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Tigers vs. Twins Series Preview: First place in the AL Central is on the line

It’s an early season battle for division supremacy as the Twins visit Comerica Park.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Early season standings always make for good discussion fodder, but are rarely predictive of how the rest of the regular season will shake out. On this date last year, for instance, the respective American League division winners were all at .500. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles were undefeated at 6-0, while the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals were atop the AL Central. Sure, we can pick and choose a season where things played out as scripted from day one, but there are always certain oddities to be found when looking at such a small sample of games.

So, any talk of jostling for position in the division or wild card playoff races in mid-April — especially in the headline above — should be taken with a large grain of salt. The Minnesota Twins come to Detroit with five wins in their first six games of the season, but even their fans believe that the team’s hot start is too good to be true. They have an MLB-best run differential of +17, but nearly all of that came in two blowout wins over the Kansas City Royals to open the season. The Detroit Tigers, for instance, are still in the negative after an 11-2 drubbing in Chicago last week.

In other words, we’re still dealing with sample sizes too small to draw any definitive conclusions about whether either of these teams will be playoff contenders in 2017. We’ll start to learn more over the next three games, but we will have to check back later in the season to see if any of these early signs truly meant anything big.

Pitching Matchups

Game 1: LHP Hector Santiago (1-0, 1.80 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (0-1, 19.29 ERA)

The Twins acquired Santiago from the Los Angeles Angels in a “change of scenery” trade of sorts last August. Heading to Los Angeles were former top prospect Alex Meyer and struggling veteran Ricky Nolasco. Naturally, Nolasco improved after heading out west, while Santiago flopped to a 5.58 ERA in 11 starts.

It’s too early to say that things might be different in 2017, but Santiago was solid in his first start, allowing a run on four hits in five innings. He was a solid mid-rotation starter in the first four seasons of his career, compiling a 3.58 ERA in 139 games (including 83 starts) with the Angels and Chicago White Sox. While his peripherals were always a bit of a mess, he generates enough lazy fly balls to get out of trouble. This plays particularly well at Comerica Park, where he has a career 2.83 ERA in 28 23 innings.

Game 2: RHP Kyle Gibson (0-0, 5.40 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

There is perhaps no pitcher more emblematic of the Twins’ fall from grace than Kyle Gibson. During their heyday a decade ago, the Scott Bakers and and Nick Blackburns of the world were pitching to contact with great effect. Among the other things they did well in order to post ERAs, both pitchers — along with the unforgettable Kevin Slowey — posted very low walk rates. Gibson has not been able to command the ball quite as well, and his ERA has suffered as a result.

Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison. After all, Gibson posted a 3.84 ERA in 194 23 innings for the Twins in 2015, and has been worth 5.9 fWAR over the past three seasons. However, he is a product of the organization’s disregard for baseball’s strikeout revolution, which has left them with one of the worst pitching staffs in the game. Gibson himself is a perfectly adequate starter, though one that might be starting to break down after battling a shoulder injury in 2016. His velocity has steadily declined over the past few years, and he averaged just 90.6 miles per hour with his two-seam fastball in his first start of 2017.

Game 3: RHP Phil Hughes (1-0, 1.50 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-0, 1.50 ERA)

After posting a record-setting 11.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 209 23 innings in 2014, the Twins rewarded Phil Hughes with a rather unnecessary contract extension. Not only did the new deal pay him more money in the short term, but it also guaranteed him an extra $39.6 million from 2017 to 2019. Given Hughes’ shaky history — he had a career 4.53 ERA and some serious homer problems prior to 2014 — the new contract seemed... ill-advised, to put it nicely.

One might argue it has been a disaster. Hughes was passable in 2015, allowing a 4.40 ERA and 4.70 FIP in 155 13 innings. He gave up a league-high 29 home runs and saw his strikeout rate plummet to just 14.4 percent, but made 25 starts at a relatively cheap $9.2 million price tag. Last season, things went off the rails. Hughes suffered a fractured knee after getting hit with a line drive in early June, then underwent thoracic outlet surgery later that month, ending his season. In the 12 appearances he did make, Hughes allowed a 5.95 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 59 innings. While he was solid in his first start of 2017, his velocity is way down. Thoracic outlet surgery has always been a tough rehab for pitchers, and Hughes may never regain the mid-rotation form he briefly flashed for the Twins a few years ago.

Miggy finally looks like Miggy

Miguel Cabrera went 0-for-4 in the Tigers’ win against the Boston Red Sox on Monday, but it was as encouraging a hitless game as one can be. Cabrera hit the ball hard in three of his four at-bats, including a deep shot to the warning track in Comerica Park’s spacious right-center field. With some warmer temperatures or more favorable wind conditions, Cabrera might have ended up with his first home run of 2017. He will surely break out of this slump at some point — he seems to have a bad two-week stretch every year — and Monday’s game might have been an early sign of life from Detroit’s slumbering slugger.

Meanwhile, Twins third baseman Miguel Sano has looked an awful lot like the other Miguel so far in 2017. In his team’s first six games, Sano has hit .350/.458/.850 with two home runs and eight RBI. Five of his seven hits have gone for extra bases thus far, including a bases-clearing triple in the team’s second game of the year. Sano struggled for most of last season, but was a menace in the middle of the Twins’ lineup in 2015. If he can return to something approaching that 150 wRC+ form, the Twins are a much more dangerous team than expected.

How the Tigers win the series

Every old school baseball announcer and analyst will always praise the merits of working counts, getting a starting pitcher out of a game, and diving into the opposition’s bullpen. While it’s pretty easy to point at this as a recipe for success in nearly any single game, it’s especially prudent against the Twins. Last season, Minnesota’s bullpen had the worst ERA in the American League, at 4.63. They were also worst in the AL with 73 home runs allowed, and rated as among the worst in the AL in most advanced metrics, including FIP (4.18) and xFIP (4.12).

While they have gotten off to a nice start in 2017, this group has not changed much from last season. Former closer Glen Perkins, one of the bright spots on the Twins’ staff in recent years, is still on the disabled list recovering from shoulder surgery. Newcomers Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow have had modest success in their careers, but also come with major question marks. None of their relievers compiled a full win above replacement last year, and only two — righty Ryan Pressly and lefty Taylor Rogers — were worth more than half a win. There is not a lockdown arm in the bunch, and they could be susceptible to a powerful Tigers lineup that has hit the ball well so far in 2017.