Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tigers Look Good for 2010, if the Impossible Can Happen

We're in the thick of baseball's Hot Stove League right now, and I must say, I love the Tigers' chances in 2010.

Yes sir, I think they'll do just fine. All they have to do is have every starter pitch a complete game every outing and oh yeah, hold the other guys to no more than two runs per pop.

That's all.

Since the curtain closed on their end-of-the-season pratfall, the Tigers have lost their starting second baseman and No. 2 hitter, their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter, their set-up man in the bullpen, and their closer. And I hear Paws is in talks to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Two years ago the Tigers were supposed to win 110 games and score ten times that many runs. Their batting order was the only one in baseball with an Upper Division and Lower Division Murderers' Row. They were going to make a mess of the Central Division and laugh at the rest of the league.

Then they started playing the games and after an 0-7 start the team was practically eliminated from contention.

The reverse is true for 2010. The Tigers would appear to be lucky to score half of 1,000 runs, with their lineup that rivals Swiss cheese in the holes department.

The Tigers apparently mean to start a rookie in CF (newly-acquired Austin Jackson), a rookie at 2B (soon-to-be-promoted Scott Sizemore), and a bunch of .230 hitters. And Miguel Cabrera.

One look at the Tigers' offense and it's the fans who should be driven to drink, not the cleanup hitter.

I don't play the stock market, but I might want a piece of Marlboro stock. Manager Jim Leyland, all by himself, will keep that company in business.

But here's the rub. The Central Division, save for the Minnesota Twins, is filled with teams who bob up and down more than a buoy during a water skiing show.

Except for the Twins, who always seem to contend despite their warts, the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and the Tigers take turns confounding the experts. If they're supposed to be good, they stink. And vice-versa. Only the lovable Kansas City Royals can you chisel in for a bad season.

It looks bad for the Tigers now, I realize that. They have a bona fide superstar in Cabrera batting fourth, only he won't seem to have much to clean up. He might lead the majors in 2010 in 400-foot solo home runs.

There's an aging Magglio Ordonez, who you just pray didn't use up what was left in him during the final couple months of 2009. There's Carlos Guillen, who ends up on the disabled list more than eggs on a grocery list. There's Brandon Inge, God bless him, who is a gamer and is gutsy and a great guy and when the dust settles he's hit .230 again.

There's Adam Everett, who is a throwback to the days of the good field, no hit shortstop. Too bad he's not a throwback to the days of the good field, good hit shortstop era that came just after that.

There's Ramon Santiago, who the Tigers have been treating like the 14-year-old kid who just can't be trusted to stay home alone for any length of time.

There's Gerald Laird at catcher, who has a great arm but a limp noodle as a bat. He's another of those nice .230 guys.

"Spahn and Sain and pray for rain," used to be the mantra for the old Boston Braves teams when it came to their starting rotation.

How about this for the 2010 Tigers?

"JV and Rick and we're in trouble if it doesn't rain a lick."

OK, so it's not as eloquent, but you get the idea.

And my apologies to new Tiger Max Scherzer, who might be a good third man in the rotation, if the team's luck holds out.

Ahh, luck. That fickle lady.

There might be hope for the Tigers, after all. The Twins aren't playing in the Metrodome in 2010, for starters.

Hey, it's better than nothing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Baseball Trades Today More About Money Than Personnel

It was a line uttered by a wisecracking former player for the Cleveland Indians. Its genealogy dates back to the mid-1980s.

"The first thing they do when they find out you have talent in Cleveland," the player said, "is trade you for three guys who don't."

That observation was made because of curious personnel decisions that the Indians front office had been making, none of which involved money. Just plain baseball.

I'd like to update that missive.

The first thing teams NOT named the Yankees and Red Sox do when they find out you have talent, is trade you for three guys who don't make any money.

The Winter Meetings---and this isn't all that long ago---used to be a gathering of big kids in suits with bubblegum cards rubber-banded together.

"Give me your Freddy Lynn and I'll give you my Frank Tanana."

If players were on the "trading block," it was because of performance or age or maybe an oil-and-water relationship with the manager. The December meetings were thrilling, because you never knew what kinds of mega deals might be spawned from them.

It's December 1979 and the Tigers make a trade that is classified under "addition by subtraction." They have a new manager, Sparky Anderson, and after only four months on the job, Sparky already knows who he'd like to cast off.

So base thief---and just plain thief---Ron LeFlore gets shipped to Montreal for a lefthander named Dan Schatzeder. No one with a straight face can argue that it's a fair deal. LeFlore was a bona fide .300 hitter with some power who could steal 50+ bases while hardly trying.

But it was the hardly trying part that got Sparky's goat. Never having warmed to LeFlore's off-the-field behavior, Sparky had GM Jim Campbell send him away, forthwith. Didn't matter who the Tigers got back in return, really. Which was obvious, when all LeFlore netted the Tigers was Schatzeder, who was OK but nothing terrific.

Sparky continued to have Campbell purge the roster of those not of the manager's liking, over the next several years. But you can't argue, because the Tigers became solid contenders by 1981 and won the World Series in 1984.

The point to all my meanderings? Trades were made for just about anything except for what they're mostly made for now.

It's the money. The cash. The filthy loot.

The Toronto Blue Jays were the latest to get cheaper, practically giving pitcher Roy Halladay away in a three-team trade involving the Phillies and the Mariners. The Jays got "prospects" in return. Read: they got some guys who don't cost the GNP of a small country.

It used to be that you made baseball trades because of, well, baseball. You assessed your needs and met up with some other GMs in the lobbies of hotels and trade proposals would be scratched out on the back of a room service menu and then hands were shaked later that day.

Hardly ever was a guy's contract status the prime consideration. And deals were rarely made in the superstar-for-prospect category.

Now, if you're a GM, you have to keep your finance guy tethered to you. You don't scout potential players anymore, you vet them.

Teams today simply cannot afford to keep their best players, at least not all of them. Some, like the Blue Jays and others, can't really keep any of them, because of their light pocketbooks.

You can suggest "salary cap" all you want, but good luck getting such a proposal through the MLB Players Association. You'll have better success shoving this morning's toothpaste back into its tube.

A devoted reader bemoaned to me last week about the Curtis Granderson "get cheap quick" trade.

"The Yankees buy their championships!"

I gently reminded him that that's what the Red Wings used to do, pre-salary cap. A July press conference announcing that year's big free agency catch was an annual thing around Detroit.

"That's true," he said. "Guess we can't really complain then."

No, you can complain. Because I am.

I'm complaining because I'm not sure that most baseball trades aren't made because of money first and personnel needs second.

How else to explain the cashiering of a pitcher like Halladay, who is a legitimate Cy Young threat every year, for a bunch of unproven kids?

Closer to home, it's also OK with me if you wring your hands over Justin Verlander. He can be a free agent before the 2012 season, if the Tigers don't get him signed long term before then. Verlander is making $3.75 million this year, which is today's drop in the bucket. How much will it take to keep JV in a Tigers uniform? Maybe a cool $100 million over five, six years?

Halladay has Cy Young potential every season; Verlander has no-hitter potential every start.

Baseball teams are like college programs anymore. Just when you get enamored with the players, they're gone in four years.

A hard look needs to be taken at baseball's financial setup. It's not even about the Yankees and the Red Sox. It's about giving teams more of an opportunity to compete financially and keep the players who draw the most fans, i.e. tickets.

Then we can get back to making trades based on baseball, not contracts.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Tigers’ Trade of Granderson Full of Bottom Line Stench

Where’s Randy Smith when you need him?

Where’s Randy and his Detroit-to-San Diego shuttle?

Edwin Jackson pitches now in Arizona, which means he will soon be out of sight, out of mind. The Tigers may as well have traded him to Siberia. Jackson is a Diamondback now, whatever that is. You won’t hear a peep out of him after Easter.

Curtis Granderson, on the other hand, is another story.

A Tigers fan base in mourning today could use a Randy Smith trade, for maybe Granderson would be a Padre, playing in San Diego, where I’m not even sure they have big league baseball anymore.

Instead, Granderson is in New York. A Yankee. You can’t hide him there. As long as he wears pinstripes, it’ll be an in-your-face, impossible to ignore fact: Curtis Granderson, ex-Tiger, and playing big league baseball in the No. 1 media market in the solar system.

The Yankees snapped him up. They always do that. Even Bubba Trammell played in the Bronx, you know. So did Gabe Kapler and Karim Garcia and Tommy Brookens and Aurelio Rodriguez and Willie Horton was even a Yankees coach, for gosh sakes.

Well, you can stomp your feet and hold your breath and cross your arms and pout all you want, but it ain’t gonna change the fact that Granderson, beloved in Detroit, will still wear blue and white, but instead of the Old English D it’ll be the intertwined N and Y on his New Era cap in 2010, and beyond.

You think he was baseball’s ambassador before? Immerse him in New York’s glitz and glamour and it’s like dipping that yummy ice cream cone into fudge syrup and sprinkles.

The Yankees have him now. The ghost of Harry Frazee reappeared at the winter meetings, in the form of Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, who sold Granderson off to the Yanks just as Red Sox owner Frazee did with Babe Ruth so Harry could pay for a show he wanted to finance.

Frazee, er, Dombrowski, turned Granderson in for some might bes and can’t misses, and saved his owner a lot of pizza dough in the process. It used to be that you checked scouting reports before you made trades. Now you check bottom lines.

This trading of Granderson and Jackson might make the bookkeepers of the world happy, but what about the baseball people? Oh, they’re happy in New York, of course. The Yankees just rooked another rummy.

The Tigers seemed hellbent on trading both Granderson and Jackson this week. It appeared to be their mission. So eager were they to succeed that, reportedly, Dombrowski got itchy and lowered his asking price of the Yanks. Pitcher Phil Hughes was supposed to be included in the package, but DD told the Yankees, “Eh, that’s OK. Close enough.”

The Tigers got a Coke for a smile.

Lefty reliever Phil Coke is coming to Detroit, along with one of those can’t misses named Austin Jackson, a center fielder. From Arizona, Dombrowski managed an Edwin Jackson-like righty named Max Scherzer and southpaw reliever Daniel Schlereth. At least the Tigers will lead the league with guys whose last names start with Sch.

But the Yankees got their man. They always do. I’m sure their GM, Brian Cashman, could barely suppress his grin when he shook on the deal. Austin Jackson might be a can’t miss and/or a might be, but Curtis Granderson is an IS.

I wasn’t Granderson’s biggest fan this season. Far from it. I wrote a few weeks ago that the mere thought of trading him ought not to be placed in the same category as contemplating drowning puppies, which many of my blogging colleagues all but compared it to.

But my caveat was that you’d better get some big league talent in return, and in the form of multiple bodies.

Well, the Tigers got the multiple bodies thing down, for sure. We’ll see about the former.

Before a line forms at the Ambassador Bridge, before you can’t buy a razor blade in this city, before garage doors close all over town and car ignitions are turned on, remember that trades aren’t judged overnight—literally. Dombrowski might have pulled off quite a caper here; we won’t know for a few years yet.

But what we do know is that an already anemic offense got weaker—for now. In the past week, the Tigers lost the top two men in their batting order—Granderson and 2B Placido Polanco. It’s like the 98-pound weakling dropping weight.

The Yankees, meanwhile, stick Granderson into center field, place him somewhere in the top three in the order, and start selling World Series tickets on Opening Day.

If Dombrowski had shuttled Grandy to San Diego or Arizona or Washington or Pittsburgh, the medicine would probably have gone down smoother for Curtis’s adoring fans. Instead, Granderson will be all over your TV dial, invading every nook and cranny of the Internet, and will be seen in the dugout with Jeter and A-Rod and Teixeira and the rest. Smiling. Broadly.

And Detroit will weep. It started as sniffles during the early hours of the afternoon yesterday, as news of the three-team blockbuster first broke, and progressed to flat-out wailing by suppertime. Curtis Granderson had been traded. I wonder if the reaction would have been the same had the Tigers dealt Al Kaline. Remember him?

But Wayne Gretzky was traded—several times. Hank Aaron was shuffled out of Atlanta. The Giants traded Willie Mays, no less. You think Curtis Granderson was immune?

It’s the Yankees thing—I get it. Anywhere but there, right? Even a trade to the Cubs would have been sufferable, most likely. At least Curtis would be playing in his hometown.

But New York? As if they need any more effervescence. Adding Granderson to New York is like spritzing champagne with carbonated water.

What a waste of a good guy. New York won’t appreciate what Granderson does for life outside of baseball. He’ll be able to walk the streets of Manhattan and the only time he’ll be stopped is if someone happens to ask him for the time. In Detroit, Grandy might one day have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Mayor Dave Bing in front of the groundbreaking for a new playground. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg might not even have time to take his call—if he even knows who Curtis is.

But from a purely baseball perspective, the Yankees will love what Granderson brings to their team. If he ever learns to hit left-handed pitchers, his only days off will come from November thru March.

The Yankees got their man. Again. Comcast just bought NBC and 20 percent of your cable lineup, so why not Granderson to the Yankees? While we’re at it, let’s sell Yahoo to Google and give Nestle’s a great deal on Hershey. Hey, how about getting McBurger King done?

If you’re going to dump salary, there’s no place to do it like in New York. The Yankees aren’t a baseball team, they’re a corporation. They’re the Pac Man of big league baseball—they gobble up contracts insatiably.

Curtis Granderson didn’t have the best of years in 2009, which ironically was the only season in his career in which he made the All-Star team. He found himself on the trading block thanks to his subpar performance and his soon-to-be bulging contract. The Tigers were clearly very eager to swap him away.

I’m not broken up that Granderson is gone, and I know I’m in the minority. Lefties who can’t hit other lefties don’t impress me. But I must share some of the discontent about him landing in New York, of all places. It’s like losing your girlfriend to the All-American quarterback at USC.

It’s OK to be sad. Everyone has my permission. But take a step back from the ledge. The Tigers made a bottom line trade and it just might work out in the long run. Now, whether the artisan of the trade will stick around long enough to see that happen is another question entirely.

See what happens when you blow a three-game lead with four games to play?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Tigers' Loss of Polanco Another Reminder: Baseball's a Business

Four-plus years ago, Placido Polanco got run out of Philadelphia---they do that a lot in that town---because the Phanatics wanted to see Chase Utley, and pronto, play second base. So quick to rid themselves of Polanco were the Phillies that they accepted a soon-to-be felon from the Tigers, pitcher Ugie Urbina, in a straight up heist.

It wasn't quite Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio but it wasn't Rocky Colavito-for-Harvey Kuenn, either. At least the Phillies had Utley as their ace in the hole.

Polanco is back in Philly, again nudged out of a job by a youngster who plays second base.

This time it's Scott Sizemore who has forced Polanco out, as the Tigers made their decision known loud and clear when they didn't offer Polanco salary arbitration by this week's deadline: we want Scott!

Scott's cheaper, you see. By far.

Polanco is back in Philly, and that's odd, because the only thing worse than playing in Philadelphia is playing there TWICE.

But it won't be at second base; the Phillies want Polanco to play third base. And they're going to pay him about $18 million over the next three years to do so. That was too rich for the Tigers' thinning blood.

It was a wise move for the Tigers. Polanco is 34 and Sizemore is going to be 25 next month and he'll work for peanuts compared to what the Tigers would have had to cough up for Poly's services.

Sizemore is rehabbing a snapped ankle but all indications are that he'll be good to go by the time spring training rolls around.

Does Polanco have the arm strength needed to be an everyday third sacker? The Phillies have 18 million George Washingtons that say yes, apparently.

Polanco was a good soldier in Detroit. Shortly after arriving in the summer of 2005, he signed a contract extension to remain a Tiger through the 2009 season. He wasn't a bandwagon guy. The Tigers weren't very good when he made the decision to sign on long-term. He put his faith---and the prime of his career---into the belief that the Tigers were on the road to contention. Or was it the Road to Redemption?

It worked. Polanco rolled a lucky seven. The Tigers made it to the World Series the next year (he was the MVP of the ALCS, too) and were strong contenders in 2007 until Gary Sheffield hurt his shoulder in July and the team went sideways.

The Tigers win the pennant! The Tigers win the pennant!

Get ready for some errors at second base, folks. That's not a knock on Sizemore, it's a knock at a lack of perfection. While Polanco patrolled second in Detroit, E-4 was something you called out while playing "Battleship."

The Tigers need offense, and so letting Polanco and his career .300+ batting average go away might seem self-defeating. But the Tigers need a more powerful, more intimidating brand of offense than what Poly provided. They need a thumper, not a pattycake hitter.

I wish Polanco well---and lotsa luck. They didn't even care much for Mike Schmidt at times at third base in Philadelphia. But to each his own.

This is one of those times when we're reminded harshly that it's business, it's not personal. In fact, often times it's damn impersonal. Placido Polanco is a Phillie not because the Tigers didn't want him---they just couldn't justify paying for him. It's a fine line, but a distinct one all the same.

There's always the memories. Those are free, and priceless at the same time. Remember Polanco, ski cap and all, jumping around wildly as he rounded the bases after Magglio Ordonez's pennant-clinching home run? He looked like Billy Barty trying to reach some cookies on the kitchen counter. But it was an indelible moment.

Polanco might go down as one of the most reliable players to ever jitterbug around a baseball diamond wearing the Old English D. He rolled out of bed every winter, put in his time at spring training, then hit his .300 and played flawless second base and struck out once a week, just about.

But it's not $6 million-per-year stuff anymore, at ages 35 thru 37. Again, business.

Poly's a small guy, but he wore big shoes. Now we'll see if this kid Sizemore is up to filling them.