Early (very early) this morning, the A's were the hands-down favorites to win the ALCS. Later this morning, they became the slam-dunk, anything-else-would-be-a-huge-upset favorites to win the ALCS. Now it's a tossup. Because imagine this series:
Game 1: Jon Lester vs. Max Scherzer
Game 2: Scott Kazmir vs. Anibal Sanchez
Game 3: Sonny Gray vs. David Price
Game 4: Jeff Samardzija vs. Justin Verlander
...lather, rinse, and repeat a bunch of low-scoring, high-stress games borne of a lot of elite starters going toe to toe with a lot of other elite starters. It looks pretty tossup-y.
Now that the Tigers went all-out to bring Price to Detroit from Tampa Bay, all bets are off. Because when a hypothetical Game 4 pitching matchup is Jeff Samardzija vs. Justin Verlander, or really any random combination of any of the eight starters listed above, the series is going to be insane.
Even though the Tigers are just a dozen games over .500 in a relatively weak division, they've just established themselves as being among baseball's elite. The Angels might be an objectively better team than the Tigers on paper, but their playoff rotation, or current rotation, doesn't hold a candle to the masterpieces just crafted in Oakland and Detroit.
Interestingly, the wild card amongst those eight pitchers might be the one most inherently talented: Verlander. This season, he sports an ugly 4.79 ERA and a potentially uglier 1.44 WHIP. And somehow, everybody knows that he's perfectly capable of snapping back into 2012 Verlander form at any moment. Especially in the playoffs. Especially against the A's.
For a while, it looked like facing Detroit in the playoffs wasn't the scariest of prospects. Sure, they had two elite front-end starters in Scherzer and Sanchez, but their slightly above-average record in a thoroughly average division wasn't too impressive, even compared to the two teams trailing Oakland in the AL West standings. Now they're, if anything, more nightmare-inducing than they've ever been.
In a way, though, it's refreshing. After 2012 and 2013, it just wouldn't feel right to make a deep playoff run without going through the Tigers. They stopped the A's twice in a row, in eerily similar and equally heartbreaking fashion, and revenge wouldn't be served if the Tigers got knocked out of the ALDS by the Angels, or Orioles, or any team not from Oakland.
So thank you, Tigers, for scaring the crap out of Billy Beane to the point that he was compelled to pick up not one but two elite starting pitchers in Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester, even if the 2016 and 2017 squads' chances of success took a major hit in the process. And thank you, Billy Beane, for scaring the crap out of Dave Dombrowski to the point that he felt reciprocation was a must. At the end of the day, if the A's want to win it all, they'll still have to go through Detroit.
We're back where we started. The Tigers are really, really scary. The A's are equally terrifying. A third-consecutive playoff knockout at the hands of Detroit would be triply heartbreaking. But finally breaking through would be infinitely more gratifying.