Changes Tigers should make to beat Texas in the ALCS
Ace Justin Verlander should be set up to make three starts in the series
Wilson Betemit and Alex Avila should be moved up in Jim Leyland's lineup
The last roster spot should be used on Will Rhymes, who adds versatility
Now that they've dispatched the Yankees in five games, is it enough for the Tigers to take the same approach to the ALCS matchup against the Texas Rangers that they used in beating up the AL East champs? What issues came up in the Division Series that they need to address, and what changes are necessitated by their new opponent? Here's some changes the Tigers should make for the series against Texas.
1. Ride the horse. The rain-induced changes to the Division Series schedule had a hidden benefit -- putting Justin Verlander on rotation to start the ALCS opener on full rest. While the Tigers beat the Yankees despite getting just nine innings from Verlander in five games, they certainly didn't dominate the series -- they were +1 run when Verlander was pitching, and -12 the rest of the time. There's no room to mess around against the Rangers. Jim Leyland should set Verlander to pitch twice on three days' rest, Games 1, 4 and if necessary, 7, while working everyone else in around his No. 1 starter. Max Scherzer, who went 32 pitches in Game 5 of the ALDS on Thursday, should be able to start Sunday's Game 2 on Sunday, and then Game 6. Doug Fister gets the Game 3 assignment, and Rick Porcello fills it out in Game 5. For the series' first three games Porcello, who gets groundballs and is tough on right-handers, bolsters a bullpen that was exposed a bit by the Yankees. The Tigers have a front-loaded roster and have gotten this far in no small part because of Verlander's greatness. They'll need to ask a bit more of him to get further.
2. Wilsonnnn!!!!!! After Wilson Betemit went 0-for-8 with four strikeouts in the first four games against the Yankees, Leyland sat him in Game 5 for Don Kelly. The hunch played off, as Kelly hit a homer as the game's second batter. That's a neat story, but the Tigers don't have nearly enough offensive depth to get cute with the hitters they do have. During the regular season, Betemit had an OBP more than 40 points higher than Kelly's, and the gap was more than 60 points against right-handers. Kelly's long ball aside, Betemit also has a huge advantage in power. Not only should Betemit be starting against right-handers, he should be batting the in the No. 2 hole; he's a strikeout/flyball hitter who rarely grounds into double plays and provides baserunners for the middle of the lineup to drive in.
3. While we're on the subject.... In general, Leyland's lineups have been a bit of a mess, with highly productive players like Betemit (.292/.346/.525 as a Tiger) and Alex Avila (.295/.389/.506) buried down below the likes of Kelly (.245/.291/.381), Magglio Ordo˝ez (.255/.303/.331) and even hero Delmon Young (.274/.289/.458 as a Tiger). Having so many low-OBP hitters in the top six lineup spots creates an offensive dysfunction that costs the team runs; they scored just 17 runs in five games in a series where they saw very little of the vaunted Yankees bullpen. Moving Betemit to No. 2 and Avila -- who seems to be playing hurt after being ridden hard by Leyland in the second half -- back towards the middle of the lineup and even getting Young out of the No. 3 spot would all help. The Tigers will benefit considerably by playing the Rangers, who will start at least four lefties in a seven-game series. Not only are the Tigers' heavily right-handed to start, the right sides of their platoons are more productive. Look for Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago to boost the Tigers' offense over the next two weeks.
4. Shuffle the roster. Twenty-three of the Tigers' 25 players got into the Division Series, with only pitcher Brad Penny and outfielder Andy Dirks not making it into a game. Penny is probably an unavoidable commitment as the only long man in a bullpen filled with short relievers, the pitcher who would come in during an early blowout or a 13-inning game. Dirks, however, doesn't bring much to the table, a .251/.296/.406 hitter during the season who doesn't have great speed and whose role as defensive replacement seems to be taken by Kelly in rightfield and Raburn in left. Among the options to replace him are Will Rhymes, the second base prospect who adds value as a stolen-base threat off the bench for a team that had just one player with more than five steals (Austin Jackson, 22).
The Tigers could also replace Dirks with veteran Carlos Guillen, whose strained calf kept him off the Division Series roster. Guillen batted just .232/.265/.368 in limited time and would probably be unable to play the field. A third option would be to add a 12th pitcher, although in-season trades don't leave much in the way of good choices. The Rangers' roster makes a third lefty unnecessary, and the right-handed options of David Pauley (7.23 ERA as a Tiger) or rookie Jacob Turner (8.53 ERA in three starts) aren't appetizing. Rhymes, who has some tactical value on a very slow team, would be the best selection for that last roster spot.
The Tigers have a front-loaded roster and are going to beat or not beat the Rangers based on what their stars do. Putting more of the ALCS in the hands of their best players, such as Verlander and Avila and Betemit, is their path to the World Series.