Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Miller Belongs In Toledo -- Despite The Temptation

Andrew Miller is tall. He's got more pitching raw skill in his pinky than many major league pitchers have in their entire cortisone-injected shoulders. His potential is endless, and scary -- for the rest of the American League. Oh yeah, and he's lefthanded.

There will be considerable focus on Miller as this spring training unfolds. Number one, there aren't too many spots on the Tigers' 25-man roster up for grabs, so the scribes and bloggers have to have something to wring their hands about. The reason for the focus is this: should Andrew Miller be on the plane with the Tigers when the team breaks camp and heads to chilly Michigan? Or should he be returned to Toledo, where he can start and be assured of innings?

It's the classic baseball question that is asked in February and March. Should big league team keep "the kid", or leave him behind for more seasoning?

Miller, the highly-touted first-round draft pick out of the University of North Carolina, debuted with the Tigers down the stretch last year, but was left off the postseason roster. But still, he got into a few games in September, which probably didn't do him any harm at all.

I tend to err on the side of "let the kid play, and play a lot" in these situations. And I see no reason to divert from that in Miller's case. In Detroit, he's most likely to be nothing more than a lefty situational guy who pitches twice or three times a week, at best. Or he may be regulated to the baseball equivalent of "garbage time", a.k.a. long relief.

Send Mr. Miller to Toledo, I say, and put him in the starting rotation. He's destined to be a starter anyway; may as well get him used to pitching every fifth day.

Ahh, but when to bring him to the big club, ultimately? There don't appear to be any spots in the rotation readily available. The Tigers are cursed with the good fortune of having five dependable starters -- assuming Mike Maroth is healthy. And aside from Kenny Rogers, the starters are still young and, we hope, not going anywhere soon.

Answer: no rush, for the reasons indicated in the previous paragraph. There's nothing that says Miller has to be a Tiger by "x" date. In fact, that's where the team has gone wrong in the past, mainly because there wasn't much talent at the big league level, so prospects were rushed to the majors.

Just let him develop, and if he's in Detroit for a September call-up, fine. If he's in the rotation sometime in 2008, that's fine, too. You can't, after all, keep him as a minor leaguer forever. He's too good.

But here's hoping Jim Leyland exercises his usually good judgement and leaves Andrew Miller behind when it's time to pack up the balls and bats and gloves and fly north.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Tigers' Magic Formula May Not Return In 2007

The formula worked wonderfully for 112 games last season, but somebody misplaced the recipe, and the Tigers stumbled through the American League in the last 50.

76-36. Better than a 2:1 ratio of wins to losses. And largely due to the team's knack for pulling ballgames out of the fire, ridiculously so, many times vis a vis the "walk off" hit -- and usually the homerun variety.

But the magic wore off, at least temporarily, and the Tigers ended the year with that mind-boggling 19-31 finish.

It's simple, really. The teams that win the dangerous games, the contests that hang in the balance until the final moments, the teams that come out on top in the majority of these tilts, are the ones who end up doing what the Tigers will be on April 4: accepting their AL championship rings.

But who's to say if those games will go the Tigers' way in 2007? You need talent, for sure, to take care of business in the later innings, and the experience of winning. The Tigers have both of those ingredients, but the recipe disappeared so quickly, so abruptly, after August 7 last summer that it was amazing that the team got their act together in time for the playoffs.

The recipe disappeared because their little second baseman, Placido Polanco, got hurt in Boston, and his absence had an unexpected concussion on the rest of the team. It's Polanco, it says here, who makes the offense go, go, go. In the World Series, Polanco was hitless. Shutout. Collared. And the Tigers' offense sloshed around in the mud in St. Louis as a result.

The 1968 Tigers were baseball's version of "The Perils of Pauline." Over 40 times did they win in the seventh inning or later. A good portion of those were in their final at-bat. They had the magic formula. But not as much in 1969, and they finished a distant second.

The 2005 White Sox prided themselves on winning the close, one-run ballgames. All the time, it seemed, did they win such contests. They rode that formula all the way to a world's championship. But last season, their penchant for that waned, and they finished third in the division.

It's easier said than done, to go out and simply win the close ones. But it's what the teams who hoist pennants and wear rings are able to do, time and again.

But the Tigers have Gary Sheffield, so there's another bat for the cause.

Formula returned?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Leyland Again Leaves No Doubt That He's In Charge

Jim Leyland is displaying an authority and level of control that hasn't been seen by a man piloting the Tigers since a white haired, petite man named Sparky roamed the dugout from 1979 to 1995.

The latest example is Leyland's rapid and blunt response to former Tiger Dmitri Young's assertion that the team didn't "support" him enough last season as he went through one personal crisis after another. The Tigers released Young in September, robbing him of his opportunity to play in the postseason.

Ahh, but there's the rub. I just fell into a trap that Young, in a much more personal way, has also fallen into. For it's not that the Tigers robbed Dmitri Young. He did that just swell by himself, to himself.

"For Dmitri to say the Tigers didn't support him is totally out of line," Leyland told reporters in Lakeland, reading aloud to them Young's quoted concerns before launching into his diatribe.

The rest of Leyland's words, I'll leave out, because by now you've probably read them a dozen times. But the swiftness with which he responded, combined with his conviction, are part of why Jim Leyland cuts a path through the Tigers that is the widest since Sparky Anderson's during the '80s and half of the '90s.

Player A and player B get into an argument over the type of music to be played in the clubhouse after a game -- a win. It gets loud and distracting (the argument, not the music). Out steps Sparky, and says, according to the story, but one word.


Then he retreated back into his office.

The story is probably not apocryphal. I heard it over 20 years ago, with Sparky at his zenith in the Motor City. The source was credible -- one of the beat writers at the time.

To me, that story has captured, in a most succinct fashion, the authority and tightness of ship that Anderson displayed while Tigers manager. And looking at his successors, no one else comes close to that command.

Buddy Bell didn't have it, and neither did his replacement, Larry Parrish. Phil Garner might have been that guy, but he didn't last long enough. Luis Pujols? HA! And good guy Alan Trammell, bless his heart, didn't cut that path either.

But Jimmy Leyland does, and I'm convinced that he'll remain manager here for as long as he chooses. Then again, I once had trouble with the idea of Tram being fired, early in his managerial career. But the Packers fired Bart Starr as coach, so there you have it.

Leyland's tit after Young's tat, along with making sure everyone knew that it was his decision to release Young and nobody else's (whether true or not), is yet another example of why there shouldn't be any worries when it comes to wondering whether the Tigers will suffer from sort of post-2006 hangover.

The skipper has a firm hand on the wheel, and not for a long time have we been able to say that about any Tigers manager.

Over ten years, in fact.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's the Winning, Stupid -- Not The Sunny Skies And Warm Temps

It's not the weather, as some would have you believe. It's not the city. It's nothing personal that way. It's the winning, stupid.

When the Pistons were a sorry basketball team, in the interval of time between the Bad Boys and the Right Way Boys, their inability to attract quality talent, whether thru free agency or trade, was blamed on the above factors. Mainly the cold weather. There were traces of racism in those beliefs, said with a wink sometimes, but they were sort of brushed aside, conveniently.

But funny, when the Pistons became championship contenders again, suddenly the weather was as much of a factor in attracting good basketball players as Neifi Perez was to the Tigers' pennant run last September.

It wasn't the cold weather, which the African-American basketball player supposedly universally detests, not at all. It was the winning -- the chances for a ring.

The Tigers are now a point of destination for some of the higher profile players in the game today. Two big free agent signees of recent years -- Pudge Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers -- have both gone on record the last few days. Their words were similar: I want to finish my career in Detroit.

Rodriguez echoed Rogers yesterday, a couple days after the lefthander told the questioner that his desire to finish it up in Detroit was "self-evident." Well, now it is, for sure.

And, last I checked, despite Al Gore's warnings of global warming, the mean temperature in Detroit has stayed about the same since those two veterans joined the Tigers since 2004. So it's not the weather that's been keeping players away, it's the opportunity to win and be successful consistently. The Tigers have that now, and so no wonder Pudge and Kenny want to retire here.

Gary Sheffield, the new Big Bat in town, was enamored with the fans' reaction and warmth during the team's bus caravan last month. And the temps were far from balmy when he professed his beliefs. Shef knows that this is a baseball hotbed when the team is going good, and what he saw was unbridled affection for a team that is the defending American League champion. Nothing was said by him about how cold it was outside that day.

Winning provides its own warmth and pleasant climate, year round.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Four Best Words You'll Hear All Winter

Pitchers and catchers report.

I'll just let those words sink in for a moment.

It's happening, tomorrow, the 15th, in Lakeland.

Believe it or not, it's been nearly four months since Brandon Inge struck out, closing out the 2006 World Series. And even though the pitchers will be throwing to an empty batter's box for a week, and thus meaning that Inge's strikeout will be the last one by a Tigers player for seven more days, it's baseball indeed.

It's enough to thaw your frigid February bones, I tell you.

Some Tigers are already down there, and have been for a couple weeks: Justin Verlander. Joel Zumaya. Vance Wilson. And others. Eagerness abounds for a team that rode an improbable run to the World Series, then saw it all implode against the Cardinals in five shaky games. Maybe the desire to start a new season is greater for the championship runner up.

"Wait till next year!"

It was the rallying cry of da Bums, the old Brooklyn Dodgers and their faithful. They were frequent runners up, and always to their rivals across the East River, the Yankees. I wonder if their players were the first ones down to Vero Beach, FL every February.

This year, the Tigers begin their 71st spring training in Lakeland, a city they've used as their regular season prep since 1946. Before that, there were other towns tried, but Lakeland won out. Joker Marchant Stadium, in fact, is one of the finer spring training ballparks in Florida or Arizona.

Three years ago, Tigers fans were eager to see how their new catcher, Pudge Rodriguez -- fresh off a World Series win with Florida -- would look in a creamy white uniform with the Old English D on the left breast. He was a champion, but no less eager to start spring training -- new team and all.

This year, the eagerness isn't because of the novelty of a superstar player joining a 119-loss team. It's for the high expectations of a ballclub that has set a new bar for success in this town. A much higher bar, higher than any year since 1985.

That team was good, too. And eager. But it won 85 games and finished in the middle of the pack in the old East Division.

Ancient history.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Barber's Near No-No Ended In Nightmare Fashion

I hate for this blog to be a source for baseball obituaries (see the Art Fowler post beneath this), but I would be remiss not to mention the passing of lefthander Steve Barber, who died yesterday at the age of 67.

Barber holds significance in Detroit, because it was against the Tigers in 1967 that, while pitching for the Orioles, he tossed a no-hitter. And lost.

Well, nearly a no-hitter. Barber was staked to a 1-0 lead after eight innings on April 30, 1967 in Baltimore. What happened next was the stuff of pitcher's nightmares.

According to retrosheet.org, Norm Cash led off the ninth with a walk, the eighth issued by Barber. Dick Tracewski ran for Cash. Ray Oyler, one of the worst hitters in modern baseball history, also walked. Pitcher Earl Wilson bunted the runners over, and after Willie Horton (batting for Dick McAuliffe) popped out, Barber was one out away from his no-no.

But with Mickey Stanley at the plate, Barber uncorked a wild pitch, scoring Tracewski with the tying run, and sending pinch-runner Jake Wood to third. Incredibly, Orioles manager Hank Bauer left Barber and his nine walks in the ballgame. But after walking Stanley (Barber's 10th base on balls), Barber was finally removed, for Stu Miller, whose claim to fame was being blown off the pitcher's mound during an All-Star game in San Francisco's windy Candlestick Park.

Miller induced a ground ball from Don Wert, but shortstop Mark Belanger made an error on it, allowing Wood to score with the go-ahead run. When the dust had settled, the Tigers went into the bottom of the ninth with a 2-1 lead -- and no hits.

Fred Gladding worked a perfect ninth, and preserved the wild, unusual win.

The line score read thusly:

Detroit: 2 runs, 0 hits, 1 error, 11 LOB (all those walks that didn't score earlier)
Baltimore: 1 run, 2 hits, 2 errors, 4 LOB

Barber's outing didn't rival that of Pittsburgh's Harvey Haddix, who pitched 12 perfect innings in 1959 yet lost in the 13th inning to the Braves, but when you pitch 8.2 innings of hitless ball, you should win, right? Obviously Barber's wildness contributed greatly, along with Bauer's tardiness in removing him.

The '67 Tigers' luck would run out, though, during the season's final weekend, when they lost a heartbreaking pennant chase to the Red Sox. The season ended with McAuliffe, who had not hit into a double play all year, grounding into one.

But on 4/30/67, the Tigers managed to beat the Orioles without so much as a single base hit.

RIP, Steve Barber.