It might seem like a silly question to ask this late in the season with the Tigers still sitting far back in the American League Central and all, but like it or not there will be baseball in Detroit this September. It’s likely that even without a 2010 playoff appearance, the Jim Leyland-Dave Dombrowski era will continue into 2011.
What fans see in September will look more like an organized tryout than a pennant race, as Baseball Prospectus currently sets the Motor City Kitties playoff chances below 1%.
This is troubling for a city that hasn’t seen its team in the playoffs since the magical 2006 season, but it’s especially troubling for the Most Valuable Player award chances of first basemen Miguel Cabrera.
Not since the Texas Rangers’ Alex Rodriguez in 2003 has a player on a team that didn’t make the playoffs been voted MVP by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Whether he’s given the award or not, so far this season Cabrera has established himself as the best offensive player in the American League, leading the league in most important offensive categories (1.084 OPS) despite playing half of his games in spacious Comerica Park.
The Tigers’ place in the standings might hurt him when it’s time for the writers to put in their ballots, but the lineup around him is already costing Cabrera. Through July, Cabrera hadn’t walked more than 15 times in a single month. Coming into Tuesday night’s game at Minnesota, Cabrera had already been walked 28 times in August, 13 of which were intentionally issued. He leads the league with 27 total intentional walks.
Who knows what kind of numbers Cabrera would have if he had been blessed with the lineup protection and hitter-friendly home ballpark of Josh Hamilton, the current AL batting leader, hitting .359 for the West division leading Rangers and drawing plenty of MVP-buzz.
The Tigers will use this month to get a better look at some young players we could see make an impact next year. Sure, Scott Sizemore looked over matched hitting just .205 in 36 games with the big club this year, but he’s been a consistent minor league hitter and deserves another shot at being the second basemen of the future.
Reliever Daniel Schlereth, acquired in the Curtis Granderson deal (or as it’s known in Tigers circles “The Max Scherzer Deal”), has had his problems with walks. He’s never posted a rate below four walks per nine innings at any level of professional baseball. September is the perfect time to give him an extended look and see if he can’t position himself for a high-leverage bullpen role next year since the tigers have nothing to lose.
Another thing to look for this month is the offensive output of outfielder Ryan Raburn. The Tigers have viewed Raburn as more of a complementary piece in the past. They even tried shopping him around prior to the 2009 season where he produced an OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) of .891 in 291 plate appearances with most of the damage coming against left-handed pitching.
Despite that production, Raburn wasn’t handed a starting job for 2010. In fact, he was blocked out of the corner outfield by the Johnny Damon signing and an early season surge by Brennan Boesch.
In the second half, with Magglio Ordonez’s season-ending ankle injury and Boesch’s batting average collapse, Raburn finally had the opportunity for consistent playing time. Having started just 39 games the first four months of the season, Raburn delivered in his 23 August starts posting a Cabrera-esque 1.010 OPS in 107 plate appearances.
For a team as desperate for offense as the Tigers have been (4.46 runs per game, 17th in MLB), it seems the answer was sitting under their nose—on the bench—the entire time.
It’s not too late. In 2011 Raburn will be just 30 years old and primed to put together a complete offensive season or maybe even break 400 plate appearances for the first time.
Despite his sometimes shaky outfield play, Raburn is quick and has a plus throwing arm. Forget his defensive play. If he continues to hit in September how do the Tigers not finally throw a starting job his way in 2011?
So, summer has come and will soon go without the Tigers contending. But, there will be baseball. There’s always baseball, there’s always hope, and there’s always next year.