Rob: Alright, Jon. Let's talk about the biggest series of the year (so far). How much emphasis are you putting on this weekend's series? Do you think the division hinges on who comes away with two wins?
Jon: The Tigers seem to believe it's a decisive set. They're skipping Kyle Lobstein to get their main guys on the hill. On the whole, I agree with it. My only small question on the other side of the call is: I do wonder if Lobstein would cruise for a few innings since the Royals are unfamiliar with him. This has seemed to help him against the Tribe and the Yankees. But otherwise, I favor Ausmus' call here. It's a big series if either club generates a sweep. But 2-1 either way simply makes next week a free-for-all to the finish line.
R: I agree. The Tigers cannot afford to get swept whatsoever. The juggling of the rotation makes sense for multiple reasons. Obviously, you get your best guys on the mound, but it also sets up Max Scherzer to pitch in a potential wild card game on full rest. Lobstein may baffle the Royals for a few innings, but they hit better against left-handed pitching. This is the right move.
As for the series as a whole, I think the Tigers need to win two. That four game series against Minnesota to close out the season is looking more and more scary every time they score six inexplicable runs against our offense. Even the mighty David Price could not shut them down on Wednesday. How much of a letdown would it be to see the division lead fall away in the last weekend of the season?
J: Well, obviously not winning a fourth straight AL Central would be a huge disappointment on some levels. The Tigers have the top level talent in place in so many spots that the expectations are high. Victor Martinez is having a gem of a season, Rick Porcello came of age, and they found J.D. Martinez in the Lost and Found bin. It would be a shame to see the crown change hands.
The flip side? This is a club with a slipshod defense, a weak bench, and a thin bullpen. They aren't a powerhouse. Every club has flaws, and the Tigers aren't exempt. I didn't forecast a runaway this year, so if you look at the years from Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, you can see how things are tight.
R: Cabrera and Verlander not performing up to their usual standards is one of the issues, but so is the lack of depth. This is a team running out guys like Andrew Romine, Don Kelly, and Ezequiel Carrera on a near-nightly basis. Even Eugenio Suarez has fallen back to earth, and don't get me started on how bad the defense has been. On the flip side, the Royals aren't exactly world beaters either. This is a flawed team with serious issues up and down the lineup, and they have stumbled a bit after roaring into first place in August. It would not surprise me (or their fans) if they played .500 ball or worse in the next week and miss the postseason altogether.
Back to this series, though. What concerns you most about the Royals, given what we've seen from them so far this season?
J: Keys for the weekend? The Tigers benefited greatly in the last series against Kansas City in Motown when the Royals made some uncharacteristic defensive gaffes. I don't think the Tigers can count on that again. The Tigers need to generate some offense at the top of the order. If Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter can set the table more often, the Tigers can crank out some runs.
Kauffman Stadium is not a great home run park, but the Tigers have been hitting some deep balls lately. I think Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie can be had. Also, for whatever reason, the Tigers have had more luck against James Shields in Kansas City the last two years. With KC's bullpen troika looming late, it's important to get to the starters and power is the key.
Lastly, how healthy is Alex Avila? The Tigers need him to corral the Royals' running game a bit. He is also a better OBP presence than Bryan Holaday.
R: It seems weird that we're saying "hopefully the offense can get it done" after losing Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta from last year's roster, but that's how it feels like the last few weeks have gone. Scherzer and Price have struggled at times, Anibal Sanchez is hurt, and Justin Verlander still hasn't morphed back into Justin Verlander like he did in 2013. One could argue that Lobstein has been our best starter over the last month. Sure, it sounds like sour grapes when the rotation still leads the league in FIP and WAR, but a 3.93 ERA is not what we expected from this staff at the beginning of the season.
Unfortunately, I think this series comes down to whether the Tigers' bullpen will be able to hold a close lead. Kansas City has an excellent pitching staff and I think that runs will be hard to come by over the next few days (and if not, they will be in October). Will we see Brad Ausmus go away from Joe Nathan in the ninth inning? Does someone from the middle relief corps step up? Do we even know if Joakim Soria is still alive?
J: Yep, the bullpen. Oh my, the bullpen. As someone who didn't like the price paid to get Soria or the "dump Doug Fister/sign Joe Nathan" gambit, I still assumed both guys would pitch okay. Instead they've been every bit the issue as the others. Poor performance and injury issues.
Luckily, the Royals offense is mostly non-threatening. That should help the bullpen keep its head above water. But circle back to the offense for Detroit: create a three run cushion instead of a one run lead! (That point is from the Department of the Obvious..."big leads are better!")
For whatever reason, Lorenzo Cain is a guy I worry about. He's a defensive weapon and he has been a pain for the Tigers at times offensively.
J: Alright, Rob. Prediction time. I say the Tigers continue their dominance in the W/L column of the Royals. Sweep. I was at the Tigers' mauling sweep of the Royals in Kansas City back in May. This is September, but I think the Tigers rise to the occasion.
R: I'm confident that this team still takes the division, but in true 2014 Tigers form, they make it as difficult as possible. Kansas City takes two of three.
J: Obviously, I'm a massive homer and Rob is drinking hater-ade! September pennant race baseball: this is what we live for!