Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Shocking" Pudge Deal Not So Much, After First Inspection

It's the nature of the big baseball trade that the first reaction is shock. Sometimes how you find out about it adds to that aura.

There I was, sitting in a restaurant, having a nice early dinner out -- giving my wife the night off from cooking during our daughter's band camp week, at which Sharon has been volunteering every day at the high school. Hanging from the ceiling was a television -- its volume down but the closed captions running along the bottom of the screen. Channel 7's guy was on -- I don't know anyone's names anymore -- and there were the words "Pudge heads for New York" scrolling as the talking head spoke. Not knowing what that meant, it became clear moments later, when Pudge Rodriguez's photo was superimposed on the screen, over the talking head's shoulder. And the words "Pudge traded!" was its caption.

My jaw literally dropped -- so much so that my family asked me what on Earth I was reacting about.

It's also the nature of the big baseball trade that, once the shock dissipates, and once you start thinking rationally, most "shocking" trades aren't all that shocking. In fact, some of them make some pretty damn good sense.

It was revealed yesterday, in the wake of Rodriguez's trade to the New York Yankees for reliever Kyle "I Used To Be a Tiger" Farnsworth, that no one in the Tigers' inner sanctum is shocked that Pudge is gone. If only because the team committed, a "couple weeks ago", according to manager Jim Leyland, to the notion that Rodriguez would not be a Tiger in 2009. Pudge's multi-year deal is in its last year, and the cost to bring him back would likely have been quite high, even as he approaches his 37th birthday.

Going further, GM Dave Dombrowski said that Brandon Inge has been tabbed as the new everyday catcher, starting immediately, and extending into next season, at least. That decision, also, was made quite some time ago. So, no shock in the executive offices when the team was able to consummate a deal for Pudge.

So the more I thought about it, the more I can understand the Tigers' perspective. The bullpen is in dire need of help. Farnsworth provides that. Leyland said it best.

"No disrespect to Brandon or Pudge, but whether we make the playoffs isn't going to be decided by who the catcher is," he told FSN Detroit before yesterday's game. "Pitching will decide that," he added.


That much was once again placed into an evidence bag last night.

Closer-for-now Fernando Rodney got all Todd Jones-ish and surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the 9th to Kelly "Babe Ruth" Shoppach, who had himself one of those nights that his children's children will be hearing about, ad nauseam: five hits, all for extra bases, including two home runs. And another late-inning lead, one that the Tigers worked so hard to grab, had vanished in an instant. As if Leyland (and we) needed another case study as to why bullpen reinforcements are so badly required.

If the price to nab at least some of that help comes at the cost of an expensive catcher on the back end of his career and in the last year of his fat contract, then maybe we can all live with that. Pudge Rodriguez was a good Tiger, better than I thought, to be honest. I had some serious reservations in 2005, starting when he showed up to spring training much slimmer and in a nasty mood. He wore a sour puss most of the season, and was widely regarded as being no big fan of manager Alan Trammell. But after Leyland arrived, Rodriguez seemed happier, and he was as big a reason as any why the Tigers made it all the way to the World Series.

Oh, and a word about his coming to Detroit in 2004. Yes, it was a great thing for the franchise, coming on the heels of that 119-loss season. But think back. Despite winning the World Series with Florida in 2003, Rodriguez was 31 and with recent history of back trouble. He didn't have all that many suitors lining up for his services. The Cubs were mentioned. The Marlins showed lukewarm interest. The Orioles came up in discussion. But no team was remotely as desperate -- or as willing to overpay -- as the Tigers were. They needed Rodriguez, for sure, but he didn't have too many other options, either. Not trying to splatter on him, just wanting to set the record straight -- because you'll be reading constantly about how Rodriguez rode into Detroit like a knight in shining armor. You won't read as much, me thinks, about how few teams needed such a knight -- at the cost the Tigers were willing to pay.

But that's not taking anything away from Rodriguez's time in Detroit. It was properly mentioned that not once did he spend any time on the DL during his 4+ seasons here. For a 30+ catcher with a supposed bad back, that's something. And he pretty much maintained a .300 BA and played above average defense. There aren't too many everyday catchers who can do both those things.

This was, at first glance, a shocking deal. Not so much, once you think about it. Pudge will be missed, but as Leyland said -- the catcher isn't going to determine whether the Tigers make the playoffs. Those throwing to the catcher will determine that.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tigers' Closer Drama Cannot Continue Much Longer

Fernando Rodney is not the answer. But neither does Todd Jones appear to be, at least not now. Joel Zumaya? I've been resisting the notion of making him a closer since Day One, figuring that the outs he gets in the 7th and 8th innings are consistently more valuable than anything Jones, etc. gets in the 9th.

Watching Rodney labor through the ninth inning last night, the Tigers' victory over the Indians seemingly safe, I had some serious reservations about his being anointed the closer over Jones, who was defrocked on Saturday by manager Jim Leyland. TV announcer Mario Impemba echoed my thoughts.

"Well, for all the problems Jones has had," Impemba said (I'm paraphrasing), "at least he throws strikes. There's something to be said for that."

Impemba said those words as the camera honed in on Jones, sitting in the bullpen, finding himself with nothing to do during a 9th inning with the Tigers in the lead. And while Rodney treated the strike zone like plutonium, throwing far too many pitches than necessary, it occurred to me that the Indians kind of helped him out. Somehow Rodney got the required three outs despite being as sharp as a dull pencil, because the Indians didn't appear to have quite enough patience to see where Rodney's wildness might lead.

Yes, Todd Jones throws strikes -- and that, too, has been a problem lately.

The choice between Jones's batting practice that he tosses, and Rodney's wackiness when it comes to finding the plate, is a harsh one indeed -- but that is what is being served up to Leyland right now. Maybe that will only be his choice for another 24 hours or so.

Tomorrow is the non-waiver trading deadline. The Tigers exist, precariously, as barely-contenders. But it's hard to imagine them as anything more than that with their 9th inning pitching options what they are today. Hardly anyone has confidence in Jones right now, but tell me, does Rodney make you feel warm and fuzzy?

There were a few pitches last night that Rodney uncorked where it looked like he was just trying to throw the ball as fast as he could -- complete with an exaggerated, overhand motion. Like he was trying to knock milk bottles down in one of those arcade games on the midway.

I've always felt that whatever trouble Rodney has, is usually rooted between his ears. I could be wrong, but it's my belief that Todd Jones might be mentally tougher than Rodney, but that Jones simply doesn't have the stuff to get crucial outs consistently enough. And Rodney has the stuff -- there's still that nasty change up -- but he seems fragile, mentally.

Some choice, huh?

That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that GM Dave Dombrowski is gobbling up cell phone minutes, trying to pry a closer from some poor seller. I think the decision to "promote" Rodney to closer is just a stopgap, until Dombrowski can acquire another guy. Just a feeling I have.

Because the way things are now, the only real hope is if the Tigers beat teams into submission, negating the necessity of a closer.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 4-2
This Week: (7/28-31: at Cle; 8/1-3: at TB)

Todd Jones was a closer for another time -- a time when you bit on bullets to deal with pain, and they used mustard plasters for everything from headaches to internal diseases. A time when sports trainers taped an aspirin to your damaged knee and told you to get back out there.

Jones closing a ballgame was often tantamount to having that "little procedure" in the doctor's office without the benefits of anesthesia, local or otherwise. He was the Tilt-a-Whirl, on turbo, right after you had a big lunch.

That's what you get when your closer "pitches to contact" and lacks a true strikeout pitch. And what you get when he allows opposing hitters to ding him successfully to the tune of a .375 clip, as the statisticians say has occurred in Jones's last 11 outings.

Todd Jones is a great guy. He's a great Tiger. He would appear to bleed Tiger blue and orange. But a closer cannot, CANNOT, have hits rained on him at a .375 pace. It's just not acceptable. It's not playing with fire -- it's venturing into a blazing building with a gasoline suit on.

The news that Jones is being replaced -- and we don't know if it's permanently or not -- as team closer by Fernando Rodney has been, I know, well-received by the Tigers faithful. Doesn't take much of an observer to figure THAT out. The gut-wrenching loss to the White Sox on Friday night, in which Jones was one strike away from bringing the Tigers to within 4-1/2 games of first place, only to end up serving a game-winning homer to Jermaine Dye, was the last straw for manager Jim Leyland. That loss hurt as much as any other in recent years, and Jones was sacrificed. There was a little bit of Donnie Moore and Ralph Branca in that loss, as over-the-top as that may seem. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in that manner -- hell, not the jaws of victory but the esophagus of victory -- was as bad as it gets, at least for a late-July game.

But that horrific moment on Friday night wasn't just a hiccup. No little blip on the screen. It was the culmination of a month-long's worth of shakiness, even when the saves were being recorded and credited to Jones. Shakiness that a team fighting for its playoff contention life simply cannot afford.

Leyland's job is to give the Tigers their best chance to win. He has said that despite all the money and guaranteed contracts, the manager's trump card is, and always will be, the lineup card. Or, in this case, the bullpen management. You use the players who give you the best chance to win. And Leyland has correctly deduced that Todd Jones does not, at this time, give him that.

"I'm 40 years old," Jones said in the wake of the news of his de-frocking, and the inference is clear: that he's old enough to know that he works in a results-oriented business. And when the results are not there, then changes are made. Good guy or not.

But then there was this, when Jones was asked if he saw the move to de-frock him coming.

"Not at all," was his reply.


Chalk it up to that "can't see the forest for the trees" thing. Although, maybe Jones didn't see it coming because Leyland has always stuck with him, despite the anesthesia-less moments spent watching Jones close ballgames. Jones had no reason to feel his job was in jeopardy, because Leyland has never pulled him from the role, despite those all-too anxious moments. Why should this current 11-game slump be any different?

But every man has his threshold for pain, I suppose, and Leyland has reached his. Clearly, the manager has a higher tolerance than his team's fan base.

As fate would have it, Jones may be called upon to close tonight's game in Cleveland, due to Rodney's 42-pitch effort yesterday, and Joel Zumaya's bad tricep. It's like breaking up with your girlfriend, then asking her out a day later because you're in a jam and need a date.

As Richard Nixon once said, when he was threatening to get out of politics back in the day, "You won't have Todd Jones to kick around anymore."

With the exception of maybe tonight. For old time's sake.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tigers' Penchant For Bad August Baseball Must End This Year

The good news is the Tigers have been playing their best baseball in the last 40 games or so. The bad news is that this is the time of the year when Jim Leyland's bunch has typically gone into the tank.

The Tigers are 27-13 since bottoming out at 12 games below .500 in early June. It's a quarter that has propelled them back into relevancy in the AL Central -- just 5-1/2 games behind the White Sox as of this morning.

Trouble is, the Tigers have been bitch slapped by the latter part of July and August the past two years, covering Leyland's tenure.

In 2006, after a zenith of 76-36 in early August, the Tigers nosedived, finishing the season 19-31 and losing the division to the Twins.

Last season, the Tigers suffered through an 11-23 valley after the All-Star break, basically shattering their playoff hopes.

Of course, the '06 bunch recovered in time to make it all the way to the World Series, and last year's team dusted itself off to make at least part of September interesting before fading into the sunset altogether. But the facts remain: in each of the last two post-All-Star break stretches, the Tigers have wilted under the summer heat.

Ahh, but what about injuries, you say? In '06, Placido Polanco missed over a month after hurting his shoulder in Boston in August. In 2007, Gary Sheffield also suffered a shoulder injury while making a rare appearance in the outfield. And we all know what that did to Sheff, physically -- and the Tigers, spiritually.

Maybe 2008 will be a 180-degree change from the past two seasons. This time, the Tigers started frigidly and appear ready to make a late-season charge -- literally opposite their formula in '06 and '07. And as far as injuries go, most of those were suffered from April thru June. The Tigers are a much healthier team now, maybe as healthy as they've been all season. So there's that, too.

Still, I'm eager to see how Leyland navigates his team as August approaches, because that hasn't been the manager's best month in Detroit. In 2006, the Tigers were 13-16 in August. In '07, they were 11-18. That's a career August mark of 24-34 for Leyland, in Detroit, in one of any baseball season's most critical months. That's not getting it done.

But if the Tigers can continue this 180 degree thing, then maybe they'll have something.

I know injuries played a key role in the Tigers' last two summer swoons, but that's also when a manager has an opportunity to seize the moment and make do with what he has. Sadly, Polanco and Sheffield's injuries knocked the air out of the Tigers, and that concerns me.

It's early, but the 2008 Tigers are 4-2 since the All-Star break. It's a start.

There almost certainly will be a heretofore mystery player joining the Tigers late next week, courtesy the trading deadline. If nothing else, to make things a little more interesting. But it's up to the manager to not allow any more summer swoons. This time, the Tigers can afford one of those the least since Leyland took over. No big pad of '06 and '07 to sustain such nonsense.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 2-2
This Week: (7/21-23: at KC; 7/25-27: CWS)

The Tigers have cooled off, and it's not all that surprising. After all, the team went on an 18-4 tear to go from 24-36 to 42-40, and is now on a more modest 7-9 pace. Still, the overall record since dropping a season-low 12 games below .500 is 25-13, and that's the kind of ball that the Tigers will have to play to keep themselves relevant in the AL Central race.

First, forget all thoughts of a Wild Card berth. The division's the thing for the Tigers. Why? No. 1, the Tigers are a full 7 games behind the Red Sox -- a half game worse than they are behind the White Sox for first place in the Central. But more important, whenever you start talking Wild Card, you open up the party for so many more teams in the league. Don't get fooled by the "Wild Card standings" that you'll see on ESPN -- which the network has already begun flashing on the screen. It's one thing to be seven games behind one team; quite another to be seven games behind the leader when there are several teams between you and first place. The more teams you have to leap frog, the more of them have to lose on a consistent basis, last year's Colorado Rockies be damned.

The Tigers already have to pass two teams just to win their own division. In a Wild Card race, you must add the Yankees and the A's and the Rangers to the mix. Now you're talking four teams to pass -- the Twins (or White Sox) plus those three. Not to mention teams just behind the Tigers, like the Blue Jays and the Orioles and even the Royals, who are just one hot streak away from getting involved.

Safer to keep your eyes on the Central prize. Less crowded.

It's also time to start looking at differential in the loss column -- even before you look at overall games behind. Losses are games you can't make up -- at least not on your own. The further you fall behind in the loss column, the more you need to rely on teams ahead of you losing. So, basically, it's better to be seven games behind with six of those games in the loss column and eight in the win column, than vice versa (games behind are calculated by adding the gaps between wins and losses and dividing by two).

Here's an illustration:

Chicago 55-42
Minnesota 55-43

These are the standings today. The Tigers are 6-1/2 games behind the White Sox. Note the loss column. The Tigers are seven behind the White Sox. But look at this hypothetical situation:

Chicago 56-43

This is also a 6-1/2 game differential, overall. But the loss column difference in this scenario is only six. It may not look like a big deal, but it is. In this scenario, the White Sox don't have to lose as much; the Tigers have to win a little more. You'd always rather have your fate tied to how many games YOU win as opposed to how many games your opponent has to lose.

Confused? Suffice it to say that wins are easier to make up than losses. It's kind of like "games in hand", which they talk about in hockey a lot. In my hypothetical scenario, the Tigers would have played one fewer game than Chicago -- a game they can use to add to their win total. In the real standings this morning, the White Sox have that important "game in hand." And they'd have to lose it to help the Tigers. Capeche?

This is a big week for the Tigers, bigger than most. The pesky Royals, who have beaten the Tigers like a drum, host Detroit for three, then the Tigers play host to the White Sox. Pretty obvious why this is potentially a crossroads week for Detroit. A bad week here, and you might be looking at being a seller at the July 31 trade deadline.

The Tigers swept the White Sox in Detroit last month, at the start of their 18-4 run. Perhaps the Chisox didn't take the Tigers as seriously back then. That will certainly change this weekend.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Camden Yards Breathed Life Into Baseball Stadium Design

Thank goodness for Camden Yards.

Actually, the official name is Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and the superfluous words are about the only thing wrong with it. I've never set foot there, but you don't have to, in order to appreciate what OP@CY did for the MLB-watching experience.

Prior to Camden Yards' opening in 1992, baseball stadiums were in a rut. Nothing new, really -- other than "new" Comiskey Park in Chicago, which was a huge disappointment for its lack of charm and aesthetic worth. We were still being subjected to the likes of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, Riverfront in Cincinnati, and even the -- yecch -- Astrodome in Houston.

The MLB stadium needed a return to its roots, and badly.

Enter Camden Yards, which ushered in a new, "retro" era of manufacturing baseball parks.

OP@CY was built right smack in the middle of the city, which almost forced it to have nooks and crannies, along with the foreboding warehouse wall beyond the right field fence. It had natural grass, of course, and it was fitting that Cal Ripken, Jr. should break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game playing streak in a retro park such as Camden Yards -- a park much like the ones Gehrig toiled in back in the day.

Others followed, in different cities -- other parks that eschewed the "cookie cutter" for a more customized look.

Jacobs Field in Cleveland. Safeco Field in Seattle. Miller Park in Milwaukee. Comerica Park in Detroit. And so on. If you look around, you'll find very few offenders. Obviously, the Metrodome springs to mind, but its days are thankfully numbered. Maybe Toronto will get off the dime and replace Skydome (or whatever they call it nowadays).

Baltimore's old structure, Memorial Stadium, was a minor league ballpark converted into a larger, more major league size when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in the early-1950s. And it served the Orioles well -- along with the NFL's Colts. Lots of big baseball and football games were played in Memorial Stadium.

The funny thing is, today's retro parks are starting to look alike, too -- but at least it's in a good way. If you look at aerial shots of Comerica, or Miller Park, or Pittsburgh's park, they look similar -- especially when it comes to the large scoreboards looming in left field. But it's a similar look I can abide, unlike those God-awful, round monstrosities they had a fetish for building in the 1970s.

So tip your hat to OP@CY. If it wasn't for it, I shudder to think where we'd be, baseball stadium-wise.

"New" Veterans Stadium?

The horror of it all.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-3
This Week: (7/17-20: at Bal)

Only eight of the 30 MLB teams are slated to play on Thursday -- and the Tigers are one of just two in the American League. It's an inequity that isn't setting well with manager Jim Leyland, nor is it, I would imagine, with the managers of the other seven teams.

Why the Tigers and Orioles are playing on Thursday, when all the other 12 AL teams are off, is beyond me.

A traditional All-Star break used to mean Monday thru Wednesday off, with games resuming on Thursday -- starting four-game weekend series, basically. I can see not having every single team play on Thursday, but just eight of 30? And just two of 14 in the AL? That seems like a scheduling quirk that could have been avoided.

Leyland has gone on record as being less than thrilled with that imbalance -- not that there's anything he can do about it, of course. Schedule making isn't easy, even with the use of computers and fancy software. But there still needs to be a human element, you'd think. If the Tigers needed to play four games in Baltimore, why couldn't they be Friday thru Monday instead? If closer to half of the teams in each league played on Thursday, then that's a split you can understand and live with. But when 73% of MLB teams can somehow get Thursday off, then that doesn't make any sense to me.

OK, so what's the big deal? Who cares? Well, what team couldn't use an extra day off right about now? Frankly, it's just a matter of equity. If it's not a big deal, then why do nearly three-quarters of the teams have Thursday off? The grass is always greener, I know, but the whole imbalance seems avoidable.

I say have most of the teams play on Thursday. A three-day break is ample. A better split would have been 22 on, 8 off -- not vice-versa.

As for the Tigers, I doubt many folks would have been happy with 47-47 at the break, if presented with that scenario back in March. But considering what happened in April and May, that record isn't so rotten. Seven games back (the size of the Tigers' deficit against the first-place White Sox) isn't an insurmountable hurdle to clear. The Tigers basically need to make up one game for every ten they play, on an average, from here on out to catch the White Sox. That's on average. You can, of course, make up three or four games in a week, then slip back another couple in two days. It's what makes a pennant race so pulsating.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Rodriguez, Brinkman Made Left Side Of Tigers Infield Air Tight

Carlos Guillen, the other night, perhaps saved the Tigers from yet more late-inning heroics from Cleveland's Casey $#@! Blake -- who has risen rapidly to being my most-hated big league ballplayer. It's nothing personal -- I've never met Blake nor do I really know much about him -- but he's a Tiger killer, and I have no patience for those types.

Anyhow, Guillen flashed some serious glove as he wrangled a shot hit to him as he played in, with Blake on third and one out. From his knees, Guillen fired the ball to catcher Dane Sardinha, and a neatly executed rundown then occurred, with Blake tagged out by Guillen. Then, the very next batter hit a smash to Guillen's left, and Carlos speared it before throwing a perfect strike to first base. Threat over, inning over. Soon, game over, as Miguel Cabrera smacked a walk-off home run.

Earlier in the season, when things were rotten, I recall Guillen making a crucial throwing error in Minnesota on a Sunday afternoon that helped complete a big Twins comeback as they swept the Tigers one series after Detroit swept the Yankees in New York.

Guillen, the Tigers' accidental third baseman, and Edgar Renteria, the creaky shortstop, haven't exactly been Gold Glovers in 2008. They've been OK, but nothing more than that, really. Guillen's back-to-back gems Wednesday night notwithstanding.

In fact, the Tigers haven't had a truly airtight left side of the infield since the days when Aurelio Rodriguez and Eddie Brinkman patrolled third and short, respectively, in the early-to-mid 1970s. I know, I know -- what about Alan Trammell? Well, Tram was very good, no question. But 3B Tommy Brookens, though he tried hard, couldn't match Rodriguez in terms of range or arm strength. Especially arm strength. Rodriguez threw lasers to first base.

Brinkman, for his part, once went over 90 consecutive games without committing an error.

The trouble was, neither man was much of a hitter. In fact, there were some years when they were both awful, their averages in the low-.200s.

In today's game, teams seem to be willing to sacrifice defense for the sake of a good bat. They appear to be leery of "wasting" a spot in the batting order on a good field, no hit infielder -- at least not for any length of time. You can partly blame Trammell for that, and Cal Ripken, Jr. -- men who began to re-define what a shortstop should be. Frequently, the SS was the weakest hitter on the team, often batting eighth (pre-DH) or ninth (post-DH). But players like Tram and Ripken came along, with their near-.300 batting averages and their decent power, and teams got greedy. Not only did they want production out of the corner infielders, they looked for it from their shortstop, too. So young players were drafted with that in mind, and the star players in high school were often the shortstops. Today, it's simply not acceptable to employ an everyday shortstop who cannot hit.

Brinkman (top) and Rodriguez were two human vacuum cleaners for the Tigers

But back to the defense. The Tigers lost a lot of games earlier in the season because their defense failed them. It's still happening; witness OF Matt Joyce's mind-boggling blunder in the ninth inning yesterday. But the miscues had often come from the infielders. And Guillen and Renteria could hardly be judged as innocents.

But they have a resume of hitting, and so defense is not the priority. Although both men are probably considered above average nowadays. Trouble is, nowadays standards aren't as high as they used to be when it comes to glove work.

Rodriguez died tragically in Detroit nearly eight years ago when he was struck by a car in the southwest/Mexican portion of the city. The driver, it was suspected, had suffered some sort of medical emergency and veered onto the sidewalk, striking Rodriguez. He was 52 years old.

Brinkman was traded to the San Diego Padres after the 1974 season as part of the trade that brought bust Nate Colbert to Detroit. San Diego almost immediately traded Brinkman to St. Louis. In '75, Brinkman played for the Cardinals, the Texas Rangers (one game) and the New York Yankees. He was out of baseball before the '76 season, just 34 years old.

I saw Brinkman at Tiger Stadium, back in 1990. I ended up sitting behind him; he was working for the White Sox as a scout. I remember telling him that the Chisox, at the time, appeared to be an up-and-coming team with a lot of good, young talent. He agreed and said he thought the team could win big soon. They ended up capturing the AL West title in 1993.

There weren't many big moments with the bat from the 3B and SS when Rodriguez and Brinkman played in Detroit, but thanks to them, there were that much fewer for the opposition, too.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

If You're Looking For A National League Team To Adopt, Choose The Brew Crew

It doesn't get the same fawning over like St. Louis, or even Detroit, does. But Milwaukee is as fine of a baseball city as you'll ever find.

You want history? There was a Milwaukee franchise in the inaugural American League season, way back in 1901. That team was called the Brewers, just like the contemporary version. And there's been minor league ball all along, in between the major league versions. From 1902-1952, the Brewers played in the American Association. Then, when the NL Boston Braves moved after the 1952 season, they landed in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Braves existed until 1966, when the team moved to Atlanta. But Milwaukee was without MLB for only four seasons before the current incarnation of the Brewers joined the AL in 1970, snatching the transplanted Seattle Pilots franchise. So from 1901-2008 -- 108 seasons -- Milwaukee was without major or minor league baseball for only a handful of seasons.

They love their baseball in Milwaukee. What else would you expect when the city is crawling with breweries, and baseball and beer go together like peanut butter and jelly? This might partly explain St. Louis's reputation -- also deserved -- of being a great baseball town, with that city's affiliation with beer, too.

I don't know if you, as a Tigers fan (assuming you are; most people who read this blather on my blog count themselves Tigers boosters) pay any attention to the National League, much less have a favorite NL team that you like to follow. Mine happens to be the Dodgers, for reasons I've explained in the past. But I think choice 1-A for me are the Brewers.

The fine folks in Milwaukee haven't had a lot to cheer about lately, in any sport, unless you count their being fans-by-proxy of the Green Bay Packers. But even the Pack don't play games in Milwaukee anymore. The Bucks have been duds. So too the Brewers, who were one of the poster children for people making their case that a small market team could never compete in today's game. The Brewers have been the Tampa Bay Rays (pre-2008) of the NL since switching leagues in 1998. Now we could have a Tampa-Milwaukee World Series. No joke.

The Brewers, according to GM Doug Melvin, are "going for it" -- hence their trade the other day with the Cleveland Indians for top-drawer starter CC Sabathia. They are practically tied for the NL Wild Card, and despite that league's warts, a playoff spot is a playoff spot. Now they have the lefty Sabathia to go with righty Ben Sheets as a pretty good tandem at the front of the rotation.

There's the Prince, too -- Prince Fielder, Cecil's son. He's a monster. The rest of the roster is sprinkled with young, mostly nameless players who are hungry and full of energy -- not unlike the '08 Rays.

It would be fun to see Milwaukee get pennant fever again. The team hasn't really sniffed the playoffs since playing in the 1982 World Series.

Great baseball cities like Milwaukee shouldn't have to suffer through a streak of missing the playoffs like their current one of 25 years. Tigers fans should agree, having gone through 18 straight playoff-less seasons from 1988-2005.

So I'm adopting the Brewers as my second-favorite NL team, behind the Dodgers.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-4
This Week: (7/8-9: CLE; 10-13: MIN)

The Tigers will only have one All-Star on the American League roster next week -- Carlos Guillen -- and if that brings back ghoulish memories of 100-loss seasons, don't go there. The Tigers are a .500 team -- at the moment -- who are simply lacking players with eye-popping numbers. No Tigers made the starting lineup, so to have more than one at-large selection in what has, so far, been a disappointing season, would have been considered a bit of an upset.

Too bad for Marcus Thames, though -- and too bad for AL manager Terry Francona, who would have made a bold and daring move by adding Thames to the roster despite his not being a quote-unquote everyday player. Thames's tendency to hit a home run every 10 at-bats or so is not only All-Star-like, it's Hall of Fame-like. But we'll just cut Francona some slack and assume he had too many outfielders from which to choose.

Plus, this year's All-Star is Guillen, not Robert Fick or Tony Clark or Justin Thompson or any of the other non-deserving Tigers who made teams back in the day, just for the sake of having a Tiger tag along. Guillen, though having a less-than-spectacular year, numbers-wise (surprised Placido Polanco didn't get the nod instead), is a worthy All-Star, if only for his resume. He's not going to win a Gold Glove, but Guillen is still one of the Tigers you don't mind seeing at the plate when a base hit is in order, or even a home run. He tends to go deep when it matters.

As for Guillen's team, this is an important week for the Tigers. Of course, you can pretty much say that for every week going forward; that's what happens when you spend the first quarter of the season sniffing the dirt.

But this is particularly important, because you have the Indians -- the wretched Indians (and I love writing that) -- coming to town for two games, then the red-hot Twins invading for four. The Tigers are an unsightly 11-21 in games within their own division. It is literally impossible to win a division or qualify for a wild card with such a horrible divisional record; there are just too many of those kinds of games on your schedule. The Tigers are seven games out of first place -- not an insurmountable deficit, but also perilously close to double digits, and those holes are very hard to climb out of after the All-Star break.

What's more, the Twins are going to have to be leapfrogged, sooner or later, if the Tigers want to catch the first place White Sox. Doing well against Minnesota this week in Detroit -- where the Tigers have performed very well lately -- will be very well-timed right about now.

Still never thought I'd be as enamored with a 44-44 record as I am this morning.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

MIA Wilson Has Had Far-Reaching Implications For Others

Vance Wilson hasn't played in a major league baseball game since 2006. Yet no one has had a greater effect on the careers of as many current big leaguers as he.

Wilson, the backup catcher extraordinaire, was as key of a cog for the Tigers as one can get, for playing in barely one-third of his team's games. Not only did he simply provide Pudge Rodriguez with rest, Wilson also was a terrific handler of pitchers, played tough, rugged defense, and even contributed the odd key hit. He was also a great teammate in the clubhouse.

But his right elbow has betrayed him, and there have been surgeries, and he still isn't close to returning. Another surgery recently has shelved him until spring training, 2009 -- at least.

Without Wilson, the following has happened as a direct result:

1. The Tigers gave Mike Rabelo his first significant big league action as a backup catcher, and because of it, he was packaged with Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin in order to get Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis

2. Brandon Inge has been shoved back into the catcher's gear as a backup, which caused quite a stir in spring training

3. The team has had to call up light-hitting Dane Sardinha because Inge is hurt. Sardinha had a game-winning triple on Sunday

4. The strategy in re-signing Rodriguez is influenced by how capable of a replacement the Tigers can get. If Wilson was active, Rodriguez may not have played as much in 2007 and this season, and thus might be be better equipped physically -- making him more attractive to re-sign

All this, because Vance Wilson cannot suit up and play.

The good news is that Wilson doesn't appear on the verge of retirement, which lesser players would likely be considering right about now. The injured elbow is on this throwing arm, of course, and this has stalled his recuperation at times.

Wilson hopes to return in 2009, which thrills everyone involved with the Tigers, and should thrill you, too -- if you're the type who appreciates a good backup catcher, which is more of a luxury in this day and age, as opposed to a God-given right for a ball club.

If Vance Wilson had been healthy all along, then you can go back to the aforementioned list and pretty much cross them all off as never would have happened. And then draw your own conclusions about how things would have turned out, instead.

Oh, and as far as re-signing Rodriguez goes, there really are no replacements in the minor leagues who are ready to fill his shoes -- not that they could, but you know what I mean. The Tigers' starting catcher in 2009, if it's not Pudge, is likely to be Inge or someone from outside of the organization.

But everyone hopes the backup in 2009 will be Vance Wilson. He's that good, and that valuable. Believe it or not.