7/31/2014 6:21 P.M. ET
Tigers, A's load up for a likely epic showdown
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Let's say right up front that we don't know how Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski reacted on Thursday morning when he learned that the A's had acquired Jon Lester.
Maybe he slammed a fist on his desk and screamed, "You call that a big move, Billy? I'll show you a big move!"
I like the sound of that one.
With that, he picked up his phone and began to spend the next four hours working furiously on the trade that would bring David Price to the Tigers minutes before the 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline.
At least that's how I'd like to think it all went down.
Let's pause for a moment to catch our breath. Baseball had an amazing day on Thursday, a day of so much drama and so much nerve that it's likely to be the Trade Deadline all others are measured against.
This wasn't just a day when a bunch of teams talked. That has been the case at times in the past. They talk and they propose and then they lose their nerve.
This time, they acted. They took chances. They stepped to the plate and swung hard.
The A's and Tigers got better. One punched. The other counter-punched. The Cardinals got better, too. So did the Orioles, Brewers, Marlins and Nationals.
This was the day the reconstruction of the Red Sox began in full and the day we saw a bunch of teams attempt to position themselves to play deep into October.
But it was the A's and Tigers who made the day spectacularly exciting. This is what happens when smart, brilliant, fearless general managers are turned loose in a competitive environment.
Okay, let's look at this thing from a few different angles:
Meet the old boss, same as the new boss. The A's have been the best team on the planet since Opening Day, and nothing that happened on Thursday changed that, at least not in the regular season. They're first in run differential in the Majors, the Tigers are seventh. The A's are first in runs, the Tigers are fifth. The A's are fourth in ERA, the Tigers are 22nd.
Both teams were sprinting toward October. Even as the Angels creeped up on the A's in the American League West, Oakland remained comfortably on course to play at least a Wild Card game.
The Tigers led the American League Central by five games at the start of play on Thursday. It has been as large as 7 1/2, but not lower than 4 1/2. There's no way to look at the AL Central and project anyone other than the Tigers winning.
What changed on Thursday was October. Both teams are more October ready.
When the A's acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel earlier this month, Justin Verlander said they made the deal with an eye on the Tigers.
Sounds reasonable. The Tigers eliminated the A's in the postseason the last two Octobers, both times in the Division Series. They've played 10 times. The Tigers have won six. They've played four one-run games.
Verlander won one deciding game, Max Scherzer the other. When the A's dealt for Lester earlier on Thursday, they were looking for that kind of stopper.
Lester has a 2.11 postseason ERA in 13 appearances, including 11 starts. He has a 0.43 ERA in three World Series starts. He won a clinching Game 4 in 2007 and Games 1 and 5 last October.
The A's have a tremendous pitching staff, and it would be easy to project them toward a dominant October. With Lester, there's no projecting. He has done it.
The Tigers can counter with Scherzer, with Rick Porcello and Anibal Sanchez and maybe even Verlander, who has struggled for stretches this season.
In going for Price, Dombrowski countered the Lester move. Since May 2, Price has a 2.58 ERA in 17 starts. No Detroit starter has been that good over this stretch. His postseason history isn't good (5.06 ERA in nine appearances).
But he's older now, wiser and has a solid track record. October season isn't guaranteed, but Price puts the Tigers in a great spot.
The Tigers have the two-time American League Most Valuable Player in Miguel Cabrera. They also have stars at second base (Ian Kinsler) and DH (Victor Martinez) and very solid contributors in right (Torii Hunter) and other spots. But the A's have more depth than almost anyone, an offense that bangs balls in the gap, that runs well, keeps pressure constantly on. They'll miss Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of the lineup, but in attempting to create a dominant rotation, they had to give up something to get something.
In the end, it's simple. It's about big players performing big at the most important time of the year. Cabrera will be incredibly motivated after practically playing on one leg last October. For the A's, that player might be Josh Donaldson or Coco Crisp or Brandon Moss.
This might be the best matchup of all. Billy Beane of the A's and Dave Dombrowski are the senior general managers in the game. They're both incredibly competitive and innovative. They both have long, distinguished track records in the game. There's one other thing about the two. That's that neither is afraid to trade a kid. They see prospects as a vehicle to do something here and now. They're two of the best.
Here we have two former catchers, Bob Melvin of the A's and Brad Ausmus of the Tigers. No manager is more respected by his players than Melvin. He mixes and matches his lineups, platoons all over the place, and his players believe in him because he's honest and competent, because they know he only wants what's best for the A's. He has zero agenda. Dombrowski took a gamble in going from a manager with 3,499 games of experience to one with zero. Yet Brad Ausmus has done just fine as Jim Leyland's replacement. Like Melvin and Mike Matheny and other big-league catchers, he was respected for his toughness, intellect and smarts. If Dombrowski could have made a better hire, it would be hard to find it.
Who plays better in September? Who steps up in October? Maybe these two teams won't even end up playing one another. After all, the Orioles and Angels both appear to be formidable teams, and the Mariners, Royals and others still have postseason hopes. But this baseball season appears to be headed toward a third straight Tigers-A's series. Here's hoping the fun continues.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.