Saturday, January 28, 2012

Inge Again Left Out in Cold After Fielder Signing

He has been, in a way, the Rasputin of the Tigers. Or the poetic feline who possesses nine lives. Take your pick.

They’ve tried running Brandon Inge out of town for about eight years now. It’s all been done to him—free agents and trade acquisitions arriving to play his position (twice), talk radio blazing with anti-Inge venom. The Tigers even designated him for assignment last summer, and traded for a replacement: Wilson Betemit.

Betemit has been signed by the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent. And Inge not only survived his DFA, he made it all the way back to the Tigers’ playoff roster.

Betemit, the man the Tigers traded for to take Brandon Inge’s spot on the roster, is gone. And Inge is still here. Figure that one out.

Nature even tried to nudge Inge out of Detroit, vis a vis the infamous bout of mononucleosis that befell him last year, which was likely a factor in his woeful performance at the plate.

Yet here Inge was, as recently as last week, boldly and gamely speaking of seizing, once again, his cherished spot at third base.

He declared himself healthy, and, frankly, a little ticked off.

“I love Don Kelly,” Inge told the media during the Tigers Winter Caravan last week, speaking of the man he was slated to platoon with at the hot corner. “But I don’t intend on platooning.”

Inge, the player who many Tigers fans either hate to love or love to hate, looked to be working on yet another life wearing the Old English D.

Then came the news that rocked the baseball world.

It started spilling out on Twitter shortly after 3:00 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.

Prince Fielder, the Herculean free agent first baseman, had been signed by the Tigers. For nine years, at a cost of $214 million.

Inge again became collateral damage, because in order to make room for Fielder—no fat jokes, please—the Tigers planned on moving incumbent first sacker Miguel Cabrera to (drum roll please) third base.

Rim shot!

They’re doing it again to Brandon Inge.

The first time this happened was eight years ago, when the Tigers, coming off a 43-119 debacle, managed to snare free agent catcher Pudge Rodriguez.

Inge was the Tigers’ catcher back then.

Despite Pudge’s Hall of Fame credentials, Inge, with a sour puss, whined about the acquisition. Inge thought himself fit to be the team’s starting catcher, despite a batting average hovering around .200 in 2003.

Inge pointed to his defense, which he felt was akin to Rodriguez’s at the time.

I thought Inge to be a petulant young player back then, with the way he reacted to the (at the time) gargantuan news of Pudge’s signing.

Then in spring training 2008, Inge, the Tigers’ starting third baseman at the time, was displaced by the winter time acquisition of Miguel Cabrera. On Opening Day, Inge found himself in center field, of all places. Soon he was back behind the plate, playing a position he thought he’d left for good after he fell in love with third base.

Meanwhile, the Tigers kept playing musical chairs with their glove men.

Cabrera moved from third base to first base after 14 games. Carlos Guillen switched from first to third. Inge kept catching, and would replace Guillen in the late innings at third base.

Guillen didn’t play after August 25 that year, so Inge reclaimed third base.

In 2009, Inge was an All-Star third baseman, and played the second half of the season on two ravaged knees.

2011 was a disaster for Inge. He didn’t have his health or his strength, and soon he didn’t even have a spot on the Tigers roster. He was roasted daily on sports talk radio. Even after being designated for assignment in July, Inge refused to leave the Tigers, accepting the assignment rather than becoming a free agent. He ended up in Toledo, which wasn’t far enough away for the haters’ liking.

It looked like the end of Inge’s Tigers career. If you were interested in sports betting---click here to see what I mean---you'd have thought Inge was done in Detroit, because the team traded for Betemit. Inge was a minor leaguer, his teammates mostly 10 years younger than he, or more.

Yet I wondered aloud on “The Knee Jerks” podcast in mid-August whether the Tigers might call Inge back to the big club when rosters expanded on September 1. Wouldn’t it be something, I opined, if Inge returned to the Tigers and became productive?

The Tigers indeed recalled Inge—on August 20, making him eligible for the playoff roster. Leading off the second inning, taking his first hacks as a Tiger in a month, Inge clobbered a home run. The man fans hate to love and love to hate, got a curtain call.

That game on August 20 was the first of four multi-hit games Inge would register as he got stronger and more productive. Rasputin was still alive.

As the Tigers winter caravan rolled on last week, Inge spoke eagerly about the upcoming season, being healthy and all.

Then came the Fielder signing, and Inge was knocked for a loop yet again.

As manager Jim Leyland put it the other day, Inge is “not the happiest camper” in the wake of the news of Fielder’s blockbuster, totally unforeseen signing.

Leyland told the media at the Fielder press conference on Thursday that he wishes he could have broken the news to Inge personally, instead of the latter finding out the way the rest of us found out.

Normally it wouldn’t matter what a guy who hit .197 last season thinks about player personnel moves. It wouldn’t matter if that player found out by TV, radio, Pony Express or by messenger pigeon.

But there’s something about this crazy, mixed up relationship between Brandon Inge and the Detroit Tigers. And, by extension, the fan base.

It’s a relationship that keeps all parties off balance. Just when Inge thinks he has it made, the rug gets pulled out from under him. And just when the Inge haters who follow the Tigers think they’re rid of him, he re-emerges.

Frankly, I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my 41 years of following and covering Detroit sports.

Brandon Inge has, yet again, been nudged out of the picture, and this time there isn’t center field or catcher waiting as a consolation prize.

Even though Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said Inge “is still an important part of this team,” it’s hard to see how, with Cabrera moving to third base and Alex Avila entrenched at catcher.

Lots of Tigers fans couldn’t care less if Inge is “not the happiest camper” right now. They’re too giddy about Prince Fielder. Duly noted, and understood.

With Brandon Inge, it always seems like there’s someone else. Then it always seems like it’s him again. This has been going on for eight years now.

To quote the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tigers' Surprise Signing of Prince Fielder Likely Dotted With Ilitch's Fingerprints

Victor Martinez's name just got wiped off the front pages as if it had been written on a dry erase board.

There have been some shocking free agent signings in baseball since Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally unleashed the genie from the bottle back in 1975.

But the Tigers signing of Prince Fielder today caused more gasps than the first audience that ever saw a lady being sawed in two.

This wasn't only unexpected, it was dismissed---by the very same man who consummated the deal.

Tigers President and GM Dave Dombrowski, just last week, said the Tigers wouldn't be getting involved in the Fielder sweepstakes because of the longevity Prince would be seeking, despite the Tigers needing a bat to replace Martinez, lost for the 2012 season with a torn up knee.

Yet there it was, around 3:00 pm ET today: the news breaking with some salvos fired from Twitter, that the Tigers dug deep and snared Fielder for nine years, to the tune of $214 million.

This is "man bites dog" kind of stuff. Jimmy Hoffa was found---alive. Smoking doesn't cause cancer.

Already it's being speculated that Dombrowski wasn't the real trigger man here. Owner Mike Ilitch, it is being said, stepped up to the plate, so to speak.

If that's true, then the octogenarian owner just knocked one into the seats.

You wanted protection for Miguel Cabrera, in the wake of the Martinez injury? You wanted a left-handed stick to complement Miggy's right-handed one?

Well, here comes Prince, complete with a navy blue and orange bow tied around his big belly.

Fielder is a Tiger, the second Fielder to be one. And Prince is even better than the first one---and the first one was pretty damn good.

Fielder is a first baseman, as you all know. The Tigers currently employ a pretty good one, if you recall.

No worries. It's likely that Cabrera will move across the diamond to play third base, which would be the highest-profile sports move in Detroit since the Pistons fled to the Silverdome.

The Fielder signing comes from left field, to use yet another baseball term. But it ends at first base, which is where Prince will be entrenched. Reports say that the Tigers consulted with Cabrera about the signing before handing Prince the magic pen.

Miggy, those reports say, gave his blessing.

Why wouldn't he? He has a bona fide elite slugger hitting behind him. He now has more protection than a Sicilian store owner paying the Mob.

Prince Fielder to the Tigers. Nine years, $214 million. Mr. Ilitch continues to spend his kids' inheritance.

Think the Hot-n-Ready pizzas will stay at five bucks?

I think it's highly likely that Ilitch shoved Dombrowski aside, so to speak, and ponied up the pizza dough to sign Prince.

Ilitch is past 80 years of age and he's coming up on the 20th anniversary of buying the Tigers. Lord knows he had no idea he'd be 20 years into this and have next to nothing to show for it, except for a division title and two playoff appearances.

I'm guessing the owner thought he'd have a few World Series trophies in his case by now.

But it hasn't happened. The Tigers made it to the Fall Classic in 2006, and saw their 2011 hopes dashed when too many of their guys tried to play while held together by baling wire and duct tape.

Then came news of the Martinez injury, suffered nearly two weeks ago during some agility drills.

V-Mart gone---for the season.

It was the biggest slug in the gut in Detroit since Houdini.

But here's one way to mourn and grieve the loss of such a key player as Martinez: simply go out and buy an even bigger star.

Since when did the Tigers start wearing pinstripes?

Ilitch is acting like the Mike Ilitch of the pre-NHL lockout days, when he could wait for the clock to turn midnight on July 1st each summer and fork over the money for Kenny Holland to snag the free agent star du jour.

It was all so easy, and fun, back then. Stanley Cups were the payout for such largesse investments.

But back to Ilitch and his age.

It may be that the length of Fielder's contract outlives the man who signed off on it. I know that sounds morbid but it's very possible.

Mike Ilitch wants to win a World Series in the worst way. He's more driven than most owners, because most baseball owners didn't live through World War II; actually, most of them weren't even born then.

Age can be a big motivator, along with fear. They sometimes go hand in hand, like in this case. Mike Ilitch is scared to death of not winning baseball's biggest trophy before he passes.

The owner has done this before. He stepped in and got involved, enabling Dombrowski to trade for Cabrera in December 2007.

That has worked out pretty good so far.

But the brass ring has eluded Ilitch, with his baseball team.

So he broke out 214 million ways to try to resolve that.

When does spring training start?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

V-Mart's Loss Tough, But There's Still a Season to Play

The knee is an unpredictable and petulant joint---one that can take an inordinate amount of pounding, twisting and extending, then can buckle and tear while performing much less strenuous activities.

We've had some famous knees in Detroit sports.

Nick Eddy was a hard-running, even harder working running back for the Lions in the late-1960s. A star at Notre Dame, Eddy started suffering knee injuries while playing under the Golden Dome. Those injuries followed him from South Bend to Detroit.

Eddy tried as hard as any human being could, to keep himself healthy and being available to tote footballs for the Lions. But his knees betrayed him, and his pro career never really got going.

Billy Sims took a pitch in Minneapolis one fateful Sunday in 1984 and swept to his left. A Vikings linebacker named Walker Lee Ashley leveled his helmet at Sims' knee and blew it up. It was the last carry of Sims' mercurial NFL career, after just four-plus years.

Mark Fidrych shagged fly balls in Lakeland in spring training, 1977, despite the warnings of teammate Rusty Staub. The clairvoyant Staub was right. Fidrych landed awkwardly on his right knee and "felt something slushy"---words he used to me as I spoke to The Bird via phone in 2007.

The "slushy" feeling turned out to be ligament damage, and contributed greatly to Fidrych not only missing most of the '77 season, but indirectly causing him to overcompensate and develop arm trouble, from which he would never recover.

And who can ever forget the torture and pain that Steve Yzerman put himself through during the 2002 playoffs, his knee so ravaged that he would have to undergo highly unorthodox reconstructive surgery during the off-season? But the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, so mission accomplished, in the Captain's eyes.

This after Yzerman, in 1988, slammed into the goal post the night he scored his 50th goal against Buffalo at Joe Louis Arena, knocking him out for the remainder of the season and the first two rounds of the playoffs.

So we know a little about daunting knee injuries in this town.

But these things are like deaths in the family---no matter how many times you experience it, the next one isn't any easier to cope with.

The news of Victor Martinez's major knee injury, the one that will likely cause him to miss the entire 2012 season, was something I caught in a "wait, what?" fashion.

I had the TV muted and was peeking in on the Red Wings game, during intermission. On the screen was a graphic, and it had V-Mart's photo and it said something about missing the entire 2012 season.

Wait, what?

Surely I must have read it wrong. Or so I hoped.

The news was all too true.

That petulant knee, again.

Martinez, it turns out, was doing some agility drills as he prepared for his second season as a Tiger. No doubt the drills he did have been performed by tens of thousands of athletes in the past.

A slip of the foot and a knee buckle later, and the Tigers, just like that, lost a .330 hitter who drove in 103 runs last year, and who was invaluable as a consummate pro and teammate.

Players of Victor Martinez's ilk simply don't grow on trees.

So as the Tigers---and their fan base---try to come to terms with the news of Martinez's expected 2012 absence, it helps to keep expectations to a realistic level.

Meaning, you ain't replacing V-Mart with another V-Mart.

There are plenty of free agent options available. GM Dave Dombrowski's cell phone just about blew up in the hours after Martinez's injury was made public fodder, with calls from agents of players looking for work.

You've heard the names, over and over, by now.

Is there a Martinez on the list?

The closest is Prince Fielder, and while it's intriguing to imagine Cecil's kid accepting a one-year deal in Detroit before testing the market again for 2013 and beyond, it'll take a boatload of cash and quite a payroll hit to make that happen. Not likely to transpire, but fun to think about.

The next closest, perhaps, is Vlad Guerrero, coming off a so-so season in Baltimore.

The rest of the list contains some acceptable names, but not all of them would one consider to be enough protection behind Miguel Cabrera. In fact, few of them would be.

So the Tigers have to realize that they just won't go out and pluck another V-Mart from the tree.

Guerrero would be a fine addition. He is strictly a DH at this stage of his career, so in that way he's a tit-for-tat replacement for Martinez, who even before this latest injury wasn't going to play in the field anymore---not with the Tigers signing Gerald Laird to be catcher Alex Avila's backup.

But Vlad won't hit .330, and he's not a switch-hitter, another thing that Victor has over the available free agents.

Still, a Guerrero who can hit for power but not threaten .300 would make opposing managers at least think twice before issuing Cabrera the four-finger pass.

My money is on the Tigers signing Guerrero for a year.

The next step in the coping/grieving process is to find perspective.

Yes, the Tigers lost a major cog to the machine when Martinez's foot slipped and his knee exploded. No, they cannot hope to totally replace all that V-Mart brings to the table, on the field and off.

So what would you have them do, wave the white flag, a month before pitchers and catchers report? You want Dombrowski to throw up his hands and say, "Well, we might as well not even play the games this year"?

No. This is baseball. Teams lose star players to injury all the time, and often times, if they're good enough, they overcome those injuries.

If losing Victor Martinez was the only thing the other teams in the AL Central needed in order to bridge the 15-game gap between the Tigers and the second place Cleveland Indians, then the pessimists are right---may as well not even play the games this year.

But Martinez isn't the only reason the Tigers ran away and hid from their Central brethren in 2011.

This is another bad knee injury that has slugged this city's sports fans, and it didn't even happen during a game. In a way, that makes this even worse. The least Martinez could have done was get hurt actually playing baseball.

Last I checked, the Tigers still have 162 games to play this season. Last I checked, they were runaway winners of their division.

See you in Lakeland.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Zoom-Zooming Out of Motown

Last we saw Joel Zumaya on a big league diamond, he was throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at Comerica Park. He acknowledged the big cheers, and for the briefest of moments, it was 2006 all over again.

But the more resonating image of Zumaya, the fireballing reliever, was of him writhing on the ground in Minnesota in the summer of 2010, his elbow broken after delivering one of his violent pitches.

Who could forget it, if you were watching on television?

The tears of pain, the twitching of his fingers as Zumaya clutched his right elbow, apparently even having trouble breathing.

I know I'll never forget it.

Zumaya's dramatic end to his 2010 season was not unlike that of Dave Dravecky, whose left arm snapped and was left dangling after a pitch in 1989. Dravecky's arm was eventually amputated.

Dravecky's situation was cancer-related, but the image was still the same: pitcher throws baseball, pitcher is suddenly rolling around on the ground in massive pain.

Now it appears that Zumaya has thrown his last pitch---as a Tiger.

Looks like the Tigers aren't interested in bringing Zumaya, a free agent, back into the fold---even after a showcase in front of MLB teams in Houston appeared to go well for the 27-year-old.

Tom Gage of the Detroit News wrote that Zumaya could end up signing with his hometown San Diego Padres.

Fine by me, if the Tigers won't bite, because the last thing Tigers fans want to see is Zumaya in the American League, haunting them.

The comparisons have been made to Mark Fidrych, and there's some of that, for sure.

Both were 21 year-old rookies when they took the baseball world by storm. Both had magical seasons, which were exactly 30 years apart. Both then fell victim to injuries (each had fluke ones) and had difficulty recapturing their prior glory. And both, of course, pitched for the Tigers.

But the book on Fidrych has long ago been closed. Zumaya still has time to distance himself from The Bird.

It's just not likely to happen as a Tiger.

The Tigers have their late inning bullpen all set, at least on paper.

They signed Octavio Dotel, a veteran of 13 MLB teams, to handle the seventh inning. Joaquin Benoit handles the eighth inning. And Jose Valverde closes things.

There's Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth for left-handed variety. And don't forget righty Al Alburquerque, he of the wicked slider, but who is battling arm troubles of his own.

There simply isn't room for an arm with a checkered past, i.e. Zumaya.

I wish Joel Zumaya well, obviously. I'm sure the rest of Tigers Nation is with me, even if it looks like his career will resume with another team---if it resumes at all.

There's still time for him to silence the Mark Fidrych talk.

I hope he does.