Monday, April 08, 2013

Monday Morning Manager: Week 1

Monday Morning Manager is back! Doesn't it seem like Miguel Cabrera took that called third strike to end the 2012 World Series, just yesterday? Well, it's a new year and time for 26 (or so) more weeks of thrilling MMM weekly recaps of another Tigers baseball season!

MMM is refreshed and ready to go! So without further ado...

Last Week: 3-3
This Week:  TOR (4/9-11); at Oak (4/12-14)

So, What Happened?

The big questions heading into the season were, how would the Tigers' so-called "closer by committee" turn out? And for how long will it last before the team commits to a single ninth inning guy?

After six games, those questions have yet to be answered definitively, but it hasn't stopped folks from kicking them around.

It all started last Monday in Minnesota. Justin Verlander, his pitch count ratcheted up into the early 90s, was lifted after just five innings. In the ninth inning, manager Jim Leyland went with Joaquin Benoit to start the frame, then after Benoit retired the first batter (a right-handed hitter), Leyland called for southpaw Phil Coke to face lefty swinger Justin Morneau and righty swinging Ryan Doumit.

The moves worked to perfection. Coke struck out Morneau and retired Doumit on a lazy fly ball to right, sealing the Tigers' 4-2 win.

The same situation presented itself in Game 2 on Wednesday. Only this time, Benoit walked the lead-off batter and Coke imploded, and the Twins turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 walk-off win.

The Tigers took two of three from the Yankees, and in neither victory did a closer come into play---although MMM loved the job lefty Drew Smyly did on Friday in relief of Doug Fister (four perfect innings to earn a save).

So does MMM think the closer by committee can work? Yes, but MMM doesn't like Coke being the guy entrusted to get the final outs unless there are left-handed batters galore lined up to face him. In 2012, Coke struggled to get lefties out because his breaking ball was too flat. This year, in his last two appearances, Coke has failed to get right-handed batters out. His ERA is an unsightly 16.20.

If Leyland wants to pseudo designate a "closer," then MMM would like to see Benoit in that role, provided he can keep the ball in the ballpark. Benoit's masterful change-up is a neutralizer against tough left-handed batters.

Bottom line: six games is simply not enough to accurately gauge the situation.

As for Verlander, he went seven innings on Sunday but was tagged with the loss as the Tigers' bats fell silent against CC Sabathia. The Tigers ace has an ERA of 2.25 after 12 innings of work.

The offense is running more hot and cold than a faucet drawing a bath, but the cold weather hasn't helped.

Hero of the Week
MMM is tempted to give HotW to newcomer Torii Hunter for his hot start and seemingly being on his way to finally solidifying the No. 2 spot in the batting order, which has vexed the Tigers for several years.

But MMM likes Prince Fielder for his eight-RBI week, including his monstrous home opener on Friday (two homers, five RBI). Prince has also showed himself to be erudite with the glove in the early going, which as you know is not his forte.

Fielder's heroics on Friday ensured the Tigers wouldn't fall into a 1-3 hole to start the season.

Honorable mentions: Hunter, Smyly and Austin Jackson, who has stormed out of the gate with the bat.

Goat of the Week
MMM really does like Phil Coke. MMM likes Coke's zaniness and his mindset, which is perfect for a late-inning reliever. But after Opening Day, Coke has been brutal. He coughed up Wednesday's game, and his awful outing on Sunday assured that the Tigers wouldn't have a shot to overcome the Yanks.

MMM doesn't trust Coke right now, because right now you don't know what Phil Coke you're going to see from outing to outing. Will it be the fiery, unconscious Coke from the 2012 playoffs, or the shaky Coke from the 2012 regular season? This year in three appearances, we've seen Mr. Hyde twice and Dr. Jekyll once.

Under the Microscope
Do you really think MMM has already designated someone UtM after just six measly games?

Of course he has!

No, it's not Phil Coke.

Believe it or not, it's Alex Avila, the Blutonian catcher.

Avila flew under the radar this spring, which is great. MMM was glad to hear that Avila's health was ship shape, and there was little written about Al-Av in spring training. Again, that's great. He is clearly the established starting catcher in Detroit. He's officially a young veteran, this being his fourth full season in the bigs.

But Avila is off to another oh-so-slow start (though he did homer on Friday), and his wife just gave birth to the couple's first child, which can be a very understandable distraction. How will these things meld?

The importance of a productive Avila in the lower third of the batting order is significant. Avila will typically bat eighth this season, behind SS Jhonny Peralta and ahead of 2B Omar Infante. It is vital that the 7-8-9 hitters don't become automatic outs, in order to keep big innings alive---the kind of big innings that the Tigers' 1-5 big boppers can get going.

Keep your good eye on Avila. MMM sure is. Remember, Avila dropped from a .295 BA in 2011 to .243 in 2012.

Upcoming: Blue Jays, A's
The new-look Blue Jays stop by for three games in Comerica Park this week before the Tigers head west.

It's widely known that Toronto spent money in the off-season like a teenager burning through his allowance.

The Jays have lots of new faces: pitchers Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey (who got clobbered around Sunday against Boston); infielders Jose Reyes and Maicer Izturis; and OF Melky Cabrera, to name but a few.

The Jays mean to contend in the suddenly winnable AL East, tired of playing little brother to the Red Sox and Yankees. The division, including revamped Baltimore and always tough Tampa Bay, figures to be very up for grabs, especially with the Yankees beat up and the Red Sox a question mark.

Who knows? Maybe when the Blue Jays come to town for the next few years, there will be a buzz around the ballpark, like there was back in the 1980s when both the Tigers and Blue Jays were contenders, and a series with the visiting Jays was truly exciting.

After Toronto's visit, it's off to Oakland, which is off to a 5-2 start.

Surely you all remember the Tigers' last visit to Oakland? The heart-stopping ALDS, which turned from in-the-bag to in-the-barf-bag before the Tigers finally prevailed in five games?

Don't worry, there's no Brandon Inge around to terrorize Tigers pitching. Brandon is in Pittsburgh now.

The Little Payroll That Could still has feisty Coco Crisp and Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes, along with a pretty damn fine bullpen, which can cure a lot of ills. The A's will be trying to prove that 2012, when they improbably won the AL West, wasn't a fluke.

Tigers starters: Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Fister.

That's all for this week's MMM. It's good to be back! See you next week!


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