Monday, August 31, 2009

Verlander, Cy Young could soon be mentioned in same sentence

        Justin Verlander has history on his side in his quest for the Cy Young Award.
        Verlander continues to lead the American League in strikeouts with 215. He is tied with New York’s CC Sabathia for the lead in wins 15.
        Not since Mickey Lolich was beaten out by Oakland’s Vida Blue 1971 has any pitcher topped the league in those two critical categories and failed to win the Cy Young Award as the premier pitcher in the AL.
        Since then, only three pitchers -- Roger Clemens in 1997 and ‘98, Pedro Martinez in ‘99, and Johan Santana in ‘06 -- have led the league in wins and strikeouts. Each, in turn, received the Cy Young Award.
        Of course, each also posted the lowest ERA in the league that year. Verlander currently ranks seventh in that regard at 3.38.
        However, Verlander insists Cy Young is the farthest thing from his mind right now.
        “After the season ends, maybe it’ll cross my mind,” he said.
        “But when it does come time to start thinking about it, hopefully, I’ll still be pitching.”
        Balloting for the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards by the Baseball Writers Association of American is conducted immediately after the end of the regular season -- before the playoffs begin.  
        “He’s gone leaps and bounds in improving and trying to improve,” Jim Leyland said Monday, remember Verlander’s struggles last summer. “The progress he has made has been tremendous.”
        Leyland has even been impressed by Verlander’s occasional displays of temper, such as the one that occurred during his dugout confrontation with catcher Gerald Laird last week in Anaheim.
        “I like people who have some spunk, who have some fire,” the Tigers’ manager said.
        “It shows you’ve got a pulse. I don’t want some dead pan.”
        The last Tigers pitcher to win the Cy Young Award was Willie Hernandez in 1984.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Numbers don't tell true story of Inge, Everett's defense

        Statistics can be deceiving. Sometimes they outright lie.
        Ask anybody and they’ll tell you it has been the Tigers’ pitching and their improved defense that has carried the team for much of this uplifting year.
        Yet the Tigers currently rank 11th in the American League in fielding. Only the Mariners, Royals, and White Sox had made more errors than the Tigers’ 81, going into Sunday’s game. Only the Royals had more passed balls.
        Ask anybody and they will rave about all of the acrobatic defensive plays All-Star Brandon Inge has made at third base this year.
        Yet Inge has made 16 errors, more than any other third baseman in the AL.
        The Tigers signed free agent Adam Everett last winter to play shortstop. Period. The Tigers made it clear whatever Everett did with the bat would be a bonus.
        Yet only four shortstops in the AL have made more errors than Everett’s 14.
        Are you going to believe what the numbers say — or are you going to believe what Jim Leyland tells you?
        “There is nobody who plays defense harder than Everett and Inge,” the Tigers manager said Sunday. “They’ve both done a very good job for us, in my opinion.
        “Both of those guys are well above-average defensively. That’s one of the reasons we’re where we’re at.
        “Errors are going to happen,” Leyland added. “I don’t have a problem with that. If you can’t overcome an error once in a while, you’ve got problems.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tigers need trip to postseason to justify lavish salaries, contracts

        Team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski makes no secret of the fact: The Tigers want to win now.
        That is why they shelled out an additional $5 million on top of the nearly $130 million they were already dispensing in salaries for this season in order to “rent” Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff for the stretch drive and, hopefully, the postseason beyond.
        The clock is ticking on this high-priced team, as it is currently assembled. Aging owner Mike Ilitch has spent more than $270 million over the past two seasons in pursuit of a winner. He expects results.
        However, the Tigers have also invested heavily in their future.
        Miguel Cabrera will be around until 2015,  when, by the way, he will be making $22 million. I wonder how Miguel’s 8-year, $152.3 blockbuster contract will be viewed then.
        Brandon Inge is signed for next season. After what he has done this year, he will be a bargain at $6.6 million.
        Curtis Granderson (5 years, $30.25) is signed through 2013. Smart move on the Tigers’ part.
        Carlos Guillen is signed through 2011 which will probably bring him to the end of his career. By then, at age 36, he will be making $13 million. “I won’t have to retire,” Guillen said the other day. “They’ll retire me.”
        Rick Porcello is signed through 2010, with club options from 2011 and 2012 — when he will still only be making $1.344 million. Don’t be surprised if Scott Boras, Porcello’s strong-armed agent, asks to revisit that deal.
        But first things first.
        Those long-term contracts and lavish salaries will be a lot easier to swallow with another trip to the postseason in the Tigers’ rear view mirror.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ordonez inches closer to $18 million; $15 million in 2011 awaits

        “How are you doing?” I asked Magglio Ordonez before batting practice Wednesday night.
        “I’m breathing,” he responded with a smile. “I’m breathing and I’m walking.”
        Ordonez was back in the lineup Wednesday, even though a right hander, Ian Snell, was on the mound for the Seattle Mariners.  With the Tigers scheduled to face left handers on Thursday and Friday, by the weekend Ordonez could be within 70 plate appearances of cashing in on the clause in his contract that will guarantee him $18 million next season.
        More and more, it appears as if the front office has decided to let the season play out in whatever manner that gives the Tigers the best chance of winning -- even if that means paying Ordonez another $18 million next season despite his dramatic drop in power and run production.
        That frees up Jim Leyland to make out the lineup as he sees fit each day, without weighing the complicated financial implications.
        However, even if the Tigers do bite the bullet and allow Ordonez to return for $18 million next season, this controversy is not going away.
        Ordonez has another clause in his contract which guarantees him a salary of $15 million in 2011, provided he makes 135 start or 540 plate appearances next season or 270 starts or 1,080 plate appearances in 2009-10 combined.
        Ordonez isn’t getting any younger. He will be 36 next year and 37 in 2011. It is hard to imagine him hitting with more authority or more regularity in the summers to come.
        So we could be going through the same thing again next season.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tigers spare no expense in signing top draft picks

        For years, the Tigers were the punch line of a bad joke when it came to drafting, signing and developing young baseball talent.
        No more.
        On Monday, the Tigers -- whose current first-place status is due, in large part, to past draft picks such as Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Curtis Granderson -- signed their top two selections in this year’s draft, highly-regarded pitchers Jacob Turner and Andrew Oliver.
        And they didn’t spare any expense in doing so.
        The Tigers also signed their sixth-round pick, Daniel Fields, who turned down a scholarship at the University of Michigan to follow in the footsteps of his dad, former Tigers player and coach Bruce Fields.
        Turner, the Tigers’ 6-foot-5, 205-pound first-round pick, who had planned to enroll at the University of North Carolina if he didn’t sign,  received a four-year major league contract potentially worth $6.85 million, including a $4.7 million bonus, for signing straight out of high school.
        Oliver, who, like Turner, is represented by high-powered agent Scott Boras, collected a $1.495 million bonus to sign a minor league deal. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Oliver was the Tigers’ second selection in the June draft.
        Fields, the high school player of the year in Michigan, reportedly received a seven-figure bonus. The 18-year-old Fields would likely have been a second-round pick had it not been for the perception that he was headed for U-M.
        In all three instances, the Tigers exceeded baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s suggested cost-containing limits for signing bonuses.
        In summers past, Tigers management has felt Selig’s wrath for the bonuses it has bestowed on hotshot prospects Rick Porcello ($7.4 million), Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin.
        The Tigers only failed to sign one of their top 10 picks,       eighth-rounder Craig Fritsch, who elected to return to Baylor for his junior season.
        The Tigers also used the draft in another way on Monday, using promising young right-handed pitcher Brett Jacobson, who was their fourth-round pick in 2008, as trade bait to land Baltimore slugger Aubrey Huff.
        All in all, it was a very good day.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ability to hit left-handed -- and catch -- makes Avila a keeper

        A kid who hits left handed — and can catch?
        That’s what I call a keeper.
        And that’s why Alex Avila isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
        Five games into his big league career, Avila is still living a dream. The 22-year-old rookie with the quick, compact swing, is batting .471 with a couple of home runs and six RBI.
        But it is something that the average fan doesn’t see that has caught Jim Leyland’s eye.
        “One thing that really good athletes can do is they’re able to slow the game down,” the Tigers’ manager explained Sunday.
        “He’s real quiet at the plate. He slows everything down when he hits. That’s pretty impressive for a young player. If you watch him hit, he’s real slow, not herky-jerky. He has a knack for identifying a ball from a strike real early. That’s a tremendous trait
        “That’s something you accomplish with concentration over the years,” Leyland continued. “Somebody, probably has dad (Tigers’ assistant GM Al Avila), has done a good job teaching him.”
        The Tigers never doubted young Avila’s ability to hit. His bat was why they picked him on the fifth round in last summer’s amateur draft. 
        But learning to catch quickly became what Avila called a “crash course.”
        Avila’s ability and rapid development behind the plate are made all the more amazing by the fact that he didn’t begin catching full-time until his final year at the University of Alabama.
        “Let’s not get him in the Hall of Fame just yet,” Leyland cautioned. “But I really like him a lot from what I’ve seen.”
        What’s not to like?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tigers now have $29.5 million trio pitching at Toledo

        Dontrelle Willis, who has been limited to seven starts this season and who has been on the disabled list since June 15, will begin another rehab assignment at Toledo on Monday.
        Willis will join Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson, who are already rehabbing with Toledo -- which means the Tigers will three candidates for this season’s starting rotation, who are making a combined $29.5 million this year and who together are guaranteed $34.5 million next year, pitching at Triple-A.
        It is hardly a cost-effective situation.
        No wonder Jim Leyland sounded a bit testy Friday when he was asked about Willis who will start his first game since June 14 for the Mud Hens on Monday.
        “I’ve got too much else on my plate right now,” Leyland growled.
        “That goes for any of those guys down there,” the manager continued. “I don’t want to hear, ‘This guy threw two innings,’ or ‘This guy threw 17 pitches,’ or ‘This guy threw six strikes and four balls.’
        “If that sounds cold, then so be it. I don’t mean it that way. I’m hoping they all get back and can all help us this year. But until that happens, I’m not going to worry about it.”
        Bonderman, who has been pitching out of the Toledo bullpen, allowed one run in 1 1/3 innings of relief against Syracuse on Thursday night. In four outings, spanning five innings, he has yielded six runs on 12 hits.
        In two starts at Toledo, Robertson is 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA.
        Both will probably pitch out of the bullpen if and when they rejoin the Tigers this season, although the Tigers are counting on Bonderman to return to the starting rotation next year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Healthy Bonderman would help Tigers' over-taxed bullpen

        Jim Leyland knew the question was coming -- and he was ready for it.
        “How far away is Jeremy Bonderman?” a reporter asked.
        “Sixty miles,” the Tigers manager replied with a straight face.
        Then, after a suitable pause, Leyland added, “He’s in Toledo.”
        “How long have you been waiting to use that line?” I asked.
        Leyland looked at me and grinned.
        But, to answer the question, Bonderman will almost certainly be back with the Tigers when the roster is expanded on Sept. 1 -- if not before.
        Just in time for the September stretch drive, which could get intense and go right down to the final week when the Tigers will host their top two rivals in the American League Central, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins.
        In fact, 13 of the Tigers’ final 16 games will be against the ChiSox and Twins.
        And that will almost certainly put added burden on the middle of their pitching staff which is already stretched thin.
        That was evident on Wednesday when they returned reliever Chris Lambert to Toledo and recalled Freddy Dolsi -- neither of whom holds the answer to what ails the Tigers.
        Lambert had to bail out Rick Porcello on Tuesday night when Porcello was ejected after hitting Boston’s Kevin Youkilis, which started a brief brawl.
        Ironically, the Red Sox’ pitcher on Tuesday night was none other than Junichi Tazawa, a player from the Japanese Industrial League that the Tigers coveted. Tazawa would have given them some much-needed pitching depth in the organization.
        Meanwhile, Leyland is being careful not to count on Bonderman or Nate Robertson until they demonstrate that they are ready to deliver.
        “He (Bonderman) has got to get people out, that’s the way I look at it,” Leyland explained. “He’s got to build himself back up to where he’s ‘pitchable.’
        “The thing about guys who are coming back off the disabled list is, they all think they’re ready six weeks before they’re ready,” the manager continued.
        “They think that just because they walk into the clubhouse and their arm doesn’t hurt they’re ready to pitch. That’s that true. Feeling good and getting hitters out are two different things.”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Leyland on steroid controversy: "You get sick of it"

        The Tigers begin a four-game series in Boston  on Monday and Jim Leyland knows he is going to be asked about the Red Sox’ David Ortiz and the continuing steroid controversy.
        On Sunday, the Tigers’ manager made it clear where he stands on the matter: He doesn’t condone the use of performance-enhancing drugs, of course, but he is tired of hearing about it and talking about it and he doesn’t think most baseball fans really care.
        “The people who care about it probably don’t like baseball,” Leyland declared, equating the people who clamor for the release of the names of all of the players who tested positive in the supposedly confidential 2003 survey to “nosy neighbors.”
        “I don’t condone steroids or growth hormones or anything else,” Leyland said, firing up another Marlboro. “But it’s gotten to be boring for me.
        “If David Ortiz said he didn’t knowingly take anything, I believe him. I could care less what anybody else thinks.
        “I don’t know how stuff like that comes out. I’ve always thought when something was confidential and sworn to be confidential, that’s what it is. Confidential.  That’s exactly what that means to me, confidential. I think that’s kind of unfair.
        “I’m not blaming the media, but they're not going to let it alone. I’m not blaming anybody because it’s news and that’s what you people do for a living.”
        But Leyland wishes people would just drop the whole witch hunt and move on.
        “You get sick of it,” he said.
        “When a team wins the World Series, and everybody is celebrating, do you think those fans are saying, ‘I wonder how many of those guys are on steroids?’ ”

Friday, August 7, 2009

Ni's job: Get big outs -- and bring treats for the bullpen

        If you get to your seat at Comerica Park early enough to see the relief pitchers walk out to the bullpen, look for the guy wearing the pink back pack. That will be Fu-Te Ni.
        As the junior member of the Tigers’ relief corps, in terms of big league service, it is Ni’s responsibility to fill that back pack with treats and sundries — candy, gum, bottled water, Advil, liniment — before every game, and then wear the pink bag out of the bullpen.
        “Ni does a real good job of stocking it every day,” praised Bobby Seay, who has been known to partake of a candy bar or two during the game.
        Ni has also become quite the clubhouse comedian. Although the left hander from Taiwan speaks virtually no English, he does very good imitations of some of his Tiger teammates, notably Seay and Placido Polanco.
        At the urging of bullpen coach Jeff Jones, Ni did his imitation of Seay marching around the mound between pitches for Jim Leyland the other day.
        “I laughed my butt off,” Leyland said. “He’s really funny. He’s got personality. I like that.”
        On Friday, Ni did his impression of Seay for a couple members of the media — stepping off to the side of the make-believe mound, tapping his cap, then tapping his foot before throwing a pitch.
        Nobody laughed harder at the little clubhouse show than Seay. “He’s got me down pat,” Seay said.
        “He really fits in well here, in my opinion,” Seay said. “He may not be able to speak much English, but he understands a lot.
        “He’s into the game 24/7. He knows he has to get big outs when he comes into a game.  And he knows how to be a professional. That’s something you can’t always teach.”

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Rehabbing Bonderman experiments with splitter

        Strange as it may sound, Jeremy Bonderman, who is battling his way back to the big leagues following arm trouble, is experimenting with a split-finger fastball — a pitch that has been known to be harmful to the arms of some pitchers in the past.
        Bonderman, who hopes to be back with the Tigers, albeit in the bullpen, by September, thinks the splitter can be an alternative to the elusive change-up that he has been chasing for years. The Tigers have been encouraging Bonderman to add a change-up as a third pitch in his repertoire since he joined the team in 2003.
        “I think it’s a good idea, it’s certainly worthy trying,” a somewhat skeptical  Jim Leyland said Thursday when he was asked about Bonderman’s splitter.
        “I’m looking for results. I don’t care what they throw. If he can get people out with the splitter, I’m all for it.”
        Former Tigers pitching coach Roger Craig was an early proponent of the splitter, which was made famous by Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter and featured by Tigers’ ace Jack Morris, among many others.
        Nevertheless, many believe the splitter places undue stress on a pitcher’s elbow and shoulder and can lead to loss in velocity — which is the very thing Bonderman is trying to regain.
        Bonderman first tried to throw the splitter in spring training when he was coming off shoulder surgery. But he stopped because his arm didn’t feel right.
        When he tried to throw it again in a simulated game last week, he found the pitch more to his liking.   Of the 13 pitches Bonderman threw in his 1-2-3 inning in his first rehab appearance with Toledo on Tuesday, four were splitters.
        Bonderman is scheduled to pitch for the Mud Hens again Thursday night.
        Nate Robertson, who is also rehabbing with Toledo, will make his next start for the Mud Hens on Saturday.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Tigers' new catcher Avila living a dream

        Alex Avila was 15 the first time he set foot in the Tigers’ clubhouse. His dad, Al, who had just been hired as the Tigers’ vice-president and assistant general manager, brought his kid to work.
        Young Alex knew then that he wanted to be a big league baseball player someday. “It’s always been my dream,” he said. But, in his wildest dreams he never imagined that day would arrive so soon.
        When Alex Avila, now 22 and a little more than a year removed from college, walked into the Tigers’ Comerica Park clubhouse late Wednesday afternoon, it was as a big league ballplayer.
        “It’s pretty unbelievable that the day is already here,” said Avila, who was summoned from Double-A Erie late Tuesday night to serve as the Tigers’ new back-up catcher. “The time has gone by so quickly. I always thought that one day  I’d play in the big leagues. But I never thought it would happen this fast.”
        The Tigers are hoping Avila, who was batting .264 with 12 home runs and 55 RBI at Erie, will occasionally add a little pop to the lower third of their batting order — something they didn’t get from either of Avila’s predecessors, Dusty Ryan (.160) and Dane Sardinha (.097).
        “I was shocked when I found out,” Avila admitted. “I was thinking I’d finish the season at Erie and hopefully get in the playoffs there.
        “I wasn’t even thinking about being called up in September. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what was going on up here.”
        When Erie manager Tom Brookens, the former Tigers third baseman, called Avila into his office after the SeaWolves game Tuesday night to give him the news, the young catcher was speechless.
        “I couldn’t find the words, I didn’t know what to say,” Avila admitted. “I just sat there in his office. I couldn’t believe it.”
        Of course, Al Avila, being one of the Tigers’ top executives, knew about Tuesday night’s call-up before his son did. The elder Avila phoned his wife to give her the news and she, in turned, called Alex’s fiancĂ© Kristina.
        When Alex finally left the Erie ballpark Tuesday night, bursting with excitement, he couldn’t wait to tell Kristina, who was waiting for him in the parking lot.
        “Hey, we’ve got to get packed!” the grinning Alex shouted.
        “I’m already packed,” his fiancĂ© said, smiling.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Shopping for shoes, Leyland gets a new left fielder

        Did you ever wonder how roster moves are made in baseball? Sometimes such decisions are not nearly as intricate as you might think.
        Jim Leyland was at the Somerset mall in Troy before it opened Tuesday morning. He had driven out there to exchange a pair of designer shoes that he had gotten as a gift. But he didn’t know what time the stores opened and he arrived early.
        “I was sitting there on a bench, drinking a cup of coffee with all the mall walkers,” the Tigers manager said.
        Leyland was in the shoe store when his cell phone rang a few minutes past 10. It was Tigers’ president and general manager Dave Dombrowski calling.
        “Dave said, ‘You know, I had a brainstorm. Maybe it’s time to tinker with our roster a little.’ ” Leyland recounted later.
        “I said, ‘I think that’s a great idea.’ ”
        And that’s how rookie Wilkin Ramirez came to be in the big leagues Tuesday night.
        At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Ramirez got the call in Toledo. Within an hour he was on his way north along I-75. Tuesday night, Ramirez was in the starting lineup, playing left field against the Baltimore Orioles.
        “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here, we’re not trying to outsmart anybody,” Leyland said.
        “My boss had a good idea and I thought it was a good idea. This is action. This is what we do. Why not play with the roster a little bit? I think that’s what smart general managers do.
        “We’re going to juggle our roster for the next month or so, depending on what we find our  needs are. I think you’ve got to be a little creative if you’ve got the flexibility to do so. It only makes sense.”
        It was the depth in the Tigers’ farm system that enabled them to trade for Tuesday night’s starting pitcher, left hander Jarrod Washburn, last Friday. And it was that depth that allowed them to add another right handed hitter in the person of Ramirez to their lineup, at least for one night.
        “That’s what a farm system is for,” Leyland said. “Not only to provide you with players but also to allow you to get other players. You’ve got to give up something to get something.
        “I’m a big believer in the farm system because I spent a lot of time there,” Leyland said. “And I think we’ve got some nice pieces there.”
        Leyland isn’t sure how long Ramirez will remain in the big leagues. But he is sure this won’t be the last month this Tigers make this month.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Leyland goes to bat for hitting coach McClendon

        Last season, it was Tigers’ pitching coach Chuck Hernandez who felt the heat for the team’s poor performance. Eventually, it cost Hernandez his job. This year, as the Tiger hitters continue to flounder, it is batting coach Lloyd McClendon who is under attack.
        And Jim Leyland, McClendon’s boss and long-time friend, doesn’t want to hear it.
        “I know this much: We’ve got a great hitting club  and we’ve got a great hitting coach,” the manager declared Monday. “For whatever reason, we haven’t hit the way we expected.
        “But our hitting coach is the same hitting coach we had when Magglio Ordonez hit .363 and led the league. It’s the same hitting coach we had when Placido Polanco got 200 hits and batted .341. It’s the same hitting coach we had when Miguel Cabrera led the league in home runs.”
        To drive that message home to his players, Leyland addressed the struggling Tiger hitters Monday when they met, as usual, with McClendon after batting practice to discuss the strengths and weakness of the Baltimore pitchers they will be facing this week.
        The manager’s message: “I think it’s a good idea right now for us to simplify. You, as individuals can go to Lloyd and tell him how much information you want. Here it is. How much information do you want?”
        “That way,” Leyland explained, when he met with the media in his Comerica Park office, “there’s no b.s.
        “It’s for them to tell Lloyd exactly how much they want to know about that night’s pitcher. I do think there are a lot of times when the information gets too sophisticated.
        “But,” the manager added,” a lot of times, the players who bitch about having too much information will be the same guys who bitch about not having enough information when they’re not hitting.
        “That’s what I call diversionary tactics.
        “Our offense has been a real mystery to me,” Leyland admitted. “I’m shocked that we haven’t done better, offensively.  I thought they’d be better. I don’t have an explanation. I wish I did.”
        But the numbers speak for themselves -- especially on the road.