I was surprised at how few of those 2006 Tigers are still around just five years later. Only a handful remain. Justin Verlander is the only starter still around, while among regular position players, it’s Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen.
Gone are many of my favorite players from that team — Joel Zumaya, who can’t keep his million-dollar arm healthy; Jeremy Bonderman, who threw 8-plus dazzling innings in that series-clinching win over the Yankees; Craig Monroe, whose bat caught fire in the playoffs and hit a monster home run in Game 1 of the World Series; and Kenny Rogers, who shook off his well-documented playoff struggles to throw inspiring victories over the Yankees and A’s.
So just how does this year’s version of the Detroit Tigers stack up against the last playoff team from the Motor City? Let’s take a look.
First Base: Sean Casey vs. Miguel Cabrera: Sorry, Casey, but this one’s not even close. Cabrera is perhaps the best hitter in the game. Casey was a positive presence in the clubhouse and a solid bat. Cabrera is favorite to contend for the American League MVP. I’ll take Cabrera any day.
Second Base: Placido Polanco vs. Carlos Guillen, Ryan Raburn, Will Rhymes, Ramon Santiago, etc.: Polanco was better, offensively and defensively, than the platoon of players the Tigers can throw out at second base.
Shortstop: Carlos Guillen was in his prime back in 2006, just like Jhonny Peralta is today. Guillen hit .320 that year with 19 homers and 85 RBIs. Peralta is batting .299 in 2011 with 20 homers and 84 RBIs. Both are solid but not spectacular on defense. I’ll call it a push.
Third Base: Brandon Inge vs. Brandon Inge/Wilson Betemit: 2006 was Inge’s best year as a Tiger as he batted .253 with 27 homers and 83 RBIs. This year’s Inge isn’t anywhere close to that (he’s batting a miserable .198 with just three dingers). Betemit has been a huge upgrade over Inge, but still isn’t as good as Inge was back in 2006.
Catcher: Alex Avila vs. Pudge Rodriguez: Avila had a stellar rookie season, and his offensive numbers are similar, and Avila is fantastic on defense, but let’s face it. Pudge is one of the best catchers ever to play the game, and his playoff experience and big-game savvy are intangibles that can’t be matched by a rookie, no matter how well Avila has been playing.
Right Field: Magglio Ordonez vs. Magglio Ordonez: Maggs is one of the only Tigers to be in the same spot as he was five years ago. He’s swinging a hot bat lately, but I’ll take the long-haired version of Magglio any day. I’ll never forget his walk-off homer to beat the A’s and send the Tigers to the World Series for the first time in 22 years.
Center Field: Austin Jackson vs. Curtis Granderson: Granderson has turned into one of the best hitters in baseball, but back in 2006, he was a rookie who had plenty of potential but struck out way too often and couldn’t hit left-handed pitchers to save his life. Still, his offensive numbers (.260, 19 home runs, 68 RBIs, 90 runs scored) are much better than what Jackson has compiled (.250, 10 homers, 45 RBIs). Both have made their share of spectacular defensive plays, but Granderson’s potent bat make him the better of the two players.
Right Field: Delmon Young vs. Craig Monroe: Young has been a huge spark to the Tigers since joining the team last month, while Monroe was a spark plug in the playoffs, banging out several key hits and also making a few sterling defensive plays. We’ll call this one a push.
DH: Victor Martinez vs. Marcus Thames: Martinez has been the Tigers’ second best hitter all season, and his production from the fifth spot in the lineup has kept opposing teams from pitching around Cabrera. If not for Cabrera’s amazing season, Martinez would be in the discussion for the team’s MVP award. He takes this matchup with an inconsistent Thames hands-down.
Starting Pitching: Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello vs. Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, Justin Verlander and Nate Robertson: This one’s actually tough to call. Verlander has obviously been the most dominating pitcher the big leagues have seen in some time, and Fister, over the past two months, isn’t far behind. Scherzer and Porcello have been serviceable but inconsistent. Yet who can forget the magical games Kenny Rogers pitched in the playoffs back in 2006? And it was heart warming to see the gritty Bonderman — who had suffered through those terrible Tigers’ seasons in the early 2000’s — come into his own and pitch the Tigers past the Yankees in the clinching fourth game of the ALDS. Still, it’s almost impossible to not give the nod to this year’s foursome. Verlander has just been amazing, especially over the last several months. I don’t think any American League team is relishing the prospect of seeing him twice in a series.
Relief Pitching: Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde vs. Joel Zumaya, Jamie Walker, Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones: OK, I realize there are more relievers than this on staff, but these seem to be the four key components of the teams’ bullpens. Zumaya was the key for the 2006 team. His 103 mph heater made many batters wilt, including a key showdown with Alex Rodriguez late in a game in which Zumaya overpowered one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. Walker was great, Rodney was frightening, and Jones was terrifying yet somehow efficient. Alburquerque is no Zumaya, but he’s equally as effective. Coke and Benoit have been fantastic, and Valverde would likely be included in the Cy Young discussion with his 49 saves in as many attempts if not for his teammate, Verlander. This year’s Tigers don’t blow leads often, and in the playoffs, that’s huge. They get the nod.
Coaching: Jim Leyland vs. Jim Leyland: Everybody loves to second-guess the skipper, but these days, it’s hard to find fault with him. His Tigers are hitting on all cylinders. Of course, in 2006, he was getting bashed as the Tigers blew their 162nd game and had to settle for the wild card instead of the AL Central title, but he seemed to do OK guiding his team to the World Series. Push.
Add it all up and it would appear that the 2006 team (which won 95 regular-season games) and the 2011 squad (which also won its 95th game in last night’s regular season finale) are quite equal.
Overall, I’ll give the nod to this year’s group. They’ve been outstanding over the past few months, basically burying all challengers by sweeping their way through key series with AL Central foes Cleveland, Minnesota and Chicago over the final third of the year.
Plus, they’ve got the star power that the 2006 team lacked. Verlander and Cabrera alone are good enough to get them a few extra victories, and considering they made it all the way to the World Series in 2006, this year’s team has a chance to take the next step and win it all.