Detroit — The Tigers could have picked a softer team than the Orioles as their first playoff series contestant in 2014's big-league postseason.
But they didn't, because they couldn't, and so they'll accept Commissioner Bud Selig's pairing and prepare for an Orioles club that will be no fun. No fun at all.
Among multiple reasons why Baltimore, which won the American League's toughest division, the East, is a miserable team to confront in a best-of-five showdown, is because the Orioles do some things about as well as the Tigers and a few things better. They have extreme balance on a roster that won 96 games and by mid-September had won the East Division.
Granted, their infield is no match for Detroit's — not offensively. But in that one category a Tigers team's reputation is supposed to be superior to just about any club, starting pitching, the Tigers will get no concession speeches from manager Buck Showalter's chambers.
Power-armed starters are the Tigers' traditional nuclear warhead and the primary weapon Detroit carries into its first-round playoff match that begins Thursday at Camden Yards. Starting pitching also happens to be the one commodity that comes closest to defining a playoff series victor, which is why the Tigers in July made an expensive trade for David Price.
But front-line pitching also happens to be the plumage that best identifies the 2014 Orioles. It was the sub-4.00 ERA work of Chris Tillman (3.26 ERA), Wei-Yin Chen (3.56), Bud Norris (3.62), Miguel Gonzalez (3.33) and Kevin Gausman (3.57) that enabled the Orioles to pitch around their biggest mistake from 2014, the signing of Ubaldo Jimenez (4.85), and throttle every East competitor and contender that came Baltimore's way.
There is a certain superficiality to ERA, but even in that other, more illuminating pitching statistic, WHIP (walks plus hits per inning), the Orioles starters are commanding: Tillman, 1.21; Chen, 1.24; Norris, 1.22; Gonzalez, 1.30; Gausman, 1.34.
Compare those numbers to the ERAs and WHIPS of Detroit's likely four playoff starters: David Price (3.97, 1.18); Max Scherzer (3.19, 1.17); Justin Verlander (4.68, 1.42), although his old prowess has returned); Rick Porcello (3.31, 1.21).
Those numbers make for interesting, and compelling, comparisons that all but guarantee tight, high-echelon ALDS games.
Note there are four, not five, Tigers starters listed, all because Anibal Sanchez has moved to the bullpen following his six-week absence due to pectoralis (right-side muscle strain). That's a potential plus for the Tigers in that four starters, not five, are wielded by most playoff teams in a five- or seven-game series.
Assuming there might be a relative standoff between two teams wonderfully matched for a pitching showdown — at least in terms of starters — other elements will perhaps decide which of these two teams marches into the American League Championship Series with a semifinalist's shot at winning the World Series.
Begin with that component the Tigers haven't much enjoyed discussing in 2014: the bullpen. Detroit has had relief issues and Tigers fans have experienced hospital-grade panic attacks since the start of the season. The Orioles, meanwhile, take a different approach.
They tend to suffocate opposing batters in those late innings, after their starters have been excused, with the likes of Zach Britton (1.70 ERA in 69 games and a bat-throttling 0.90 WHIP) and Darren O'Day (1.76 in 66 games, 0.92 WHIP), not to mention former Tigers prodigy Andrew Miller (1.45 in 21 games, with a truly cruel WHIP of 0.59).
They also introduce, generally to seventh-inning hitters, Tommy Hunter, who wasn't terribly good when he was tried as a closer but who has been deadly in the seventh.
It amounts to what should be an edge in pitching for the Orioles, at least if overall staff numbers and the fact those numbers helped deliver Baltimore's first division title in 17 years mean anything against the Tigers.
This is a pair of playoff teams whose differences are intriguing, right down to how the teams approach defense and their daily lineups.
Baltimore only wishes it had its varsity team intact as it prepares for the Tigers and for a team that has a long postseason playoff streak going.
The Orioles have been beaten up in 2014, losing their everyday catcher Matt Wieters to Tommy John surgery in June, a couple of months before their gifted third baseman, Manny Machado, wrecked his knee and had surgery — the second time in consecutive seasons Machado has watched a season ruined by a bad knee.
In less unfortunate circumstances, the Orioles also said goodbye — for at least the ALDS — to first baseman Chris Davis and his 26 home runs. Not many sympathy cards were mailed to Davis, especially by his teammates, when a key player was banned earlier this month for 25 games because of amphetamine use.
It's the loss of Machado and Davis that hands the Tigers an advantage. J.J. Hardy is a whiz at shortstop, but Detroit's infield is better, not only defensively, but also offensively. Ryan Flaherty at third base (.218) and Jonathan Schoop at second base (.209) are not Nick Castellanos and Ian Kinsler, and they're not enough to sufficiently complement Hardy (.272, .689 OPS) or to offset Detroit's overall edge, even when Davis' fill-in, Steve Pearce (.297, 20 home runs, .932 OPS) has been so helpful.
Outfield is a different matter. The Orioles set up beautifully, defensively, with Adam Jones (center field), Nick Markakis (right field) and ex-White Sox warrior Alejando De Aza (left field) functioning as a flip-side to the Tigers and to their, at best, serviceable defense.
Jones (.281, 27 homers), Markakis, (.275, .721 OPS) and De Aza (.300, .884 OPS since arriving in an August trade) can also reasonably match Detroit's outfield offense and they rank as a net two-way favorite over the Tigers' cast.
It leaves catcher and designated hitter as potential lineup tie-breakers, with Caleb Joseph, Nick Hundley, and Steve Clevenger doing their best to make Orioles fans forget Wieters isn't around. They haven't. Baltimore's catching is competent but hardly an asset, which can often be the case with the Tigers, given Alex Avila's hitting and lineup challenges in 2014.
Designated hitter is a different matter. Victor Martinez, who has hit 31 home runs and battled for the AL batting championship, is adored by the Tigers not much more than the Orioles have savored Nelson Cruz and his 40 home runs. Baltimore rescued Cruz from free-agent unemployment in February when the Orioles snagged him for the one-season discount price of $8 million.
He has saved a team's season, given the exits of Machado and Wieters, and it will be Cruz — who has hurt the Tigers in the postseason in his Texas Rangers days — the Tigers must subdue if they plan on outscoring the Orioles.
That will be the question, of course, as a five-game showdown begins. The Orioles like their pitching every bit as much as the Tigers will feature theirs. It will get down to other matters, most likely. The question will be whether Detroit's starters and their museum wing loaded with Cy Young awards, and their mid-order hitters, are good enough to beat Baltimore's gifted arms and the Orioles' general balance.
As they say, or should say about this playoff series: May the best arms — and contributors — win.
The Tigers were 5-1 against the Orioles this season: