The Cleveland Indians vs. The Detroit Tigers Part One: The Position Players

Barring any ridiculously strong second half's from the Twins, White Sox or Royals it appears the race for the American League Central division will be a two team dogfight between the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers.

The Twins, who sit only 5 games behind the Tigers heading into Monday's games, might be a sleeper here, but Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds give the Indians and Tigers the strongest chances or reaching the postseason at 71% and 68% respectively.  

The question isn't so much which team will make the playoffs, there is a strong possibility both of these teams play October baseball, but rather which team is going to win the A.L. Central crown. The two have seesawed atop the division standings all year with Cleveland currently having a 1.5 game edge on Detroit.  

Let's take a look at each team on a position to position standpoint and determine just who has the edge where in one of baseball's most exciting races of the 2007 season.

Catcher:

Indians:  .341/.413/.573.  Key Players:  Victor Martinez (34.5 VORP), Kelly Shoppach (15.5 VORP).

Tigers:  .283/.303/.437.  Key Players:  Ivan Rodriguez (8.9 VORP), Mike Rabelo (0.3 VORP).

Clear edge to the Indians here, whose backup catcher has a higher VORP than Detroit's starting catcher.  Victor Martinez currently leads all catchers in VORP with 34.5 runs while Shoppach's figure is higher than many starting backstops including Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada, Bengie Molina, Jason Varitek and Michael Barrett.  Not that we should expect Shoppach to hit .380 the rest of the year, but he's an above average backup in the long run of the season.  Martinez has always drawn criticism for his defense behind the plate, but his current Rate of 100 is a career high and he's hitting better than he ever has.  

Pudge is still much more than replacement level talent, but he's once again hitting for a sub .300 on-base percentage and the guy just won't take a walk, literally.  He's walked four times the entire season.  The Tigers see a lot of value in his ability to handle a pitching staff, call games and play great defense which he has this season (106 Rate), but that still doesn't bring him even close to Martinez overall value.

First Base:

Indians:  .275/.342/.430.  Key Player:  Ryan Garko (11.4 VORP).

Tigers:  .291/.350/.411.  Key Players:  Sean Casey (7.9 VORP), Marcus Thames (0.4 VORP).

You typically expect power production from your first baseman, but both the Tigers and Indians aren't even getting .450 slugging percentages from theirs.  

With Ryan Garko, what you see is what you get.  The guy is already 26 years old and he's likely peaked, but some of his comparables include Derrek Lee, Paul Konerko and Aramis Ramirez so don't discount him as a possible late bloomer quite yet.  He's hit left-handed and right-handed equally well over his major league career, so he doesn't need to be platooned and his starting job at first base is secure in Cleveland.  His PECOTA projected batting line of .269/.340/.442 wasn't pretty to begin with, but as I mentioned, don't discount the late-bloomer effect here.

The Tigers first base situation is equally mediocre with Sean Casey and Marcus Thames combining to hit a mere nine home runs in 355 at-bats, eight coming off the bat of Thames.  Casey is hardly an everyday player anymore as any of whatever power remained in his bat has been zapped while Thames has performed well below expectations hitting .232/.277/.464 on the season.

I like Garko's upside here and I'll give Cleveland the edge.

Second Base:

Indians:  .259/.285/.342.  Key Player:  Josh Barfield (-4.0 VORP).

Tigers:  .332/.372/.429.  Key Player:  Placido Polanco (19.7 VORP).

In terms of OPS, Cleveland's collective production from second base ranks dead last in the American League at .627.  Josh Barfield hasn't done anything with the bat this season, hitting .262/.284/.346; his VORP in negative digits.  His glove has also shown decline in terms of Rate (107 in 2006 opposed to 87 in 2007).  The Indians have shown a ton of patience with Barfield, giving him 286 at-bats on the year, and without any ready alternative in the minor leagues they're stuck hoping he picks things up in the second half.

The Tigers on the other hand have an All-Star at second base.  Not that I believe Polanco was the most deserving candidate to start for the A.L. All-Stars, but he's putting together another fine season. Polanco is one of the league leaders in line-drive percentage meaning that .333 batting average is real.  As long as he keeps making contact and also keeps catching the ball (109 Rate), The Tigers have themselves one of the leagues best at second base.

Clear edge to the Tigers here.

Shortstop:

Indians:  .271/.347/.451.  Key Player:  Jhonny Peralta (20.6 VORP).

Tigers:  .306/.373/.515.  Key Player:  Carlos Guillen (31.3 VORP), Neifi Perez (-5.1 VORP).

PECOTA predicted a strong bounce-back season from Jhonny Peralta this year and he's done so thus far hitting .281/.355/.469.  He continues to play strong defense (109 Rate) and if he keeps things going with the bat he could be a sleeper for the American League Comeback Player of the Year Award.

In terms of OPS, Detroit's collective production from the shortstop position ranks first in the American League at .888.  Carlos Guillen continues to mash hitting .323/.390/.564, but his defensive struggles continue.  His Rate of 88 is his lowest since 2002 and concerns that he may eventually move to first base loom.  That said, he's still an awfully productive shortstop and as long as Neifi Perez doesn't see as much playing time with the Tigers as he did with the Cubs, the Tigers are going to be just fine at this position.

Defense included this is a tough choice, but I'll give Detroit the edge here.

Third Base:

Indians:  .245/.318/.401.  Key Players:  Casey Blake (15.6 VORP), Andy Marte (-4.0 VORP), Mike Rouse (-7.2 VORP).

Tigers:  .249/.339/.418.  Key Player:  Brandon Inge (11.1 VORP).

As with the first base position, both teams are getting below average production from their bats at the hot corner.

Andy Marte lost nearly a month of major league playing time as he was sent down to AAA at the end of April.  He's back with the big league club, but hasn't shown any promise this season hitting .180/.212/.300 in 50 at-bats.  Casey Blake has played relatively well as the teams starting third baseman, but he still struggles against right-handed pitching and needs to be platooned.  If Marte can ever figure the major leagues out he'll be an immediate upgrade, but that potential that once ranked him as one of baseball's elite prospects is fading in a hurry.

Brandon Inge is hitting right around where PECOTA expected him too, but he's drawing quite a few more walks this year.  He continues to play good defense at third base (103 Rate), but he's no lock for an .800 OPS either.  This situation has mediocrity written all over it.

Another close one, but I'll give Detroit the edge.

Leftfield:

Indians:  .267/.325/.455.  Key Players:  Jason Michaels (7.4 VORP), David Dellucci (-1.4 VORP).

Tigers:  .230/.282/.391.  Key Player:  Craig Monroe (-6.5 VORP).

The American League average leftfielder is only hitting for a .735 OPS, so Cleveland is actually above average here, but is still isn't pretty.  David Dellucci looked like an offseason steal for the Tribe after they signed him to a relatively cheap 3 year/$11.5M deal, but he's floundered so far hitting for a negative VORP.  He won't be back anytime soon either; left hamstring surgery will sideline him for an estimated 8 to 10 weeks.  Jason Michaels looked like a good player to platoon with Dellucci, but he now enters Cleveland's outfield picture as the team's everyday leftfielder.  He's no starter and he still can't hit right-handed pitching so there needs to be a better solution somewhere.

Unfortunately for Detroit, their situation in left is even worse.  Craig Monore isn't hitting at all this season, but should we have expected him too?  PECOTA projected a 7.4 VORP from Monroe, so the situation wasn't real appealing to begin with.  You have to wonder if the Tigers will make some sort of a move here, either within or outside of the organization, because if Monroe doesn't pick things up he might find his way to the bench quickly.  His VORP ranks dead last among Tigers' positional players.

The edge goes to Cleveland.

Centerfield:  

Indians:  .282/.397/.465.  Key Player:  Grady Sizemore (35.2 VORP).

Tigers:  .297/.348/.552.  Key Players:  Curtis Granderson (31.5 VORP), Omar Infante (2.3 VORP).

Arguably the two most exciting young players for each club are Grady Sizemore and Curtis Granderson and the numbers explain why.  Sizemore's leads the two in VORP, but the Tigers are getting a .900 OPS collectively from their centerfielders which leads the American League and Granderson has played stronger defense according to Rate (106 compared to Sizemore's Rate of 92).

Another tough call and even though I think Sizemore is a better player then Granderson in the long run nobody is getting the edge here.  This one's even.

Rightfield:

Indians:  .275/.349/.403.  Key Players:  Trot Nixon (-1.0 VORP), Franklin Gutierrez (4.5 VORP).

Tigers:  .363/.442/.614.  Key Player:  Magglio Ordonez (51.4 VORP).

A tale of opposites in rightfield.

Trot Nixon has simply been awful in his first season with Cleveland and while he was always a guy that needed to be platooned, he hasn't hit left-handers or right-handers this season.  The Indians need to start giving the better yet mediocre Franklin Gutierrez the majority of plate appearances for the rightfield spot.  

For Detroit, Magglio Ordonez is having an MVP-caliber season.  After posting VORP's of 14.4 and 27.6 runs for the Tigers in his first two seasons with the club, Ordonez is hitting .370/.445/.620 in 2007. Only Alex Rodriguez has a higher VORP than Ordonez thus far into the year.  It's reasonable to expect him to slump a little at least once in the second half, but the Tigers have a very clear edge here.

Designated Hitter:

Indians:  .259/.409/.467.  Key Player:  Travis Hafner (19.4 VORP)

Tigers:  .273/.381/.524.  Key Player:  Gary Sheffield (29.3 VORP)

For a guy that slugged .659 and .595 over the past two seasons respectively, Travis Hafner is having a down year.  Right now he's slugging only .451 and on pace for a sub 30 home run season.  I'm not sure what's exactly wrong with him, but the massive declines in batting average and slugging percentage need to be a bit concerning to Indians fans.  Perhaps I'm missing something here, but it's quite Hafner is having a pretty disappointing 2007 campaign.

PECOTA projected a .279/.351/.436 batting line and a VORP of 12.9 runs from Gary Sheffield to begin the year, likely because he was getting a year older and the new park he would call home was the pitcher-friendly Comerica, but Sheffield is having a monster season.  His VORP is second to David Ortiz among designated hitters while Comerica hasn't slowed him down one bit:  He's hitting .295/.396/.553 at home this season.

I think Travis Hafner is the better player here and that he'll start hitting like the old Hafner did in the second half of this season, but you can't argue with the numbers.  Edge to Detroit.

Because this has been a rather lengthy piece, I'm going to save the starting rotation and bullpen comparisons for Wednesday.  So far I have Detroit up on Cleveland 5 to 3 in terms of position by position winner (centerfield being a neutral vote), but a few of these could go either way.

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