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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: Welcome to Tank Week

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With one week left in the regular season, the Tigers have a legitimate shot at the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Tigers fans were just hoping for a top-five pick in next year’s MLB draft. Now, ending up with the No. 3 pick would almost be a disappointment. The Tigers have been the worst team in baseball over the past month, losing 20 of their last 24 games. They have fallen to 62-94, and are just a half-game “behind” the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants for the worst record in baseball.

Yes, the Tigers are just a half-game away from the No. 1 pick.

If the season ended today, the Tigers would have the third overall pick in next year’s draft. They have finally fallen behind the Chicago White Sox (64-92) in the AL Central standings, and have the worst record in the American League. The Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets are jostling for the No. 5 pick with 90 losses apiece. Unless the Tigers go on a short winning streak this week, they will probably finish at No. 3 or higher.

Moving up another spot or two would be nice, though. The Tigers have six games remaining, while Philly and San Francisco only have five left. Detroit would win a tiebreaker with the Giants (based on their 2016 win-loss record), but would lose one with Philadelphia.

As for their respective schedules? Who knows. The Giants are currently playing a series at Arizona and finish the year with a home series against San Diego. Philadelphia hosts the Nationals and Mets to close out the year.

Detroit Tigers (62-94) at Kansas City Royals (76-80)

Time/Place: 8:15 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-5, 6.68 ERA) vs. LHP Jason Vargas (17-10, 4.03 ERA)

Game 157 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Sanchez 94.1 21.3 6.0 5.74 0.0
Vargas 169.2 17.8 7.4 4.59 1.7

Earlier this month, I predicted the Tigers would score a bunch of runs off Jason Vargas, who had followed up an All-Star worthy first half with an ERA pushing 7.00 since the break. And I was right. The Tigers torched Vargas for seven runs on six hits in just two innings, pushing his season-long ERA above 4.00 for the first time this year. After that start, he had allowed 41 runs in just 47 second half innings, and was one of the reasons why the Royals couldn’t quite keep pace in the AL Wild Card race.

Since then, things have been much better. Vargas has allowed just four runs in his last three starts, two of which came against playoff-bound teams. He struck out seven in 6 13 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays last Thursday, lowering his ERA to just 4.03.

I don’t think this will continue, though. Vargas has struggled in a big way against the Tigers in his career, allowing 47 runs (including 12 home runs) in 61 23 innings. This includes 13 runs in just 4 23 innings against Detroit this season, and another 19 runs in 27 23 innings back in 2014, when he last faced the Tigers. His career platoon splits would not suggest it, but he has a lot of trouble with the Tigers’ right-handed heavy lineup.

Key matchup: Anibal Sanchez vs. a strong finish

What a difference a couple of starts makes. Sure, no one trusts Anibal Sanchez to continue the form of his last two outings over a full season, but they have made his season-long stats look quite a bit better. In just 12 innings, Sanchez has lowered his ERA by three-quarters of a run, and his FIP by half a run. Another strong week could drop his ERA close to 6.00 for the year.

Perhaps more surprising than the low run totals over the past couple weeks is the sharp rise in Sanchez’s strikeouts. He fanned 19 batters across 12 innings in his last two starts, and has still managed nearly a strikeout per inning despite all the hits and runs he allowed throughout the year. His swinging strike rate is in line with what he has produced over the past four years, and his 15.3 percent K-BB% is the best among Tigers starters (yes, even including that Verlander guy).

Pick to click: Ian Kinsler

Just about anyone on the Tigers’ roster is a good pick against Vargas. The 34-year-old lefty has struggled against Detroit throughout his career, allowing a 6.86 ERA in 12 starts. The current Tigers roster has a collective 1.021 OPS against him in 141 plate appearances. Nearly half of those (68) belong to Ian Kinsler, who is hitting .359/.397/.641 with 12 extra base hits. Better yet, his 2018 contract option will vest with just two more plate appearances.

Prediction

Sanchez comes back to earth a bit and the Tigers drop their eighth game in a row.