Friday, August 29, 2008

Matt Stairs: Professional Late-Season Pickup

When you last saw Matt Stairs, it might have been as a late-season pickup for the Tigers back in 2006. I was watching a Friday night game two Septembers ago and suddenly here's Stairs, in a Tigers uniform, pinch-hitting! I didn't even know the Tigers had acquired him earlier that day. It was kind of funny, actually.

Then Stairs hit what COULD have been a big home run in the season finale, tying the game against the Royals in the 9th inning. Had the Tigers won the game, they would have been crowned Central Division champs. But the Royals finished the stunning three-game sweep, and the Tigers settled for the Wild Card. That worked out pretty well, turns out.

If you blinked, you may have missed this: Stairs in a Tigers uniform

On July 31, 2006, Stairs was traded to the Texas Rangers on the deadline day, from Kansas City. Then he went to the Tigers a month-and-a-half later; so he's used to being the last-minute addition.

Stairs was acquired by the Tigers too late to be added to the post-season roster, but he was on the field when the team celebrated a playoff berth in Kansas City. The Tigers neglected to offer him a contract, and Stairs signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in November '06.

Now Stairs is, once again, someone else's late-season pickup -- being traded by the Jays to the Philadelphia Phillies to give the Phils some pennant race help. He's 40 now, and in the National League I imagine he'll primarily be a pinch-hitter; his outfielding skills are waning. With the Jays, Stairs played less than 20 games in the field, functioning mainly as the team's DH. But at this time of the year, you can always use another left-handed bat off the bench.

There was a time, about 10 years ago, when Matt Stairs was one of the most feared lefty sticks in the American League, when he played for Oakland. Now he's one of the most sought after insurance bats, it appears.

I liked Stairs when he was in Detroit for those few weeks. He made his Tigers debut in a romp over the Orioles, and in the clubhouse after the game he sat in his swivel chair in front of his locker and spoke in a relaxed, playful manner to reporters. You could tell he was looking at his stint with the Tigers as a breath of fresh air, in a pennant race once again. I was sad when the Tigers let him walk, but there really wasn't any room for him anyway, I suppose.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

With Few Other Options Available, Tigers Need To Pursue F-Rod

When it comes to signing free agent pitchers to fat contracts, I'm usually the first one screaming "NOOOO!" and imploring the signing team to put the pen down and run screaming in the other direction. Far too many poster children exist, since free agency was spawned in the mid-1970s, that are examples of why any franchise should shake in its cleats when it comes to luring the "big name" pitcher.

You've read the story, time and again. Big name pitcher signs fat contract with a new team. Then, said pitcher immediately either: a) gets hurt; b) goes down the toilet; c) gets hurt WHILE going down the toilet.

From Wayne Garland (1977 Indians) to Carl Pavano (2005 Yankees) and countless others in between, the free agent pitcher has been a risk that many teams have taken with disastrous results. For whatever reason, it almost seems as if free agent pitchers, once they sign with their new teams, simultaneously have voodoo dolls of themselves created, which are then pricked unmercifully by the baseball gods.

So call it desperation. Call it temporary insanity. But I'm here to tell you that the Tigers should take a serious look at free agent closer Frankie Rodriguez this winter.

Rodriguez, the Angels' awesome closer, announced in July that he will file for free agency, testing the market. He's 26 and the consensus is that he'll fetch the richest contract ever awarded to a relief pitcher.

The Tigers have an astounding 23 blown saves this season. That's almost too unbelievable to comprehend. If even HALF of those had been converted, the Tigers would be in the thick of the playoff race. I'm not even sure if that figure includes all the games in the 7th and 8th innings that the Tigers bullpen frittered away. If the 23 blown saves include just the ninth inning, then that's even more amazing, when you think about it.

The bullpen, as a whole, has killed the Tigers in 2008. It was perceived as a weakness in the off-season and in spring training, but the feeling was that if it should be a glaring weakness, then GM Dave Dombrowski would make it all better with some sort of bodacious transaction. But, no such help has come from outside the organization. The Tigers, since defrocking Todd Jones as closer, has gone to that age-old "bullpen by committee" thing, and everyone knows that when you start doing things "by committee" in sports, it's not a good sign. It means that you don't have anyone.

Since no one has grabbed the closer's role by the gonads, then I say throw some money at F-Rod and takes your chances. Don't get me wrong; the idea does kind of make me jittery and maybe even a bit nauseous. It's so not what I would usually recommend. But the Tigers have no other real solution for their bullpen troubles, at least none that are currently part of the organization. Perhaps a trade will happen, but are the Tigers likely to get a bona fide closer in a trade? You think these guys grow on trees? They're more like precious gems -- and teams are VERY unwilling to trade them. You have to break in and steal them -- which is what free agency sort of allows.

The Tigers, for sure, are 64-68 for more reasons than just that their bullpen blows chunks. They have other issues. But one of those issues is age; lots of these guys aren't getting any younger. How many more years can these players watch the bullpen toss games out the window? It becomes demoralizing after awhile.

I'm not 100% comfy with the notion, but I think it's time for the Tigers to roll the dice and get into the Frankie Rodriguez sweepstakes this off-season.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 4-2
This Week: (8/25-27: CLE; 8/29-31: KC)

The Tigers are loathe to admit it, but the team is pretty much in 2009 mode now. Even the announcers are saying as much.

Yesterday, during another come-from-ahead loss, TV guys Mario Impemba and Rod Allen were musing over what spring training, 2009 might entail.

Allen said, "There will definitely be some jobs up for grabs next year." Both men agreed that 2008's spring was devoid of much drama, because few spots on the team appeared to be unset. But no one could foresee Dontrelle Willis's disappearing act, or Edgar Renteria's slide, or Gary Sheffield's MIA status in the season's first half. Also not figured on were injuries to Joel Zumaya and Jeremy Bonderman, and the dethroning of Todd Jones as closer. Yet it all happened, and more, and so 2009's spring certainly promises to be more unsettled, and more competitive.

Where, for example, might guys like Ryan Raburn and Matt Joyce fit in? Will Marcus Thames be traded in the media and on the Internet all winter? What does the future hold for Zumaya? Will Kenny Rogers retire? Who will the backup catcher be? Is Renteria toast?

Oh, and even manager Jim Leyland got into the act.

Yesterday, it was reported, Leyland and Sheffield had a discussion about 2009 -- specifically, if it was mutually agreed that Sheff can be a productive player at age 40, which he turns in November. Not surprisingly, the consensus among the two men was a resounding yes. Maybe Sheff's $14 million contract has something to do with that.

Regardless, with 32 games remaining and a 10-1/2 game playoff deficit, it's appropriate to talk 2009, as painful as it may be.

As for 2008, the Indians come to town with a seven-game winning streak and just 1-1/2 games behind the Tigers. Last year, the Indians and Tigers were battling for first place at this time. Now they are staging a less-than-stimulating fight for third place. What a difference a year makes.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Moe Berg: Baseball's Only Governmental Spy

I encourage anyone who has a soft spot for some of the oddities that make up baseball history, read about the story of Moe Berg.

Berg was a rather nondescript catcher in the 1920s and 1930s. But that was hardly where he made his name. A voracious reader of newspapers and a world traveler, Berg enjoyed the amenities that came with being a big league ballplayer. And his fervent interest in world affairs and other cultures (he could speak many foreign languages), plus some inside connections, led to Berg becoming a spy for the United States during World War II.

Berg's life reads like a fiction novel: there's romance, intrigue, inner struggle, and Berg himself was a mysterious figure -- even to those who supposedly knew him the best. He seemed to regale in his role as an undercover figure, mainly because that's how he lived most of his life. His teammates recall Berg being not necessarily UNfriendly, but certainly not all warm and fuzzy, either.

I'm reading about Berg in a book called The Catcher Was A Spy, written by Nicholas Dawidoff. It's a fascinating tale -- and I think what makes it such is that it's true, not fiction like it would appear. It's also a return to a time in baseball history, and indeed U.S. history, that will probably never be re-lived. Can you imagine Brandon Inge or Paul LoDuca moonlighting as government spies?

If you can find the book (try, you may think that some of the passages are long on detail and short on substance; in other words, the book can be slow-moving at times. But the trade-off is that Dawidoff does a great job placing you in Berg's world; sometimes you feel like you're with Moe as he sips wine or beer in France or elsewhere, and lounging with him as he reads one of his dozens of newspapers.

Berg, who died in 1972 at the age of 70, was a lifetime .243 hitter over 17 big league seasons. He was no baseball star. But he actually used that backup player status to his benefit, blending in during barnstorming trips to Japan, for example -- where he was able to use his 8mm home movie camera to shoot footage that helped make him attractive as a potential spy.

If you're tired of the typical baseball-only book, I recommend The Catcher Was A Spy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why The Rush To Replay In Baseball?

Why are we in such a rush to install instant replay into Major League Baseball?

Replay is being seriously considered, as you probably know, to determine such things as fair/foul, whether a ball is a homerun, etc. Fine. But the proponents are rushing to push it through in time for games next month and the post-season. The umpires union, predictably -- among others -- have some serious concerns about the use of replay. Some have to do with logistics, others with what types of plays would be subject to review. But the bulk of the umpires' worries center around how the system will be implemented.

You can read more about that HERE.

I don't know why, after some 100+ years without instant replay (OK, so over 50 of those years were before television), we need to rush it through for 2008. The umpires, who have been known to act out in the same petulant, crybaby manner that their charges in uniform are famous for, actually have some legitimate, reasonable objections. They're not warm and fuzzy over the manner in which the replay system will be used, i.e. the type of equipment and its placement; potential public access to it; which umpires will be allowed to view the plays; and the fact that league officials may need to be consulted. That, and more. Most concerns don't appear to be outlandish at all.

My concern is, that when you watch a game on TV, often the cameras can't even tell you whether a ball wrapped around the foul pole or not. So much of baseball calls, like whether a ball cleared the fence for a homerun, are based on having the proper depth perception and angle. Sometimes TV, with its two-dimensional look, doesn't always provide that. There are actually occasions where the naked eye knows best.

My opinion of MLB umpires has gone thru cycles. In the 1970s and 1980s, I held them in the highest esteem and believed them to be the most accurate and mature of the four major sports' officials. But about 15 years ago or so, when many of the older guard retired, it seemed that the new generation was more confrontational and reticent. I began to lose respect for the men in blue. Now I've softened a bit, though I still think too many umpires believe themselves to be above reproach. Yet when I read their concerns over replay, I couldn't honestly say that they were too off-base.

It just seems that something as important as introducing replay to baseball should be done with as many t's crossed and i's dotted as possible. We've gone this long without it. Let's take a step back, address all concerns with time and patience, and take a look at it for 2009. Maybe try it in spring training and get some more feedback. Try it some more during selected regular season games in '09. Then MAYBE it will be polished and ready to go for the 2009 playoffs.

Baseball itself is a slow game, one built on patience and languidness. The same approach should be taken when it comes to installing TV replays.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 2-5
This Week: (8/18-20: at Tex; 22-24: at KC)

.500. The standard bearer for mediocrity. A winning percentage that basically says, "we win one, we lose one" -- all season long. Nothing exciting. No real flirtation with any sort of playoff contention. You win 50% of the time, you lose 50% of the time. No team has won a division or gained a playoff spot with this comme ci, comme ca approach.

Legendary Tigers manager Sparky Anderson used to say that "you can't do nothin'", or words to that effect, until you cross the .500 threshold.

.500 is now the goal of the Tigers. It's what they've been reduced to, in mid-August of a season in which .500 was to have been passed almost right out of the gate, only to be seen in the rearview mirror until October.

But the Tigers have only been over .500 for a handful of days this summer, and not more than three games over that standard of mediocrity. To say it's been disappointing is to utter one of the great understatements of the decade.

The Tigers sit at 60-64. They must go 22-16 the rest of the way to at least say that they finished with a winning record. Yet there is little to indicate that they can manage such a clip of winning over the final 38 games. It's been another miserable August, the third bad August in row for Jim Leyland in Detroit. A more angry, less delicate blogger could make the case that Leyland is a leader of choking teams -- unable to get the job done when the chips are down. Maybe he, himself, is a choking manager. Some could say that. I might not even argue to strenuously against that notion, truth be told.

Before the season, had you known that the Cleveland Indians, half of last year's ALCS matchup, would be wallowing, some 13 games below .500 on August 18, you'd have thought the Tigers would be running away with the division. As it is, the Tigers aren't even running away with third place; the Tribe is but 3-1/2 games behind Detroit.

"You can't do nothin'" till you cross .500. The Tigers barely did this season, and therefore, haven't really done nothin'.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Separated At Birth: Paul Byrd and Kelsey Grammer

This is kind of offbeat, but it's something I've noticed for quite some time, yet no one else has seemed to -- or at least, not that I'm aware of. I'm finally going to get it off my chest now, with the person in question making his first start for his new team today.

Has anyone noticed how much new Red Sox pitcher Paul Byrd looks like actor Kelsey Grammer?

To wit:

Maybe these aren't the two best photos to use as a means of comparison, but I wanted to show both of them wearing baseball caps. I don't know about you, but for me the resemblance was striking almost the first time I saw Byrd pitching for the Indians. I didn't really know much about him when he was with the Braves. To me, it was uncanny.

"My goodness, he looks just like Kelsey Grammer!," I remember thinking the moment I saw Byrd's face for the first time.

Speaking of Byrd, his face sure has grizzled since this rookie card:

Hard to believe that's the same guy, huh?

That's it for today's post. Just wanted to bring this to someone's attention, since it seems to be flying under the radar.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tigers 2008: What A Long, Strange Trip

A major league baseball diamond is made up of, last I checked, green grass and orange-red dirt.

Had it been made of paper, the Tigers would be on cruise control now, preparing for an assured appearance in the AL playoffs.

That's right where the Tigers' hopes started and ended this season: on the parchment that contained so many ebullient predictions for them.

They were going to win 110 games, and score over 1,000 runs in doing so. They were going to rival the Yankees' old Murderers' Row for overall offensive production. They were going to make a mockery of their division, and ultimately the entire league.

All this was going to happen, according to what was sprayed, in ink, onto newsprint. And what was shouted all over the Net. The Tigers were a sure thing.

Oh, how smug it must be, today, to be one of those naysayers who were drowned out in spring training. To be one of those who tried to warn us all about the Tigers' shaky bullpen and pitching, in general. If you were one of those, then you must have felt like Chicken Little as everyone derided you and dismissed your warnings as so much rain on the parade -- which was scheduled for sometime in late October, down Woodward Avenue.

I wish I could say I was one of the naysayers, but I can't with any honesty. I got caught up in all the hype, too. But it wasn't just the fans, or the bloggers, or the local media. The national scribes bought into all of it, too. So did the online journalists, and the talking heads on TV. Well, most of them, anyway. You can't tell which ones were dissenting, mainly because their voices were being drowned out.

The 2008 baseball season in Detroit might go down as one of the strangest in Tigers history; certainly in recent times. Strange for the lofty pre-season expectations, which had rarely been higher in Motown. Strange for the injuries and the under-performance by some of the stars. Strange for the war of words being engaged in by manager Jim Leyland and various players, even those who aren't Tigers anymore (read: Jason Grilli). Strange for the 12-5 run in April and the 18-4 run in June that looked to be season saviors, only to be negated by cold streaks in their wake. Strange for the mysteries surrounding the health and well-being of Joel Zumaya and Dontrelle Willis. Strange for the out-of-nowhere trade of Pudge Rodriguez. Strange for the emergence of the Tampa Bay Rays as the new darlings of baseball, replacing the Tigers of 2006.

Once this season has finished, and the Tigers limp home with their 78-82 wins, it will then usher in what could be an almost-as-strange off-season. Futures of so many Tigers are in doubt, and impact names, like Gary Sheffield, Zumaya, Todd Jones, and Marcus Thames (an annual occurrence anymore with Thames).

There will be pieces to be picked up when the final out is made on September 28. And it won't be, as predicted, confetti.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-3
This Week: (8/11-14: TOR; 8/15-17: BAL)

First, it was Pudge Rodriguez. Now you can maybe add Gary Sheffield to the list.

The "list" is that of Hall of Fame-caliber players the Tigers will off-load before the 2009 season. Obviously, that list already includes Rodriguez, traded to the Yankees on July 30. But don't be surprised if Sheffield is not a Tiger next season -- and you certainly SHOULDN'T be surprised by that.

Sheffield, 39, has a contract that takes him through the 2009 season, and it pays a hefty $14 million. Not exactly an easy thing to get rid of, I know, but I look at his recently-published comments and it's hard to see Sheff in Detroit in 2009.

To be blunt, as Sheffield himself always is, he hates being a DH. Hates it. "I don't feel like a ballplayer," he said, and he has said that, or something similar, many times before. Sheffield feels "complete" only when he's wearing a glove and playing the outfield. It's tough not to respect that attitude; but you do what you're asked to do, at the same time.

Which brings me back to my original postulate: that Sheffield probably won't be back in Detroit because, first of all, there really isn't any room for him in the outfield. Sheff is a right fielder, by trade, and with Magglio Ordonez here, that's out. In left field, the situation is murkier, because there are several candidates: Marcus Thames, Matt Joyce, Ryan Raburn, and Sheffield. And, frankly, left field was supposed to be mostly set, with the acquisition of Jacque Jones (remember him?).

There just isn't room, unless you sit someone down or make him a DH and let Sheffield be a "complete" ballplayer. Still, it may not give Sheff the amount of work he craves in the field.

I can't help but think back to my initial meeting with Sheffield, back at the beginning of the 2007 season. It was April, and Sheff sat down with me for about ten minutes. I asked him about his initial thoughts after hearing that he'd been traded to Detroit, in November '06.

"I didn't think it was a very good fit," he said at the time. "My first thought was, 'Where am I gonna play?'"

Sheffield looked at the Tigers outfield, saw how crowded it was, and it was a natural question to ask.

"But then after talking to Skip (manager Jim Leyland), I felt better [about being a DH]," Sheffield told me.

But now, apparently, Sheffield is having the same reservations about the situation in Detroit as he did almost two years ago.

Leyland isn't normally a fan of players taking their beefs to the newspapers. But nor do I know how the recent quote from Sheffield about not wanting to be DH came about. Chances are, someone simply asked him. That's pretty much all you have to do to get Gary Sheffield to tell you what's on his mind. Regardless, Leyland would prefer that such feelings be kept within the confines of the clubhouse, and his office.

For that alone -- Sheffield's talking to the papers -- Sheffield won't be shipped out, of course. But it serves to underline the unhappiness with which he'll play if he is asked to come back next season as a DH.

Then there's the issue of his health -- which he says isn't a concern anymore. In fact, he had a warning for the pitchers in the AL.

"You had your fun with me when I was down," Sheffield said of his time spent with a bum shoulder and other ailments. "Throw the ball down the middle now."

Tough talk, and if he can back it up, then the Tigers will have something as they try like mad to stay in the divisional race.

But as for next season, I'd put the chances of Sheffield returning to the Tigers as somewhere less than 50%.

Ahh, but who will the Tigers fleece to take that monstrous contract off their hands?

Answer: no one -- not the way I wrote the above question, anyway. The Tigers will almost certainly have to eat a portion of the contract to make any deal work. Few teams, if any, will agree to pay the entire $14 million for a 40-year-old player with diminishing outfield skills.

And it'll be just another chapter in Sheffield's mercurial career.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Another Gut-Wrencher, And The Tigers Begin To Fade Away

How many more times can we put "Detroit Tigers" and "tough loss" in the same sentence?

Probably as many times as "Dave Dombrowski" and "bullpen help" will be lopped together in the coming months.

Last night in Chicago was another game that the Tigers' gas can bullpen let get away. First, in the 8th inning, when Kyle Farnsworth surrendered yet another home run -- this one to tie the game. Then, in the 14th, after the Tigers had taken an 8-6 lead -- when Joel Zumaya got the gas can out and gave up four runs, the last three on Nick Swisher's long home run to center field.

10-8, White Sox.

Time to get that fork out, because the Tigers are just about done.

Oh, I know teams have come from behind to nip the pack at the end of the season, and I know they've done so with bigger deficits than the 7-1/2 game margin that the Chisox lead the Tigers by this morning. I know that it happened just last season, several times: with the Yankees, Phillies, and Rockies.

But that kind of hot streak is only possible with an airtight bullpen -- the kind that doesn't treat leads like a buttered bowling ball that has no holes drilled in it.

The Tigers' bullpen seems to pitch OK when the game is tied or the team is behind -- they did alright last night between the 9th and 13th innings. But as soon as they have the lead, here comes the gas can.

It's tough to watch, and those naysayers before the season who worried about the Tigers bullpen -- even amidst the euphoria over the off-season moves involving the offense -- are looking pretty damned prophetic right now. Count me among the non-prophetic.

Don't get me wrong -- I knew the bullpen might be a concern. I just didn't know it would unravel this badly. Or this often, in the most critical of times.

And once again, Jim Leyland's ballclub is experiencing a miserable August -- the month that has been his bugaboo ever since he came to the Tigers.

The Tigers are much closer to the fourth-place Royals than they are the top of the division. Games like last night just suck the wind out of your sails, and when you string a bunch of them together, it can be almost too much to recover from.

Dave Dombrowski. Bullpen help.

Get used to that combination of words. I mean, besides the ones not fit to print here.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Monday Morning Manager - Tuesday Version

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 2-5
This Week: (8/5-7: at CWS; 8/8-10: OAK)

If a team's playoff chances are ever decided in the first week of August, then that scenario has dawned on the Tigers.

They are 7 games out of first place. They've lost three in a row, and seven of ten. They are no longer the hottest thing in the American League. And they are about to have the dirt tossed on them, pending what happens this week -- starting tonight in Chicago.

You hate to say that a team HAS to sweep another, but in this case, the Tigers pretty much must win all three in Chicago. They are 6-1/2 behind the White Sox, and a sweep gets them to within 3-1/2 and even if that doesn't get them much closer to the first place Twins, it at least gets them much closer to one of the two teams they must leapfrog in order to win the division. The Tigers aren't going to win the Wild Card, most likely. There are too many teams in front of them. Their playoff hopes rest with the Central Division crown. And it's time to make a move -- and now.

It can't just stop with the White Sox series, of course. The A's come to town this weekend and the Tigers, who had used strong Comerica Park play to get themselves back onto the fringes of contention, have stumbled at home lately. There can be no losing two of three anymore -- much less being swept, as the Tigers were in Tampa. Just about every series must be won. Two of three -- even three of four -- must be won from here on out. That's the bed the Tigers have made and must now sleep in.

But it's the same old story -- the one we've all been reading (and writing) about for weeks -- months, even: forget such a blistering finishing run with the bullpen constantly throwing gas on the fire. The Tigers, as a result, are being cooked before our very eyes.

As I've said, Fernando Rodney is not the answer as far as closing games. He throws too many pitches, mainly because of his wildness. It reminds me of a line once said about a young Sandy Koufax, written by a scout: "Koufax would be a great pitcher, if the plate was high and outside." So even if Rodney does get the save, often he's unavailable the next day because of his high pitch count.

Kyle Farnsworth, it looks like, will get the next try -- his meltdown in Tampa notwithstanding. Farnsworth has closed before, and he has the stuff to do it again. Whether he'll be successful, of course, is another question.

And you can't have Todd Jones to kick around, because Jonesy is on the DL. Don't be surprised if he's thrown his last pitch as a Tiger.

The Tigers will have to slug their way into the playoffs, if they're going to get in. They'll have to go on pace for that 1,000-run season that everyone was predicting back in March. It's their only hope, I fear.