Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kinsler Tigers' 2B Now, But For HOW Long?

Ernie Banks. Pete Rose. Rod Carew. Robin Yount. Paul Molitor.

The common thread may seem obvious---they're all Hall of Fame worthy players. But there's something else that ties them together, and it's something that may end up being very relevant to your Detroit Tigers.

Each of them, from Banks to Molitor, started as a middle infielder. And each of them would abandon that position and move to other places on the diamond and further their Hall-worthy careers.

What does this have to do with the Tigers? Let's just say that you might not want to get too comfortable with the idea of a double play combination of shortstop Jose Iglesias and second baseman Ian Kinsler, acquired last week from the Texas Rangers for Prince Fielder.

Kinsler is 31 years old. Already there are signs that age could be rearing its head with Kinsler, at least in the form of stolen base output.

Age and middle infielders are usually not a good mix, Omar Vizquel notwithstanding.

The Tigers may have---emphasis on "may have"---traded for Kinsler with the idea that he could move elsewhere, such as the outfield, or first base.

Some history, first.

Banks broke into the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 1953 as a shortstop. By 1962, his tenth season, the Cubs had moved the 31-year-old Banks to first base, where he pretty much played the rest of his career, past his 40th birthday. Banks played 1,259 games at 1B, and 1,125 at SS.

Rose was a rookie in 1963, age 22. He debuted as a second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. By 1967, at age 26, the Reds shifted Rose to the outfield. He would spend the next 10-12 years moving all around the diamond, eventually settling at first base. Rose played 24 years, but only 628 games at 2B, his so-called "natural" position.

Carew broke in with the Minnesota Twins as a 21-year-old second baseman in 1967. In 1976, at age 30, Carew was playing first base, and he never looked back.

Yount was an 18-year-old rookie with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974, arriving on the scene as a shortstop. But by 1985, before his 30th birthday, the Brewers moved Yount to the outfield.

Molitor was 21 years old when he broke into the bigs with the Brewers as a second baseman in 1978, functioning as Yount's double play partner. A mere three years later, the Brewers moved Molitor---first to the outfield, then in 1982 to third base, which would be his position until 1990, when Molitor became mostly a designated hitter for the last nine years of his illustrious career.

It would be a big shock, to me, if the Tigers see Kinsler as their everyday second baseman much beyond 2016. By that time, Kinsler would be 34 years old.

Ah, but what about the greatest DP combo in history, you might ask---our own Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker?

It's more than fair to bring them up.

Tram and Lou never budged from their original positions, though the former did spend a handful of games in the outfield, at second base and at third base. Trammell played until age 38. Whitaker never played anything other than second base in a career that spanned from 1977 to 1995 (also age 38).

But let's face it: Trammell and Whitaker are anything but the norm---in so many different ways.

The good news is that, as we have seen, switching positions for the aforementioned Hall of Famers took nothing away from their offense. And their move from the middle infield came relatively early in their respective careers---all within the first 10 years.

Kinsler is entering his ninth season, and he's played all but two innings in his defensive career at second base (the other two innings were at third base, in 2012)---over 1,000 games as a second baseman.

He's ripe for a position change.

It could be that Dave Dombrowski traded for Kinsler with an eye toward having Kinsler wear another type of glove. It could be that second base may be the territory of Hernan Perez before long. Kinsler may find himself at first base, and Miguel Cabrera could be a full-time DH.

Or Kinsler could move to the outfield, a la Yount.

Yes, this was a short term move, acquiring Kinsler, in that the Tigers are in "win now" mode. But while Kinsler may be an old-ish second baseman, the Tigers could flip him into a young-ish outfielder or first baseman.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fielder Leaves Detroit Cloaked in Mystery

We never totally understood Prince Fielder. We were willing to give it a try, but we never really saw eye-to-eye with him.

Was he the smiling, happy-go-lucky big first baseman with the even bigger bat, or was he the detached, enigmatic player who shrunk in the spotlight?

Did he care badly, or did he barely care?

Was winning the World Series of the utmost importance to him, or was it more important to the fans?

Was he a baseball player who had a family, or was he a family man who played baseball?

Was he a selfless man who wouldn't come out of the lineup, or was he a selfish man who wouldn't come out of the lineup?

Was he a complicated individual with many layers, or was what you saw, what you got?

It hardly matters anymore.

Fielder is gone, traded into the November night to the Texas Rangers for 2B Ian Kinsler, even up. Unless you want to count the $30 million the Tigers are reportedly kicking in to sweeten the deal for Texas.

Fielder arrived on a wintry January day out of the blue in 2012, and has vanished almost as abruptly, his supposedly untradeable contract forwarded to Texas.

The move was made, presumably, largely for financial reasons. Fielder's $168 million owed has been swapped with the $62 million that Texas owed Kinsler. Add the $62 million to the $30 mill that the Tigers apparently threw in, and it's still a savings of $76 million for Detroit.

That's money that the Tigers can now use toward signing Max Scherzer to a contract extension. Presumably. And, bonus: the trade means that Miguel Cabrera can slide back to first base and third base has now been opened up for hot shot prospect Nick Castellanos, who can now return to his natural position, while still being an occasional option in left field.

So the dollars are big, the savings are tangible and the baseball part of it makes sense. No question about that.

But it's hard to accept that this was just about money and playing musical chairs on the diamond.

Fielder lost the fans in Detroit, which was quite an undertaking since they welcomed him with open arms less than two years ago.

He was the second Fielder to play for the Tigers, and dad Cecil owned the town for a while. Yes, there were some hard feelings between father and son, but Prince Fielder in a Tigers uniform was no less fitting because of the off-field drama.

It's hard to accept that this trade was just about money because of the fracturing in the relationship between Fielder and the fans. And Fielder and the organization.

Buster Olney, for example, tweeted that there were people in high places in the Tigers organization who were "very down" on Fielder for his performance and his comments during the playoffs.

Ah yes, the comments.

You remember. The one that intimated that if the fans could do it, they wouldn't be fans---they'd be players. And the one that shrugged off his typical nasty October performance by saying that if the pitcher throws a mistake, Fielder hits it. Otherwise, he won't. Or the one that said he was going to go home and be with his family, and what's the fuss, because the playoffs are over with?

I find it almost impossible that Fielder's being traded didn't have at least something to do with these remarks, which when paired with his RBI-less post-season, put a bull's eye square on his back.

Detroit sports fans are simple folk, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. In fact, far from it.

Here's what they want, and it's very simple.

The Detroit sports fan only asks that you, as one of their athletes, show that you're just as torn up as the fans are about failure.

They want to know that you feel their pain.

That's all.

Fielder, in two post-seasons as a Tiger, not only failed miserably on the field, he failed miserably in the court of public opinion. He never really made us feel like that he was "one of us."

Not once in either playoff did Fielder say, "I stink. I know a lot is expected of me and I'm just not getting it done."

That's all he had to say. And the forgiveness would have been plenty.

Instead, after the 2012 World Series sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants, Fielder deflected criticism, essentially saying that fans better not look at him cross-eyed, because he's one of 25 guys.

Those comments didn't get too much play. They were spoken almost in a vacuum. But he said them.

But I believe that the comments during this year's ALCS, spoken while Fielder was again crashing and burning at the plate, were filed away by Tigers brass. And I think the words, spoken so casually and dismissively as the team's season slipped away in tremendous disappointment, were what led the Tigers to aggressively seek a taker for Fielder.

We may never know for sure, but I think that's what happened.

Fielder's big smile and joshing with opponents played well in May and June, but they weren't so warmly received in October. The smile and kidding around almost became tools of mockery of the fans.

Fielder had an off year in 2013, and it's well-documented as to why that may have been, what with his pending divorce and nasty rumors of a third party on the Tigers being involved in Fielder's disintegrating marriage.


But you must wonder whether this trade would have gone down, if only Prince Fielder had empathized with the fans more in their time of need, i.e. during the Red Sox series.

If you, as an athlete in Detroit, make the fans feel like you're all in with them, they'll love you forever. That's been proven.

If you show a sense of entitlement or detachment, if you give an air of being above it all, then your time in Detroit won't be so pleasant. That, too, has been proven.

Prince Fielder is gone, traded away before Thanksgiving, mere weeks after the Tigers' lowest point in years.

He leaves us, and with him he takes the answers to so many questions about him that we were only just starting to ask.

Two years and out. Perhaps that's more shocking than the move to bring him here in the first place.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Brookens Left Out in the Cold in Tigers, Mariners Shuffling

It wasn't supposed to go down like this for Tommy Brookens.

He was the manager-in-waiting. The heir to the dugout throne.

At least, that's what some folks surmised, when Brookens was hired to replace Andy Van Slyke as the Tigers first base coach prior to the 2010 season.

I must confess. You're a fair cop. You got me dead to rights. I was one of those who thought Brookie would make a dandy big league manager. I said so HERE.

Brookens had done some managing in the Tigers' low level minor league affiliates, so when he was brought in to replace AVS as first base coach in 2010, and given Brookens' deep ties to the Tigers that went all the way back to the mid-1970s when he was drafted as a third baseman, the dots started to be connected.

It didn't matter that those connecting the dots had no say in the matter, of course.

When Brookens slid over to the other side of the diamond and replaced Gene Lamont as third base coach prior to the 2013 season, it fueled the speculation that Brookens would take over the Tigers when Jim Leyland called it quits.

A couple funny things happened, though.

First, few expected Leyland to step down this soon. It was generally accepted---with resignation by his haters---that the skipper would at least manage in 2014.

Second, after Leyland's surprising decision to retire from managing, Brookens didn't even get a sniff from GM Dave Dombrowski.

DD interviewed hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, and that was it from Leyland's staff.

The heir apparent, Brookens, went home to Pennsylvania and did some hunting, unsure about his future as a coach, let alone as manager.

Well, nothing is unsure anymore. The Tigers announced the hiring of Omar Vizquel as first base coach, pretty much rounding out new manager Brad Ausmus' staff. There doesn't seem to be a place for Brookens with the Tigers, anymore.

All that talk about Brookens being brought to the coaching staff in 2010 as a form of managerial grooming has turned out to be just that---talk.

McClendon got the Seattle Mariners job, but informed Brookie that there isn't a place for the Pennsylvania Poker in the Great Northwest, either.

Brookens recently told George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press, "We'll see how things go in the next couple weeks," when asked about his coaching future---anywhere.

It won't be in Detroit.

As far as baseball cities go, Detroit certainly must be the one where they talk about the third base coach more than any other burg. They hated Lamont, culminating in his horrific send of Prince Fielder in Game 2 of the 2012 World Series.

After last season, Lamont became Leyland's bench coach. A mysterious problem with Geno's knees was blamed for the move off the field and into the dugout. Brookens moved from first base to third.

I wrote that Brookens would be getting the longest honeymoon ever afforded a 3B coach because of the act he was following.

I didn't get that one right, either.

It didn't take long for fans to complain about Brookie as third base coach. Not long at all. Being the third base coach for the Tigers quickly had become high on the list of thankless jobs in Detroit sports.

No one, after all, hangs around the water cooler the next day, lauding the third base coach's decisions. But in Detroit they seem to go out of their way to rake him over the coals.

So Ausmus is the new manager, not Brookens. Tommy never had a shot.

The new manager is bringing in mostly his own guys. That is par for the course.

Tommy Brookens won't be one of the Leyland holdovers, joining Lamont and pitching coach Jeff Jones.

Tommy won't be on McClendon's staff in Seattle, either.

It's funny about heirs apparent. Someone always seems to forget to tell the guy doing the hiring.

Trading Scherzer Now is a "Playing Not to Lose" Mentality

Branch Rickey, the Hall of Fame baseball executive and the granddaddy of the sport’s farm system, said it time and again.
“Always trade a player one year too soon, rather than one year too late,” Rickey postulated.
But each theory has its exceptions, right?
I don’t know if the venerable Rickey would trade Max Scherzer, if Rickey came back to life as the Tigers GM. But if he would, this would be one that ole Branch would have gotten wrong.
Scherzer, 29, just won the American League Cy Young Award. He is due to become a free agent after next season. And there is a boatload of folks out there who want the Tigers to trade Max, for fear of letting him walk away after the 2014 season, with the Tigers left holding the bag.
It’s sissy talk.
First, let’s dispel some stuff here.
After next year, if Scherzer still hasn’t signed an extension with the Tigers, the team only needs to make a one year qualifying offer (this year that offer was $14.1 million for one season), and if Max signs elsewhere, the Tigers receive a first round draft pick from the signing team.
That’s not exactly the same as coming away with nothing.
Regardless, this business of trading him now for fear of what might happen one year hence is defensive, playing-not-to-lose baseball. It’s not about playing to win.
Oh, and by the way, Scherzer has publicly declared his lack of interest in being traded. He loves being a Tiger and he hopes that the team “doesn’t mess it up.”
But taking Scherzer’s personal preference out of this for a moment, let’s discuss.
The Tigers have been to the playoffs three straight years. Despite their warts, they are the unquestioned class of their division—the Cleveland Indians’ strong finish in 2013 notwithstanding.
With some tweaking that GM Dave Dombrowski no doubt will make to the roster, there’s no logical reason to believe that the Tigers won’t return to the post-season in 2014. Some will peg them for the World Series—you can count on that.
It stands to reason that the Tigers will be playing in October next year. How can they not, when their core includes the last three league MVPs and two of the last three Cy Young winners? When 40% of your starting rotation has a Cy Young on their resume, you’re onto something.
So why would the Tigers want to, as Scherzer put it, “mess that up”?
That’s what they would be doing if they traded Scherzer in what would plainly be a defensive move.
The “trade Scherzer” people are under the impression that Dombrowski would get exactly what Max is worth, and maybe even more.
But if you’re on the phone with DD, why would you toss in everything but the kitchen sink, when you know the other guy is trading from a position of weakness?
If Dombrowski actively shops Scherzer, then he is basically announcing to the baseball world, “Help! I have a very expensive pitcher who I don’t think I can sign! What’ll you give me?”
You think other execs will be quick to let Dombrowski and the Tigers off the hook?
But there are reports that the Tigers are “listening” to offers for Scherzer, you say.
Well, sure.
I’d listen, to, in case someone is off their rocker enough to offer me a king’s ransom.
Listening is not the same thing as talking. My wife reminds me of that all the time, so it must be true.
Here’s what the Tigers should do—and what I think they will do.
If they don’t sign Scherzer to an extension before spring training—and I say it’s still too early to say that they won’t—then the Tigers should just ride it out in 2014 with Max still wearing the Old English D, keeping the band together, so to speak, with some new studio musicians as support.
Then, take your best shot in the playoffs.
Some scenarios to consider, using this approach.
Best case: Tigers win the World Series. Scherzer re-signs with Detroit. The fan base is delirious. Hey, it could happen.
Medium case: Tigers win the World Series. Scherzer walks. OK, not the ultimate for Tigers fans, but the team’s first World Series win in 30 years would significantly cushion the blow of Scherzer signing elsewhere. Plus, there’s still that first round draft pick.
Worst case: Tigers don’t win the World Series. Scherzer walks. Bummer, but again—draft pick!
Now, about the worst case scenario.
Does anyone really think that Scherzer will go 21-3 again in 2014? He had likely his career year in 2013. But there is still one more season to go before he is eligible for free agency. Remember, we never thought we’d be asking the questions about Justin Verlander that we were asking in 2013. Who’s to say that we won’t be worrying and wondering about Scherzer in, say, June of 2014? His value may dip a bit, making the Tigers legitimate players in re-signing him.
And, in case you forgot, the Tigers are still a pretty damn good team, even without Scherzer’s name on the roster. If he signs elsewhere, it would be unpleasant but not impossible to overcome.
Lance Parrish left the Tigers after the 1986 season and folks around town fretted. Parrish was arguably the league’s best catcher. He was the Big Wheel, for goodness sake.
The Tigers took the punch of Parrish signing with the Phillies and Detroit won the 1987 AL East title with Mike Heath as the starting catcher.
Players, really good players, leave teams all the time. The St. Louis Cardinals watched Albert Pujols, no less, walk away and sign with the Los Angeles Angels. Look what happened to the Angels. And in two years sans Pujols, the Cards have won a pennant and come close to winning two.
Trading Max Scherzer now, because you’re afraid he might sign somewhere else after next season, is not what championship teams do. Championship teams go for it, putting the best 25 guys out there and letting the chips fall. Right now, Scherzer is certainly one of those 25 guys.
Don’t mess it up.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Ivy Leaguer Ausmus Latest Catcher To Give Managing a Try for Tigers

There’s something about being a catcher in baseball.

First, you have to be a little different—maybe even a little nuts.

There has to be something a bit off about a guy who is willing to squat 150 times a game while pitches are thrown at him between 90 and 100 mph, knowing full well that he will be used as a human backstop for three hours—with ricocheted baseballs battering his mask, his knees, his feet and his hands.

The catcher is the quarterback on the baseball diamond—or maybe the free safety, as we’re talking defense here. He is also the pitcher’s best friend, confidante, guide and caddie. The golfer asks which club to go to—the catcher is asked which pitch to throw.

The catcher sees the whole game, because the whole game happens in front of him. He doesn’t have to turn his back to see what’s going on.

It’s this perspective on the field of play that has made the former catcher an attractive managerial candidate, throughout the history of baseball.

The Tigers won their first world title in 1935, under the guidance of Mickey Cochrane, a catcher whose playing career was cut short thanks to a bean ball. Before the pitch to the head, Cochrane was a player-manager for the Tigers, following many years as a star for the Philadelphia A’s.

The Tigers pennant of 1940 was directed by Del Baker, another former catcher.

Five years after losing the 1940 World Series to Cincinnati, the Tigers won their second championship. The manager was Steve O’Neill, who had been—you guessed it—a catcher in his playing days.

The Tigers, like every team in baseball, have called upon the former catcher multiple times to become the team’s skipper. It hasn’t always worked, but it hasn’t stopped teams from trying it, over and over.

Ralph Houk was a backup catcher for the Yankees. Jim Leyland was an erstwhile catcher, stumbling around in the minor leagues for the Tigers, before hanging up his chest protector and mask and turning to managing.

The Yankees have turned to catchers frequently to manage their ball clubs.

Yogi Berra. Houk. And, more recently, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.

One of the top candidates for 2013 Manager of the Year, Oakland’s Bob Melvin, was a marginally talented catcher for the Tigers in the mid-1980s. Bruce Bochy, who has led the San Francisco Giants to two world titles in the past four years, was a catcher for the Padres. Bob Brenly, whose Arizona Diamondbacks upset the mighty Yankees in the 2001 World Series, was a catcher.

Looks like the Tigers are going back to the former catcher well, as they seek to replace Leyland, who retired on October 21.

Brad Ausmus is, by all accounts, a smart guy. He graduated college with a degree from Dartmouth, no less. In a sport where a hayseed from Podunk, Iowa has often become a Hall of Famer, an Ivy League education has hardly been a prerequisite for success. But Ausmus has it.

What Ausmus doesn’t have, is any experiencing managing—unless you count that brief stint managing Team Israel in 2012 during the qualifying rounds for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

The Tigers, multiple reports say, are about to tab Ausmus—a former Tiger—to replace Leyland in the dugout.

The contrast between Leyland and Ausmus couldn’t be more distinct.

When the Tigers introduced Leyland as manager eight years ago, his resume spoke for itself—for good or for bad.

There were all those years in Pittsburgh, and the three straight divisional titles (1990-92). But the World Series eluded him, sometimes painfully so.

There was the 1997 world title with the Florida Marlins, which was ironic because Leyland’s team didn’t win its division—it was a Wild Card.

There was a jaded year in Colorado (1999).

Leyland’s managerial chops weren’t in question; the Tigers hired a veteran skipper who was 61 years old. There was wear on the tires.

Ausmus is 44—just a few years removed as a player. He was one of the best defensive catchers of his time. He has worn the Old English D, as then-GM Randy Smith kept trading Ausmus, and trading for him. But to Leyland’s resume as a manager, Ausmus offers a big baseball brain and not much else.

Ausmus has yet to be second guessed. He has yet to hear his name besmirched on sports talk radio. Nobody wants to fire him—yet.

It’s the cleanest of clean slates—a manager with not a speck of big league managing experience.

It’s also a hell of a risk.

The Tigers aren’t a team in development. They’re not in rebuilding mode. This isn’t a situation where a manager and his players can learn on the job, together. This job isn’t warm and fuzzy. It’s win or else.

The Tigers expected to win in 2011. They expected it again in 2012. The pressure to do so in 2013 was off the charts. So what do you think expectations will be in 2014—Ausmus’ rookie year as a big league skipper?

GM Dave Dombrowski apparently feels that Brad Ausmus, all 44 years of him, has what it takes to enter this win-or-else pressure cooker and come out without being so much as scalded.

In a way, Ausmus couldn’t ask for a better gig to start his managerial career. He inherits a wealth of talent, great starting pitching, an owner who will spend money, maybe the best GM in the business and fan support beyond belief.

But this is going to be on-the-job training, and that prospect makes a lot of Tigers fans squirm, Ausmus’ Ivy League education notwithstanding.

Fancy book learning, a great manager doesn’t necessarily make.

But a catcher? Now we might be talking.