Friday, October 23, 2009

Tigers Caught in the Middle for 2010?

Strength in the middle.

It's been bantied about in all the major team sports.

NBA championships, folks used to say by rote, can't be won without a dominant big man clogging up the middle. It's not required nowadays, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Strong interior blocking, in the middle of the offensive line, is indispensable when it comes to establishing a ground game in the NFL. Conversely, superior middle linebackers have been the hallmark of countless championship platoons, too.

Hockey's glamour guys are the flashy centers---the fancy playmakers who can also score.

And in baseball?

You've heard it countless times: "One of the reasons why (insert team) are so successful is because they're strong up the middle!"

The middle being, of course, catcher/shortstop/second base/center field.

The 1968 Tigers were 3/4 strong up the middle, with Bill Freehan behind the plate, Dick McAuliffe at second base, and Mickey Stanley in center field. It was only light-hitting shortstop Ray Oyler who was the exception.

The '84 Tigers were exemplary up the middle: Lance Parrish/Lou Whitaker/Alan Trammell/Chet Lemon.

The 2010 Tigers might look like this in those four positions: Gerald Laird/Scott Sizemore/Adam Everett/Curtis Granderson.

Doesn't exactly send chills down the spines of opponents.

There's Laird with his gifted cannon for an arm, and that's nice. But there's nothing in his bat other than rally-killing outs.

Everett and fellow SS Ramon Santiago, together, make up an average player at best.

Sizemore, if he replaces free agent Placido Polanco, has never played an inning in the big leagues.

Granderson is coming off an awful 2009 campaign.

If the 2010 Tigers are going to remain in the mix in the Central Division---forget anything beyond that for now---they'll have to be better in these key "up the middle" positions.

Getting more production out of LF, RF, and DH won't hurt, either.

But they say you have to be good down the pike, so let's put our focus there.

Laird is likely to remain the starting catcher, because even though rookie Alex Avila seems to have the bigger stick, the Tigers are enamored with Laird's gunning down of opposing base runners. I think they're scared to death to NOT have Laird in there, for fear that they'll lose a ton of games due to base thefts.

Not sold on that premise, but I do realize how good Laird is at what he does when it comes to throwing a baseball.

Sizemore seems set to take Polanco's place. It's unlikely that Jarhead will return in 2010, because the Tigers don't want to tie up any more dough than they have to in players. Sizemore comes a whole lot cheaper, mainly because he's a green horn. But you never know how it's going to go with rookies as starters.

Everett is a free agent as well. His glove is good, but he's another who gives you virtually nothing offensively. Santiago brings more to the table with the bat, and holds his own defensively. But he's never really been a full-time player in the big leagues.

The Tigers need to address shortstop, for sure.

We can only hope that Granderson's 2009 season was an anomaly. If so, then center field shouldn't be an issue.

So, to review: a good field, no hit catcher; a good field, no hit shortstop; a rookie second baseman; a (we hope) rebounding center fielder.

The Tigers, at least, have what they feel is a capable replacement at 2B in Sizemore, already in the organization.

If I had my druthers, I'd like to see Avila get more playing time, with Laird brought in for defensive purposes late in tight games. I'm fine with Sizemore, because you have to see what you got with him. I want a different shortstop. And I want Granderson to work hard at his game, which I'm sure he will.

The Tigers, right now, are less-than-average "up the middle." I have a sneaking suspicion that such a deficiency contributed greatly to their house of cards collapsing in September.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dombrowski Culpable for Tigers' Sticky Wicket

David Dombrowski has been President/G.M. of the Tigers for eight baseball seasons, and just what has the team accomplished?

One playoff appearance.

DD is 1-for-8, and that's a .125 BA---something that even Gerald Laird would scoff at.

It's time to take a serious look at how Dombrowski has been minding the store.

It's one thing to miss the playoffs; it's quite another to do so consistently in a notoriously weak division. It's yet another to do it whilst frittering away the owner's money like it grows on trees.

The Tigers, thanks to Dombrowski's questionable generosity of the past, are on the hook for a whole lot of Mike Ilitch's pizza dough spent on just a handful of players.

Nate Robertson. Jeremy Bonderman. Dontrelle Willis. On just those three mostly ineffective pitchers alone, the Tigers must cough up millions of bucks annually.

We laughed at DD's predecessor, Randy Smith, for ham-handed contract negotiations with the likes of Bobby Higginson, who was over-rewarded after his 2000 season, and for the pathetic courting of Juan Gonzalez---a contract that Ilitch ought to drop to his knees every night to thank God that it never materialized.

But Smith, in retrospect, just appears to be Dave Dombrowski Lite.

That's not a compliment to either man, by the way.

The Tigers are in a trick box this off-season, and for as much as you'd like to blame the field manager, Jim Leyland---and he's very culpable, too----the core of their troubles can be traced to Dombrowski.

In fairness, you can pretty much wipe away the first two of his seasons in Detroit, coming off Smith's disastrous run, which culminated in the horrific 43-119 season of 2003.

And you can give Dombrowski props for luring Pudge Rodriguez to the Tigers, even though Pudge wasn't exactly being flooded with offers at the time.

There was the Ugueth Urbina-for-Placido Polanco trade of 2005, which was among the very best and most lopsided in franchise history.

Beyond that?

This is a "what have you done for me lately?" business, and lately hasn't been filled with Dombrowski's finest hours.

The trades have been spotty in their success. The free agent signings have been similarly pocked. Contract extensions have been doled out with frightening recklessness.

The Central Division has never been a powerhouse grouping. Any division with the Kansas City Royals served up 18 times for consumption to each of the other teams can't be taken too seriously. Not to mention the Tigers.

If you're the White Sox or the Twins or the (until this season) Indians, and you got to play the Tigers and the Royals 36 times every season, that meant a guaranteed 20-25 wins (at least) per season until 2006, when the Tigers finally woke up.

The Tigers had no assemblance of an offense in 2009, albeit partly due to some players underachieving (yes, I'm looking at you, Curtis Granderson). Yet Dombrowski's efforts to bring bats in from outside the organization were laughable.

Aubrey Huff will go down as a poster child for Dombrowski's bungling.

When it was clear that Huff was gagging under the sheer force of pennant race pressure, being swallowed whole by it, DD still had time to pick someone off the scrap heap. That player wouldn't have been playoff eligible---he would have joined the team after September 1---but so what?

The Tigers added Matt Stairs in mid-September in 2006, and Matt hit a key home run in the final weekend series against the Royals to send a game into extra innings.

The Baltimore Orioles, in 1974, added ex-Tiger Jim Northrup in the final two weeks and Fox went 4-for-7, helping the O's cross the finish line ahead of the Yankees.

So it can be done.

But Dombrowski treated the September 1 date as if it was some sort of force field beyond which he couldn't make any more moves.

Dombrowski ought to thank his lucky stars that he works for a generous owner who is loathe to fire anyone. In lots of other towns, DD would have been long gone.

Dombrowski, in eight years, has fired a GM (Smith) and two managers (Luis Pujols and Alan Trammell), and all the franchise has to show for that and all the personnel moves is one post-season appearance---and the 2006 Tigers tried mightily to cough that one up, too.

Now the Tigers may not be able to add to their burgeoning payroll thanks to Dombrowski's painting them into a corner financially.

This is, like all the other ones, a crucial off-season. The 2010 Tigers are likely not going to look all that much like the 2009 version. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing will pretty much be up to what Dave Dombrowski does from between now and February.

How confident are YOU?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Friday Feast, Until Spring Training Beckons

With the Tigers' season over---just three games shy of how long the Twins' ended up being---it won't be necessary to besiege you with "Monday Morning Manager" or as much content in general.

So, this blog will be updated on Fridays only (barring sensational news that needs to be written about pronto), between now and the beginning of spring training.

Now, let's hope for a nice, short, mild winter, shall we?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Tigers Make All the Wrong Kind of History

The Tigers played a baseball game Tuesday that we won’t forget, to end a season we certainly will never forget. For all the wrong reasons.

For nearly the entire summer, fans of the Tigers wrung their hands and squirmed in their seats, looking at their first-place team and just not seeing, well, a first-place team.

This morning, they’re seeing a second-place team. At the worst possible time of the season—the end of it.

The Detroit Tigers, leaders of the Central Division since May 10, played hare to the Minnesota Twins’ tortoise and came from ahead in a gut-wrenching, drip-drip water torture manner, finally overtaken by the Twins two days after the regular season finale, in a baseball game that they’ll be talking about for decades, all around the country.

In a way, you could see this one coming for miles. It was like watching one of those horror movies where the heroine “kills” the monster and drops her weapon in relief, her back to the play as we see him rise again behind her.

“LOOK OUT!! BEHIND YOU!” we want to scream. And do.

The Twins were seven games behind on Labor Day. They weren’t even above .500. And the Tigers, who wobbled and swayed all summer long thanks to a boat that was unevenly loaded with decent pitching and defense on one side and a popgun offense on the other, sank to their knees in relief, the Twins’ carcass behind them.

A seven-game lead with 26 games to play. The Twins then lost slugger Justin Morneau due to injury. The Morneau injury was to be the stake in the Twins’ heart. And the Tigers dropped that stake, their backs to the Twins’ carcass.


We screamed. Boy, did we scream.

“THE TWINS!! They’re getting up!! Look!! Behind you!!”

The Morneau-less Twins did one of those chilling climbs out of the grave, and started approaching the Tigers, steadily and surely.

The seven-game lead was five, then it was four. The Tigers went into the Metrodome the weekend of September 18 and lost two of three. The lead was three games with 13 to play.

The Tigers won two of the first three games with the Twins in Detroit last week. The lead was three games with four to play.

Yet still the Twins approached them, zombies now, unable to be killed.

It’s official. The Tigers have now been added to the list of MLB teams who will live in infamy.

Move over, 1951 Dodgers. 1964 Phillies, could you scoot over a bit? Thank you.

Yo, 1978 Red Sox—can you move down a tad? Same with you, 2007 Mets. Thanks.

2009 Tigers—take a seat.

You can’t erase this. Time doesn’t heal this one. There haven’t been a lot of monumental collapses in Detroit sports history; usually our teams are feast or famine: they either close the deal or aren’t even in the room.

But this—this won’t be forgotten. Nor should it.

A three game lead with four to play—and all four of those at home, where the Tigers finished 51-30. They needed at first to just beat the Twins last Thursday and the division would be theirs. They failed, but then only needed to win two of three from the White Sox, or else get some help from the Royals in Minnesota.

The Royals, who played Twins’ hero in 2006, sweeping the Tigers on the final weekend in Detroit, rode into Minnesota and helped the Tigers like the guy who shaves your legs before you get put into the electric chair.

The Tigers would have to earn it, like Smith-Barney.

The one-game playoff on Tuesday in the Metrodome was one of the greatest baseball games I’ve ever seen. And ever will see.

At least there’s that. At least the Tigers can say they participated in a classic. Yes, it was more thrilling to the Detroiters, but any baseball fan, anywhere, had to like that game. I don’t even think you had to like baseball to like that game.

So there’s that.

But the game, in a microcosm, was just like the divisional race itself in September. The Tigers sprint off to a 3-0 lead, only to see the Twins slowly whittle it away, giving the Tigers some more of that water torture.

Drip, drip. Twins scratch out a run to make it 3-1. Drip, drip. The Tigers’ bats go cold. Drip, drip. The Twins make it 3-2. Drip, drip.

The Twins go ahead, 4-3. Water gushes down over the Tigers’ faces.

But then Magglio Ordonez, who tried like mad in September to almost single-handedly shove his team over the finish line first, smacked a laser into the left field seats in the 8th inning to tie the game.

But the Twins are the better baseball team, because they play baseball better.

The Twins don’t put runners on first and third with no outs and come away empty thanks to a base running blunder, as the Tigers did in the ninth inning. The Twins don’t try for shoe string catches and turn singles into triples, as Ryan Raburn did in the 10th inning. The Twins don’t load the bases with one out and come away empty, as the Tigers did in the 12th inning.

It took 163 games, but the better team finally won the Central Division. The Tigers’ season-long inability to drive runners in from third base with less than two outs—that bellwether of baseball efficiency—finally got them in the you-know-what.

Don’t blame this one on the Metrodome. The dome didn’t cause Curtis Granderson to commit one of the most egregious base running mistakes you can make—as a Little Leaguer.

I remember being told by the first base coach when I was 11 years old: make sure line drives get through!

Grandy didn’t, and got doubled off first base, killing the Tigers’ rally in the ninth.

While it’s true that Raburn made up for his faux pas by gunning down the potential winning run at the plate in the 10th, he never should have had to do that.

This loss in Game 163 doesn’t have the Metrodome’s fingerprints all over it, unless you’re going to get all Boston Garden/leprechauns on me and speak of little Twin ghosts occupying the place, causing bad things to happen to the Tigers.

Yes, bad things DID happen to the Tigers on Tuesday. But, just as their September Swoon—and why can’t the Tigers be like most teams and have their swoons in June?—the Tigers were their own enemies, thank you very much.

The 2009 Tigers are now in some very select company. And it stinks in there.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Twins Deserve Division More, But Almost Blew It

One more.

One more trek up to that damn Metrodome for the Tigers.

One more jab in the side by its pincers.

One more hellish night spent in the freakish loudness of that sorry excuse of a ballpark--big league, minor league, Pony League, or Little League. I wouldn't even let my kid play tee ball there, if you want to know the truth.

One more notch the Minnesota Twins can add to their belt when it comes to playing the Tigers in their own stadium. Hell, they must be on their third belt by now, the Twins.

Or will it be?

The Tigers have a glorious chance before them.

They can, in one game---one fell swoop, if you will---wash away just about every horrific thing that has ever happened to them in the Metrodome, if they can manage to beat the Twins Tuesday night in the one-game playoff for the AL Central title.

Think of it.

Think of how forgiving you'd be to the Dome if you see the Tigers celebrating on its carpet, the Twins' crowd collectively muzzled.

It's enough to make even a crabby, approaching middle-aged guy like me shed a small tear, or two.

Yes, that would be very nice. And who knows? No one is giving the Tigers much of a chance---why should they---so here's a chance to play underdog and shock the world.

But I submit to you that if the Tigers somehow manage to swipe this divisional flag out from under the noses of the Twins and their rollicking fans Tuesday, then the Tigers will have stolen something that is not rightfully theirs.

The Twins deserve this division. They're the better team, and they, collectively, played like it in these past few, frantic weeks.

They lost slugger Justin Morneau and instead of sinking further into their funk---the Twins were below .500 when Morneau went down---the Twins turned it on, fueled by contributions from, well, everyone.

It was Morneau-by-committee, and it worked.

The Twins' offense has been damn near unstoppable, which is mostly why they've gone 16-4 since losing Morneau, and thus erasing a six-game deficit.

And there's this.

The Twins beat the tar out of the Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, and the Chicago White Sox down the stretch. Three of the Twins' four losses in the last 20 games have come against the Tigers. They are 12-1 against those other teams.

The Tigers, meanwhile, were swept in Kansas City and lost two of three to the Royals in Detroit. The White Sox went 4-2 against the Tigers down the stretch.

All that tomfoolery has put the Tigers in this position---having to go, one more time, to the Metrodome.

Well, good for them. They brought this on themselves. I don't want to hear any crabbing from them about the Dome.

The Twins' lineup, from top to bottom, is better. They play better fundamental baseball.

It would be a shame, yes, if the Tigers were to be in first place since May 10---nearly five months---and end the season in second.

But it's their own doing and they don't deserve it, anyway.

The fans, now that's another story. The beleaguered people of Detroit and, by extension, the entire state of Michigan deserve playoff baseball more than the good folks in Minnesota. Sorry, Minnesotans, but that's true, too. Hasn't this area taken enough of a beating?

If the Tigers blow this, if they aren't able to finish this heist---and that's what it would be---then they ought to issue a public apology for doing such a heinous thing to their financially-decrepit fan base.

Shame on the Tigers, if they raise all those people's hopes up for five months, teasing them, only to collapse in the season's final days.

It would be almost too much for these people in this God-forsaken state to bear.

But if the Tigers do win it, they'd be, at the same time, thieves. Took the Twins' division and away they ran, into the night.

The Twins rightfully own the Central Division. They're the best team, clearly. So some shame on them, too, for fooling around for 142 games and waking up barely in time for a late, 20-game run.

How fitting it is, both ways, that this playoff is being played in the Dome.

Fitting if the Twins win, because it would be one last "GOTCHA!" for the Tigers under that plastic roof, housing all those trash bags.

And incredible irony if the Tigers win, closing the Dome for good with such a monumental win.

If the Tigers lose, and I'm supposing that they will, they'll be sad and angry and frustrated, no doubt. They had this bank job on their fingertips and will have let it slip through their sticky fingers.

But they must also realize that if they had won the division, it would have been criminal. You can't play 163 games without any offense from catcher, shortstop, left field, and DH and have it not be considered a heist if you win it.

If the Twins win then the correct and deserving team will be AL Central champs. If they lose, then they ought to be the team that's sad, angry, and frustrated. Nothing worse than being the better team and losing.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Twins Better Than Tigers, But Got Going Too Late

Ronald Reagan was in the midst of his second term as president. The Pistons were still having ghoulish nightmares about Isiah Thomas's pass to Larry Bird in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Steve Yzerman has just completed his first season as a boy captain. Darryl Rogers hadn't started wondering about what it took to get fired around here.

That was the political and sports landscape, nationally and around Detroit, when the Blue Jays' Garth Iorg tapped one back to Frank Tanana, who underhanded the ball to first baseman Darrell Evans, clinching the Tigers' last divisional title.

It was October 4, 1987---22 years ago this Sunday.

The Gregorian calendar is the exact same in 2009 as it was in '87, the last time the Tigers were division champs. So maybe that's a good omen.

It would have been nice to write this today in the past tense, talking about how the Tigers clinched the division yesterday, at home, against the Minnesota Twins, their only pursuer.

But it still feels inevitable, here on Friday, so time to reflect.

Time to soak in what a 22-year drought means in baseball terms.

Yeah, yeah---the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006, thanks to Bud Selig's Wild Card. The Tigers were that year's Kings of Second Place, and thus squeezed into the post-season, despite gagging the Central Division away to the Twins---culminating in the Tigers' inability to beat the woeful Kansas City Royals even one time, at home, during the season's final weekend.

The World Series appearance was nice. No question. And had the Tigers not had to wait a full week to start the darn thing, they might have fared better in it. Oh well.

But the Tigers don't have Selig's Wild Card to fall back on this time. If they want to play some truly meaningful October baseball, they're going to have to be first place participants, not Kings of Second Place.

Twenty-two years without a division. That's seven years longer than the wait between Billy Martin's Hitless Wonders of 1972 and Sparky Anderson's Comeback Kids of '87.

The 1968 crew's pennant---the last time the league could be won sans playing an LCS series---came 23 years after the 1945 World Series winner's.

Don't tell me that it doesn't matter if you lose the division, as long as you make the playoffs. Remember the utter disappointment when the Tigers couldn't close the deal in '06, despite the Wild Card already having been clinched?

OK, so what will it be like around here if the Tigers cough this one up, too?

No ALDS against the Yankees. The Kings of Second Place this year are the Boston Red Sox. So it'll be Boston who'll be in the playoffs as second place crashers.

The Tigers had a seven-game lead on Labor Day. That's usually a good thing.

The Twins lost Justin Morneau around the same time. That's usually a bad thing.

Yet a division that should have been salted away a week or so ago is still hanging in the balance.

The reason is pretty clear, or at least should be.

The Minnesota Twins play a better brand of baseball than the Tigers. The truth hurts, I know.

It should be the Twins, by rights, who represent the AL Central in the playoffs, except that they underachieved most of the year---and they were missing MVP candidate Joe Mauer for the first month of the season.

The Twins team that you're seeing in September is more representative of what they truly are.

The Twins do many things better than the Tigers. They move runners along the basepaths better. They walk fewer hitters. They drive in runs from third base with less than two outs far better than the Tigers do.

They have a better lineup, hitting-wise.

They have Ron Gardenhire as manager, who nullifies Jim Leyland, and then some.

They had the Metrodome for 81 games.

Yet they---the Twins---are still likely to fall short, despite their late run, because they muddled along at or just below .500 most of the season. That's their fault, of course.

That the Tigers couldn't put the Twins away is an indictment against the Bengals.

If the Tigers win the division, Leyland should be considered highly for Manager of the Year. For he will have piloted a team to first place---no matter what you think of the division, which is lousy---without the benefit of an offense.

Martin did the same thing, too, in 1972. His team's batting average was, get this, .237. The Tigers scored 558 runs in 156 games (the season was shortened by a strike)---an average of just 3.6 runs per game.

Sparky's '87 team was the opposite---it could mash the ball but didn't pitch so well a lot of the time.

Different teams, different eras. That happens.

Leyland's Hitless Wonders might win this thing after all, which is truly amazing.

A team with Clete Thomas hitting third. A team that got virtually nothing offensively from catcher, shortstop, left field, right field, and DH.

A team with an underachieving Curtis Granderson. A one-legged Brandon Inge. An invisible late-season acquisition in Aubrey Huff. A team without a typical Magglio Ordonez until September. Or Placido Polanco, for that matter.

The Tigers' offense has been Miguel Cabrera and a bunch of no-names such as Ryan Raburn and Alex Avila. For 159 games.

Yet they're in first place.

The best team with the best manager won't win the Central Division. But that's baseball.

And that's why Jim Leyland should be Manager of the Year.