Not too early to start constructing the Tigers’ postseason roster

Should Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander be considered for a role out of the bullpen in the postseason?

Should Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander be considered for a role out of the bullpen in the postseason?

Now that Detroit seems headed for the American League Central Division title, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, it’s not too early to start thinking about the postseason roster. There are several intriguing questions. Will Jhonny Peralta be included on the roster? Who will play left field? And who will take the roster spots in the bullpen?

All these questions are crucial as the Tigers try to get past the postseason difficulties that have kept them from a fifth franchise world championship. The club has been a successful regular season squad in recent years, but under Jim Leyland they are without a ring in three postseason tries. In fact, the Tigers have historically had a rather lackluster record in the fall. Detroit has won only four of the 11 World Series they’ve played in. Under Jim Leyland, the club’s record in postseason games is an unimpressive 20-17.

In order to finalize the roster, Tigers management should get together on a game plan. The post-season is not the same as the long-haul regular season, and the governing strategy shouldn’t be the same. For one thing, because of the built-in off days, a team needs only four starters, not five. For the same reason, a club might consider getting by with one or two fewer bullpen arms, opening up roster spots for pinch-hitters and pinch-runners. Winning close games is a must because any loss is potentially devastating. Teams need a strong bench.

That means the Tigers must give careful consideration to how Jim Leyland might use his pitchers and extra players in order to construct a roster of maximum utility. To begin with, Peralta might be a useful addition, even though he’ll be a little rusty from his 50-game suspension. He could provide a big bat off the bench, if, say, Leyland wanted to pinch-hit for someone like Omar Infante, Jose Iglesias, Andy Dirks, Don Kelly or Alex Avila late in the game.

In the pen, Drew Smyly, Joaquin Benoit, and Jose Veras should be locks — and after that, Bruce Rondon should also be included. I guess Phil Coke has to be there because he’s a left-hander, but he’s been horrible this year, and maybe the club should look for another lefty to fill his role. Beyond that, do you want to trust both Jeremy Bonderman and Al Albuquerque? Are all of those bullpen arms necessary? Or is there another solution?

Last year, the San Francisco Giants successfully utilized a postseason “super-reliever,” using starter Tim Lincecum in that role. Since the Tigers need only four starters, the logical move would be to put Rick Porcello in the bullpen. But Porcello has been good lately as a starter, and what you want in the pen is a hurler who can really rack up strikeouts. The Tigers have other guys who fill that role better, starting with Anibal Sanchez. Imagine if the Tigers had someone who could pitch two or three shut-down innings of relief in three or more games of a post-season series. It might be worth letting Porcello be the fourth starter in October to add that kind of arm, and Sanchez would fill the job admirably.

But there are two even more intriguing possibilities. One is Justin Verlander, but I’m not sure he’s suited for that role. In fact, if he struggles, it’s usually early in an outing.

But how about the best strikeout artist in the game? Yes, some would say it would be crazy to take a guy with a 17-1 record as a starter and put him in the bullpen. But much of Scherzer’s success that’s earned him that gaudy record is due to his ample run support. Take that away, and it still remains: he’s the best strikeout man the Tigers, or anyone, has in baseball right now.

If you have someone with Scherzer’s ability to whiff a batter, and you could bring him into any middle- or late-inning jam when runners are in scoring position and less than two out and you need a strikeout, wouldn’t that be an incredible weapon? Perhaps it would be worth trying him in that role, even if it might mean he misses a start or two. Mad Max in relief could help you win three or even four games — bingo! As a starter, he could help you win two at most in any series.

It would take the kind of gutsy managing Leyland is not exactly known for, but with Leyland’s lackluster postseason record (40-33 overall with three teams), perhaps it’s time he started thinking differently.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.