Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stanley Cup Finals on Leyland's mind

        Mike Ilitch owns the Red Wings. Mike Ilitch owns the Tigers. The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup finals. The Tigers are in last place in the American League Central.
        “I’d say, right now, coach (Mike) Babcock is doing a pretty good job of saving our butts over here,” Jim Leyland quipped when asked what he thought Ilitch’s current view might be of his two big league sports teams.
        Leyland has dropped the puck at a Wings’ game and spent time with Babcock, discussing their respective sports. Leyland lives in Pittsburgh and has attended a few Penguins’ games during the off-season with former Tiger  Sean Casey, a Penguins’ season-ticket holder.
        Because Leyland lives in Pittsburgh and loves that city, which he says is like Detroit in a lot of ways, he now finds himself torn:
        Whom does he root for in the battle over Lord Stanley’s Cup? The Red Wings or his hometown Penguins?
        “That’s obviously a no-win situation for me,” Leyland admitted with a grin.
        “The correct political answer is,  I’m rooting for the guy who signs the checks.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Look for Inge behind the plate in 2009

        Whether he is stationed in center field or at third base, Brandon Inge _ the man who made it clear this spring that he didn’t want to catch anymore _  still finds himself calling nearly every pitch in his head.
        “I think, ‘What would I call?’ ” he admits.
        It’s not that Inge misses catching. But he does miss the constant involvement in the game and the competition.
        “I’ve always done that,” Inge says of his private pitch-calling. “Usually, it’s just common sense. You make an educated guess.”
        Well, if I was to make an educated guess, I would predict Inge will once again be the Tigers’ everyday catcher in 2009.
        It only makes sense, especially now that Inge has had his epiphany and decided he doesn’t actually hate squatting behind home plate after all.
        Pudge Rodriguez’s five-year, $50 million contract expires at the end of this season. At 37, Rodriguez, who would like to play until he is 40, will likely be looking for a multi-year deal worth at least $10 million a year.
        But the Tigers, whose $139 million payroll is already nearing the breaking point, will be looking for places to  cut spending, not hike it any more than is absolutely necessary.
        Inge is signed through 2010. At today’s mind-numbing prices, he is a relative bargain with a contract calling for $6.3 million next season and $6.6 million in 2010.
        That makes him valuable in more ways than one.
        There is no question Inge is a capable catcher.
        And there are no outstanding young catchers in the Tigers’ farm system, knocking on the door.
        The Tigers could try to trade for another receiver or spend big bucks on the free agent market, but chances are they probably wouldn’t end with anyone as good as Inge.
        From the day the Tigers acquired Miguel Cabrera, many in the organization envisioned Inge as the logical eventual replacement for Rodriguez.
        Much as he would still love to play third, Inge now agrees with that assessment.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Shocking start forces Tigers to rethink things

        Mistakes were made. Assumptions were accepted.
        Jim Leyland sensed things weren’t quite right in spring training. “You smell it when you’re a manager,” he said the other day
        Hindsight is always 20-20.
        Leyland was asked this week if, perhaps, some of the changes the Tigers are making now -- Miguel Cabrera to first base, Carlos Guillen to third, and Gary Sheffield to left field -- should have been made in spring training?
        “Should we? Yes,” Leyland admitted.
        “Could we? No,” he added.
        Under the circumstances, Leyland felt his hands were tied.
        At the time, the Tigers were courting Cabrera, trying to sign him long-term, which they eventually did, to the tune of $152.3 million. Cabrera  felt at home at third base and the Tigers were not inclined to disturb his comfort zone.
         The Tigers, in need of another left handed bat in their lineup  had traded for Jacque Jones during the off-season. He had a track record, a history.
         Besides, Sheffield was coming off shoulder surgery and the Tigers were  worried more about his swing than his psyche.
        The Tigers’ shocking start has forced Leyland and the front office to revisit a lot of things.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why Jacque Jones had to go

        Jim Leyland called Jacque Jones “more of a victim than a culprit.”
        Nevertheless, from the moment Leyland decided Jones’ anemic .165 batting average no longer justified an every day job in left field, the only logical step was to cut him loose.
        What else was Jones going to do for the team?
        Leyland certainly wasn’t going to use him as a late-inning defensive replacement.
        And with that batting average, Jones was the last man Leyland would have called upon to pinch hit.
        What would have been the point of leaving him to collect dust on the bench?
        Better to call up a rookie like Matt Joyce, even though he might not be ready for the Big Show, until the Tigers can sort things out. At least Joyce can fill in around the outfield where needed, pinch hit and even occasionally serve as the designated hitter.
        Plus, releasing Jones after five weeks of the season sent a subtle message to the rest of the players that the front office is not going to stand pat. If things don’t perk up, more changes are inevitable.
        The Tigers made a mistake with Jones. But all it cost them was utility infielder Omar Infante, who wasn’t going to make the team anyway this year, and $3 million (the Chicago Cubs are on the hook for the other $2 million of Jones’ $5 million salary).
        Against the backdrop of the Tigers’ $139 million payroll, it was a gamble well worth taking.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Don't be too quick to dismiss Gary Sheffield

        Gary Sheffield is no stranger to slow starts. Remember last year? On April 22, 2007, he was batting a puny .119 with one home run and five RBI. By late July, before he fell on his right shoulder chasing a fly ball in the outfield, he was batting .298 with 23 HRs and 67 RBIs
        In other words, don’t be too quick to write Gary Sheffield off _ even at age 39, even after a dozen surgeries, including three on each shoulder, during his 20-year big league career.
        “I’ve been proving people wrong for 20 years,” Sheffield said.
        Sheffield’s best years are behind him. There is no denying that.
         But anyone who remembers how he hit last year during the months of May (10 HRs, 22 RBI), June (6 HRs, 22 RBI), and July (5 HRs, 15 RBIs)  knows what a difference Sheffield can make in the Tigers’ lineup when he’s hitting.
        Like Curtis Granderson, Sheffield makes every batter in the order better.
        “Gary Sheffield will be the first guy to come in this office and tell me if he doesn’t think he can help this team,” Jim Leyland said the other day. “If he can’t be the Gary Sheffield he wants to be, he’ll tell me.
        “Do I think he’ll hit like the Gary Sheffield of old? No, I don’t. But I think he’ll do enough to be a productive hitter in our lineup. I think he’ll hit.
        “We don’t know yet if we’re seeing the real Gary Sheffield or not,” continued Leyland, who admitted he himself sometimes wonders what the future holds for his right handed slugger with the ferocious swing. “We don’t know if he’s slowed down enough to where he’s not going to be effective. But we’re going to find out.”
        Sheffield’s wicked swing is his livelihood. But how much does he have left?
        “I still think he’s one of the most feared and respected hitters in the game,” Leyland said. “We’ll see. But I don’t think this short period of time is enough to see.
        “The one thing I’m encouraged about is, it’s not like pitchers are throwing the ball by him,” Leyland said. “It’s not like his bat is slow. He’s still pulling the ball hard. The ball still jumps off his bat. There don’t seem to be any restrictions in his shoulder when he swings. He just doesn’t have his timing right yet. He’s pulling the ball foul. I think he’s coming off the ball a little bit.
        “There was a time when Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds were the two most feared hitters in baseball, bar none,” Leyland continued. “Obviously that’s not true now. Bonds isn’t playing and Sheffield is struggling.
        “But I think some pitchers in this league still pitch Sheffield as tough as anybody else on this team. Of course, if he continues to struggle that won’t continue to happen.”
        We shall see.