June 24, 2016

Mostly sunny

Tribe commentary: Wild-card berth not best option

Almost from the start of the season it appeared that the Indians’ best path to the postseason was through one of the wild-card berths in the American League.

The two-time defending Central Division champion Tigers looked like the team to beat in the AL, with many picking Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and the boys to win the World Series.

So, it stood to reason, that Detroit, which employs possibly the majors’ best starting rotation, and two elite run producers in Cabrera and first baseman Prince Fielder — would win the division.

That left Cleveland, a more talented team than it had been for years to be certain, to scrap for a wild-card berth.

Now, that direction to the playoffs looks like a tougher trek.

The Tigers entered Saturday with a 57-45 record, which would have qualified for fourth place in the East Division. One, if not both of the AL wild cards entrants Tampa Bay, Boston or Baltimore — almost assuredly will come from that division. Cleveland also has to vie with Texas or Oakland in the West in the wild-card race.

Taking out the Tigers, as vaunted a task as it might have seemed to start the season, might be the easier route to the playoffs now.

What’s working for the Indians? For starters, the Tigers aren’t playing like projected world champions. They would be atop just one division in baseball — the NL West. Simply put, they aren’t playing as well as the Indians’ projected wild-card competitors.

Justin Verlander (10-8, 3.99 ERA) isn’t pitching like the ace he has in the past, and Detroit’s bullpen, which has been shaky all season, is without a legitimate closer. And now, Cabrera has an ailing hip to accompany his balky back. If he’s not the same hitter he’s been for much of the year, it can only benefit the Indians.

What’s working against Cleveland? Over the past few seasons, the Tigers have shown the ability to turn it on when they needed to, burying the Indians in August last year.

And though Verlander isn’t pitching like the perennial Cy Young candidate he has been, Detroit has right-hander Max Scherzer (14-1, 3.14) to fill that role, with Scherzer starting the All-Star Game — a spot reserved for the league’s best starting pitcher to that point.

The Tigers also employ one of the big league’s most potent offenses — one that doesn’t simply rely on Cabrera and Fielder. Shortstop Johnny Peralta and right fielder Torii Hunter were all-stars this season, and Victor Martinez is in the “professional hitter” category.

Bottom line, the Tigers are still the better team, and they’ve proven it on the field this year, where they have beaten the Indians nine times in 12 meetings.

Still, the best teams don’t always win, especially when some of their big guns are either banged up or not performing to their usual elite level.

I guess the question is: Would you rather compete with one team that hasn’t performed up to its abilities for much of the season, or four or five teams that have played better than you for two spots?

Today, I would take the first option. In my opinion, it’s the most feasible route to a return trip to the playoffs for the Indians, who haven’t seen more than 162 games since 2007.

Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com.