Monday, April 25, 2011

Monday Morning Manager 2011, Edition 4

Last week: 5-1
This week: SEA (4/26-28); at Cle (4/29-5/1)

So, What Happened?

Now THAT'S more like it!

MMM is feeling almost giddy this morning, in wake of a very impressive sweep of the struggling White Sox and taking the Mariners, two-out-of-three.

Those Tigers must have read MMM last week, because in this space it was discussed how important it was for the Bengals to take advantage of a bad team (Seattle) and a slumping one (Chicago).

In the words of George W. Bush, "Mission accomplished!"

When a team like the White Sox is underachieving and they come to your place, all you want to do is beat them and get them the heck out of town before they catch fire. And the White Sox did look bad, didn't they? Sheesh!

Yes sir, a 5-1 week which lifted the Tigers to 12-10 definitely puts a smile on MMM's often crabby face.

Hero of the Week

Let's hear it for Alex Avila, the nepotistic (is that even a word?) catcher who fans wanted to run out of town after Opening Day.

All Avila is doing is smacking the baseball all over the alleys, against righties or lefties, and delivering runs to the plate in the process. He's also stuffing a sweat sock into the mouths of those who were all over his case just a couple weeks ago. He certainly wore out the White Sox over the weekend.

This couldn't have come at a better time, what with Victor Martinez on the DL, forcing manager Jim Leyland to play AA against lefties, too. And the kid is responding.

Avila is one of those lefty swingers who can look like he's got the smoothest stroke in the world (like right now), then can go back into flailing mode, just like that.

But right now Avila is hot, and good for him. He's making papa---and MMM---proud.

Goat of the Week

MMM was going to name Phil Coke as GotW for his inexplicable start in Seattle last Tuesday, but instead 2B Will Rhymes is going to feel the wrath.

After winning the starting 2B job in spring training, largely because of his .300+ average last summer with the Tigers, Rhymes has hit nothing like he did in 2010. In fact, Rhymes is hitting nothing, period. He has zero---ZERO---extra base hits and his average is hovering around .200.

As a no. 2 hitter, Rhymes makes a good no. 9 guy. All he does now is lay down the occasional sacrifice bunt. Kind of like what a pitcher does at the plate.

MMM thinks it won't be surprising to see Rhymes in Toledo and Scott Sizemore in Detroit before too long.

Under the Microscope

This may surprise some, but MMM is putting pitcher Brad Penny under the microscope this week.

The timing may be odd at first blush, given that Penny flirted with a no-hitter and totally shut the White Sox down on Saturday. But, strangely, that's precisely why MMM is putting the veteran righty UtM.

Why? Because after such a poor start to his Tigers career, which caused many fans to look at him cross-eyed, now those same folks (and MMM, obviously) want to see if Penny is indeed coming around, or had one of those "every dog has his day" moments against the Chisox.

MMM will be paying close attention when Penny makes his next start on Thursday. This is the guy the Tigers chose to sign over Armando Galarraga. MMM thought it was a good swap at the time, and still believes that. For now.

Upcoming: Mariners and Indians

Last week MMM stated that the Seattle Mariners should be the tonic for what was ailing the Tigers, who took 2-of-3 in the Pacific Northwest. This week, MMM is stating that the Mariners should be a good team to play to keep the wins coming.

But beware: the M's will start King Felix Hernandez on Tuesday and this kid Michael Pineda on Thursday, both of whom the Tigers missed in Seattle last week.

Felix is the reigning Cy Young winner, and Pineda might be this year's Rookie of the Year. Pineda is 3-1 with a 1.78 ERA, and he's only 22 years old. Pineda has 21 Ks in 25 innings and opponents are batting just .202 against him.

Then the Tigers travel to Cleveland to face the surprising Indians.

The way the Tribe is playing, and with CF Grady Sizemore back in the lineup, this series will have shades of 2007-08 all over it, when the Indians were among the beasts of the Central Division.

While no one expects the Indians to contend all summer, part of the beauty of baseball is its long season and finding out if good, surprising starts can be sustained, and if bad starts can be overcome. The Indians are certainly in the former category.

That's all for this week's MMM. See you next week!


Monday, April 18, 2011

Monday Morning Manager 2011, Edition 3

Last week: 4-3
This week: at Sea (4/18-20); CWS (4/22-24)

So, What Happened?

The Tigers somehow won four games last week with an offense that couldn't punch its way out of a paper bag.

The week began ominously with a Justin Verlander loss to the hot Texas Rangers. which is unfair to even write because JV was excellent; the Tigers got shutout, however, dropping them to 3-7. Tigertown was aghast.

Two straight walk-off wins over the Rangers ensued, followed by a shutout of the Oakland A's out west (thanks to the stellar pitching of starter Phil Coke) on Thursday. On Friday night, the Tigers took advantage of a boatload of walks from A's pitchers---and a clutch, ninth inning homer from Miguel Cabrera to tie the game---to win going away in the 10th inning.

Then the Tigers slipped, dropping the last two games in Oakland as the A's starters vexed the Tigers' woeful offense.

MMM is beyond cranky with the rinky-dink offense. Even minus Magglio Ordonez, as the Tigers have been a lot already, a .245 team batting average is unacceptable. And MMM will say it again: sophomore Austin Jackson's struggles are more than alarming. Someone better get this kid turned around before his confidence is ruined irreparably.

Hero of the Week

In what is sure to be one of many, many times this season, MMM is going with Miguel Cabrera as its HotW.

Miggy won the game on Tuesday with a walk-off single, and saved the Tigers' bacon Friday night in Oakland with a solo homer in the ninth inning of a game where the Tigers looked dead, despite trailing just 1-0.

What's amazing about Cabrera is how hard---and far---he can hit baseballs that aren't in his wheelhouse. Then again, what isn't in Miggy's wheelhouse? Whether he's jammed or challenged up high or enticed by a low, outside offering, Cabrera drives the ball. It's uncanny. Even his outs can be majestic and exciting to watch.

If not for Cabrera last week, MMM thinks the Tigers likely would have been 2-5 instead of 4-3. And that's a mighty big difference, especially when you entered the week 3-6.

Goat of the Week

This may sound like MMM is copping out, but the choice for last week's Goat goes to the entire offense.

It's been since the home opener that the Tigers have struggled mightily to push runs across the plate. It just seems so hard for them right now. If they're not hitting home runs, they're not scoring, and that's beyond disturbing.

So many can be indicted: Ryan Raburn; Austin Jackson (still); Will Rhymes; and several more. The team batting average says it all, along with the anemic on-base percentages that dot the roster.

MMM wants and expects the bats to heat up soon, or else.

Under the Microscope

Back by popular demand (because I said so) is UtM, where MMM calls out a player as being looked at very closely by the Tigers fan base for the moment, and why.

Is it any surprise that the year's first UtM "honoree" is CF Jackson?

A-Jax's woes continue and it's becoming the white elephant in the room. No one really wants to talk about it, but it's there, folks.

Jackson looks confused and bewildered, which might be OK if you're the family's crazy uncle, but not so endearing in your baseball team's starting center fielder and lead-off man.

That low rumbling you hear that is getting louder is the Tigers' fan base growing restless about Jackson. His average is an unsightly .170 after another 0-for-4 on Sunday.

MMM is starting to sound like a broken record: a struggling Jackson is directly proportional to a struggling team offense.

Upcoming: Mariners and White Sox

The Seattle Mariners should be the tonic for the Tigers' offensive struggles; the Mariners' pitching staff stinks. And Seattle's offense is even worse---dead last in the majors with a .214 batting average. Even Ichiro Suzuki is scuffling along at .254.

And---bonus---the Tigers will miss Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, who pitched on Saturday.

The Tigers MUST take advantage.

This weekend, the Chicago White Sox invade Comerica Park, and if a team has a worse bullpen right now than Ozzie Guillen's bunch, MMM would like to see it.

The Chisox have already blown six saves this season, which is almost unfathomable.

"I don't have a closer," Guillen said bluntly the other day.

After scraping and clawing to get back to .500, the Tigers have to do it all over again this week. The opportunity is there---with the bad Mariners and inconsistent White Sox on this week's menu.

That's all for this week's MMM. See you next week!


Friday, April 15, 2011

Tigers Need 2010 A-Jax to Reappear Quickly

It wasn't all that long ago that I issued a severe weather watch.

Not a warning---that's what you give when you see signs of brewage, like with a tornado---but a watch.

The directive was that Austin Jackson better have a good season, or else the Tigers offense would be working with one hand tied behind its back.

It was the opinion here that the second-year Jackson---not Miggy Cabrera or Magglio Ordonez or Victor Martines---is the most important brick in the team's offensive house.

If Jackson doesn't get on base with any consistency, I cautioned, then the Tigers' house of cards collapses. The theory was that any good offense is keyed and triggered by its leadoff man, and since that's Jackson's job, it's up to him to start setting the table for the big boys.

The "watch" part comes into play because this is Jackson's second year after a terrific rookie campaign, and those sophomores automatically are placed under watch.

Now we can upgrade the severe weather watch to a warning.

Jackson went 0-for-4 last night in the Tigers' 3-0 win over the Oakland A's. And this wasn't one of those hit-the-ball-hard-but-got-robbed kind of o-for-4s. This wasn't the case of a guy being snakebit for a night.

Jackson was 0-for-4 and looked every bit the part, flailing at pitches and not looking real comfortable at the dish. His batting average has sunk to .184, the strikeout total still elevated (16 in 49 AB). The conditions that were right for a second-year slump have now materialized.

Yes, the Tigers have won three in a row. But they haven't done so with a punishing offense. The team struggles to score runs on most nights, and it's impossible not to connect those team struggles with Jackson's personal ones.

For a leadoff hitter, the on-base percentage is the live-or-die statistic. If it were a person it would be Judge Joe Brown. There is no gray area when it comes to the OBP; you either have a good one, or you don't. And there are no mitigating circumstances.

Jackson's OBP is .259, sickly for even a No. 9 hitter. Or a pitcher.

As a result, the Tigers must scratch and claw for their runs, or wait for someone to hit a home run.

Even last night was an example---and the Tigers won.

The A's pitching staff issued an unsightly 11 walks---1o of them unintentional. Yet the Tigers couldn't scratch out a run until the seventh inning and used walks to edge ahead, 3-0 in the eighth inning.

An 11-walk affair ought to yield more than three piddly runs.

The lack of clutch hitting isn't all Jackson's fault, of course, but you can't help but wonder where the Tigers offense would be if today's Jackson was more like the 2010 Jackson who hovered at or above .300 most of the season.

You can turn a cross-eyed look at new Tiger Victor Martinez, too, who's barely above .200 and looking like he's trying too hard to impress.

But it's Jackson, I maintain, who holds the future of the Tigers offense in his sophomore hands.

Nothing that's happened in the first 13 games of the season has changed my mind. And it ought to convert others.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Monday Morning Manager 2011, Edition 2

Last week: 2-4
This week: TEX (4/11-13); at Oak (4/14-17)

So, What Happened?

Buzz saw, meet the Tigers; Tigers, meet the buzz saw.

MMM had an inkling the Tigers might have the kind of week they had, given the nagging feeling that a slow start was in the offing, and the fact that the opponents were two teams that were primed to cause trouble: the Orioles because of their resurgence, and the Royals because they always play the Tigers tough.

Sure enough, the Tigers found the competition to be more than adequate for their slippery paws to handle, and they stumbled to a 2-4 record for the week.

The Tigers played suspect defense (to be kind), didn't get much from their bullpen, and their bats went silent in the last two games against Kansas City.

It all added up to another .333 week, leaving the Tigers 3-6 for the season. And they are getting exactly what they deserve.

Hero of the Week

MMM is torn, because it was only one game out of six, but Justin Verlander gets the nod.

JV was stellar in Baltimore on Wednesday in a game the Tigers needed badly. A loss would have put them 1-4, and the O's would have been 5-0 and with confidence soaring going into the series finale. The Tigers might have come home 1-5 if not for Verlander, who shut the O's down with eight brilliant innings.

Verlander proved his status as the Tigers' horse and ace: he won a game the Tigers needed to have to stop the bleeding, and he did it convincingly. That's what your top gun pitcher is supposed to do, and he did it---big time.

MMM considered Jhonny Peralta, who's been swinging a smooth stick so far, but sadly, none of Jhonny's hits have really produced anything, other than a sweet batting average.

MMM also liked Phil Coke's start on Saturday.

Goat of the Week

MMM is going to indict Austin Jackson, who has limped out of the gate with an average that's less than his weight---and AJ's not a big guy.

Consider this tough love, because MMM loves Jackson.

Yet this is what was feared in this space---that Jackson would find Year 2 much more difficult than Year 1. If you recall, Jackson sprang from the starting block last year like his hair was on fire. This year is the polar opposite.

MMM is also cranky with the team's defense, which is leaving a lot to be desired. MMM has seen Little League teams play better with the glove than the Tigers have in these opening nine games.

The Tigers have been throwing the ball around recklessly and, apparently, aimlessly---and the pitchers are throwing wild pitches and wildly to first base during pick-off attempts.

Yes, the rubber wall that is catcher Alex Avila isn't helping, as many of these "wild pitches" are either passed balls, truthfully, or at the very least, maybe there should be a separate "assist" column for catchers when it comes to wild pitches. Because Avila would be leading the league in WPA right now.

The defense isn't as advertised----it's even worse.

Upcoming: Rangers and A's

Ahh, nothing like an 8-1 Texas team when you're struggling, eh?

That's who the Tigers face starting tonight at Comerica Park.

But again, here comes Verlander, who will start the opening game against Alexi Ogando, who was excellent in his last start against Seattle on April 5; he pitched six strong, surrendering just two hits and no runs.

Once again, the Tigers need Verlander to be the horse and get them (again!) a much-needed win. It's only April 11 and the Tigers have needed this kind of medicine twice already.

Then it's off to Oakland with no travel day (though Wednesday's series finale is an afternoon affair). The A's are 4-5 but they're no picnic in their ballpark.

The Oakland series is the start of one of those delightfully unpredictable west coast trips that you brace yourselves for, hoping for the best and expecting the worst.

This is, already, a crucial week for the Tigers. MMM knows you take comfort in seeing the Twins 3-6, and you're not too fazed by the Indians' 7-2 getaway, but these are seven big games. A bad week makes them 5-11 or something, and that's not cool.

They can start by not kicking and throwing the ball around. And scoring without the benefit of the long ball would be nice, too.

That's all for this week's MMM. See you next week!


Friday, April 08, 2011

Opening Day in Detroit Puts All Others to Shame

They have Opening Days in 30 big league ballparks every year but seeing as how we do it in Detroit, that's like comparing 29 high school productions of "Cats" to the real thing on Broadway.

There's Opening Day in Detroit and then there's a facsimile everywhere else.

It's the closest thing to an official holiday you'll find minus the governor's signature of approval.

It might not be quite like it was during the days of old Tiger Stadium, but we're so far ahead of the other burgs, it doesn't change our supreme status.

Opening Day is our baseball Mardi Gras. There's dancing in the streets, musicians jamming, people in costume, painted faces and young men and women acting with questionable judgment.

There are people from all over the state and surrounding states, converging on the Woodward corridor, zig-zagging from pub to pub, stopping to say hi to the tailgaters, lifting a plastic cup with something amber in it to friends and strangers alike.

There are more coolers downtown on Opening Day than at any seaside beach in the middle of summer.

The word "drink" is spelled with an Old English D. So is "Detroit." Or, simply, "The D," as we are taking to call ourselves.

It's the one day where you're excused if you're not a baseball fan, because EVERYONE is a baseball fan on Opening Day, so the point is moot. The overweight men in their Tigers jerseys pass the time with 12 ounces of something in their hand and giving a breathless take on why Brandon Inge is still the third baseman and fretting about the range of shortstop Jhonny Peralta and speaking in superlatives about Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.

Opening Day is a toddler with a Tigers bib and your great-granddad with a Tigers visor. Or vice-versa.

It's "Sorry, boss, I won't be in today" and the joke is, the boss never got the message because he/she is trolling around the ballpark, too.

Opening Day is the one baseball date of the year where people trudge downtown without a ticket to the game and with no intention of brokering one with a scalper. It's also the one date where those with tickets might never get out of the watering hole to actually present it at the turnstile.

It's booing the governor and the mayor and nowadays, sadly, it's also looking to the sky and winking at Ernie Harwell and Sparky Anderson.

They don't do Opening Day in the other big league towns like we do it in Detroit. Whether it's gray and drab, like today, or with bright and sunny skies, it doesn't matter---Sonny Eliot says it's beautiful outside.

The only place you'll see more RVs parked outside than you'll see on Opening Day is at MIS in Brooklyn.

Opening Day is red, white and blue bunting on the facades and roaring if the first pitch is a strike, gasping if it isn't and loving those creamy white home unis the Tigers wear in Detroit---still high baseball fashion and still classy.

Opening Day in Detroit is Sunday afternoons in Green Bay, spring break in Daytona and the Oktoberfest, rolled into one. And isn't it fitting that this year we play it the same weekend as the Masters? Because not even that hallowed event can touch Opening Day, and the Masters is a whole weekend.

We're serious about our Opening Days in Detroit. Calendars all over are circled as soon as the schedule is released by MLB. This year it's on a Friday, which is like leaving the kids in a candy store for the weekend and telling them to lock up when they leave.

Opening Day in Detroit. It's like no other. Or rather, no other is like Opening Day in Detroit. That's better.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Monday Morning Manager is Back!!

Another baseball season, another 26 weeks or so of the critically-acclaimed (work with me here) "Monday Morning Manager," my weekly take on the Tigers.

Like last year, the format will be: 1. So, what happened (a brief look back on the games played the previous week); 2. Hero of the Week (self-explanatory); 3. Goat of the Week (even more self-explanatory); 4. A Look Ahead (brief previews of the Tigers' upcoming opponents


Last week: 1-2
This week: at Bal (4/4, 4/6-7); KC (4/8-10)

So, What Happened?

You want to believe that the Tigers can hang with teams like the Yankees, who figure to be in the playoff mix again this year, but if the opening weekend was any indication, this might be a tall order.

But first, let's talk about Yankee Stadium, which is to ballparks what Verne Troyer is to people. The Yankees play in a mini-me ballpark. They don't have to be the Bronx Bombers---just the Bronx Bums---in order to hit one out of that bandbox.

The Yankees hit nine home runs in the three games, and about a third of them would have been caught in most other major league stadiums.

Still, the Tigers once again struggled a bit with runners in scoring position, though they did drive in two runners from third base with less than two outs in the opener. Austin Jackson still strikes out, Brennan Boesch still swings at anything within 10 feet of the plate (but it worked for him on Sunday) and Miguel Cabrera is still a beast.

Hero of the Week

I have to go with Boesch, who kept the Yankees at bay Sunday by going 4-for-4 with a homer and four RBI. Cabrera hit two taters early, but Boesch was good all game long in helping to give the Tigers a much-needed win.

You think three games is nothing in a 162-game schedule? Then close your eyes and imagine the 0-3 Tigers starting a series in Baltimore today against the 3-0 Orioles. Not a pleasant image, is it?

Boesch is a free-swinger, but pity the pitcher who makes a mistake against this kid. His home run swing was majestic and very pre-All-Star Game Boesch-like. Yes, that's a lot of hyphens but I don't know of any other way to say it.

Goat of the Week

Like Mike Rosenberg said in the Free Press, starting pitcher Brad Penny didn't come close to doing what starters are charged with doing: giving their team a chance to win. Penny gave up eight runs and the Tigers never really had a chance in their nationally-televised game on Saturday.

That said, I thought Rosenberg made a little much of one game; Penny had a bad outing, but look who he was facing, and look where the game was played.

The Tigers had a bit of a rough weekend in the Bronx, but if I had to pick on one guy, I'm picking on Penny. The game was on national TV, the Tigers had a chance to get the bad taste of Opening Day out of their mouth, and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees starter, had an ERA of over 5.00 in 2010. But the Tigers never had a chance, thanks to Penny's fat pitches.

Upcoming: Orioles and Royals

The Orioles were one of the best teams in baseball last summer after making Buck Showalter their manager, and they are 3-0 after sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays over the weekend---in Tampa.

Too bad they play in a division that's dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox.

But the Orioles will be celebrating their home opener today and this isn't an easy team to play anymore.

The Royals are 3-1 after taking care of business at home against the Angels. And they KCers always play the Tigers tough, a tradition that's been going on since they ruined the Tigers' party on the last weekend of the 2006 season.

An interesting week ahead against two teams normally used as doormats for the rest of the American League.

Enjoy the home opener on Friday!

That's all for this week's MMM. See you next week!


Friday, April 01, 2011

After Game 1, Tigers Fans Already Making Avila Their Punching Bag

Sixth-tenths of one percent of the Tigers 2011 season has been played, and already it's a long one for catcher Alex Avila.

If one game is any indication, the team's fan base and some folks in the media have targeted the 24-year-old Avila as the Tigers' whipping boy for 2011.

Avila might be the new Neifi Perez, the latest Jason Grilli.

Avila is being singled out as a symbol for all that ails the Tigers organization, if you were to listen to the crank yankers on cell phones who called in to 97.1 The Ticket yesterday after the Tigers' Opening Day loss to the Yankees.

Because of his being the son of Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, the younger Avila has even a bigger target on his back.

Avila, after a game in which he struck out three times and failed to block a couple of pitches that enabled Yankees runners to move ahead on the base paths, was propped up as a symptom of the Tigers woes in their personnel department, i.e. lack of depth at crucial positions like catcher.

The wolves were out after yesterday's game, and most of their anger was directed toward Avila, who becomes the Tigers' full-time catcher by default, with the departure of Gerald Laird and with free agent signee Victor Martinez slated to be more DH than backstop.

Avila got it from all fronts---from his lack of defensive acumen to his limp noodle bat to the suspected nepotism factor.

By listening to the callers, you'd have thunk that Avila gave up the three-run homer to Mark Teixeira in the third inning, served up the go-ahead rocket by Curtis Granderson, and was at the plate for every one of the at-bats in which the Tigers failed to drive in a run from scoring position.

Even The Ticket's Mike Valenti and Terry Foster got into the act, using terms like "if Avila doesn't turn this thing around..."

The game was played on March 31. What will this bloodthirsty mob be like by Memorial Day? Heck, even Easter?

Avila shouldn't have even been in the lineup, period---according to many of the haters. That actually has a shred of reasoning to it, because the lefty-swinging Avila clearly looked overmatched by the southpaw Yankees starter CC Sabathia.

Another point that is well taken is the one about the Tigers' lack of depth at catcher, which has been going on since before the team signed Pudge Rodriguez prior to the 2004 season. Precious few prospects have been milled at catcher in the Dave Dombrowski Era. The last decent one that came from the Tigers farm system was Brandon Inge, the team's current third baseman.

Since then, it's been the likes of Dane Sardinha, Max St. Pierre and Mike Rabelo.

The Tigers haven't been able to figure out how to grow catchers, and as I feared would happen once Rodriguez left, that has caught up to them.

Which isn't young Alex Avila's fault, of course. The kid is learning on the fly, and the fact is that he is improving, albeit with tiny steps. He had a bad day yesterday, as all big leaguers do from time to time.

But the early indication is that Alex Avila is under the microscope this year, and if he gets off to a tortoise-like start, it could get ugly around Comerica Park. This is a town that still fondly recalls not only Pudge, but Lance Parrish and even Bill Freehan. Mike Heath, right now, is even looking like Johnny Bench.

It was one game, and the overreaction was almost laughable. Not only about Avila, but about Jim Leyland, and Valenti even gently scolded Justin Verlander, who I thought pitched himself out of trouble admirably, albeit trouble of his own making.

It was 1/162 of the season, and at this rate, if the fans don't pace themselves, they'll be curled up in a fetal position, gasping for air, before all the Easter Egg hunts start happening around town.