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October 4, 2009

Prospectus Today

Do or Die

by Joe Sheehan

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Well, isn't this just a little bit crazy? After writing off the chance of any interesting races, or a dramatic finish to the year, I'm now writing about two teams tied for a division title with about eight hours left in the regular season. There's at least a 50 percent chance of a one-game playoff Tuesday as well. That 24-1 shot the Twins had after they lost Wednesday is now basically a coin flip thanks to three straight wins and the Tigers' failure to produce any offense.

There will be a lot of focus on Jim Leyland's decision to go with Alfredo Figaro yesterday rather than move up Justin Verlander, but I don't mind it. Verlander has thrown more than 125 pitches in three straight starts, and pushed himself to the limit in escaping Tuesday night's game with a lead. The difference between Verlander and Figaro is significant, but that's not the issue; the question is whether a short-rest Verlander and Rick Porcello (and then Eddie Bonine in a playoff game) would be better than Figaro, a fully-rested Verlander, and then a fully-rested Porcello in a potential playoff. I'll take the latter scenario, and it looks even better if you shift the goal from "winning the division" to "winning a championship," the likelihood of which declines considerably if Verlander can't make two starts in the AL Division Series. If the Tigers win Saturday behind Figaro, that remains a possibility. If Verlander starts Saturday, not only is there a greater risk of ineffectiveness, but the path to using him in the ALDS Game One on Wednesday is closed off. Leyland made the championship-maximizing decision.

It's not the starting pitching that should shoulder the blame for the Tigers being in this mess, anyway. Oh, they haven't gotten a great start since Tuesday afternoon or a good one since Thursday, but it's the offense that has failed. Against Scott Baker, Jake Peavy, and Freddy Garcia, the Tigers have scored four runs in three games, rapping 16 singles and a double in the three contests. That is a pathetic performance at any point in the season, and it shines a light on just how limited an offense this is.

The Twins have won three straight, but have come a bit shy of being impressive in the process. They hammered a Triple-A pitcher Friday night, built a 10-0 lead, then were forced to use their good relievers as the worst team in the league charged back to 10-7 before petering out. Saturday, the Twins got four gift runs thanks to that same opponent's failure to put major league outfielders in the game, coughed up the lead, and needed a late home run, again off of a Triple-A pitcher, to pull out the win. The takeaway for me hasn't been "boy, what a good run" or "they beat Greinke" so much as "that bullpen is vulnerable" and "if I had to watch the Royals more often, I'd probably become a WNBA fan."

The Tigers can't blame the schedule-maker, though. Three weeks ago they got their shot at the Royals and went 1-5, scoring 17 runs in the six games against a team with maybe three big-league pitchers on its staff. If they lose the division by a game, today or Tuesday, they can look back at those games as the reason why.

Playing their first must-win game since 2006, the Tigers will now put Verlander on the mound. The righty is working on full rest, although it's again worth noting that he has topped 120 pitches in three straight starts, five of seven, and seven of his last 10. I have no idea if there's been an effect; he's given up four runs or more in three of his last four starts, but his peripherals are solid, as are his velocity and movement. CC Sabathia was worked about as hard, even harder late last season, and he made it through, although he then pitched poorly in his lone post-season start for the Brewers. Verlander should be effective as ever today, and given the Tigers' pen, he'll probably throw another 120 pitches. He matches up against the Sox' second-best starter in John Danks, a cutter-throwing lefty who has been more effective against righties in his two full seasons. A Tigers team already struggling to score runs isn't going to be helped facing Danks.

The Twins have a much easier assignment, facing a wretched excuse for a baseball team. Then again, they had that same assignment the past two days and managed to make it interesting, so who knows what we might get today? We're talking about a team who's plan for winning the division includes the line "start Carl Pavano on three days' rest." That's right…it's not his turn. Three days after he was slapped around by the Tigers, the Twins are calling on Pavano to start on short rest in a game they have to have.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but these aren't good baseball teams. One of them is going to get into the tournament, and once there they'll have no worse than the six- or seven-percent chance that is the floor for any team in this format, but I'm hard-pressed to remember two postseason candidates worse than this. I'd take any of the teams that stumbled into the tournament, or even the barely-over-.500 Padres, over the current versions of the Tigers and Twins. The drama has been nice, but it's entirely an example of the tallest-midget situation you will occasionally get when you carve 30 teams into six sub-groups. Were it not for the unbalanced schedule and interleague play, there's an excellent chance we'd be looking at a sub-.500 team in the postseason.

So yes, let's appreciate the drama today, enjoy the fact that the baseball season really did run a full 183 days this time around. Let's just not mistake it for good baseball.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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