10/3/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Position breakdown: A's, Tigers pretty evenly matched
By Jason Mastrodonato / MLB.com
Two runs separated the Tigers and A's over seven games during the 2013 season. The A's had a 4-3 advantage in wins, scoring 42 runs while allowing 40.
On paper, this Division Series might be the closest to call. Breaking it down position by position reveals an even thinner margin.
With the expert opinions of a few MLB.com staffers involved, here's how it all shakes out before the A's host the Tigers in Game 1 Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET on TBS.
No team attempted fewer stolen bases in 2013 than the Tigers, and it's unlikely they'd start running now, after going 35-for-55 in the regular season. They'll have to be much more worried about defending against them. Tigers catchers Alex Avila and Brayan Pena combined to catch just 28 of 143 (19.6 percent) basestealers this season. A's catchers, who caught 24 percent of basestealers this season, also outperformed the Tigers' catchers offensively (.759 OPS vs. .721 OPS).
Oakland's Brandon Moss: 73 runs, 30 homers, 87 RBIs, .859 OPS, 1.9 WAR. Detroit's Prince Fielder: 82 runs, 25 homers, 106 RBIs, .819 OPS, 2.2 WAR. It doesn't get much closer than this. The A's also have Daric Barton but will be without Nate Freiman -- the only right-handed hitter of the bunch -- due to an abdominal strain. And Moss could be pushed to left field if Yeonis Cespedes is forced to be the designated hitter due to a shoulder injury. Fielder's overall numbers were down this season, but he's been heating up the past two months, highlighted by a .933 OPS in September.
Omar Infante put up the best offensive season of his career at age 31, hitting 10 homers with a .318 average and .795 OPS. Including his above-average defense, Infante ranked seventh among Major League second basemen with 3.1 WAR. The A's didn't have anyone in the top 20. Eric Sogard (.686 OPS) and Alberto Callaspo (.702 OPS) have split the second-base duties.
Here's a scary thought: Josh Donaldson has produced more wins above replacement (7.7) this season than Miguel Cabrera (7.6). Last year's Triple Crown winner and the leading candidate for another American League MVP award hit .348 with 44 homers in 2013, but injuries tore him down in September. Dealing with groin and abdominal issues, Cabrera hit .278 with one home run over his final 21 games. Meanwhile, Donaldson hit .337 with a 1.049 OPS in the final month. However, Cabrera has had some time off, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland says Cabrera is healthy now. When Miggy's healthy, there's no one better.
With Jhonny Peralta's role for the postseason still uncertain after serving a 50-game suspension, and the likelihood that he'd play left field with defensive wizard Jose Iglesias fully healthy, the battle at shortstop comes down to a pair of former Red Sox players. Iglesias was traded from Boston in July and hit just .259 with the Tigers after posting a .330 average in Boston. Jed Lowrie, who spent his first four Major League seasons in Boston, reached the 600 at-bat mark for the first time in his career this season, hitting 15 homers and 45 doubles with a .791 OPS. And he hit .385 with six extra-base hits in 26 at-bats against the Tigers this year.
Andy Dirks performed admirably in left field for the Tigers for much of the season, but Peralta could take over in the playoffs. He hit .303 with 30 doubles and 11 homers in 107 games, though he had just three games of live action before the season ended. The A's might be forced to use Cespedes at DH early in the series, allowing Moss to play left, but if Cespedes is out there, his speed and arm strength give the A's the edge.
They both have speed, get on base about 35 percent of the time and play solid defense in center field. But Coco Crisp's power explosion separates him from Austin Jackson. Crisp hit a career-high 22 homers, including 12 over the final two months. He was also 21-for-26 in stolen-base attempts; Jackson was 8-for-12.
Players at age 38 aren't supposed to be getting better, but Torii Hunter's stellar campaign in his 17th Major League season netted him his first All-Star appearance since 2010. Hunter was one of 10 Major Leaguers this season (including Donaldson and Cabrera) to hit .300 with at least 59 extra-base hits. Injuries derailed Josh Reddick's second season in Oakland, though the 26-year-old still hit 19 doubles and 12 homers in 385 at-bats.
After missing the 2012 season due to an ACL injury, Victor Martinez struggled to hit .240 over the first three months of the season. After the All-Star break, he went on a rampage, hitting .361 with a .913 OPS. He walked 22 times to just 18 strikeouts. The A's have rotated 18 different players through the DH position this season, though Moss and Seth Smith (.721 OPS) are the leading candidates if Cespedes is fit to play left field.
The A's trailed only the Red Sox in pinch-hit home runs with six this season. And manager Bob Melvin loves to play the platoon splits. The A's were second in the Majors with 70 percent of their at-bats occurring with the platoon advantage, giving right-handed hitters at-bats against left-handers and vise versa. And with three catchers on the ALDS roster, Melvin has the depth to be creative in nearly any situation.
The Tigers led the Majors in innings pitched by their starting staff for a reason: Manager Jim Leyland had trust in his rotation. Detroit was one of just two teams (with the Reds) to go over the 1,000-inning mark with the rotation. Tigers starters led the AL with a 3.44 ERA while leading the Majors with 981 strikeouts. And the leading candidate for the AL Cy Young Award, Max Scherzer, will pitch twice if the series goes to five games.
Drew Smyly has been a shutdown left-hander for the Tigers this season. Right-hander Al Alburquerque also has the ability to shut left-handers down. Past that, the Tigers are thin. Bruce Rondon and Phil Coke have been deemed unavailable for the ALDS. Detroit's fifth starter, Rick Porcello, could become relied upon in relief. Behind Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, Jerry Blevins and Dan Otero, the A's ranked sixth in baseball with a 3.22 bullpen ERA.
Joaquin Benoit is 24-for-26 in save chances; Grant Balfour is 38-for-41. They're two reliable closers who struggled down the stretch (Balfour allowed eight earned runs over his last 11 2/3 innings; Benoit allowed six earned runs over his last 12 1/3 innings), but more experience in the role gives Balfour the slight edge.