After all the ups and downs, the Tigers are back in the postseason, and back into the mindset of unfinished business from last year. How they fare depends a ton on what kind of stretch they're in. The names have changed a bit -- delete Doug Fister, insert David Price -- but the reasons Detroit could get on another roll to the World Series are much the same as last year.
1. The starting rotation is built for October.
Perhaps this sounds familiar, but it's never more relevant than in October: The strength of the Tigers is in their starting rotation. Its regular-season pedigree took some damage this season with an ERA hovering near 4.00 and planted in the bottom half of AL staffs. Yet that same group includes the last three AL Cy Young Award winners and 14 combined postseason victories, and found its form in time to help find a path into the postseason.
The way Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello held down the Royals in their AL Central showdown last weekend -- and in Verlander's case, backing it up by dueling Chris Sale in his regular-season finale -- showed how valuable this group remains in games that mean the most. Scherzer arguably outpitched his 2013 Cy Young Award-winning form, but he didn't get the wins to show for it. Porcello has enjoyed a breakout season that should put him in the playoff rotation, despite his September struggles. Verlander has stopped tinkering and started doing more with lesser stuff.
The key could well end up being Price, who has largely struggled since coming over to Detroit, but who came within three outs of a shutout in a near must-win game. It's a good enough group that Anibal Sanchez is ticketed for the bullpen.
2. Miguel Cabrera is peaking at the right time.
After a summer of doubt and distrust over whether the three-time batting champ is healthy, Cabrera has found a workable swing through the ankle and core-muscle issues that have hampered him for most of the year. For September, he put up his highest home run and hit totals since May, and he powered baseballs to all fields in a way he hadn't done all season.
Cabrera's not healthy by any stretch, but he's not hampered anywhere near the way he was last October. In short, he has given pitchers a reminder to fear him again. With AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate Victor Martinez batting behind him with better numbers and more power potential, Cabrera has ample reason to expect to see strikes this postseason.
3. J.D. Martinez stretches out the middle of the order.
Yes, a player the Astros released in March could help the Tigers win it all in October. He has already stretched out the heart of the order in a lineup Detroit has pieced together since the Austin Jackson experiment in the middle of the order didn't work out.
Effectively, Martinez has filled the power void left by Prince Fielder's trade to Texas. Martinez's batting average and slugging percentage both trump Fielder's numbers from 2012, the year the Tigers made it to the World Series. The better comparison for postseason impact, however, could be Delmon Young, who hit eight home runs with 15 RBIs over the '11 and '12 postseasons and caught teams' attention with runners on base.
Martinez's numbers in the late innings of close games strongly suggest a chance for postseason dramatics. When he's on, he's giving some teams pause when considering whether to walk Victor Martinez ahead of him. His power to all fields earns comparisons to Cabrera. He has the makings of an October hero in the same year as a brief stint of unemployment in March.
4. Rajai Davis signed for times like this.
Remember last postseason, when Fielder's slip and fall trying to scramble back to third base became a symbol of the plodding Tigers' one-dimensional offense? They recalled it when they brought in Davis for an infusion of speed. And Davis, who has stolen more bases this season than the Tigers did as a team last year, is getting his first chance at postseason play as his 34th birthday approaches.
Detroit envisioned Davis splitting time in left field when they signed him, but he became the regular center fielder once the Tigers traded Jackson in the Price deal. That also means his speed is in the lineup on a regular basis, normally at the bottom of the order. His stolen-base ratio has always included an incredible success rate stealing third base, a factor that could become vital in manufacturing runs against standout pitching in October.
5. This team plays well in big games.
Say what you will about the inability to run away with the AL Central, but the Tigers fared best against top-level competition. They went 13-6 against the Royals, essentially winning the division head-to-head, but that's just the start. Detroit went 5-2 against Oakland, 5-1 against Baltimore, 3-1 against the Dodgers and and 3-4 with three 2-1 games against the Angels.
The Tigers needed just about all of those wins over the Royals down the stretch to take the AL Central at the end, much like they had to do to take the division in 2012. That year, Detroit carried the momentum of a late-season run all the way to the World Series. The club cruised in relatively easy fashion for most of September last year and never found its stride in October.