago next weekend with the possibility that they might miss the postseason entirely.

There's no sense in making predictions about what will happen over the next four days, because baseball doesn't work that way. You can say that the Tigers are coming in in bad shape, and that the Twins may be able to blow out their excellent bullpen over the first three games with Johan Santana lurking to pitch Sunday afternoon. Santana isn't unbeatable, but he's the closest thing in MLB to it, and he effectively reduces this series to a best-of-three over the next few nights.

No matter what happens on the field, the big winners are the fans. It's not easy to have high-impact games between good teams under a system that allows a second-place team into the postseason. The distribution of performance this year, however, allows for that in the AL Central. This isn't the NL wild-card chase, with seven teams fighting to stay above .500; this is two of the better teams in MLB this year playing with something on the line beyond playoff seeding or the right to hang a banner. It would be more interesting without the fallback position, but in a post-1993 world, we take our drama where we get it.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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