Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Late Bloomer: Carlos Pena Could Be Premier Slugger Of The 2010s

It's hard to believe, but Carlos Pena turns 30 pretty soon.

Once, Pena was an early-20-something, potential stud first baseman with a sculpted body made for power hitting. And a nifty glove to match. He had the physical good looks and the baseball tools to be one of the best, most charismatic players of his brethren.

Then Pena lost his way, and nearly disappeared from Major League Baseball. In a flash, he was a late-20-something, pedestrian first baseman who would never realize the greatness once seemingly reserved for him.

In 2007, Pena -- the former Tiger who was supposed to be the team's first sacker for years -- showed up to spring training with the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, without a big league contract and without a promise. He'd have to earn his way -- just like any other non-roster invitee, which he was, for one of the worst teams in MLB. He was coming off a 2006 in which he had all of 33 at-bats with the Boston Red Sox. He teetered on the brink of being known as an ex-big leaguer who was long on promise but short on results.

I remember Pena's first game in a Tigers uniform. He had just been acquired from the Oakland A's in a complicated, three-team deal that included the New York Yankees and that sent Jeff Weaver to the Bronx. Another player would be coming from Oakland in the trade, as the famous "player to be named later." The player's inclusion was designed to simply even up the body count. The player was a righthanded pitching prospect named Jeremy Bonderman. Anyhow, the Tigers were in Boston on that summer day in 2002. And here came Pena, with the smooth lefty stroke that would, one day we hoped, turn Detroit on.

Pena doubled in his first Tigers at-bat -- a shot right over the first base bag -- and had three hits that day, leading the Tigers to a 9-8 win. The baseball world seemed to be his oyster in Detroit.

Pena watches another baseball go bye-bye; his career almost followed suit

But it wasn't long before Pena struggled, striking out frighteningly often and the more he failed, the harder he tried. And the harder he tried ... well, you get the idea. A 43-119 season with the Tigers in 2003 didn't help; it only served to prop Pena up as a symbol of what was wrong with the team: another clueless young player wrongly evaluated by an equally clueless Tigers front office.

Well, Pena not only made the (Devil) Rays last season, he busted out: 46 HR, 121 RBI, .282 BA. He still strikes out a lot (142 times in '07; 31 in 85 AB in '08), but that's who he is -- and who most HR sluggers are. You take the bad with the good.

The monster year earned Pena a lucrative contract, and maybe -- just maybe -- he can remove the word "potential" from his vocabulary. I say maybe, because so far in '08 Pena is hitting just .200 -- though he has six HR in 85 AB.

This is the year for Carlos Pena to show us if last year was a fluke, or if he's destined to be among the most feared sluggers in the next decade. I say the latter is still the best bet. He'll be 30 in a couple weeks, but while that may be old enough to consider him a late bloomer, it's right smack in the middle of the start of his prime -- if that makes sense.

It's not outrageous to suggest that Pena may hit some 350 HRs from 2010-2019. Add that to his current total of 138, and suddenly he'll be knocking on the door of 500 homers. Then what?

Hall of Fame? Gulp.

I'd like to think that Carlos Pena is on his way. He was always a likeable sort, if also maddening to watch at times. We'll see in a few months.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 5-2
This Week: (4/29-5/1: at NYY; 5/2-5/4: at Min)

Slowly, but surely, they come. One by one, the Tigers are getting healthier, and better. Still a work in progress. Still big-time questions about Gary Sheffield. And Dontrelle Willis. And the starting rotation, in general. But .500 is now no longer a tiny dot that can only be viewed with high-powered binoculars.

They're 11-15 now, after a good 5-2 week -- not even which a 1-2 weekend series against the Los Angeles Angels could ruin. Manager Jim Leyland finally has his 1-thru-9 lineup together (albeit with a decidedly less-than-100% Sheffield and a just-getting-healthy Placido Polanco), and a young man named Armando Galarraga has been a pleasant rotation surprise.

I still figure it'll take the Tigers a full 40 games -- 25% of the season -- before they cross .500 and put it further and further in their rear view mirror.

The good news is that no one is really running away with the Central Division. The team that figures to be the Tigers' main competition, the Cleveland Indians, are only 12-13. The Tigers haven't been buried by their strange April, just surprised.

Curtis Granderson's return is as welcome as a bottle of cold water is to a man stranded in the desert. There hasn't been much contribution from spots 1-2-3 in the batting order, and Granderson has changed that all by himself in the few games he's played since his return from a hand injury, suffered late in spring training. With Polanco and Sheffield hurting and hitting well below .200 each, Granderson's infusion of speed, power, and spray hitting will help the Tigers immeasurably. Not to mention his mere presence, which must be a soothing sight for his teammates.

This week it's the Yankees, in New York. The Bronx Bombers are scuffling along at 13-13, not unlike their slow start of 2007. Actually, it's better than they started last year, considerably. The Yankees were 21-29 at one point in '07. But they haven't played their best baseball yet, either. It's always a big series when you play the Yankees, but this time it's more to see where the Tigers are at as opposed to how they measure up against the Yanks. Right now it's all about getting your own house in order. Because as Sparky Anderson once said, you ain't done nothin' till you get to .500

After New York, it's one of many visits to the God-awful Metrodome in Minnesota. That thing is in its 27th baseball season, amazingly. Why don't the good folks up there spring for a new ballpark already? Even the Vikings don't deserve something as hideous as the HHH Metrodome.

Quick thought on the Carlos Guillen-Miguel Cabrera position swap: it's becoming more apparent to me that the move was much more of an indictment on Cabrera's glove than Guillen's, despite the supposed concern over the latter's footwork at first base. Footwork at 1B can be taught much easier than prowess at 3B. You either can play third or you can't. Most anyone can be groomed into a serviceable first sacker. Except for maybe Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart. Still one of the greatest nicknames in baseball history.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Thomas Would Have Looked Good With The Old English D; Plan B May Have To Be Employed

I sort of wish the Tigers would have gotten Hurt. It would have been an appropriate person to add to the roster, considering all the injuries they've had to withstand in April.

I'm talking about Frank Thomas, The Big Hurt. Dispatched by the Toronto Blue Jays in rather ugly fashion, Thomas sat unemployed for three days before one of his former teams, the Oakland A's, snatched him up yesterday for an obscene price tag of about $330,000 -- the pro-rated MLB minimum.

With Gary Sheffield's shoulder "not firing", how nice and menacing would Thomas look in a Tigers uniform right about now?

No sense crying over spilled milk, I suppose, but Sheff's shoulder is making me nervous. I wonder, frankly, if he'll EVER be back to normal. It still wouldn't surprise me if he retired before the end of the season. I just get that sense. Male intuition.

Do not talk to me about Barry Bonds. I know he's tempting to consider, but it would be far more trouble than it's worth. Trust me.

It's been frustrating, that the Tigers cannot seem to get their prized 1-thru-9 order into the same game at the same time. Back comes Curtis Granderson, out goes Sheff and Placido Polanco. In comes Polanco, out goes Jacque Jones and Carlos Guillen. And on and on.

"We can't catch a break," Leyland lamented to the papers yesterday about all the hurts.

The biggest Hurt is in Oakland; too bad the Tigers didn't get in on some of that action.

The truth is, the Tigers should have enough firepower to overcome most opponents with Sheffield recuperating. But I look at how the team struggled so much while he missed time last season, and I can only wonder how much he could help this star-studded lineup when healthy. In other words, it's not so much that Sheffield should have to stir this drink; but he definitely adds some fizz.

It's easy to defend GM Dave Dombrowski on the Frank Thomas thing. If you get him, and Sheffield ends up being OK, then you have a crowded roster. And Thomas's beef with the Jays was a lack of playing time. So I'm not blasting DD here; I think it was just a matter of bad timing. Had Thomas become available with Sheff on the DL or worse, then I'm confident DD would have made a play.

That said, Sheffield's absence is rather significant, no matter how you cut it. There still may be a roster move this summer; chances are, the Tigers' next DH is currently playing for another big league team.

Just wanted to mention a symposium on race and integration (as it pertains to baseball) that is going on this weekend in Detroit. The symposium focuses on the Tigers and the Boston Red Sox, and their rather late jump into the interracial waters. There's a tour of historical baseball sites around Detroit planned on the docket, along with a brunch and some panel discussions.

You can find out more by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cabrera-Guillen Switcheroo Very Curious

I'm not sure what to make of Tigers manager Jim Leyland's out-of-the-blue decision. It, on the one hand, smacks of "there's something ELSE going on", but might also just be a manager playing his gut. Or something in between.

What "it" is, is Leyland's sudden announcement after last night's game that 3B Miguel Cabrera would now be 1B Miguel Cabrera, and 1B Carlos Guillen is now going to be 3B Carlos Guillen.

Things that make you go "Hmmm...."

Where to begin? Let's start with how curious this is. Cabrera, the Tigers' new $151 million man, was acquired last December from Florida, complete with "future Hall of Famer" labeling. He was a converted left fielder who was, we presumed, still finding his way at third base, but with an awful lot of defensive potential to go along with this fearsome bat. Just a week or so ago, after Cabrera was seen playing first base with alarming frequency, Leyland declared that "Miguel Cabrera is the third baseman. We did not get him to play first base." Fine.

Guillen, the converted shortstop -- converted partly due to concern over his sometimes painful legs and suspected reduced range -- was hailed as a potential Gold Glove at first base by folks who saw him play in spring training and who should, we're told, be expert at such things. Guillen, Leyland and others said, did nothing other than work his tail off and try to be the best first sacker he could be. The Tigers' acquisition of SS Edgar Renteria eased Guillen's mind about being replaced at short.

So here we are, 21 games into the season, and Leyland announces -- some say with an air of permanence -- that Cabrera and Guillen will swap positions. OK, but why?

If Guillen's legs were a potential problem at SS, and if playing first was designed to alleviate those concerns, then what the heck is he doing at third (he hasn't played there since 2003), where range is also an issue, and where you have to do all sorts of heroic things involving your legs? And why, when he's supposedly a Gold Glover in waiting at 1B?

As for Cabrera, if the Tigers didn't trade for him and pay him $151 million to play first base, then why is he, you know, PLAYING FIRST BASE?

All Leyland would offer up about the switch was this, according to the Free Press: “We think we’re making a move that makes our ballclub better at this time. When you see things as a staff and as a manager and as a general manager and you see things that (you) believe are the right thing to make your club better, you make the move.

“Both players were talked to, and both players were very quick to say, ‘Whatever makes us the best team, do whatever you want.’ ”

Once again, things that make you go "Hmmm..."

OK, so what were these "things" that Leyland refers to -- things that "as a staff and as a manager and as a general manager" were seen to provocate such a swap? Cabrera has made some 3B errors early, but you expect errors from that position. As I've written here, 25 E-5s are acceptable, and even expected. Guillen has been decent at first, though hardly Gold Glove-ish. But it's early. Both are swinging decent bats at the moment.

3B is now on the left, and 1B on the right; got it?

Hunch? The "things" that have been seen are that Cabrera isn't much of a third baseman, and that he's being hidden at 1B. But that still begs, "What about Guillen's legs and range issues?" Perhaps that's a trade-off the Tigers are willing to make at this time. But maybe judgment should be withheld until we see just how permanent or temporary this move is. That would be the prudent thing to do; which means we won't do it -- not in the blogosphere, and not in ink, and certainly not on sports talk radio.

Not only is this move sudden and unexpected, but also the casual, post-game announcement of it is strange. Not that I expect a press conference, but there was no speculation, no hint, no rumor. It smacks of the day the Tigers released Dmitri Young during a rain delay, though this switch is certainly not as sinister as that.

But this is what you get when you prop up your manager as a grizzled baseball genius. He's allowed to make these sorts of curious moves. He's expected to leave us scratching our heads on occasion. And he's expected to get the benefit of the doubt, because he's Jim Leyland, after all. Kind of like Scotty Bowman with the Red Wings.

I wonder what Brandon Inge thinks of all this?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 4-3
This Week: (4/21: at Tor; 4/22-24: TEX; 4/25-27: LAA)

If this doesn't make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, then you ought to have your Tigers stripes revoked immediately: Placido Polanco and Gary Sheffield are hurting, and aren't showing any signs of getting better.


Double shiver, actually.

In 2006, when the Tigers limped to the finish line after their remarkable 76-36 start, the downslide started -- and not coincidentally -- with Polanco injuring his shoulder while making a diving catch in Boston (remember that?). Last summer, the Tigers struggled mightily when Sheffield's bad shoulder didn't respond to treatment.

And now the Tigers might be without both of them for an undetermined amount of time?

The news isn't awful, but it isn't all that encouraging, either. Polanco was sent to Detroit ahead of his teammates to have his aching back examined further. And Sheffield is pondering a doctor's exam on his still-not-right shoulder. Both situations are scary, but I think Sheffield's is the more troubling, despite how petulant backs can be. Sheffield is 39, and if you read between the lines when he talks -- normally not a necessity because Sheff rarely speaks anything less than his mind -- he's dropped several hints that he might, at a moment's notice, decide that enough is enough and that he's through as a player. Even a run at 500 career home runs (he has 481) won't be enough to change his mind. Over the weekend, he acknowledged to the papers that he probably should have taken a full year off after his post-season shoulder surgery. Instead, he "rushed" back in five months, in order to be ready for the 2008 season.

Ah, but just how ready was Gary Sheffield, after all? His paltry numbers are indicative that he's not healthy. Just how "not healthy" he is, is the question that gives me those shivers.

Polanco's back is also a major concern, of course. The Tigers, simply, win when Polanco and Sheffield are both healthy and doing their thing. And they lose when those guys aren't and don't. Nothing fancy or over-analytical about it. I'm not saying that Polanco is to blame for the Tigers' loss in the 2006 World Series, but he hit in the ALCS, won the MVP, and the Tigers swept. In the Series, he went hitless, and you know what happened.

I'll bet the Tigers can't wait for April to be over with. It's been a miserable month, and all the cold weather hasn't helped the aches and pains.

At least Curtis Granderson is going to be back soon. It's just too bad that his return has to be muted by the Polanco and Sheffield issues.

This week the Tigers host the struggling Texas Rangers. If ever there was a time to get this train fully back on the track, it's against Texas, because the first-place Angels follow the Rangers into Detroit.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Best Bet To Be The Next Neifi Perez? Jacque Jones

First, let me clarify something. By reading the rather provocative headline that adorns this post, you could think that I have a mad on for Jacque Jones. I don't. But I don't have any real allegiance to him, either -- so I'm just going to call it as I see it.

Back during the wintry weather, when all things seem possible for any given baseball season, I crowed that the Tigers' left field platoon of Jones and Marcus Thames had the potential of giving them the equivalent of one stud of a player. I cited Jones' terrorizing of the Tigers while a Minnesota Twin, and his post-All-Star break charge of last sumer, while a Chicago Cub. Thames' stats in part-time duty spoke for themselves; his HR-to-AB ratio is phenomenal.

It may seem unfair to pick on Jones during this stumble out of the gate that the Tigers, collectively, are engaging in. He, really, shouldn't be judged as any more of a guilty party than any of his teammates. True that. But this isn't about being a monument to justice; it's about being a weather forecaster of sorts.

What we have here with Jones is what could be called a "Neifi Perez Watch." Not to be confused with a Warning, in which there's been an actual Perez sighting, and you should take cover immediately. No, a Watch means that the conditions are right, and we'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, seek out a place for shelter, should you need it.

There's something very Neifi-like going on with Jones, to me. He's the acquisition that has had some success elsewhere, but so far is swinging like a rusty gate. I only wonder how much longer before Tigers fans use JJ as their human pinata. And since JJ bats left, and most starters are right-handed, the platoon method figures to give him considerably more at-bats than the well-liked Thames. Which, right now, isn't a good thing.

Jones has contributed one decent at-bat in the first three weeks: his sacrifice fly earlier this week to help beat the Twins. Other than that he's been awful -- a punchless, automatic out who is a waste of a space in the batting order. He hasn't been the only slow starter, but the others get a wider berth because they've been here before -- and the other newcomers, Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, are showing some life now. So that leaves JJ as the Tiger Most Likely To Be Run Out Of Town (by the fans) -- no matter how utterly symbolic his railroading may be.

Keep an eye on the Jones situation. And while you're at it, tell me that you're not getting that Neifi Feeling. How long before the Watch turns into a flat out Warning?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Guillen Right AND Wrong When It Comes To Clemente Remarks

Ozzie Guillen should have quit while he was ahead, but then again, he's rarely ahead, so he's not all that experienced in that area.

I'm talking about his mouth, and its proclivity to utter things normally said by imbeciles.

I'm going to weigh in on something Guillen said last week, which means it's about ten dumb things ago. But it made some national, indeed international, news, so here goes.

Ozzie, in trying to heap praise on Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez, said that Rodriguez was the best baseball player ever to come from Puerto Rico. He even placed Pudge above one of that country's heroes, Roberto Clemente. A rather stunning remark, but Guillen did a pretty admirable job stating his case. He cited Rodriguez playing a more physically demanding position, his longevity, and his seeming ability to play at a high level for several more years. Not to mention all of his accomplishments thus far. I actually found myself concurring with Guillen on the Pudge/Clemente comparison, as controversial as it was.

But then Guillen, as usual, took it too far.

"I'd say Clemente is the third-best player from Puerto Rico," the White Sox manager said, "behind Pudge and Roberto Alomar."


Roberto Clemente, the no. 1 (or no. 2) player from Puerto Rico; but DEFINITELY not no. 3

Pudge Rodriguez? Yes, perhaps. But not Robby Alomar. I'm sorry.

Guillen isn't the only one here qualified to make such comparisons. I saw both Clemente and Alomar play, and you just can't put Alomar in front of the Pirates' no. 21. No way. Forget the numbers. Clemente was killed while still an active player, and there was no sign that he was about to hang up his spikes. He was, frankly, the Pirates' best player in the 1971 World Series win over Baltimore, at age 37. So he would have added considerably to his 3,000 hits and everything else.

It's hard for me to make this seemingly obvious argument, because there's just too much at my disposal. But suffice it to say that while Alomar was a fine ballplayer and one of the best second basemen of his generation, he wasn't as complete of a player as Clemente was. Nor did he do as much for any of the teams that he played for as Clemente did for the Pirates.

I'm still not all that comfy about placing Pudge over Clemente, but it's feasible. You can make a case, and Ozzie did. But he went too far when he placed Alomar in the no. 2 slot.

"It's my opinion," Guillen said. "It doesn't have to be the right one."

It's not.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 2-4
This Week: 4/14,15: MIN; 4/16,17: at Cle; 4/18-20: at Tor

Mount Leyland exploded yesterday, according to reports.

It erupted in Chicago, moments after the Tigers were bushwhacked by the White Sox, 11-0 -- which came one day after being shutout 7-0. Leyland, the reports said, admitted to yelling at his team.

"I couldn't keep it in any longer," he was quoted.

Screaming and tossing things around and making a spectacle of yourself might feel good from a venting standpoint, but it's anyone's guess as to just how effective it is in shaking a team out of its doldrums. You need talent, first of all, or else all the screaming in the world isn't going to change a thing. The Tigers have that, so that's a step in the right direction. It's not that they need to be reminded of their 2-10 record; it's that sometimes it might be misconstrued as being acceptable to be bad for a stretch, until the manager loses his cool and reminds his players that, no, it's NOT acceptable. Not even close.

Miguel Cabrera, for one, looks like a lost soul. The Tigers' new $151 million man looks like a Double-A player blinded by the bright lights of The Show. He's awful right now -- swinging a wet noodle at the plate and more often than not, unable to drive the ball past the infield.

Well, most of them have been awful, of course. It's amazing that a team this good can come out of the gate in such a fog. I was talking to a friend and colleague over the weekend, and he says that the Tigers are never going to fully recover from this wretched start.

"I think they're done for," he said in an ominous tone. "I think the weight of all that pressure is getting to them."

Strange, but true: the Tigers still have some time here. No one in the division is running away with things. A good week, and they're right back in it. It'll be one of the few times where 6-12 will look good.

How our definition of acceptable changes, huh?


Friday, April 11, 2008

Leyland Failing So Far In His Biggest Test

Some time ago, I wrote that Tigers manager Jim Leyland was to face his toughest managing job to date -- certainly of the Detroit portion of his career. Never before had he managed a team with expectations as high as they were when spring training began. Forget Detroit -- maybe nowhere that he's been, period. We would see, I tossed out there, just what kind of a manager he truly is, when nothing other than a World Series win is expected, or tolerated.

Well, the season is nine games old, the Tigers have lost eight of those, and already Leyland has complained about himself. The team wasn't ready, he moaned -- and there's no one to blame for that other than him. Agreed.

But why? How? What happened to cause the Tigers to come out of the gate in a collective trance? Why are they playing like deer caught in the headlights?

The answer, I'm afraid, is simple but no less mortifying.

The Tigers are choking. Nothing more, nothing less. After blowing that 3-0 lead on Opening Day to the rising KC Royals, the Tigers' collars tightened significantly. That loss seemed to shake them, for whatever reason. They haven't put together one solid game yet. Even their win the other night, you could chalk up to the law of averages at work.

So what did Leyland say, or not say, or do, or not do, to set this nightmare off? How culpable is he?

What's happening now proves my thesis. I scoff at people who would look at Sparky Anderson or Joe Torre or Casey Stengel and brush off their success with their great teams simply because they were able to manage great players. If that's all it took -- great players -- then you may as well play the MLB season on paper and with computers. While it's true that the aforementioned skippers all struggled with teams far less talented, you cannot say unequivocally that ANYONE could have guided those great players to the promised land. The best talent isn't necessarily going to win the most games, nor win the World Series. It takes the right person to mold it.

Is Jim Leyland not the right man for this job? I'm not saying that -- yet. But it will beg asking, if this slide continues much longer. Maybe it'll turn out that Leyland himself wasn't able to handle a team with such heady talent and lofty expectations. We'll see.

But it's hard to fathom this group starting 1-8 under ole' Sparky or Torre, ain't it?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Only A Pitching Gem Can Bring The Tigers Their First Win Of 2008

This is kind of painful for me to point out, but did you know that the calendar this year is exactly the same as it was in 2003? The baseball season started on Monday, March 31 in '03. And the Tigers went out and promptly lost their first nine games, on their way to 119 Ls.

I thought we were done with all that. I thought the horrific, lopsided numbers -- comparing the Tigers' team stats with that of their opponents -- were part of an inglorious past that gave you chills even just thinking about it. I thought all that nonsense was buried with the expunging of such fraudulent big league players as Alex Sanchez and Warren Morris and Kevin Witt and Nate Cornejo. Never could it happen, right -- with All-Stars named Sheffield, Rodriguez, Cabrera, Ordonez, Polanco, and Verlander?

For Pete's sakes, this 0-7 start is getting stupid now. The Tigers, for whatever reason, have come out of the gate in a collective trance. They are playing the worst baseball this town has seen since, well, 2003. It's creepy how bad they've been. And then I had to go and look at the calendar and see that chilling comparison.

Now, don't worry. I'm not saying the Tigers will lose 119 games. But they could indeed go to 0-9, very easily. They have two more games against the defending champion Red Sox, in Boston. Do YOU see an end to the bleeding happening in Beantown?

It's quite simple. Someone has to go out and just pitch their rear end off. It remains the best way to stop extended losing streaks. You usually don't snap these things with a 10-8 affair. When the Tigers lost 19 straight in 1975, it took a Ray Bare two-hit shutout to keep the streak from reaching 20. When you don't give up any runs, it's impossible to lose, right?

Last Saturday, Dontrelle Willis was asked to be the stopper, with the streak at four. But his wildness caught up to him. Then Justin Verlander was asked to be the stopper the next night, on national TV. A gut-wrenching error by Carlos Guillen opened the floodgates and torpedoed Verlander. Yesterday, the Tigers turned to wily veteran Kenny Rogers. Maybe he could be the stopper. But the Tigers themselves were shutout (refer to the last sentence of the previous paragraph).

Tonight, Jeremy Bonderman is being given the ball, with the expressed charge to keep it simple, stay within himself, and while he's at it, throw a shutout. It's the only way to guarantee the Tigers picking up their first victory of 2008.

Someone may yet pay for this slow start, i.e. the rest of the American League. There's still every chance that once the Tigers get a win or two, and start to relax and have fun again, that someone is going to pay. The Yankees made the league pay last year for their 21-29 start.

Someone has to pitch a kick-ass game. Will it be Bonderman, tonight? The odds are against it, I'm sad to say. But it needs to happen, and quick.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 0-6
This Week: 4/8-10: at Bos; 4/11-13: at CWS

There's no telling how much dough you could have made if you'd uttered these words a week ago Sunday:

"I think the Tigers will go out and lose all six games of this opening homestand. Yep, I think they'll go 0-6. Not one win in there to be had."

You could have cleaned up.

But that's exactly what happened, and that's baseball. Six-game losing streaks happen. They're filled with good-pitch, no-hit -- and vice-versa. The other guys don't let you get away with anything; every mistake comes back and bites you between the back pockets.

So it was again last night, before the whole world to see, thanks to ESPN's unforgiving cameras. In the sixth inning, the Tigers trailing only 3-1, and with one out and nobody on base, Paul Konerko hit a shot to 3B Miguel Cabrera, who fielded it cleanly. He threw it cleanly. Only, 1B Carlos Guillen didn't catch it cleanly. Actually, he didn't catch it at all. E-3.

Now, something like this, while a horrible play on Guillen's part, doesn't always boomerang back at you. But these are the '08 Tigers, Week 1, and as I said, they can't get away with anything. The White Sox jumped all over Guillen's error, and before you knew it, they'd scored six runs, five of them unearned.

Now it's on to Boston, of all places. And the Red Sox, swept this weekend, are likely to be in a sour mood.

It may have once seemed unthinkable, but the Tigers could duplicate the horror of 2003 and begin this season 0-9.

The 0-6 start, all at home, has spawned the cliche of, "Well, it might be good for them to get on the road." Just as it would have been "good for them to get home" if the 0-6 getaway had occurred on the road. Anything to make the Detroit baseball denizens feel better, I suppose.

It's just been a complete meltdown, and there's little I can inject that you haven't already read, heard, or silently thought as a stream of expletives shot through your cranium. The Tigers may not have another six-game stretch this year as bad as the one they are now currently experiencing. Really. But it's magnified when it's right out of the chute -- especially with the expectations being what they are. But you know how everyone else in baseball must feel, because it would be what we'd feel if the Yankees or Red Sox had started 0-6. In fact, we DID feel that way last summer, when the Yanks struggled mightily for the first 60 games or so. Then they caught fire and charged into the playoffs.

So there's still time to salvage the season, I'd say. Even if the Royals' magic number over the Tigers is now down to 153.


Friday, April 04, 2008

Monday Morning Manager Returns!

The critically-acclaimed Monday Morning Manager (indulge me) returns this coming Monday. For all you newbies to WHYGJG, MMM is my weekly take on the Tigers: a recap of the previous week's games, and a look ahead at the schedule. As usual, it will be filled with whining, over-praising, and a failure to put things into proper context. In other words, it'll be a blog being a blog.

Bet ya can't wait, right?

"Targeted " Tigers' Toughness Questioned -- By Their Own Manager

This is what I was afraid of, if you want to know.

The 2008 Tigers, I feared, would be under such a cinder block-heavy weight of expectations and pressure; you know, to score 1,000 runs, to flick opponents off their shoulder like gnats, to be the Yankees (or the Red Sox) of the Midwest. And that weight, I fretted, would lead to playing tight, especially out of the gate. If the Tigers could getaway with relatively little trouble, say going something like 7-3 in their first ten games, then a lot of that heaviness would go away.

Fears realized.

The Tigers could still go 7-3, but they'd have to rip off seven straight wins to get there, thanks to their opening sweep at the hands of the seemingly improved Kansas City Royals -- a team that suddenly looks like it has the pitching staff to be taken seriously.

Already, manager Jim Leyland had his first meltdown. Only took three games for Leyland to toss around words like "dead" and "not professional" and "not prepared." Twenty-nine innings for him to wonder about his team's toughness. Maybe this really IS New York, Great Lakes version. Even the Yankees didn't get this kind of a tongue-lashing from The Boss after three games.

"We’ve got a target on us," Leyland said. "We’ll find out how good we are. We’ll find out if we are tough enough. I haven’t seen enough toughness in the last few days. I’m very disappointed in that."

I'm not sure if it's a lack of toughness so much as it is wanting too badly to burst out to a roaring start. I think a lot of folks -- Tigers players included -- had visions of 11-3, 9-2, and 8-1 wins over the Royals to start the season. But these Royals starters came into town and poured water all over the Tigers' book of matches. There was more life at a funeral home than there was out of the Tigers during the Royals series. So far, the highlights have been two solo HRs -- one by Miguel Cabrera in his first game, and the other by Carlos Guillen, which tied the Opening Day game in the 8th inning. That's pretty much been it, folks.

Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco, who hit .363 and .341 respectively in 2007, are clueless. Cabrera sat out yesterday's game with an injury, though he hopes to play today. And Gary Sheffield hurt his finger badly, and the thoughts of Sheff sitting for any length of time ought to give you chills. This offense is already anemic with him IN the lineup.

Still, it's only three games -- which in a 162-game season is not even two percent of the schedule. The concern, though, comes from the worry that this 0-3 getaway could get crazy and be 2-8 in a heartbeat -- as the Tigers get more and more frustrated and play as tightly wound as the core of the baseballs that they are failing to strike with any authority at the moment.

In 2006, Leyland had his famous meltdown on Easter Sunday after the team looked listless and uninterested in a game against the Indians. That has been hailed as a turning point in that surprising season. This year's outburst -- to the media (the '06 rant was levied privately to his players) -- beats '06's by several games. No coincidence, as the stakes and the expectations are exponentially higher now.

The Tigers haven't worn a target -- Leyland's word -- this bright and big in years. It didn't take long to wonder how it would look on them, did it?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Sheffield's Patience Key To Tigers' Murderer's Row

In the Tigers' revamped, might-score-1,000 runs-lineup, Gary Sheffield's role has changed.

Oh, he's still the no. 3 hitter -- and wearing no. 3, a la the Yankees of the 1920s, who ushered in the use of uniform numbers by correlating them with a hitter's spot in the order. Hence Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig wearing nos. 3 and 4, respectively. Yes, Sheffield is still very key -- a player that the Tigers once again can ill-afford to lose for any length of time.

But Sheff's new importance -- emphasized more now with the addition of Miguel Cabrera -- is to wear pitchers down, and to make them work very hard to get him out (if they do at all), all while also setting the table for Magglio Ordonez, Cabrera, and company.

Sheffield was at his best in this department yesterday during the Tigers' Opening Day loss to the Royals. He drew four walks, one of them his patented, digging out from an 0-2 hole masterpiece. The fact that he didn't score is no reflection on him, but if he continues to grind out at-bats like that, he'll score plenty.

Think about it. Very few walks come on four straight pitches. So each walk probably expends about six or seven pitches, on an average. Those pitches add up. And Sheffield's amazing ability to draw walks -- or at least work deep into a count -- is reflected in these head-spinning numbers (thru last season):

Career strikeouts: 1,042
Career walks: 1,377

And this from a guy who's closing in on 500 home runs.

The amount of times Sheffield strikes out on three straight pitches is almost non-existent when compared to the times he works that 0-2 count full. He may not always walk, but he coaxes four or five more pitches than most batters would in that situation; again, those pitches add up over the course of a game.

It's true that plowing through this Tigers lineup will be no picnic for starting pitchers this season. But one of the biggest reasons this is so is because of Gary Sheffield's patience, which is uncanny for a power hitter of his magnitude.

Other Opening Day Notes:

Miguel Cabrera IS a monster of a man, isn't he? Sheesh. But he's sculpted, not like a Cecil Fielder or Steve "Bye Bye" Balboni -- more like a younger Frank Thomas. He's that sometimes overused word: a specimen. And it's lovely to think that he's locked up for eight years.

So Brandon Inge threw a runner out at home plate -- from centerfield. Yet another example of his athleticism at work. If he only knew how valuable he is as the team's Super Sub -- maybe even more so than if he was shackled at third base, despite his abilities there.

Speaking of 3B, and of Cabrera, one of the national scribes was wringing his hands over Cabrera's defense, citing his 23 errors last season. He feared that Cabrera's glove was as bad as his bat is good. Nonsense. First of all, I can tolerate some errors from my third baseman. They're usually tough chances, and very few games are lost because of bad third base play. Twenty-three is a very acceptable number from an everyday third sacker.

By the way, I vote for having Miss America throw out the first pitch every year -- whether if she's from Michigan or not.