Friday, December 29, 2006

All-Decade Team: The 1990's

Catcher: Because he is still performing more than adequately as a catcher, I give the nod to Pudge Rodriguez, over Mike Piazza. Pudge almost led the league in hitting in 2004, his first year with the Tigers, and thus came a whisker away from being the first catcher to lead the AL in hitting (Joe Mauer did it in 2006). League MVP in 1999, Rodriguez has combined hitting prowess and defensive supremacy for the better part of 13 seasons now.

First base: Frank Thomas. They didn't call him The Big Hurt for nothing. A ferocious hitter, Thomas was also very agile at the bag for a big man. Won the AL MVP award in 1993 and 1994. Belted 301 homers in the decade. From 1991 to 1998, Thomas scored at least 100 runs and had at least 100 RBI in each season. Phenomenal production.

Second base: Roberto Alomar. Smooth as silk at the plate, and with the glove. Outstanding production offensively. A career .300 hitter. Had 1,678 hits in the decade, and scored 138 runs in 1999. Two-time world champion with the Blue Jays.

Third base: Wade Boggs. You certainly can put him on the 1980's team, for that's where he had his best offensive years, but I place Boggs in this decade as a nod to his longevity. Another of those players who is thought of for his bat, but who was actually a very serviceable fielder as well. Yes, this seems like an all-AL team so far, but the AL did pretty much dominate the All-Star games and World Series in the decade, too.

Shortstop: Okay, here's an NL'er for you: Barry Larkin. The U-M grad, who was the league MVP in 1995, Larkin was The Sporting News' NL shortstop for eight of the decade's ten years. Helped lead the Reds to their upset World Series win (a sweep) over the A's in 1990. BA of just about .300 for the decade, including seven seasons eclipsing that mark in the '90's. Unheralded at times, but one of the game's best ever at the position.

Outfield: (left/center/right). Barry Bonds/Kirby Puckett/Tony Gwynn. Who wouldn't want this outfield on their team? While Bonds is under a cloud of accusations of steroid use, there's no denying his impact on the game, whether you like him or not. Puckett turned himself from a spray hitter with little power into a dominant leadoff hitter with tons of it. Brilliant defensively; artisan of one highlight catch after another -- usually denying someone a homerun. Gwynn was, perhaps, the greatest hitter in the NL post-WW II. A career mark of .338, Gwynn still managed over 1,700 hits in the decade, despite being slowed by injuries several seasons. Played 20 seasons, all in San Diego.

Starting Pitchers: Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/Roger Clemens. If it wasn't for Clemens, I would have included John Smoltz and given the Braves a sweep. But you can't go wrong with this trio. Multiple Cy Young Awards. World Series appearances (and championships) and tons of divisional titles. Each pitcher, in his own way, set a standard. And each is still kicking it, which is even more amazing.

Relief Pitchers: John Franco, Trevor Hoffman. More National Leaguers. Franco was unusual, because he was a lefthanded closer, which is rare. Had 268 saves in the decade. Was still active in 2005, at age 45. Hoffman didn't debut until 1993, but in the seven years that he played in the 90's, he still managed 228 saves, including 53 in the Padres' NL Pennant-winning season of 1998. Why no Mariano Rivera here? He didn't break into the big leagues until 1995, and has had his best seasons in the 2000's.

Manager: Tough one here. But I'm going with Bobby Cox, whose Braves teams dominated the NL East, and should still be considered one of the best dynasties of all time, despite only winning one World Series. Cox's teams won the division in every year of the 1990's except 1990. Five World Series appearances in the decade. Joe Torre loses out, but barely. Torre's prowess, I believe, mainly occurred in the 2000's. The fact that he's lasted as long as he has in New York is incredible, considering his boss's fetish for canning managers.

Friday, December 22, 2006

All-Decades Team: The 1980's

Sorry for the delay -- holiday shopping and all -- but here's #2 in my series of All-Decades teams: the 1980's.

Catcher: This is a toughie. So many to choose from: Carlton Fisk, Lance Parrish, Gary Carter. But my choice might be a sort of dark horse: Bob Boone. Booney is my pick because of: a) his longevity; and b) his strong defensive skills. Sure, there were bigger bats behind the plate in the decade, but from handling pitchers to blocking wayward breaking balls in the dirt, few were as consistent and smooth as Boone.

First base: Eddie Murray. Few were as destructive in the clutch as the switch-hitting Murray. A Hall of Famer and perhaps misunderstood as a player at times. Absolute poison in the late innings to opposing pitchers.

Second base: Ryne Sandberg. Prototypical. Smooth as silk. Fluid swing. Some pop in his bat. The unquestioned leader of the Cubs' division-winning teams of '84 and '89. Bet the Phillies rue the day they traded him in 1980.

Third base: Graig Nettles. A tough call here, considering other players like Ron Cey, Doug DeCinces, and Bill Madlock. But Nettles' defense, I think, was superior, and he was a major contributor to the Yankees and Padres' pennant-winning teams in the decade.

Shortstop: Wow. Cal Ripken, Jr. or Ozzie Smith? Or Alan Trammell? I guess I'll give it to Ripken. That consecutive game/consecutive inning streak is hard to ignore. Smith was, indeed, the Wizard with the glove, but Ripken did so much more with the bat.

Outfield: (left/center/right). Rickey Henderson/Andy Van Slyke/Dale Murphy. Henderson? Best leadoff hitter ever. Career leader in steals. Van Slyke? Only one of the best gloves of his time, and a solid BA with some power. Murphy? Terribly underrated, but one of the best players of his time.

Starting pitchers: Jack Morris, Nolan Ryan (again), Fernando Valenzuela. Morris, winningest pitcher of the decade. Ryan, artisan of no-hitters and a freakish arm. Valenzuela, the best lefty of the decade.

Relief pitchers: Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith.

Pinch hitter: Jerry Hairston. Breaking up Milt Wilcox's perfect game in 1983 is only but one reason.

Manager: Dare I say Sparky Anderson again? Well, who else skippered the same team throughout the entire decade? And, another World Series win and two more divisional titles added to his resume. So Sparky it is.

Next week: the 1990's.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

All Decade Teams are Here!

Just for fun, I thought I'd put together All Decades teams encompassing those years that I followed baseball. A new decade will appear on Mondays and Thursdays for the next week or so. Today I'll start with the 1970's.

ALL 1970's TEAM

Catcher: Johnny Bench. Can there be any other choice? Bench did it all, offensively and defensively, and was the backbone of the great Big Red Machine teams that appeared in four World Series in the decade, winning two of them.

First base: Steve Garvey. Maybe the best defensive first baseman in his era. Consistent hitter, and he had himself a nice little consecutive games played streak as well. Continued his fine career well into the '80's. In 1984, he played the entire season -- all 162 games -- without committing one error.

Second base: I hate to be too Cincy-ish, but Joe Morgan gets the nod. There was a time when Morgan was considered the best player in baseball, period. A guy that many GMs would build an expansion team around.

Third base: Mike Schmidt. His career overlapped the 70's and 80's, but I put him here because of his role in leading the Phillies to several divisional titles in the 70's, plus their only World Series win, in 1980. Underrated as a fielder.

Shortstop: Mark Belanger. Yes, he couldn't hit a lick, but he was the best of the good field/no hit shortstops in a decade that was full of them -- before guys like Cal Ripken Jr. and Alan Trammell brought the offensive-minded shortstop into vogue. Our old pal Eddie Brinkman runs a close second.

Outfield: (left to right): George Foster/Paul Blair/Reggie Jackson. Foster was the beast in the middle of those great Reds' lineups, with quick-as-whip wrists. Blair, who played about as shallow a centerfield as you'll ever see, was graceful and was underrated, in my book. Jackson was Mr. October, and rightly so.

Starting Pitchers: (three): Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver. Enough said.

Relief Pitchers: (two): Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle.

Pinch hitter: Manny Mota.

Manager: Sparky Anderson.

Next: 1980's.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pudge At Leadoff? Fine, But Only Temporarily

Curtis Granderson isn't your prototypical leadoff hitter. Pudge Rodriguez isn't, either. Except Pudge is less not the prototype than Granderson is.

So it is that Tigers manager Jim Leyland, somewhere amongst the dozens of lineups he's written on cocktail napkins, scrap pieces of paper, or on the backs of cigarette packs, has etched Rodriguez's name on some of them, at #1. Leadoff man. Jump starter of the offense. An almost guaranteed five plate appearances per game.

Having a catcher bat leadoff isn't unprecedented (right, Jason Kendall?), but it's for sure unusual. When you think of the classic leadoff hitter, you think, in no particular order, of the following: speed, high average, high OBA, a threat to steal bases. Strikes out infrequently. Rodriguez has some of these traits, more than Granderson -- 2006's leadoff man -- but I wonder if he has enough of them to warrant a regular turn at the top of the order.

Rather, it's most likely a stopgap measure until the Tigers either find another player to fill that role, or until Granderson cuts down on his strikeouts, steals a few bases, and walks a respectable amount of times.

I've long felt that the Tigers needed more of a classic leadoff hitter batting #1 than what they have in Granderson -- a fine player, an even better person, but one who doesn't possess enough of the leadoff qualities, truthfully. In the scenario where Pudge bats leadoff, Granderson slips to #8 in the order, which is more like it.

Rodriguez at #1 would be, to me, an improvement, but still not what I'm looking for -- should the Tigers ever solicit my advice. I just think you need a guy at the top who other team's pitchers and catchers need to pay attention to, lest he swipe second base in the blink of an eye. Or someone who can lay down an occasional bunt and beat it out (Grandy doesn't do that, either). Or how about someone, at least, who doesn't strike out at the rate of more than one a game, which Granderson did last season?

Who that person might be, who would seize the role of leadoff man, I'm not sure. Maybe he doesn't play for the Tigers now, but will before the 2007 season opens. Regardless, the team needs something else at the top of the batting order, and if that something else is catcher Rodriguez, then so be it. But just don't bet on that being the longterm solution.

Pudge and bunt, for example, don't belong in the same sentence -- except for this one.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Locking Up Inge Part Of The Master Plan

It may not be as sexy as a trade for Gary Sheffield or making a free agent splash like with Pudge Rodriguez or Magglio Ordonez, but the Tigers continue to show that they do it right most times nowadays -- letting Shef wear #3 notwithstanding.

The latest proof was the inking yesterday of Brandon Inge to a four-year contract extension.

The price wasn't too bad -- about $6 million per season -- considering that Inge is an everyday third baseman who figures to only get better. But the bigger picture here is the fact that no longer are the Tigers the bumbling stooges who wasted most of a decade, until they hired Dave Dombrowski back in November 2001. They aren't, anymore, stumbling through the American League like bulls in a china shop. There's a plan in place, and it's constantly being implemented. The Inge signing is the latest example.

Here's the plan: draft wisely, develop young players on the farm, sign a key free agent or two, hire an experienced manager, and -- here's the kicker -- lock your core talent up with longterm contracts before they get obscenely expensive.

Granted, the Tigers are unlikely to be able to keep everyone that they want to, due to financial restrictions. But you may as well keep as many as you can, and securing Inge is in accordance with The Plan.

While I'm at it, a few words about those who've maligned Brandon Inge. Stuff it. Okay, so those are only two words, but they're appropriate. All Inge does is play a solid third base, hit a few homers and drive in some runs, all with being a great teammate and accepting his shift from catcher with grace, save the first few days after the team signed Pudge Rodriguez, when Inge was whiny and cranky. His arm is terrific, and with his athleticism he gets to many balls that ordinary third sackers could only dream about snagging. He's cutting down on his strikeouts, too.

Next up: shortstop Carlos Guillen, who can be a free agent after the 2007 season, and pitcher Jeremy Bonderman, who can be free after 2008. Guillen will probably want to test the waters, but don't be surprised if the Tigers are aggressive in trying to prevent that from happening.

Only bumbling stooges fail to try. The Tigers are no longer that anymore, as an organization.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Marcus Thames: Probably An Ex-Tiger Before Long

Marcus Thames, I fear, has played his last game as a Tiger.

Thames: too crowded in Detroit for him?

There wouldn't appear to be any space for Thames, a righthanded-hitting outfielder/DH, now that Craig Monroe is entrenched as the team's leftfielder, and Gary Sheffield is in place as the DH. Thames could be a bench player, but he is a player who needs at-bats to be effective. The Tigers won't realize his total worth at the rate of 200 or so AB per season. Plus, he's not a pinch-hitter type -- he strikes out too much.

If there's anyone who feels the heat of these Winter Meetings in Florida this week, it is most likely Thames, who is a powerful man capable, I believe, of some 30+ HR, 100+ RBI seasons as a fulltime player. But there just doesn't appear to be room for him on the Tigers roster.

It was Thames, you might recall, who was "discovered" by manager Jim Leyland's brother, Larry, who lives in the Toledo area. Larry Leyland told his brother of Thames' exploits, and that scouting report, along with Thames' performance in spring training the last two years, landed him a spot on the team's 25 man roster.

Marcus Thames is, for my money, the strongest hitter the Tigers have employed since Cecil Fielder terrorized American League pitchers in the early-1990's. But he is nonetheless behind Monroe on the depth chart, and Sheffield is surely the everyday DH. And Thames is out of minor league options, so no more trips to Toledo for him. Which is as it should be, because Thames is a major leaguer, no question.

The Tigers may choose to keep him around, maybe even through spring training '07, hoping to package him for another need. But I wouldn't count on him to head north with the team in April.

Too bad for Tigers fans, but maybe good for Marcus Thames, I would say.