Friday, February 27, 2009

Defense At The Expense Of Offense? That's OK, When It Comes To Inge And Everett

It's an old baseball adage: that the third out, often times, is the toughest one to get, in any given inning.

No disagreements here. I've seen many a rally linger and fester, all with two outs already in the books. It is, indeed, difficult to get that third out on occasion.

So you can imagine how hard it is to get four outs.

Yet that's what the Tigers' pitchers were forced to do on too many occasions last season -- get four outs in an inning that only requires three.

The culprit, of course, was the overall team defense, which was far too leaky to qualify the Tigers as legitimate playoff contenders. And they weren't; they finished in last place.

The left side of the infield was a top offender. Third base was initially manned by Miguel Cabrera, but he never found a comfort zone. Carlos Guillen gave it a shot, and he wasn't all that much better. It wasn't until Brandon Inge found some adequate playing time at 3B that those problems at third leveled off. At shortstop? Well, let's just say that Edgar Renteria is the Giants' problem now.

The outfielders were OK, but not great. But most of the fourth outs were courtesy of the Tigers infielders. Make no mistake.

This year, Inge is shackled to third base, and that's a good thing. No more catching for Brandon, with Gerald Laird and Matt Treanor around. At shortstop, it's Adam Everett, slick with the glove.

Ah, but here's the rub -- the trade-off, if you will. Will the defense of Inge and Everett -- with their ability to eliminate a lot of fourth outs -- be enough to offset their demonstrated weakness at the plate?

That is the question, indeed.

Me? I'm willing to take my chances with the gloves of Inge and Everett and put more pressure on the other seven hitters in the lineup to produce. Clearly, last year's arrangement didn't work. And it's not like Renteria made up for his lack of range with his bat, anyway.

There will be much talk, as there should be, about the Tigers' pitching -- both the starters and the bullpen. There's no question that if the Tigers don't pitch, they won't win. But let's say the pitchers DO pitch, and those guys who were either hurt or underachieved, or both, bounce back and have decent seasons (see Verlander, Justin and Zumaya, Joel). Then the focus will be right back on the defense -- specifically the infield defense and its success rate at preventing the dreaded fourth out from being necessary.

The Tigers need Brandon Inge and Adam Everett to run a tight ship left of second base. They can make like Eddie Brinkman with the bat, as far as I'm concerned, as long as they channel Steady Eddie with the glove, too.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The DH: A Bad Idea Then, A Bad Idea Now

Roric Harrison's mark on the game of baseball is, I'm afraid, totally safe. Barring something highly unusual, that is.

Harrison was the last American League pitcher to hit a home run in a game featuring two AL teams. He did it on October 3, 1972, while playing for the Baltimore Orioles in Cleveland. The dreadful Designated Hitter Rule arrived the next year.

The DH was originally intended to be a three-year trial. The traditionalists held out hope that after the trial, the mucky-mucks in MLB would realize the error of their ways and abolish it, forever. An experiment gone horribly wrong.

No such luck.

The DH was ratified for good beginning with the 1976 season. It was the end of baseball as we knew it.

If you ever want get a rousing game of "Yes, it is/no, it isn't" going, there are few, if any, hot button topics in baseball that are better stimuli than "Is the DH good for baseball?"

No it isn't, by the way.

Roric "Home Run" Harrison

I guess I look at it this way. What did baseball ever do to the stuffed suits that caused them to so drastically change the way the game is played? Was there a crusade for the elimination of the pitcher actually stepping to the plate?

I feel where the stuffed suits were coming from, I really do, when they unleashed this wacky rule change on baseball in '73. MLB was coming off a decade -- the 1960s -- in which pitchers dominated. The first try to stem this tide came in 1969, when baseball lowered the pitcher's mound, on the heels of Denny McLain's 31-win year, and Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA season in 1968.

But that wasn't enough, apparently.

A player designated as the "hitter" for the pitcher!


For over 100 years, baseball seemed to be humming along just nicely with nine guys fielding, nine guys hitting. Sure, pitchers were weaker hitters, but so what? Kickers are poor tacklers; do they run off the field in football so that a "designated gunner" can run on and inflict extra punishment? No -- because that's one of the natural quirks of the game. Kickers don't work on their tackling, and they're physically smaller. Pitchers don't work on their hitting.

You've heard the rest of the arguments before -- whether you agree with me or not. The DH's removal of a significant amount of strategy, for one. The lack of discretion for the AL manager when it comes to waving pitchers in from the bullpen, since they have no place in the batting order.

Has the DH been handy, even convenient? Sure. In the matter of the aging, the hurt, the infirm. And it has, granted, enabled some players to display their hitting acumen for us longer than had the DH not been an option. Agreed. But some good coming from a bad idea doesn't make it a good idea.

I'm unashamed and unabashed in my dislike of the DH. It's just not the way the game was meant to be played. And the change was uncalled for to begin with.

Oh, and to those who crow that the DH saves them from witnessing the pitcher coming up to the plate to simply strike out and walk back to the dugout?

Close your eyes.

Friday, February 20, 2009

25th Best Team In Baseball? The Tigers Are Loads Better Than That

With apologies to Neil Armstrong, here's a possible scenario for the Tigers.

2008 was a small step back, and 2009 will be a giant leap ahead.

It's a nice thought, anyway.

One thing is for certain, though. Those goof balls at Fox Sports have got it all wrong.

They came out with their Power Rankings this week, and you have to keep scrolling down, down, until you come across the Tigers -- at no. 25. Out of 30 teams.

Does Fox really think that the Tigers are better than only five other teams in baseball?

My goodness, there are five teams who barely belong in the big leagues, let alone who should be ranked at all.

It all goes to show that the expectations, nationally, for the Tigers after 2008's disaster are exceedingly low. USA Today has the Tigers no better than 9th in the American League and fourth in the AL Central.

Well, here's someone who has quite high expectations: Me.

The Tigers have a ton of players who have "bounce back" written all over them. In fact, the Tigers have more bounce back potential than a room full of super balls.

It all adds up, I figure, to a 90+ win season. That should place them a tad higher than 25th overall, I believe.

Here's a quick look at the super balls:

1. Justin Verlander: the kid's too good NOT to bounce back. 2008's debacle (11-17, 4.84 ERA) might be good for him, in the long haul. I bet that he's back to form in '09.

2. Gary Sheffield: Sheff says he's healthy, and that's good enough for me. Sheff is not known to say things that he doesn't really mean. At age 40, he feels he has something to prove. That makes me smile -- a lot.

3. Carlos Guillen. Another one who should be healthier in 2009. Guillen didn't play after late August due to a pinched nerve. The team's new left fielder shouldn't have as much wear and tear on his body this year.

4. Joel Zumaya. Again, healthy. Says he feels great, and a part of the team again. Manager Jim Leyland is also duly impressed thus far. I shouldn't have to tell you what THAT can mean to the Tigers.

5. Dontrelle Willis. I'm putting my faith into the notion that 2008 was a grotesque blip on Willis's screen and nothing more. Admittedly, this is the crossroads season for him -- he's either nearing the end, or last year was a fluke. I'm banking on the latter.

6. Nate Robertson. I'd like to think that Robertson is better than the 6.00+ ERA guy he was in 2008. History says so. Maybe it was more of a mechanics thing.

Lest us not forget that the Tigers pitchers might get a boost from new pitching coach Rick Knapp. Another bounce. Oh, and the arrival of closer Brandon Lyon won't hurt, either.

Will ALL of the above-mentioned players have terrific seasons? I don't know. But the point being, the Tigers had an awful lot of bad happen to them in 2008. It was borderline ridiculous. So to look at them and place them 25th out of 30 teams makes me seriously question the credibility of such an assessment.

The Tigers just might win their division in 2009. Think I'm nuts? Place their roster against those of their competitors. Do you see a measurable difference?

The Detroit Tigers, 25th-best team in baseball? Maybe at the end of last year. But this isn't last year. Somebody ought to change the calendars over at Fox.

Monday, February 16, 2009

If It's February, It's Another Directive To Trade Thames

Marcus Thames is the Tigers' groundhog.

Every year in February, he shows his face, and if he sees his shadow it means six weeks of trade rumors.

We don't even know what the alternative is, because Thames keeps seeing his shadow.

It's already begun for 2009.

Lynn Henning of the Detroit News lobbed the first "trade Thames" volley over the weekend, when he included this among his crystal ball observations: "The Tigers decide they can't hold Marcus Thames hostage to a part-time position that becomes even more part-time because of Carlos Guillen's move to left field. Mercifully, they find him a new home ahead of Opening Day. It becomes a good deal for both teams when Thames is packaged with a pitcher for a solid infield prospect."

They've been trading Marcus Thames for three years now, and he's still a Tiger. And don't be surprised if he's still in Detroit on Opening Day, despite Henning's and others' directives.

Don't get me wrong; I agree that Thames probably deserves to play more. But it could be that he's best in the role that he's had, which is that of a glorified part-time player who is in scoring position the moment he steps into the batter's box.

Thames, I have long maintained, is the strongest man, physically, that the Tigers have employed since the days of Cecil Fielder, who was the strongest since Willie Horton, who was the strongest of them all when he showed up on the scene in 1963.

Thames launches another one into the stratosphere

Thames's brute power is almost legendary in Motown. He's averaged an almost Babe Ruthian one home run per 14 AB since he's been a Tiger, including one per 12.6 AB last season (25 HR, 316 AB). And he's done it playing half his games in a ballpark that isn't exactly a haven for right-handed hitters, with its expansive alley in left center.

While it would be nice to give Thames 500 AB and watch the fireworks happen, it's simply not going to happen, as long as Guillen is around to play left field. But Guillen hasn't exactly been the most durable player lately; what happens if his back tightens up or any other of his past ailments flares up again? Isn't it nice to be able to plug a guy like Thames in the lineup?

Selfish? Perhaps. But unless MLB allows four outfielders, a la slow-pitch softball, then Marcus Thames isn't going to be an everyday player. Period. Gary Sheffield, his body willing, is slated to get most of the plate appearances as the Tigers' DH. Thames lugs a first baseman's mitt, too -- so he could spell Miguel Cabrera on occasion.

See? Groundhog Day. The same role Thames has played year after year in Detroit. And that's not bad. There are a bunch of teams that would kill to have a player like Thames on the bench. That smacks of him being great trade bait, but what is it they say about sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make?

Unselfishly, I'd love to see Thames get his 500+ AB and hit 40-45 HRs. But selfishly, I like him where he's at -- on the Tigers' roster, his right-handed-hitting cannon at the ready.

The media folks -- and some of the fans -- in Detroit keep trading Marcus Thames. I wish they'd stop, because the more they keep trading him, the more likely it is that he actually will be. And something tells me that it will be a move the Tigers are likely to rue.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Give Me The Drunks Over The Injectors Anyday

I'm old enough to remember the good old days of baseball, when the players were drunk instead of on steroids.

It wasn't all that long ago when the vice of choice was over-indulging with the bottle. Maybe the last drunk of note was pitcher Dickie Noles, who was a Tiger briefly in 1987. In fact, Noles was actually traded for himself. The Tigers got him from the Cubs for a player to be named later. That player turned out to be Noles himself.

But I digress. All this talk of Alex Rodriguez, the latest high-profile player to be outed as having steroided himself, continues to place the spotlight on HGH and BALCO and other nefarious acronyms.

Long gone are the days when the foreign substances players ingested had names like Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, and Cutty Sark. Oh, and Budweiser and Stroh's and Pabst.

Drinking and baseball used to be married, in a way that caused not outrage and disgust, but instead induced winks and smirks. The stories have been told again and again of Babe Ruth's hangovers and Grover Cleveland Alexander's alcohol-caused fogs on the mound. Of Ryne Duren's tipsy behavior as he delivered 90+ mph fastballs that no one knew were headed -- least of all Duren himself.

Noles, who I mentioned earlier, was famous for beer consumption. He was purported to once have consumed 24 beers in a single night. The 1968 Tigers, those World Champions, had many players who liked their beverages.

Alcohol, though, caused tragedy when "Big Ed" Delahanty -- a feared hitter around the turn of the 20th century -- imbibed too much and in a drunken rage, was kicked off a train in upstate New York. Big Ed fell to his death (he may have jumped off a bridge) near Niagara Falls.

"Big Ed" Delahanty -- a great hitter and an even greater drinker

I don't like to think about this steroids thing. I know that smacks of the ostrich mentality of sticking my head in the sand, but I don't care. I would rather concentrate on what goes on, ON the field, than off it. But with steroids, it's hard to ignore because they appear to have so much influence over actual performance. I doubt alcohol ever helped pad anyone's stats, or caused hat sizes to increase or turned David Banners into Incredible Hulks.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not tolerating alcohol abuse, not at all. But if that was the worst thing you had to worry about when it came to what your baseball heroes did during their down time, then that's not so bad, is it? And the game's records would still have sanctity.

You can't go back, I know.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This Just In: Read Me At!

Self-promotion time!

Beginning, well, NOW, you can start reading my blatherings (about baseball) at a wonderful site called It's run by New Englander Tom Hannon, and the site has history with Dan Holmes, who used to work for the Baseball Hall of Fame. So it's no surprise that TBP is chock full of historical info in addition to opinions, analysis, and forums.

Aside from my debut piece about Pudge Rodriguez, my stuff at TBP will be exclusive to them; in other words, it won't be the same pieces you read here or at Johnny Grubb or my combo blog at WordPress.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Smart Money Says Bet On Verlander In 2009

Psst, want a sure bet? Looking to take something to the bank?

I got one for you. Sign, seal, and deliver it. Call up the folks in Vegas and book it, and good. Tell 'em you heard it here first -- I'm not afraid.

Spread the word. Justin Verlander is bouncing back, like a super ball, from last year's anomaly season.

This one is golden. You can't lose. Can't go wrong here. Verlander is going to make American League hitters pay, and pay good, for last year's transgressions. Their success at his expense is about to end.

Why am I so sure?

Easy. The kid is good, damn good. Too good to NOT have a bounce back year in 2009. I trumpeted him as a Hall of Famer, some 10-15 years hence, last year and I'm not backing down. I'm not letting a bizarre 2008 season (11-17, 4.84 ERA) dissuade me. Verlander didn't have his mojo last season, and it happens to the best of them. It just doesn't happen very often, is all. JV had his mulligan. We won't see that for a while, I promise you.

Let's not forget that Verlander is still only 25 (he turns 26 on Feb. 20). He's allowed a season, this early in his career, when he gets a little frustrated and out of sorts. This is a young man who's never had to deal with NOT being good, at any time in his baseball career. Maybe it all came a little too easily for him in 2006 and 2007, when he burst onto the scene and struck out a bunch of people and made it into the World Series and was Rookie of the Year and threw a no-hitter, among other accomplishments those first two seasons. Maybe a gentle reminder that these are the big leagues and you have to constantly earn your keep will suit him well.

Then, there's new pitching coach Rick Knapp, who the Tigers hired to replace Chuck Hernandez. Knapp comes from the vaunted Minnesota Twins organization, which has been a factory of sorts when it comes to young pitchers. I have a feeling that another voice, and specifically that of Knapp's, won't do anything to hurt JV's chances of bouncing back, either.

But the bottom line is talent. Verlander is simply too good to scuffle along for another season. Will he have his dicey moments? Of course. He just won't have too many of them in 2009, and in the years ahead. And, the more he pitches in the big leagues, the more he builds his arm strength and stamina, which were bugaboos even in his '06 and '07 seasons. AND, the more he learns to pitch, both physically and mentally.

Verlander, I'm telling you, is going to be another Jack Morris type. You'll need a small army to take the ball out of his hands, especially when a big game has to be won. I can also see him developing Morris's snarl, which was a big reason why The Cat was so successful, especially as his career wore on.

So quit buying those scratch-off lottery tickets. Stop licking those Publisher's Clearing House stickers. Just put your dough on Verlander having a big 2009.

Count it!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Pudge Still Looking For Work; His Search May Be Fruitless

Five years ago, almost to the day, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez put on a Detroit Tigers jersey, flashed that famous smile of his, and put legitimacy back onto a once-proud franchise that had just suffered through a 119-loss season.

It was February 6, 2004.

That's when Pudge, fresh off a World Series win with the Florida Marlins, made like Woodward and Bernstein in "All the President's Men" and followed the money. Out of work and with few teams looking to give a 32-year-old catcher a long-term contract, Rodriguez and the Tigers found each other to be willing participants in an arrangement that was, all at once, praised and derided.

Rodriguez came to Detroit, over the objection of his manager in Florida, Jack McKeon, who worried that Pudge was putting his Hall of Fame potential in jeopardy by toiling for such a bad team at that stage of his career. But McKeon's words were mostly the juice of sour grapes, and not taken very seriously -- least of all by Pudge himself.

So in an off-season that saw the Tigers having already signed OF Rondell White and 2B Fernando Vina, the capper was Rodriguez's signature on a multi-year deal, ladened with legal language, to protect the Tigers against a possible flare-up of Pudge's at-the-time tender back.

It was a bold, yet safe move for the organization.

Five years later, to the day, will be this Friday. And Pudge is again unemployed.

But this time he's 37, and coming off a not-so-stellar season in which he was traded in late July to the Yankees. His numbers in New York were paltry. Before the trade, they weren't so good in Detroit, either. He was splitting time with Brandon Inge at the time of the deal, and not very happy about it.

The sharing of catcher duties with Inge was rife with irony. For it was upon the news of Pudge's signing with the Tigers that Inge, at the time a younger, more immature player, complained with a sour puss that the team didn't need a "defensive" catcher after all, because they already had a fine one: Brandon Inge.

You probably could have heard howls of laughter from Detroit to Timbuktu. Mine.

Inge, when he bellyached about the Pudge signing, was a limp hitter who needed breaks and luck to manage even a .200 batting average. It was hilarious, to me, that Brandon Inge left out the discrepancy in hitting ability when he made the comparison between Rodriguez and he.

But there they were, four-plus years later, platooning, in a sense, at catcher. And Inge's offense, though still not terrific, was catching up to Pudge's. But then again, Rodriguez was past 36.

Rodriguez is not close, that I know of, to signing a contract with any MLB team. Thirty-seven year-old catchers aren't at the top of many teams' shopping list. Even the Yankees, who burn through cash faster than a teenager does with his allowance, have shown no inclination to toss any dough Pudge's way, even as a backup. There's talk the White Sox might have some interest, but who knows how much?

We may have seen the last of Ivan Rodriguez in an MLB uniform. Unless he reinvents himself as a DH or a part-time first baseman.

Johnny Bench retired at age 35. Bill Freehan was even younger (34) when he announced his quitting. Playing catcher is unforgiving to the human body. It's true that Pudge keeps himself in supreme physical condition, but the calendar eventually catches up; it always does. Often, it overtakes you in a flash.

Pudge is unemployed in early February, again. This time, it might be for good.