Monday, April 27, 2009

Monday Morning Manager

My weekly take on the Tigers.

Week of 4/20-26: 3-3
This week: 4/27-29: NYY; 5/1-3: CLE

Goat of the Week

Justin Verlander was last week's goat, and it's a tough call, because for long stretches of time he pitches pretty well. He just seems to be victimized by one bad inning per start--where he labors and throws a lot of pitches--which kills his outing.

Going up against the Angels last week, JV threw 104 pitches in just five innings, and it was only because of the Tigers' big bats that they were able to overcome his performance and get the win.
But nine hits and seven runs, all earned, in five innings isn't what a supposed ace surrenders.

Verlander is a rhythm pitcher. He works quickly--or at least likes to--and when he gets going, he's awfully tough. But he's only managed to pitch 21 innings in his four starts, and has thrown 389 pitches in those 21 innings. Too much work.

Hero of the Week

Brandon Inge continues to play terrific baseball. His power jag still hasn't abated, and he's making like a vacuum at third base.

One of the traits of the great defensive player is his ability to make hard plays look easy.

Inge does that, consistently. Take note of how many times you see a ball rocket off someone's bat toward third base--short hop, bad hop, good hop--and how he effortlessly makes the play.

Not only is his power up, but his strikeout frequency is down from the past. His new batting stance is paying off right now, big time.

Inge is one of those Tigers who I'd like to see play his entire career in Detroit. A Tiger for life. He loves it here, loves to be back at third base, and his confidence is soaring.

Oh, what a boost it would be for the team if Inge's bat has a better year than expected.

Quick scouting reports: Yankees and Indians

This week the Tigers entertain two teams who are underachieving.

The Yankees have pitching problems. And injuries. And they're showing their age, which I suspected might happen soon, if not this year then the year after.

The new Yankee Stadium hasn't been all that kind to them, and neither has the road of late. The Yankees come to town fresh off a sweep at the hands of the rival Red Sox in Boston.

But they're still talented, and they could still put it together at any moment.

Same thing with the Indians, pretty much.

Cliff Lee, who lost all of three games last season, already has lost three in 2009. The ERAs of Indians pitchers look like stock market prices--as long as you're not talking about The Big Three.

The Indians were my pre-season pick to win the Central in a tight race. It could still happen. As I thought, the division is tight as a drum. No one is off to a blazing start, which means that the Tribe and their 7-12 record are only 3-1/2 games out of first place.

The Indians are similar to the Yankees. They aren't pitching, have an inconsistent offense (feast or famine), and are scuffling like a team far below their capabilities.

But the Tigers seem to bring out the best in the Indians, so this weekend's series, as usual, will be no cakewalk.

Under the microscope

Joel "Zoom Zoom" Zumaya is back, and it's only natural to put him under the microscope at MMM.

Zumaya made his 2009 debut Saturday night, pitching the ninth inning in what the NBA would call "garbage time." He pitched a scoreless frame, though he did give up two hits.

Manager Jim Leyland said afterward--and Zumaya concurred--that simply throwing the cheese isn't going to get it done anymore.

"98, 99 miles per hour--that doesn't intimidate hitters," Leyland said.

Leyland wants more movement and different locations on the fastball, and he and Zumaya agree that the breaking ball needs to find the strike zone. That didn't really happen Saturday, and the Royals were able to sit on the heat, which led to the two hits.

Until Zumaya shows that he, a) is healthy; and b) can throw his breaking ball for strikes, he'll continue to be under the scope at MMM.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Nothing More One-Way Than A Trip Into Sparky's Pooch Parlor

If there was any trip that was about as one-way as it gets, it was a venture into Sparky Anderson's dog house.

It was baseball's Bermuda Triangle.

Maybe that's playing it a little heavy, but if Sparky didn't want you on his team, you weren't on it. Period.

It happened in Cincinnati, and it damn sure happened in Detroit, too.

For as good as the Tigers were for most of the 1980s, there's no telling how much better they could have been, had Sparky not run some of the more talented ones out of town.

Sparky became Tigers manager in June 1979, and it didn't take long for him to decide that the team had some ne'er-do-wells on it, and that they should soon be ex-Tigers.

"My way or the highway" was the early Sparky mantra in Detroit.

It was more than just words.

About a month before Sparky joined the Tigers, DH Rusty Staub had just finished staging a holdout that extended from spring training all the way to early May. The Tigers, traditionally one of baseball's misers, led by GM Jim Campbell, balked at Rusty's demands. So Rusty went back to his restaurant business and kept himself in shape, just in case.

Staub finally broke down and re-joined the team. But Sparky read the papers. He kept up on the game, even as an unemployed manager. He knew, when he took the Detroit job, that Rusty Staub had been petulant. A bad boy.

Ron LeFlore was the team's center fielder. And an ex-con. But not an ex-rule breaker. LeFlore didn't take too well to Sparky's demand that the team be ship shape. There were reports that LeFlore broke Sparky's rules, just as he had broken Ralph Houk's and Les Moss's before Anderson.

Within a couple years, Staub, LeFlore, first baseman Jason Thompson and outfielder Steve Kemp were ex-Tigers. In some cases, the Tigers were rooked in the deals, but they were gone, and that's what Sparky wanted. Campbell obliged.

The purging of talent continued as the 1980s continued.

Glenn Wilson, also not a favorite of Sparky's, was included in the Dave Bergman-Willie Hernandez trade. The winter after winning the World Series, third baseman Howard Johnson, who didn't get along with Sparky all that well either, was traded to the Mets, for pitcher Walt Terrell.

That's a lot of good and mostly young talent that Sparky ordered to be removed from Detroit.

Again, it's not like those players were given away.

The Tigers got Chet Lemon for Kemp. The Wilson trade was excellent.

But Wilson and, especially, Howard Johnson, had terrific years after leaving the Tigers. HoJo was a Mets superstar for a few years. Terrell was, on the other hand, mostly average.

The Tigers traded Thompson to California for Al Cowens, who was past his prime. Thompson went on to have some good years in Pittsburgh.

Just before Sparky came to Detroit, the Tigers acquired John "Champ" Summers from the Reds.

Summers was another who rubbed Sparky the wrong way, and vice versa.

But Sparky kept Summers, and Champ had some good years in Detroit.

Sparky had the tendency, on the other hand, to anoint unknown youngsters as the Second Coming. He did that almost as much as he got rid of those who annoyed him.

Remember Chris Pittaro? Torey Lovullo?

Oh, and Sparky was right about LeFlore, by the way. Ronnie was out of baseball just a couple years after being traded by the Tigers. He tried to get back into baseball a few years later. As an umpire.

I couldn't make that up.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Monday Morning Manager

My weekly take on the Tigers.

Week of 4/13-19: 3-2
This week: 4/21-23: at LAA; 4/24-26: at KC

Goat of the Week

Not much of a "goat week" for the Tigers. But we have to give it out to someone, so my choice is starter Zach Miner, who didn't give the Tigers a chance to win in his start last Monday against the White Sox.

Miner was skipped in his next start, but that was mainly due to off days. The Tigers won't need a fifth starter until next week.

Justin Verlander's line didn't look good on Friday, but he pitched pretty well, save for the fifth inning.

So last week's goat is Miner, though I suspect that's an aberration. Zach should do OK as the No. 4 or 5 starter.

Hero of the Week

I like Edwin Jackson here. The Tigers got smacked around on Friday, and their decent start was being threatened. A loss Saturday to the Mariners, and you might have been getting squirmy.

But Jackson, pitching through flu-like symptoms, was masterful, pitching into the eighth inning and shutting the Mariners out. He had terrific movement and location. You never would have known he was as sick as he felt.

The only thing sick about EJ, that I could tell, was his stuff.

Close runner-up: rookie starter Rick Porcello, who was also brilliant in getting his first big league win on Sunday. But the nod goes to Jackson because of the physical discomfort he overcame.

Honorable mention: I've always liked Ramon Santiago. His glove is sweet, and the dude can hit a little bit, too. He's got underrated power and can hit the gaps. He cleared the bases yesterday--a bases-loaded double that put the M's away for good.

Quick scouting reports: Angels and Royals

The Angels, despite the Mariners' fast start, are the class of the West. Even with the loss of closer Francisco Rodriguez. Mike Scioscia's team keeps the pressure on you with aggressive base running, the hit and run, and base stealing.

So why are the Angels piddling along at 4-8?

A very pedestrian .250 team BA, for one. One home run and three RBI from Vlad Guerrero, for two. A mediocre 4.67 team ERA, for three.

But it's early. The Angels are the best team in the West, and the Tigers should know that at any moment, they might start playing like it.

The Royals won't be the pushovers that they've been because they have pitching. Plain and simple. Zack Greinke has been lights out; he hasn't allowed a run in 20 innings this year. The Tigers will face him this weekend, I'm pretty sure. Gil Meche (2.25 ERA) and Kyle Davies (2.89) form a heck of a trio, along with Greinke.

The Royals are still offensively-challenged, but with a team ERA of 3.14, they've managed a 7-5 record.

Under the microscope

Marcus Thames hasn't smacked a homer yet, which is odd for him. Magglio Ordonez isn't dazzling us yet (no homers, four RBI). Curtis Granderson is hitting in the low-.200s.

What's nice to write about here is what's not under the microscope--namely, the bullpen.

After an Opening Day hiccup in Toronto, the pen has been just fine, thank you.

Ryan Perry needs to be more familiar with the strike zone and all its benefits, though.

Maggs and Grandy, I'm sure, will be fine. Thames might go off on a home run hitting binge, for all we know.

But so far, not so good.

And that's why they're under the scope at MMM (Monday Morning Manager, for all you un-cool people!)


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fidrych Never Stopped Being A Kid, And Nor Should We

Mark Fidrych can't be dead. That's like killing off fun.

Mark Fidrych can't be dead. That's like saying the sunshine is gone forever.

Mark Fidrych can't be dead. That's like announcing the death of the kid in all of us.

Fidrych, the person, died Monday afternoon, in an apparent accident at his farm in Massachusetts. They found him under one of his trucks, possibly trying to fix it, when things went horribly wrong.

But Fidrych, the spirit, is not dead. So rest easy.

It's up to each and every one of us, though, to make sure that Fidrych doesn't truly die.

Oh, to have such an outlook on life as The Bird did!

I had the good fortune, in more ways than one, to talk to Fidrych a couple years ago, for one of those "Where are they now?" magazine pieces.

I got his phone number at the farm and dialed. I got lucky, because Fidrych said he grabbed it on his way out the door.

"You're lucky you caught me," he said with a slight chuckle.


So Fidrych reminded me of the story of when he first found out he'd made the Tigers out of spring training in 1976.

"I went straight for the nearest pay phone and called my parents," Fidrych related. "All I said was, 'I'm goin' north.'"

That's all that needed to be said.

Then Fidrych talked about the night he shut down the mighty Yankees on Monday Night Baseball in June '76.

"I was driving down to the ballpark ("ballpahk") with Tommy Veryzer," Fidrych said. "Tommy says, 'Well, kid, this is it--Monday Night Baseball.' We got to the stadium and people are already lined up outside. I couldn't believe it.

"Tommy says, 'They're not here to see Tom Veryzer play shortstop!'"

It's all been chronicled time and again: Fidrych's magical 1976 season, followed by an injured knee in spring training in '77, followed by another great run of pitching, followed by mysterious shoulder pain. Followed by the end of his career, after just 58 big league games.

What should be hammered home, though--and thank goodness it is in the wake of this terrible news--is Fidrych's love of life, despite his early flame out.

Fidrych on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the Tigers got off to a strong start in 1978

It would have been easy to have turned bitter and very un-Bird-like once the shoulder betrayed him, and even more so when medical advancements that could have saved his career happened upon the scene just a year or two too late.

I've talked to many a big league player of the past, and a common theme is for them to grumble and snarl about the injustice of them playing in the era before free agency and the big bucks.

Some of them are so bitter, they make dark chocolate look sweet.

Fidrych never, that I know of, uttered one word of regret nor publicly felt sorry for himself, even though the thoughts of what he could have done in baseball if healthy tantalize the brain.

He always wanted to drive a truck, anyway. He said so, even during his rookie season.

So he did, and he bought a farm and developed some land and got married and had a daughter and made some appearances and that was fine and dandy with him.

I asked him, back in 2007, what he would like to say to the folks of Detroit.

"Thanks for sticking by me then, thanks for sticking by me now, and thanks for sticking by me in the future," was his answer.

Too bad that "the future" has to be posthumously so soon.

So don't suppress that kid inside of you. Now, more than ever.

"The Bird" will always be the word.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monday Morning Manager Is Back -- New And Improved!!

Week of 4/6-12: 4-3
This week: 4/13-15: CWS; 4/17-19: at Sea

Monday Morning Manager is back! Yes, my weekly take on the Tigers, appearing here every Monday, returns now that the regular season has kicked off.

But instead of freehand prose, I'm going to segment it -- to make it easier for me, frankly. And, I hope, to be more interesting to you, as well.


Goat of the Week

Relief pitcher Brandon Lyon, and I hope he doesn't appear in this space very often -- nor anyone in the Tigers' pen. That wouldn't be a good sign.

But Lyon earned Goat status, big time, for taking Edwin Jackson's gem last Tuesday in Toronto and defecating all over it. But he earned some trust back after pitching two perfect innings on Sunday.

Dishonorable mention goes to manager Jim Leyland, for getting bullpen happy to begin with, when Jackson seemed to have things under control.

Texas manager Ron Washington pulled the same stunt Sunday, when he obliged the Tigers by removing starter Kevin Millwood, who was cruising along.

Why managers don't make the other team knock their starters out of the game, instead of meekly removing them, thus taking the other team's hitters off the hook, is a mystery to me.

Hero of the Week

You'd think it would be 1B Miguel Cabrera, who blistered the ball out of the gate and who grand slammed the team to victory in the home opener.

But the choice here is 3B Brandon Inge, who was brilliant with the glove, as usual, but also clutch at the plate -- not so usual. Inge bookended the six-run rally in the eighth inning Sunday, starting it off with a home run then capping it with a two-run single that put the Tigers ahead.

Inge already has four homers this season, including one in each of the team's first three games.

Anyone can pick Cabrera as Hero. He'll get plenty of shout outs.

This week was Inge's.

Quick scouting reports: White Sox and Mariners

The White Sox are a team in transition, trying to get younger without falling out of contention in the hotly contested Central Division. They're trying some kids in the infield and are hoping to squeeze some more production out of aging vets like Jermaine Dye, A.J. Pierzynski, and Jim Thome.

The pitching in Chicago is still good, though -- and they have closer Bobby Jenks.

The Mariners are beyond transition; they're in full rebuilding mode.

But flying in the face of the rebuild is the return of Junior -- Ken Griffey Jr.

The M's brought Griffey back to provide some veteran presence and, let's face it, a boost to the box office. Griffey is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and his return to Seattle is a boon to the fans in the Pacific Northwest.

But they'd better enjoy Griffey, because the rest of the team isn't much.

Under the microscope

Lyon. With the rest of the bullpen on a roll -- 24 straight batters retired -- Lyon will stick out like a sore thumb if he doesn't start getting guys out (again, Sunday helped). His struggles extend back to the second half of last season, and reared their heads in the second half of spring training last month.

Remember him surrendering four straight homers against the Red Sox?

Lyon is as advertised: a late-innings reliever who "pitches to contact", i.e. he doesn't strike guys out. Another Todd Jones type.

And that's fine, except the contact has been pretty solid for too long now.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Cabrera Doing Nothing To Quiet MVP Talk (Mine)

A few weeks ago, I pumped for Miguel Cabrera as league MVP. My reasoning was that, with one year in the American League under his belt -- a year in which Cabrera himself admitted to being uncomfortable in the beginning -- Miggy would really inflict some damage. After all, Cabrera smacked 37 homers and added 127 RBI in all his discomfort.

What I didn't know was that Cabrera would clinch the award before the season's first weekend was barely underway.

Cabrera has begun the 2009 season as if the opposing pitchers tinkled in his corn flakes.

The Texas Rangers were Miggy's latest victims, today on Opening Day.

Cabrera drove in six more runs, including home run No. 3, a grand slam, and a blistering two-run double to deep left.

After five games, Cabrera is 11-for-18 (.611 BA) with 3 HR, 10 RBI.

I guess he's comfortable now.

The folks at Fox Sports Detroit put up a graphic on the screen today. It displayed the five leaders in slugging percentage since last July in the majors. Cabrera was third, at .635.

He's slugging at almost double that percentage right now.

One week doesn't an MVP make -- normally. But after watching Miggy Cabrera terrorize pitchers Monday thru Friday this week, I'm ready to hand him the award right now.

Ah, but don't forget Chris Shelton, you might say!

Remember Shelton, Big Red? Remember his torrid opening week in 2006? Shelton, after the season's first nine games, had seven homers and was batting .512.

Worst thing that ever happened to that kid.

Shelton thought he was a power hitter after that opening onslaught, and it screwed up his stroke for the rest of the season. Maybe the rest of his career.

No such worries with Cabrera, though.

He's only 25 (he'll turn 26 in eight days), but this is already his sixth full season. Shelton was still a relatively new big leaguer when he had his jackrabbit start in 2006.

It's frightening, really, to think of the kind of numbers Cabrera might put up this year, and for his career.

Going into this season, Miggy had 138 home runs. You figure he has 10-12 good years left, if he stays healthy. At 30-35 homers a year, he's got a great chance at 500, or more. Maybe wayyy more.

It's fun to see a player of Cabrera's magnitude be this locked in this early. Because unlike with someone like Shelton (no disrespect, Big Red), you know that this isn't some fluke. Cabrera is off to a terrific start because he's a terrific player.

The rest of the American League, beware.

Memo to the league office: I wouldn't wait too long to order the engraving.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Opening Night Should Be For Broadway, Not Baseball

Jim Bouton put it best in his book, Ball Four.

Depending on how you feel about it, it's either Opening Day or opening day.

I guess we'll file last night's Tigers loss under the latter.

That's OK; to me, the "real" opening day, thus making it Opening Day, occurs when the Tigers play their first game at home. Season openers that start on the road, and at night, never did much for me.

Opening Day is just that -- an event during the day.

I'm trying to imagine the atmosphere around Toronto's domed ballpark yesterday. First pitch around 7:15. Crowds begin gathering sometime after 5:00; why play hooky from school or work, after all, when you can put in a day's work and then head down to the ballpark?

That's not Opening Day!! That's opening day -- opening night, to be more accurate.

The NBA has opening night. So does the NHL. And broadway. Not baseball.

Baseball should have Opening Day, like we have it in Detroit.

A genuine need to call off for the day. Shocking the system with some alcoholic suds before noon time. Loitering outside the ballpark under the sun (hopefully), not the moon.

We do it better in Detroit than just about anywhere else -- Opening Day, that is.

Granted, having a domed stadium means you don't have to worry about the cold weather conditions, as far as the playing on the field goes, when you throw an opening night.

The playing off the field, though, could use as much help as it can get. And that means gambling on a little daytime warmth, if there's any to be had.

There are people who flock downtown on Opening Day who have no intention of attending the game itself. And there are folks who intended to pass thru the turnstiles, but somehow couldn't pull themselves away from the pubs.

The Tigers lost, 12-5. Justin Verlander got smoked. It wasn't a great start to the season.

Doesn't matter. One down, 161 to go. There's always today. That's what's great about baseball; you can usually try to right your wrongs within 24 hours.

I don't have any use for opening nights. The Tigers have three more night games in Toronto, then it's home on Friday. For Opening Day.

The way God meant it to be.

Monday, April 06, 2009

There's been a slight delay.......

Hey all!

Real life and other writing gigs got in the way today, so my normal Monday Grubber post will be shoved back to tomorrow.

But it's all good; gives me a chance to write about the Tigers' opener AFTER it happens!

See ya tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Anderson Trade, "Funny" Looks Should Have Tipped Sheffield Off

I got the news of Gary Sheffield's cashiering by the Tigers while I was downtown, doing some freelance TV work for the good people at the Catholic Television Network of Detroit. One of the crew members got a text message.

"Goodbye Sheffield. $14 million -- that's a lot to eat," it read.

Such is how news is broken anymore.

I was floored. Honestly. I didn't see the release of the 40-year-old Sheffield coming. It wasn't on the radar of anyone who was handicapping the Tigers' Opening Day roster.

One of my first thoughts, naturally, was the career home run total on the bottom of Sheff's stat line.


After it sunk in, I thought of a conversation he and I had, and now it's kind of eery.

A couple years ago, the day after Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's career record with HR no. 756, I was in the Tigers clubhouse, making the rounds before a game.

I happened upon Sheffield. He's always willing to talk.

"So did you see Barry hit the big one? What did you think?" I asked.

"Yeah. It was great. Awesome. Good for him."

Then, I shifted the focus onto Sheffield himself, and his getting closer to 500 home runs.

At the time, Sheff was sitting at around 475 in the homer department.

"You ever think about 500?" I asked him.

"Naah. That's still a little while away," he said.

Then, the eery part.

"How about when you get to 499, then what?" I asked with a devious grin.

He laughed. "Then I'll be swinging for the fences, just to get it over with."

The Tigers have never had a player swat his 500th home run while wearing their uniform. And they won't for a while longer, thanks to the dismissal of Sheffield.

He'll have to swing for the fences for someone else. Which he will, guaranteed.

The Tigers, as the aforementioned text message said, will indeed be chowing down on Sheff's contract, which has $14 million left on it. And once he clears waivers -- an almost certainty given his contract size -- any team can sign him for the $400,000 major league minimum.

The Phillies have already been confirmed as having contacted Sheffield. The Reds were mentioned. Tampa -- Sheffield's hometown -- might have some interest, too. At four-hundred grand, you can bet some team will pick him up.

My knee jerk reaction to the news of Sheff's release was that something must have happened, like behind the scenes. I thought about when the Tigers cut Dmitri Young during a rain delay in 2006. That was REALLY odd.

The Tigers told Sheffield, according to him, that they wanted to go with a more versatile lineup. Read: younger and faster, and one that bats more left-handed.

The acquisition of speedy outfielder Josh Anderson, a lefty swinger, from Atlanta was maybe the death knell for Sheffield's Detroit career, as it turns out. This also means that Marcus Thames appears safe, since the DH position is now available for him in addition to spot starting in the outfield.

It also gives one of the younger Tigers, like Jeff Larish or Ryan Raburn or Brent Clevlen, a shot at grabbing the last bench spot.

Sheffield was quoted that people around the Tigers -- presumably manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski, were "looking at me funny for the last few days."

That's not surprising. The veteran athlete whose days are numbered often gets those looks from those who are privy to that fact.

Alex Karras, in his final few weeks with the Lions in 1971 before being cut in pre-season, said much the same thing. Coach Joe Schmidt, a former teammate, wouldn't look Karras in the eye, Alex wrote in his autobiography.

"Joe kept asking me if I felt like I could still play, but I noticed that whenever he did, he'd look at the ground or anywhere but at me," Karras wrote.

Karras admitted to having had a rough time in the exhibition games, but his being cut still shocked him.

Sheffield inferred that his release took him by surprise, too, despite the "funny" looks he was getting lately. But when asked if this meant his career was over with, he said firmly, "Not even close."

He'll be "swinging for the fences" for No. 500, somewhere.