Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday Morning Manager: Week 4

Last Week: 4-1
This Week:  MIN (4/29-5/1); at Hou (5/2-5)

So, What Happened?

It was a good "bounce back" week for the boys.

They limped home from their west coast trip, dragging a four-game losing streak behind them. The bats were colder than the weather they were returning to in Michigan. They still didn't have a closer.

Then all heck broke loose.

It all started on Tuesday, when news broke that the Tigers were bringing Jose Valverde back to be the closer. On the same day, the Tigers announced they were promoting reliever Bruce Rondon from Toledo. Brilliant timing, in MMM's opinion. All the talk was about Papa Grande, and Rondon just kind of slipped under the radar.

That night's game was rained out, but Valverde saved Wednesday's game---a game in which he couldn't grip his splitter due to the extreme cold. Valverde also saved Saturday's game with no drama.

Meanwhile, Rondon got into Thursday's game, and was a little shaky. But all the buzz was still about Valverde at that point.

Then the Tigers swept the suddenly inept Atlanta Braves out of town. The Braves all-or-nothing hitters whiffed so much over the weekend (39 Ks), MMM felt the breeze outside his Madison Heights home.

So it was a 4-1 week, to get back to three games over .500. Not bad!

Hero of the Week
Lots to choose from, but MMM would be totally remiss if he didn't go with Anibal Sanchez. 

How could MMM ignore Sanchez's record-setting performance on Friday? Sanchez set a new franchise record (for a nine-inning game) with 17 strikeouts, and it was just as dominant as it looks when you're reading it.

The Braves struggled to even make contact on Friday, let alone put any rallies together. Sanchez was brilliant, using the entire strike zone and getting a lot of swings and misses at balls outside the zone. His curve ball was especially nasty.

It was a great scene when Sanchez walked off the mound after the eighth inning, having screwed Dan Uggla into the ground on a breaking ball. Sanchez doffed his cap, much to the delight of the CoPa faithful. Then he got a big hug from manager Jim Leyland, because managers love it when their starting pitcher strikes out 17 and allows no runs and no walks.

MMM forgot that not only did Sanchez once throw a no-hitter, but he has four ONE-HITTERS to his credit.

Honorable mention: Miguel Cabrera, who just keeps popping out RBIs like a Pez dispenser, and Valverde, who added an impressive ninth inning against the Braves on Sunday night to his perfect three-performance week.

Goat of the Week
What would a week be without a "moment" from the bullpen?

The Tigers only had one last week, but it was a doozy.

They blew the Thursday game against the Royals, surrendering five runs in the 10th inning, capped by Alex Gordon's grand slam. MMM is tagging the Goat label on Phil Coke, not Darrin Downs, who served up the salami. Coke reverted to his old ways with this line on Thursday: 1.1 IP, 4 ER, 4 BB, 1 H, 1 K. Broooo-tuhl.

Under the Microscope
MMM thought this was the year that Alex Avila was finally going to be injury-free and, as a result, be back to his productive ways of 2011.

It's not happening.

Avila doesn't play against lefties, which is fine. But he's not hitting righties, and he again looks like a broken down, clue-free hitter---and it's not even May yet.

MMM is deeply concerned that Al-Av's total lack of production (.169, 2 HR, 2 RBI) from the no. 8 spot in the order will become very conspicuous sooner or later. Certainly it's bad enough now to place Avila squarely UtM.

BTW, Victor Martinez appeared in this space last week, and V-Mart "responded" with a solid week at the plate. Here's hoping!

Upcoming: Twins, Astros
Are the Twins relevant again? The record seems to say so.

The Twinkies are 11-10, having taken two straight from the Texas Rangers. Lefty starter Scott Diamond is back, after missing the first week or so of the season. The Twins still have a pretty scary middle of the order, with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham---although those guys aren't really tearing the cover off the ball right now.

It's actually been pitching that has lifted the Twins, believe it or not---particularly their stingy bullpen. This is a team whose starting rotation was a complete mess as they broke camp, but the bullpen is making up for it. One starter who is impressing is Kevin Correia, who is 3-1 with a 2.23 ERA. He pitched Sunday, though, so the Tigers will miss him this week.

Tigers starters: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Sanchez.

Ah, the Houston Astros. The poor, poor Houston Astros.

MMM would like to feel sorry for them, but not until after the Tigers invade Houston for four games this weekend.

Some predicted before the season that the Astros, if things didn't go so well, might challenge the 1962 Mets or 2003 Tigers for ineptitude.

Those folks might be right.

The Astros got a four-game brooming at the hands of the Red Sox in Boston over the weekend, and the erstwhile Colt .45s (MMM is showing his age) sit at 7-18, which is on pace for about 45 or 46 wins.

How bad is it in Houston?

The Astros have two regulars batting over .260. Their RBI leader has 12. Three of their starting pitchers have an ERA of about 8.00. One of them, Philip Humber, has an opponent batting average of .343.

Yes, this will be a tough year in Houston, despite their snazzy new uniforms, which MMM loves for their return to a clean, old school look.

It's not the uniforms, it's the guys wearing them.

The Tigers should take three of four from these bums, but that's why they play the games! Look at the past three weekends: Oakland was hot, the Tigers cooled them off; the Angels were cold, the Tigers heated them up; the Braves were hot, the Tigers cooled them off.

Now, the Astros are cold.

Forget MMM said anything, after all.

Tigers starters: Rick Porcello (nice bounce back start on Saturday against Atlanta), Doug Fister (4-0), Scherzer and Verlander.

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


Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Morning Manager: Week 3

Last Week: 2-4
This Week:  KC (4/23-25); ATL (4/26-28)

So, What Happened?

How did everything go sideways so quickly?

The Tigers were cruising along, on a four-game winning streak, hitting the tar out of the baseball. They survived a harrowing 14-inning game in Seattle, that ended with catcher Brayan Pena driving in the go-ahead run and getting his clock cleaned by Justin Smoak at home plate to end the game. The team was 9-5. Life was good.

And then...

Four losses later, the Tigers are back at .500, their vaunted offense has gone AWOL, and batting averages are sinking like stones.

The bats started to go silent, it turns out, in that 14-inning game, which the Tigers won 2-1. After that followed a couple shutouts and a game in which the Tigers scored once, before scoring a whopping three runs in Sunday's 13-inning loss to the Angels.

Hero of the Week
Frankly, MMM doesn't have much to offer here. Al Alburquerque was lights out in LA/Anaheim on Sunday in the eighth and ninth innings. So there's that.

But after some heavy thinking, MMM is going with Brayan Pena, the backup catcher. Now, when your backup catcher is HotW, that's either very good or very bad. The Tigers were 2-4 last week, so MMM guesses it must be the latter.

Pena, as mentioned, was the hitting and fielding hero on Wednesday, making it worth the while for Tigers fans who stayed up past 2 a.m. to see the finish.

Then, Pena, by luck, had to catch 13 innings on Sunday. That's three games' worth of catching, crammed into two.

MMM feels that the bench guys need some love every so often.

Honorable mentions: Alburquerque, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, who went toe-to-toe with Felix Hernandez on Wednesday, matching him K for K.

Goat of the Week
Yes, Ricky Porcello may have been the victim of some craziness in that nine-run first inning on Saturday, but MMM is concerned that his spring training success was an aberration.

Porcello is the clear No. 5 starter, so MMM doesn't want to expect too much. But Saturday's start aside, is it too much to ask the Tigers' resident heartthrob to actually pitch into the sixth inning every now and again?

Porcello didn't do a worn bullpen any favors on Saturday, after making his first relief appearance of his career a week ago Sunday in Oakland.

Under the Microscope
MMM has been mulling this over but didn't want to jump the gun. But what is the deal with Victor Martinez's bat speed?

V-Mart is running late on fastballs these days. Now, it could just be the rust from missing an entire season, but he had a bunch of at-bats in Florida and the season is 18 games old. Shouldn't we be seeing some improvement by now?

MMM doesn't want to sound like a Nervous Nelly, but Martinez is going squarely UtM. Victor is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

Upcoming: Royals, Braves
It's back home for our Bengals after the 4-5 trip out west.

First up: the Kansas City Royals, who are in their 28th year of rebuilding following their 1985 World Series win.

MMM has always been impressed with some of the young talent in Kansas City, and this might be the year where the Royals are the team that challenges the Tigers all summer. As usual, it will come down to pitching, especially since the Royals lineup is still a little thin with the lumber.

The Tigers are looking up at both the Royals AND the Minnesota Twins in the standings, but it's early. Still, MMM advises you to beware of the boys in Royal Blue---at least until the All-Star Break. After that, all bets are off.

Tigers starters: Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez.

Then it's the Atlanta Braves at CoPa, and what a start for the Native Americans.

The Braves are 13-5 and included in that was a weekend destruction of the Washington Nationals---in Washington.

Justin Upton has 9 homers, though just 13 RBI. Our old friend, catcher Gerald Laird, is batting .300, albeit in 20 at-bats.

3B Chris Johnson is batting over .400, including 8-for-14 in the Braves' sweep of the Nats a week ago.

But beware of records: the Angels were 4-10 before the Tigers hit town. And, on the other hand, the A's were 8-2 and on an eight-game winning streak before the Tigers took two of three.

Tigers starters: Fister, Porcello (presumably) and Scherzer.

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


Monday, April 15, 2013

Monday Morning Manager: Week 2

Last Week: 4-2
This Week:  at Sea (4/16-18); at LAA (4/19-21)

So, What Happened?

Somehow the Tigers managed to squeeze in two games against Toronto at Comerica Park despite weather that had MMM wondering if we had all been transported to Seattle by osmosis. Wednesday and Thursday were filled with rain, off and on, yet the Tigers and MLB got the games in---mainly because the Jays only make one appearance in Detroit all season.

The much ballyhooed bullpen got even more ballyhooed when it blew Wednesday's game---a 6-1 Tigers lead that turned into a tough 8-6 loss. The goat was Brayan Villarreal, who walked three straight batters---the only hitters he faced. Then Octavio Dotel served up a bases clearing double with the sacks juiced, putting the Jays ahead 7-6.

Then on Friday night in Oakland, Villarreal struck again, giving up a walk-off homer in the 12th inning to Josh Donaldson. It was the A's ninth straight victory.

But the Tigers bats sandwiched awesome hitting performances around those two stinkers, making for a satisfying 4-2 week.

Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez each picked up their second win, and the Tigers 1-2-3-4 hitters terrorized Jays and A's pitching.

Hero of the Week
You can't stop Prince Fielder, you can only hope to contain him. And you can't even really do that nowadays.

MMM had quite a selection to choose from in the Hero department last week.

Austin Jackson is playing like the best center fielder and lead-off hitter in baseball. Torii Hunter has solidified the No. 2 spot in the order wonderfully. Miguel Cabrera is, well, Miguel Cabrera.

But Fielder is an RBI machine these days.

He lasered an RBI double on Sunday, scoring Cabrera from first base, that MMM swears was shot out of a bazooka. Prince is locked in as never before since becoming a Tiger.

Fielder reached base 11 times in the Oakland series over the weekend, and he is feasting off the success of the 1-2-3 hitters, who are getting on base with ridiculous frequency.

So Fielder becomes that rarity: MMM's Hero two weeks in a row.

Honorable mentions: see above, plus Sanchez, who along with Rick Porcello gave the bullpen a needed rest on Sunday.

Goat of the Week
MMM will make this quick and painless, like ripping off a Band-Aid.

Brayan Villarreal.

OK, next?

If you need further explanation, then MMM wonders if you've been living under the Uniroyal tire.

Under the Microscope
MMM is loathe to jump on bandwagons or pile on with the blowhards who call in to talk radio, but the way things are going now, it's hard to ignore the bullpen as being the only aspect of the Tigers' game that isn't clicking. Oh, that and Andy Dirks. But more on Dirks later.

MMM is placing the bullpen, as a whole, UtM because it was responsible for both losses last week, and with the Tigers' hitting and fielding firing on all cylinders (except Dirks), then what else is there to scrutinize?

The bullpen needs to get itself sorted out. MMM thinks the arms out there are good enough, though he would like to see Villarreal demoted to Toledo---at least.

As for Dirks and his under-.200 start, MMM isn't overly worried. Andy did deliver a two-out single Sunday, albeit in a 7-0 game. But still a good sign. He'll come around, and with the rest of the guys bashing, there should be less pressure on Dirks to get it together.

Upcoming: Mariners, Angels
The sojourn out west continues with six games in Seattle and Los Angeles/Anaheim.

For whatever reason, the Ms have been a thorn in the Tigers' side in recent years, both in Seattle and in Detroit. They seem to give the Tigers fits. But they also gave the Tigers Doug Fister, so maybe it's a push.

Seattle is off to a 6-8 start, which is about right for them. But again, they seem to always take two of three from the Tigers.

2012 post-season hero Raul Ibanez is now a Mariner, and the Tigers will face Felix Hernandez this week. King Felix goes up against Max Scherzer on Wednesday---a great MLB matchup.

But no Mariner regular is hitting .300, though Michael Morse has six home runs.

Tigers starters: Fister, Scherzer and Verlander.

The Angels have two MVPs in their lineup---Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. And Pujols isn't off to the slow-as-molasses start that he had in 2012.

But the Angels are 4-8, and last year's rookie sensation Mike Trout, isn't helping. He's at .269 with one homer and two RBI (and 12 Ks in 52 AB). Hamilton is .234-2-8. Pujols is .293-2-7. But it's early.

Tigers starters: Sanchez, Porcello and Fister.

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


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!