FOX Sports' normally lucid Jon Paul Morosi is at spring training and has whipped up your typical early spring fluff piece about the up and coming Cleveland Indians. He buys wholeheartedly into their belief the Detroit Tigers are ripe for the taking. But he starts making a case for the Tribe overtaking the Tigers by bringing up the deceiving 2013 season standings.
One game. That's it.
But there is more there to those final standings than what the naked eye shows you. To mix metaphors, standings are more than skin deep.
After clinching the Central, the Tigers went with a backup filled, Triple-A lineup and were swept by the Marlins to end the season (ending the year in nightmarish fashion by getting no-hit in game 162). But Jim Leyland was more concerned about getting his post-season ducks in a row and keeping Miguel Cabrera's groin from exploding than worrying about the Indians in the standings. Meanwhile, the Tribe ended their season on an essentially meaningless 10-game winning streak by clubbing the Little Sisters of the Poor (aka the Astros, Twins and White Sox) like baby seals.
Indians manager Terry Francona says as much when asked about the one game difference by Morosi.
"To be fair about it, though, they knew they won," Indians manager Terry Francona reminded me Sunday, referring to how the Tigers lost their final three games after clinching. "They kind of manhandled us during the year, and they took care of what they needed to. I understand your point: We ended up being one game back.
"But with a week to go, they knew they had it. So . . . we have a ways to go."
I can only imagine how that discussion went...
Morosi: That sure was a close divisional race! You lost the Central by one game to the powerful Tigers!
Francona: Jon, second place is just first loser. We were 8 1/2 games back at the end of August when the Tigers took 2-of-3 from us in Cleveland, when we really needed to sweep. It was devastating. Realistically, the season was all but over at that point. We made a nice 10-0 run to end the season, but it was against bad teams with absolutely nothing to play for. Their pride ships had sailed long ago, making the final two weeks deceiving. We did go 10-0, but to be honest, the Tigers took their foot off the gas in the final week. Once they officially clinched, does it even matter where we placed in the standings? Lose by one game, lose by ten games, it all means less than zero going into 2014.
Morosi: But ONE GAME! What a great pennant race! If only you had won two more games in the season series.
Francona: (shakes head, walks away)
Morosi still can't let go of the one game narrative.
Yet . . . look at those 2013 standings again: One game (Morosi's emphasis).
Please. Stop. It.
Baseball has had more than its fair share of races which looked far closer at the end of a season than they were in reality. The 1988 Tigers finished just ONE GAME behind the Red Sox. But just as the Tigers did in 2013, the Red Sox eased off the accelerator in 1988 and were swept to end the season. It didn't mean a thing because the Tigers lost their chances at a division title by starting the month of September with a 2-12 record. Yes, they finished only ONE GAME BACK. The narrative says it was a close race. But anyone who lived through that miserable month knows the AL East was not as nearly as close as the final numbers make it appear.
The same goes for the 2013 Central. Indians fans knew their division hopes were over when the Tigers won 10-5 on August 31, extending their lead to a season-high 8 1/2 games.
Forging forward, Morosi goes on to point out the Tigers are a different team in 2014, playing the "Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera are aging and injured" and "Prince Fielder and Doug Fister were traded" cards. I'm not going to quibble with him over the bullpen: even with Joe Nathan in the fold, question marks remain. (such as, how bad will Joba Chamberlain's facial hair be in the coming season?)
Cabrera and Verlander, both of whom will play this season at 31, underwent core muscle repair surgeries in the offseason. Relief pitching is a major concern in Detroit, coming off a year in which the Tigers had the worst bullpen ERA of any AL contender -- despite a rotation that logged the most innings in the majors. Rested bullpens are supposed to perform better, not worse. What happens if the Detroit relievers are asked to cover more innings in 2014, as the rotation regresses because of its heavy workload in recent years?
All are legit quibbles, meaning the Indians could flip the table on the Tigers, despite having one massive and possibly fatal flaw. They have little to no starting pitching. But let's just harp on the Tigers' holes, without mentioning how they also improved on defense and on the bases, and have an owner who will spend money on legitimate superstars whom have won the last four MVPs and two of the llast three Cy Youngs..
Without Fielder and Fister, shouldn't the Indians be able to turn that 15-4 season series into, say, 13-6? Last year, as it turned out, that would have been enough. If you were in the Indians' clubhouse, might you take stock of your rival -- with the losses of two players who stung you so routinely -- and wonder if 2014 is the year to overtake the mighty Tigers?
Putting season standings in a vacuum is a fool's errand. You can't say with any confidence if you change X from last season, Y will be different in the coming season's standings. Baseball just doesn't work that way. Let's say the Tribe do end the 2013 season 13-6 over the Tigers. Wouldn't the Tigers have treated the final two weeks differently if they had been swept in that late August series in Cleveland? I sure as hell doubt the Tigers would have pulled all their starters after one at-bat and starting pitchers after five innings against the Marlins.
Morosi also ignores the Indians' record against the White Sox, an insane 17-2, many of those wins in beyond ridiculous walk-off fashion. That ain't happening in 2014, even if the Sox remain bottom feeders. The Tigers may not have a 15-4 record against the Indians, but there's no way the Tribe can reproduce another 17-2 outlier against the White Sox. As we've seen in, well, forever, these things tend to balance out.
And we haven't even discussed the elephant in Cleveland's room, their losing starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir and their 340 2/3 innings. The Tigers had the luxury of trading Fister to (hopefully) improve their future depth. They also had another reason. Drew Smyly was patiently waiting in the wings, having already proven he can get big league batters out as a starter and reliever. The Tribe aren't nearly as deep, crossing their fingers that Corey Kluber isn't a one-year wonder and that the undeniably talented (but very young) Danny Salazar can live up to his potential over a full season. Even then, they have no clue as to who could step up at the bottom of the rotation.
Morosi proceeds to shoot down everything written earlier about the Tribe overtaking the Tigers when he compares rotations.
The starting rotation, though, looms as the major question. Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir are gone after accounting for 61 starts and 23 victories in 2014. Even without Fister, the Tigers have a superior rotation.
Detroit: Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly.
Cleveland: Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Danny Salazar, and a fifth-starter derby involving Aaron Harang, Shaun Marcum, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer.
Saying the Tigers' rotation is "superior" is being overly generous to the Indians and a bit insulting to Detroit, which fits the theme of the column. Of course, Morosi claims there's a caveat.
As with the standings, though, the difference might not be as immense as you might think.
"We don't even necessarily know who our full rotation is quite yet," Swisher said. "But Corey Kluber had an amazing year last year. No one even knew who this cat was. Next thing you know, he's running 94-mph cutters off people's knuckles.
"Then you take a guy like Danny Salazar. He's throwing 100 miles an hour like it's nothin'. You bring up these young studs, these young thundercats, man -- the sky's the limit for us."
Hey, if Nick Swisher says...BWAHAHHAHA!!! Hell, I can't keep a straight face. And really? Thundercats? (rolls eyes)
Morosi also wants to bring up the BS known as "clubhouse chemistry."
With the first and perhaps only "thundercats" reference of the spring, Swisher highlighted another of the team's attributes: Due in large part to the culture Francona brought when he took the job before last season, the Indians have one of the most entertaining clubhouses in baseball. Even on a Sunday morning before the official start of full-squad workouts, Swisher held court -- at midseason volume -- as Bourn and others laughed.
They won't be laughing much if the Indians start losing. Chemistry has long been the media's way of saying you win more than you lose. No one cares about a happy-go-lucky clubhouse when you aren't in playoff contention, they just ask why you don't win more damn games. So what does Morosi do? He doubles down on the BS, going over-the-top with the "happy clubhouse makes a good team" schtick.
As the din rose with pockets of conversation popping up throughout the room, it became obvious: These guys really like each other. As the 2013 Red Sox (and 2012 Giants) have demonstrated recently, that matters.
Even though the Tigers have long been known to have a very good clubhouse since Leyland arrived (which just happens to be when Detroit started to win lots of games, who woulda thunk it?), they lost to the Red Sox because they weren't happy-go-lucky enough and didn't grow horrific-looking beards? And to think I believed it was because the Tigers didn't hit a God damn lick and gave up two gut-punch grand slams (powered by scraggly beards, apparently). Glad Morosi cleared that up.
Morosi then quotes David Murphy, whom the Indians signed on the relative cheap after he posted a .656 OPS with the Rangers in 2013. Happy to be making a guaranteed $11.5 million over the next two years despite coming off the worst season of his career, Murphy plays another trope, the grit-covered "Indians have more heart" card.
"Comparing this team to the Tigers, there's definitely a lot of heart in here. You look at the list of names on paper. You've got Cabrera. You've got Verlander. You've got Scherzer. You've got Victor Martinez. The list goes on and on. We have some incredible talent in here -- Swisher, Carlos Santana, Kipnis."
Saying a team has more heart is like saying I have more heart than my co-managing editor, Kurt. I can't prove it, you can't prove it, just take my word for it. So the Tribe have more of the unquantifiable heart, but the Tigers have several things you can quantify - three straight division titles and a metric ton of awards - A three-time MVP, an MVP and Cy Young winner, and the reigning Cy Young. Murphy counters the Tigers' elite players with ... the King of the Bros. The .246 hitting Swisher is an incredible talent? That's news to me, and likely to the Indians' brass.
Don't forget Carlos Santana is being asked to learn a new position in 2014, third base. We know those changes always goes smoothly, right? Jason Kipnis, is well, "Kipnis", which is used interchangeably with four-letter words by Tigers fans. Regardless, I'll take proven MVP and Cy Young winners (not to mention they are award candidates in 2014) over "we'll try harder than the more talented guys." This isn't Avis versus Hertz, this is baseball.
Of course, Murphy isn't going to say anything other than awesome things about his teammates, but for Morosi to play it up? Gotta work the narrative, you know?
Murphy then trumps the "heart" card by playing the "underdog" card.
But let's be honest: Miguel Cabrera is a marquee name in major league baseball. Justin Verlander is a marquee name in major league baseball. It's nice to have that underdog mentality and be that team that's going to sneak in there and show, 'Hey, we can play with y'all. We're going to be right there."
I think Murphy watched "Major League" the night before he spoke to Morosi. Are we sure Francona is running the Indians? Apparently, Lou Brown is on the jiob instead.
Lou Brown: I thought you said we didn't have any high priced talent.
Charlie Donovan: Forget about Dorn, he's just high priced.
Pepper Leach: [Rick Vaughn pulls up on a motorcycle] Look at this fuckin' guy.
Lou Brown: My kinda team, Charlie, my kinda team.
Unfortunately, this isn't Hollywood, it's the rust belt. And a real-life Rick Vaughn isn't arriving from the California Penal league to save the Tribe.
After admitting his 2013 predictions were worse than a monkey on bad acid would have made, Morosi goes against his better judgment by closing with ...a prediction.
In the meantime, I'm comfortable making the following statement: The Indians are close to overtaking the Tigers atop the AL Central. And if you don't believe me, check the standings.
But, the one game ... Oh, for Christ's sake. I give up.