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Tigers better even with hobbled Cabrera

I’ll be honest: I never quite got the love affair with the 2011 and 2012 Detroit Tigers. They were good teams winning bad divisions, top-heavy with stars, but the sum of the parts was never as good as the national media made them out to be.

I mean, this is a team that tried to win the World Series last year with career minor leaguer Quintin Berry batting second. No wonder they scored just six runs in getting swept by the Giants.

The 2013 Tigers, however, are bigger, stronger and deeper. Even with Miguel Cabrera battling injuries, they’re a better team than they were the past two seasons.

The Tigers clinched their third straight division title with Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Twins -- it’s the first time they will make three straight postseason appearances since 1907 to 1909 (some guy named Cobb was the star of those teams) -- so let me illustrate why this team is better.

2011: 95-67, run differential of +76: This team ranked fourth in the AL in runs and eighth in runs scored and exceeded its projected Pythagorean record by six wins, thanks in part to Jose Valverde’s perfect 49-for-49 mark in save opportunities. They also won 95 games in a division where no other team finished above .500. They were 50-22 against the AL Central and 45-45 against everyone else.

2012: 88-74, run differential of +56: The Tigers were sixth in runs and fifth in runs allowed. The offense had added Prince Fielder, but Victor Martinez missed the entire season and Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta declined after big seasons in 2011. They struggled to hold off a mediocre White Sox team in a division that featured three teams with 90 losses. The Rays and Angels actually had better records than the Tigers but missed the playoffs. Detroit was 43-29 against the Central and 45-45 against everyone else.

2013: 93-66, run differential of +175: The Tigers rank second in the AL in runs and fourth in runs allowed (and they’ve allowed just two more than No. 2 Oakland). Their run differential is more than 100 runs greater than last season, and they’ve done it with two other good teams in the division. They’re 47-29 against the Central and 46-37 against everyone else.

So it’s a much stronger Tigers team. Give credit to GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland on a several fronts. They didn’t panic about the closer situation, letting things sort themselves out until Joaquin Benoit finally took over the role (he’s 24-for-25 in save chances). They showed patience in Martinez after he was hitting .228 with two home runs through May. When Peralta got suspended, Dombrowski acquired slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias from the Red Sox, a move that improved the team’s defense (although he’s missed the past six games after getting hit by a pitch).

Of course, the big question surrounding the Tigers these days is Cabrera’s health and offensive production. He went 0-for-4 on Wednesday and since Aug. 27 is hitting .257/.382/.311 with just one double and one home run in 23 games. The abdominal strain has affected his ability to turn on inside pitches -- through August he was hitting .401 on pitches on the inner half of the plate; in September, he’s hitting just .200 on inner-half pitches. His groin is bothering him perhaps because of the ab injury, which further limits him. He’s obviously a shell of the guy who terrorized pitchers for the first four-plus months.

But Leyland is not going to sit him and he can’t use him at DH because Martinez is locked in there. Part of what makes great, however, is that one player can’t carry a team, no matter how often we use that phrase. Last year, the Tigers needed Cabrera and Fielder to carry a heavy load, but even with Cabrera’s struggles, Martinez is hitting .322 in September, Fielder .352 with four home runs and even Avila is hot, hitting .344/.429/.541. They’ll get Peralta back this weekend from his suspension and the plan is for him to play some left field. (Hey, he can’t be any worse out there than Young was last year.)

Look, the Tigers’ offense is still down this month, averaging 4.1 runs per game after averaging 5.0 in August and 5.9 in July. With Cabrera struggling it’s not the same powerhouse attack we saw in the summer. But it’s good enough. And good enough may be good enough if those guys named Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez and Fister deliver on the mound.