Monday, February 27, 2012

Zumaya Has Simple, Yet Difficult Choice To Make

They came to Lakeland six Februarys ago---two restless kid pitchers already fed up with the bus rides and playing in leagues referenced by the frequency of the letter "A." One was 21 years old, the other 23.

The Tigers were still not over the nightmare of 2003, when they lost 119 games. Management had canned sacrificial lamb manager Alan Trammell, giving Tram the ziggy once their use for him dissipated.

Trammell was the transitional manager and Tigers hero, used by the team to navigate through treacherous waters until an infusion of genuine big league talent arrived. Then Trammell, never given a chance of winning, would be cashiered and another, more experienced manager could be brought in.

Jim Leyland was that new manager in 2006. Older, more experienced, grizzled---that cliche word.

The grizzled (ah!) Leyland was effusive in his praise of his two young guns---the 21-year-old Joel Zumaya and the 23-year-old Justin Verlander, two right-handed fireballers.

But would the praise be enough to keep them on the 25-man roster that would be heading north in April? One was a reliever. The other, a starter. Would they stay, or would they play for Toledo?

Leyland, with a wink to the media, held off on telling Zumaya and Verlander whether they had made the club until the last minute before the 25-man list had to be submitted. In a devilishly sadistic way, Leyland enjoyed watching his kid pitchers squirm. It was all in good fun---for the skipper.

Then the news came. Zumaya and Verlander would both be breaking camp with the big league team. No more bus rides, lousy food and bumpy infields for them.

Neither pitcher made Leyland's decision look foolish. Zumaya made the seventh inning---the seventh inning---fun again, blazing 100 mph fastballs past big league hitters. Verlander showed amazing composure as a starter, also with a blazing fastball among his repertoire.

The two young guns helped lead the Tigers to the 2006 World Series. Verlander was the official AL Rookie of the Year. Zumaya was probably someone's ROY, somewhere. He might have been the fans', for sure, who were enamored with his triple digits on the radar gun at Comerica Park, even if it was trumped up on occasion (shhh).

Now it's 2012 and Verlander has continued on the path to greatness, entering his seventh season as a big league starter. His accomplishments by age 29 are mind-boggling.

And Zumaya?

The words screamed at me as I read my Sunday paper.

"Zumaya lost for season," was included in the headline.

It was another slug in the gut, even though Zumaya was no longer a Tiger and instead a member of the rival Minnesota Twins, who signed him to an incentive-filled, one-year deal this winter.

I still felt sick for him, even if he was in an enemy camp.

More elbow trouble for Zumaya---after just 13 pitches during a workout over the weekend.

The prognosis is of the bottom line variety: Tommy John surgery; no ifs, ands or buts about it.

It's either that, or retirement. The options have boiled down to those for the 27-year-old Zumaya.


Who retires at age 27? Not even a punch drunk boxer does that.

Zumaya, reports say, will take a day or two to discuss his future with his family, which is the only faction of people he ought to discuss it with.

The options are simple, but also incredibly difficult to wrestle with.

Do the surgery and put himself through another exhaustive, long rehab, or hang up his mitt.

That's it.

Zumaya, it is said, is intrigued by those pitchers who have found success after Tommy John surgery---and older pitchers at that. But he's also unsure whether he has another long rehab left in him, both physically and mentally.

Well, of course he's unsure.

Joel Zumaya has been coming back from one thing or another since 2007.

His last big league pitch came, ironically, in Minnesota in the summer of 2010, when he broke his elbow in a frightening and sickening scene.

On pitch number 13---yeah, 13 (how appropriate)---in his first official throwing session of spring training for the Twins, Zumaya felt pain. He walked off the mound, maybe for good.

Afterward, Twins GM Terry Ryan said of signing Zumaya, "It was a risk. It didn't work out."

Note that Ryan spoke in past tense, and in certainty---that Zumaya was through, done.

We'll see in a couple days whether Ryan was premature in his comments, or dead on.

What different paths that were taken by the two young kids who showed up to Tigers camp in 2006, eh?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Will Success Spoil Tigers' Rock Star Verlander?

Classify this under the “Time really flies, doesn’t it?” department.

Justin Verlander is about to begin his seventh big-league baseball season. You heard me. Seventh. But that should be of no bother to Verlander, who’s approached his career as if he was trying to experience everything it can offer before age 30.

It’s as if Verlander, the Tigers' ace, came to Lakeland six Februaries ago armed with a bucket list—and age 30 was the drop-dead date, so to speak.

Win Rookie of the Year. Done.

Pitch in the playoffs. Done.

Pitch in a World Series. Done.

Make the All-Star team. Done.

Pitch a no-hitter. Done, and done—and almost done a couple more times.

Win the Cy Young award. Done.

Win a League MVP award. Done.

Be the ace of the Tigers' staff. Done, like dinner.

Anything else?

Well, you know what’s not been accomplished yet? It’s that thing that prompted owner Mike Ilitch to bust open another piggy bank and sign Prince Fielder.

Verlander has pretty much done it all, except be part of a World Series-winning team.

He’s only 29, however. He still has the 2012 season in which to do that, and knock off his list by age 30.

After that, it’s all gravy.

Verlander is back in Lakeland for spring training number seven, and by all appearances, he’s relaxed, confident and playful.

Last year at this time, Verlander spoke of the small monkey on his back—the one that represented slow starts in April. He was, frankly, tired of starting every season like a distance runner with an anvil attached to his ankle.

So he put his mind to working hard, focusing even harder and treating the normally benign spring training games as if they were happening in September, with a pennant race in full gear.

No more molasses starts for him.

It worked, for the most part. Verlander racked up a couple of April wins for a change. His ERA for the month didn’t look like the price of a New York breakfast.

Another mission accomplished.

But then Verlander followed up his strong April with a garlic-like rest of the season.

Quite simply, Verlander didn’t lose the rest of the season. And I almost mean that literally. From May 1 to the end of the season, Verlander went 22-2. It was Denny McLain, 1968-ish.

Oops. Sorry. But the comparison to McLain is apt in this case, even if it makes your stomach turn a little.

McLain had swagger and confidence when he showed up to Lakeland in 1969, coming off his 31-6 campaign. Denny spent part of the offseason touring the country, playing the organ and showing up on the late-night talk shows.

Of course, those shows were hosted by the likes of Johnny Carson and Tony Bishop, but we’re talking 43 years ago.

McLain was the first man to win 30 games since Dizzy Dean in 1934, and while it took 34 years for it to happen again, we’re at 43 years post-McLain and no one has really come close to doing it again. Likely, Dennis Dale McLain will go down as the last of the 30-game winners.

Like Verlander, McLain was the undisputed ace of the Tigers' staff. Like Verlander, McLain won the AL MVP and Cy Young awards in 1968.

See? An apt comparison.

McLain followed his ’68 season with another good one in 1969. He won 24 games and shared the Cy Young Award with Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar.

After that, it all went to pot for Denny. Actually, some of it went to cocaine. And racketeering. And embezzlement. It wasn’t pretty, as you know.

McLain was 24 years old when he had his magical season in 1968. By 29, he was out of baseball. By his early 30s, he was trying to outrun the law.

Comparison to Verlander, no longer apt.

But here’s what is apt: wondering how Verlander will respond in 2012 to all the heady stuff that happened last season and throughout the fall and winter.

Verlander appears on the cover of MLB 2K12, the video game. He’s in commercials with swimsuit models, also for 2K12. He looked dapper and comfortable telling funny stories on Conan O’Brien’s TV show this winter. He revealed an odd—but apparently successful—pre-start Taco Bell diet, which no doubt delighted the T-Bell marketing department.

And now he’s in Lakeland, the seriousness of the upcoming baseball season approaching, and he’s seen clowning with new instructor and former teammate Kenny Rogers—having fun and enjoying his now cemented status as one of the top young guns in baseball.

The Tigers even cajoled Verlander to place a call to free-agent fireballer Roy Oswalt, in an effort to convince Oswalt to sign with Detroit.

So how does Verlander handle all this stuff?

It’s a question that doesn’t so much concern me as it does fascinate me.

No Tigers pitcher has come off a season and offseason as Justin Verlander is right now since, well, Denny McLain in 1969.

Jack Morris, the Tigers ace of the 1980s, never won a Cy Young Award or an MVP, but he did win a World Series and started in an All-Star Game. He was the undisputed ace, but Morris wasn’t a media darling. He didn’t have the Hollywood good looks that Verlander has, or the magnetic personality.

The media was quite content to leave the snarling Morris alone from October through January. And he was happy to be left alone.

Morris did his talking on the mound, which was fine.

Verlander does that, too, but he is the Tigers’ rock star, on top of being their best pitcher. He’s handsome, jovial and easy to talk to. He’s developing a sense of humor that he delivers with a wink to the media.

It is quite possible, maybe even damned likely, that Verlander won’t replicate, in 2012, what he did last year. He may never, period.

Every superstar player/pitcher, if you look at their year-by-year stats, has that one season that sticks out among all the rest. Sometimes it happens early in a career, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes even late. But it happens.

Verlander may have had “that” year in 2011.

He’d trade it all for a World Series ring. Every one of them would.

Denny McLain has one of those, by the way. Not that it did him any good.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Batting First and Playing Left (or Right) Field...

There have been, by my count, three Brennan Boesches who’ve worn No. 26 for the Tigers since 2010.

There was the hotter-than-a-firecracker Boesch who burst onto the scene in May 2010, rocketing moon shots into the baseball night, exhibiting that classic, smooth uppercut lefty swing that has been the trademark of everyone from Willie Stargell to Ken Griffey Jr. to Josh Hamilton.

That Boesch, the first one, hit the tar out of the baseball and for a time was so impervious to big league pitching that manager Jim Leyland nestled him behind perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera in the batting order.

For a short time, Boesch provided some decent protection for Cabrera. No one knew how to pitch this kid Boesch, who hails from California, where so many of the baseball greats have called home. That’s partly because the kids in California are able to wield baseball bats even in the wintertime, instead of shovels.

At the All-Star break of 2010, Boesch No. 1 had American League pitching as his oyster. He was seeing the baseball as if it were as big as that spheroid the folks used to blow up and knock around the center field bleachers at Tiger Stadium.

Boesch, some felt at the time, was a lock for Rookie of the Year honors.

But after the break, Brennan Boesch No. 1 had been stashed away somewhere and replaced by a doppelganger—Brennan Boesch No. 2.

This Boesch was an evil twin. Rather, a wretched one.

Boesch No. 2 couldn’t have hit the ball even if it was placed on a tee.

His numbers sank faster than Newt Gingrich’s in Florida leading up to the primary. He struck out more than the class nerd looking for prom dates.

The second Boesch was a combination of Mr. Magoo, 2011 Adam Dunn and the last kid picked in gym class.

The protection for Cabrera went from Brinks to Barney Fife, almost overnight.

The second Boesch trudged home to California after the 2010 season forced to prove himself worthy to be on the 2011 Tigers. His roster spot, when the Tigers gathered in Lakeland last February, was hardly a given.

Thankfully, here came Brennan Boesch No. 3.

Boesch III made the Tigers quite easily. He was one of the best hitters in camp. Two games after Opening Day in New York, Boesch III went 4-for-4, including a home run, and had four RBI. He also scored four runs.

Boesch III played with a quiet confidence. He didn’t have any more of the first-year jitters that doomed Boesch No. 2. The silky smooth uppercut lefty swing was back.

It was nothing more than rotten luck that took Boesch III away from the Tigers prematurely last year.

A stubborn thumb injury, suffered in August, was the only thing that derailed him. This time it wasn’t pie eyes or a feeling of being overwhelmed by big league pitching that shook Boesch back to Earth.

The Tigers cruised to the AL Central title with Boesch in the dugout, cheering instead of playing.

But don’t let that fool you. Don’t let the fact that the Tigers ran away from the pack with a perfectly-timed 12-game winning streak in September make you think that Boesch III wasn’t integral to the team’s success.

That much was evident in the playoffs.

Oh, what might have been, had the Tigers had Boesch III available to them as they tried to slug it out with the Texas Rangers in the ALCS.

Boesch wasn’t the only Tiger who was either lost entirely or less than full strength in the postseason, but he was among the most important.

As the Tigers prepare to gather once again in Lakeland in a couple weeks, Boesch has no concerns as to whether he will be on the team on Opening Day. Boesch III put those fears to rest.

But I submit that there should be some more question marks surrounding Boesch, only this time it has nothing to do with having confidence in him as a big league hitter.

I propose that the Tigers create a fourth Boesch.

Leyland has told the media ad nauseam that he has written many, many lineups down on paper following the season-ending knee injury to Victor Martinez, both before and after the Tigers signed Prince Fielder. That’s nothing new; Leyland loves to jot lineups down. If Leyland were a scientist, he’d be of the mad variety, working in a dusty cellar surrounded by beakers of various colored liquids.

Sadly, it appears that every lineup has Austin Jackson leading off, unless Leyland is keeping something to himself.

This is where Boesch IV comes in.

Few in Tigers Nation are thrilled with the prospects of another year of Jackson, the nifty center fielder, starting games by striking out.

The Tigers must have led the league in having their No. 2 hitters walking past their leadoff hitter going from the on deck circle to the batter’s box.

Jackson shouldn’t be batting leadoff any more than Ben Wallace should be the Pistons’ new starting point guard.

Why not make Boesch the new leadoff hitter?

Dump Jackson down to ninth, where he belongs.

Boesch IV, the leadoff version, will likely hit .270-plus, start the occasional game with a home run, and—most importantly—he won’t strike out 175 times. He’s got some speed, is a competent base runner and he won’t strike out 175 times. He’ll get on base with surprising frequency. Did I mention that he won’t strike out 175 times?

Indulge me for a moment. This time, I’m jotting down a lineup.

Boesch RF/DH

Peralta/Dirks SS/LF/RF

Cabrera 3B

Fielder 1B

Young DH/LF

Avila C

Dirks/Peralta LF/RF/SS

Raburn 2B

Jackson CF

Actually, I don’t care what Leyland does with spots two through eight, as long as he gives my Boesch at leadoff/Jackson at ninth thing a try.

A fourth Brennan Boesch?

So far, we’re 2-1 with Boesches. I say we try for 3-of-4.