Thursday, September 30, 2010

Prediction: Third-place finish, sprained ankle will cost Cabrera MVP he deserves

    The vote will be close. Probably  the closest since 2006 when Justin Morneau edged Derek Jeter by 14 points. But I think the Tigers' disappointing third-place finish and the sprained ankle that knocked Miguel Cabrera out of the lineup for the final week of the season will cost Cabrera the Most Valuable Player Award that he so obviously deserves.
    I am not voting for MVP this year -- I'm voting for AL Manager of the Year. But, for the record, if I did have a vote it would definitely go to Cabrera, with the Yankees' Robinson Cano second, and the Rangers' Josh Hamilton third.   
    However, the fact that it is a three-player race this year will spread the first-place votes around -- and hurt Cabrera's chances.
    Cabrera wants to win the MVP. He wants it and deserves it. No other American Leaguer has performed at such a high level all season.
    Hamilton has been missing in action since he busted a couple of ribs on Sept. 4. But, although he appeared in only 130 games, he has enough at-bats to claim the AL batting title. And the Rangers are in the playoffs. Those two factors will weigh heavily in the minds of the 28 baseball writers who have a vote.
    Since the schedule was expanded to 162 games in 1961, only two American Leaguers --  Mickey Mantle in '62 and George Brett in '80 -- have been voted MVP despite playing 130 games or fewer.
    But in the past decade, only Alex Rodriguez of the 2003 Texas Rangers has won MVP honors while playing for a team that failed to finish first or second in its division.
    And getting injured cost Cabrera a chance to further pad his already-impressive stats with some convincing final week HRs and RBI.
    I predict Hamilton will be elected MVP with Cabrera finishing a close second and Cano taking a half-dozen first-place votes away from Cabrera and placing third.
    ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Austin Jackson is having a season for the ages. He leads all AL rookies in just about everything -- including strikeouts. Suddenly, Austin's name is being mentioned in the same sentence with the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson.
    The Rangers' Neftali Feliz is no slouch. He broke the save record for a rookie closer and has been outstanding down the stretch. Again, the fact that the Rangers are in the postseason, while the Tigers are not, will sway some voters.
    But I don't see how anyone could justify giving the award to a one-inning closer over a rookie who played and contributed as much every day as Jackson -- Austin, not Shoeless -- did.
    MANAGER OF THE YEAR: My vote goes to Minnesota's Ron Gardenhire, with Tampa's Joe Maddon second, and the Rangers' Ron Washington third.
    For Gardenhire, the honor will be long overdue. He has finished second in the balloting three times.
    All of the awards, presented by the Baseball Writers Association of America, will be announced in November, after the conclusion of the World Series.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Leyland's future will depend on off-season deals and decisions, and team's' 2011 performance

    Jim Leyland's $4 million-a-year contract expires at the end of the 2011 season. The Tigers' skipper would very much like to return in 2012 and beyond. "When I'm not interested in doing this any more you'll know -- because I won't be here. I'll be home," Leyland said last week.
    But it is the decisions and deals the Tigers make this off-season, and how well the team performs next year when Leyland will again be a lame duck, that will determine his future and his fate.   
    "I don't ever want to be the problem," Leyland, the Tigers' longest-tenured manager since Sparky Anderson, declared. "If I'm the problem, they won't have to tell me. They won't have to fire me.  I'll know I'm the problem. And I'll be gone. There will be no fanfare, nothing. Just, 'Goodbye. See ya.' "
    Leyland, only the 18th man in baseball history to manage 3,000 games, turns 66 in December. If the Tigers decide to bring him back in 2012, he will be 67.
    "I don't feel 65 years old," Leyland insisted. "I might look it, but I don't feel it. I don't think anyone's saying we have some feeble old man as the manager. I have some spunk."
    But whether Leyland feels his age or not,  the clock is ticking. recently invited its readers to rank 15 of the top managers of all time. ESPN's list of 15 candidates included Leyland and Sparky, along with Walter Alston, Bobby Cox, Leo Durocher, Tony LaRussa, Tommy Lasorda, Connie Mack, Billy Martin, Joe McCarthy, John McGraw, Lou Piniella, Casey Stengel, Joe Torre  and Earl Weaver.
    Cox and Torre are stepping down at the end of this season, although I suspect Torre isn't necessarily done. Pinella has already pulled the plug on his managing career.
    Only Leyland and probably LaRussa will still be managing next year.
    The Dodgers have already named Don Mattingly to replace Torre. But the Braves, Cubs, Blue Jays, Mariners, Marlins,  Diamondbacks, Mets, Brewers,  Pirates, Reds and even the Cardinals might all also have new managers in 2011.
    Leyland isn't the only one who wants to stick around Detroit. Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge, Jeremy Bonderman, Johnny Damon, and Jhonny Peralta feel that way, too.
    Contrast that to the attitude that prevailed here 10 years ago when nobody wanted to come here and most of those who did, didn't want to stay.
    "Maybe they felt they didn't have a chance to win here," Leyland admitted.
    But that has changed.
    "Who would want to leave here," Leyland wondered. "Why wouldn't you want to stay in a place like this? What's not to like?
    "I don't think you're going to have a problem getting players to come here for many years."
    The credit for that goes to owner Mike Ilitch, to GM Dave Dombrowski, to the supportive Tigers fans -- and, yes, to Leyland.
    "I'm sure we've disappointed a lot of people, but overall I think, over the last five years I've been a pretty good manager," Leyland said.
    What do you think?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Galarraga's "strange" season, pending arbitration, could convince the Tigers to let him go

    For Armando Galarraga, this has been the strangest season by any Tigers' pitcher since1952 when Virgil Trucks tossed not one, but two no-hitters -- but won just three other games the rest of the year.
    I asked Jim Leyland if he has an explanation as to why Galarraga has won only two of the 19 games he has started since he pitched what all agree was a perfect game on June 2?
    "I do not," the Tigers' manager replied tersely.
    The Tigers maintain there is nothing wrong physically with the 28-year-old right hander.
    So what's the problem?
    Galarraga is eligible for binding arbitration this winter and, personally, I would not be at all surprised if the Tigers simply let him go.
    Going to arbitration can be a costly proposition. With they win or lose, teams often end up paying a player more than they want to pay him. In Galarraga's case, it could be a lot more.
    Galarraga and his agent are going to try to cash in on his famous "imperfect game."
    You can't blame them. This is Armando's first and maybe his best shot at a big contract.
    But, Galarraga's grace after he was robbed by umpire Jim Joyce aside, his 4-7 record with a 4.44 ERA doesn't leave the Tigers inclined to offer him a huge raise.
    In fairness to Galarraga, he has pitched better at times than his record indicates. In 11 of those starts he allowed three earned runs or fewer. 
    But this is a results-based business. And the Tigers have a number of promising young pitchers in the minors waiting to take Galarraga's place as the No. 5 starter.
    Again this season, Galarraga has frustrated Jim Leyland by pitching to avoid contact instead of attacking the hitters. Too often it appears he doesn't trust his stuff which, as he demonstrated against the Indians on the memorable June night, can be outstanding.
    He has been, in a word, inconsistent.
    Keeping him could cost the Tigers more than they think he's worth.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cabrera says Ordonez "wants to come back next year" -- but at what price?

    Magglio Ordonez is at home in South Florida, recovering from his busted right ankle and subsequent surgery, and collecting the last of his $18 million salary from the Tigers.
    Out of sight, but definitely not out of mind.
    Will we ever see Ordonez wearing the Olde English D again, or won't we?
    I put the odds at 60-40 -- against.
    Miguel Cabrera, Ordonez's teammate, friend and countryman, told me on Wednesday that he has spoken frequently to Magglio by phone and that Ordonez wants to return to the Tigers next season.
    "He wants to come back next year, he wants to stay here," Cabrera said.
    And the Tigers want him back.
    But at what price?
    Until he broke his ankle sliding home on July 24, everyone involved assumed Ordonez's return in 2011 was a done deal. The clause in his contract that would have guaranteed him a $15 million salary next season was a cinch to kick in.
    However, his injury has caused everyone to reassess the situation.
    Because Ordonez was injured before he could collect the needed at-bats, the Tigers are no longer bound to that $15 million figure.
    But how much less might Ordonez and his high-power agent Scott Boras be willing to accept?
    If the Tigers were to offer Ordonez $15 million, I think he'd sign in a minute.
    But would Magglio come back for $12 million? What about $10 million?
    There is more than mere money at stake here. 
    Ordonez is a proud man. He wants to feel appreciated. He wants to be rewarded for all that he has done in Detroit, including that pennant-clinching home run in 2006 and his 2007 batting title.
    But, as much as the Tigers have missed Magglio for the past two months it remains to be seen how much owner Mike Ilitch, through GM Dave Dombrowski, will be willing to pay for a proven .300 hitter who hit 12 homers and knocked in 59 runs in 84 games this year -- but one who will turn 37 in January.
    "I want him to come back, he's a great teammate and a great hitter," Cabrera declared.
    As a free agent this winter, Ordonez will certainly attract interest. But, in today's economy, I wonder how high the bidding will go.
    Free agency isn't always a path to riches. Remember what happened to Johnny Damon. He made $13 million in 2009. But he eventually signed with the Tigers for $8 million, because that was the best offer he got.
    "They love Magglio, the city loves him, they love him here," Cabrera said, who has missed Ordonez, with his .303 average, batting in front of him.
    Then Cabrera grinned. "He's got to grow the hair again," the Tigers' slugger said.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What kind of numbers would Raburn put up if he played every day?

    For nearly two years now, I have wondered: What kind of numbers would Ryan Raburn put up if he was given the opportunity to play every day?
     Next season, we may finally find out.
    You can etch the name of Austin Jackson in stone in center field for next year.
    But left field and right field are very much up in the air.
    Will the Tigers bite the $15 million bullet and bring Magglio Ordonez back next season?
    If so, will he play right field or finish his career here as the designated hitter?
    Where does faded rookie sensation Brennan Boesch fit into the picture for next year?
    What about Casper Wells, whose stock has definitely risen in recent days with 21 hits, including five doubles, two HRs and 12 RBI, in his first 57 big league at-bats?
    Such speculation, of course, is assuming the Tigers don't trade for or sign a slugging corner outfielder this winter.
    One outfielder who probably doesn't have to worry about a job next year is Raburn.
    All that remains to be determined is whether Raburn's slugging September has earned him a starting job in left field or whether he will again be a valuable reserve. Raburn is hitting .426 this month with a .634 slugging percentage.
    His surprising finish has pushed his season numbers to a respectable .276 batting average with 13 home runs and 54 RBI in 312 at-bats.
    On Aug. 4 Raburn was hitting an anemic .209 with just two HRs and 23 RBI, putting his future in a Tigers' uniform in doubt.
    Since then, he has batted .357 while delivering 11 HRs and 13 doubles and driving in 31 runs. Since Aug. 5, Raburn leads the American League with 24 extra-base hits and a .683 slugging percentage.
    Raburn also came on strong during August (.327/.592) and September (.355/.677) last season to clinch his place as an extra outfielder on this year's team. Now, if only he could get off to a good start.
    If I had to guess at this point, barring a trade or a significant free agent signing, I think it will be Raburn in left, Jackson in center, and Boesch in right, with the versatile Wells and Don Kelly in reserve next year.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Damon will be on Hall of Fame ballot someday. How many other Tigers can make that claim?

    Johnny Damon probably won't wear a Tigers uniform next season. But he plans to play somewhere. And his name will definitely be on the Hall of Fame ballot someday in the not-too-distant future.
    How many of his current Tiger teammates can make that same claim?
    All too often, I fear, Damon's performance and presence have been under-appreciated this year.
    On Wednesday, in a losing cause, Damon tripled for the 100th time in his career.
    Among active players, only Tampa Bay speedster --  who, by the way, will be a free agent at the end of this season and who would certainly fit nicely into the Tigers' lineup next year -- has more three-baggers (104).
    Among all big leaguers, all-time, Damon ranks 158th. Tigers' great Sam Crawford is baseball's all-time leader with 309.
    Damon is fourth among active players in runs scored with 1,560. Alex Rodriguez is the active leader with 1,745. Damon ranks 51st all-time -- ahead of Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Wade Boggs, and Mike Schmidt.
    Damon is ninth among active players with 482 doubles. Surprisingly, ex-Tiger Pudge Rodriguez is the leader with 564. All-time, Damon is 70th in doubles. Hall of Famer Tris Speaker is the all-time leader with 792.
    Damon is seventh among active players with 2,557 hits. It likely won't happen here, but he has a shot at 3,000 which would virtually guarantee him a plaque on the wall in Cooperstown.
    Damon is also fourth among active players in stolen bases (383) fifth in at-bats (8,893),  and eighth in games played (2,261).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Guillen doesn't care where he plays next year, he just wants to stay healthy

    Carlos Guillen said Sunday he doesn't care whether he plays second base or serves as the Tigers' DH next season.
    He just wants to play.
    "I enjoy playing baseball -- it doesn't matter where," declared Guillen. "I'd be OK playing second, DH-ing, any position. I just want to stay healthy."
     Guillen, who has been sidelined since Aug. 17 with what was initially diagnosed as a deep knee bruise, will not accompany the Tigers on this week's road trip to Texas and Chicago. Instead, he will fly to New York where on Friday he will undergo a diagnostic surgical procedure to hopefully determine exactly why the pain in his left knee won't go away.
    "They won't know until they get in there and clean it out," Guillen explained. 
    Guillen and the Tigers want to find out what is wrong and get it fixed.
    And there is no point in waiting.
    "Better to do it now and not wait for two more months," Guillen said. "Do it now so I'll be ready for spring training."
    Guillen, who will turn 35 at the end of the month, has one year remaining on his contract and is guaranteed $13 million next year.
    He has been plagued by injuries the past two years. In 2009, he appeared in 81 games. This season he has only played in a career-low 68, batting .273 with six HRs and 34 RBI.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cabrera enjoying a banner year, but his chances of a Triple Crown are nil

    Miguel Cabrera was absent from the starting lineup again Thursday because of tendinitis in his left shoulder which hinders his swing and reduces his power. Barring a stupendous final three weeks, which now appears all but impossible, his chances of winning baseball's Triple Crown are nil.
    Not that they were ever very good.
    Historically, the odds against a Triple Crown are 17-1.
    But in today's baseball, the odds are much greater than that.
    Since 1900 it has only happened in either league 13 times.
    In the past 110 years, only 11 players -- Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb ('09), Rogers Hornsby (1922, '25), Jimmie Foxx ('33), Chuck Klein ('33), Lou Gehrig ('34), Joe Medwick ('37), Ted Williams (1942, '47), Mickey Mantle ('56), Frank Robinson ('66), and Carl Yastrzemski ('67) _ have ever led their league in batting average, home runs and RBI.    As you can see, two players, Hornsby and Williams, did it twice.
    It is no coincidence that all 11 are enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame.
    But, in the so-called Expansion Era, it has only happened twice since 1956.
    No fan under the age of 50 has ever seen it happen, which definitely puts me in the minority.
    Cabrera continues to lead the American League in RBI with 110.  But he trails injured Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers by 28 points (.361 to .333) in the batting race and Toronto's Jose Bautista by 10 home runs (43 to 33) in the HR chase.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Does Leyland deserve a plaque in baseball's Hall of Fame someday?

    Jim Leyland has moved past Baltimore's Earl Weaver and into 20th place on the all-time list of baseball's winningest managers. Weaver is a Hall of Famer.
    By the end of this season, Leyland could also surpass Clark Griffith, who has 10 more wins than Leyland's 1,481 going into Wednesday night's game. Griffith is also enshrined at Cooperstown, although he was inducted as a player, not a manager.
    Which raises the question: Does Jim Leyland deserve to be elected to the Hall of Fame someday?
    Leyland's critics will howl, but a compelling argument can be made.
    Only 19 managers in baseball history own more wins than Leyland.
    Thirteen of those guys -- Connie Mack, John McGraw, Sparky Anderson, Bucky Harris, Joe McCarthy, Walter Alston, Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Bill McKechnie, Fred Clarke, Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams, and Griffith -- already have plaques hanging on the wall in the Hall.
    Three other managers with more wins -- Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre -- are still active and will almost surely be elected someday.
    Of those retired managers with more wins than Leyland, only Gene Mauch, Lou Pinella, and Ralph Houk are not in the Hall.
    Ten others, with fewer wins than Leyland -- Weaver, of course, as well as Miller Huggins, Al Lopez, Wilbert Robinson, Ned Hanlon, Frank Selee, Whitey Herzog, Harry Wright, Hughie Jennings, and Billy Southworth -- are also in the Hall.
    Leyland's world championship with Florida in 1997, his two trips to the World Series, with the Marlins ('97) and  Tigers ('06), and his three consecutive division titles with Pittsburgh (1990-92) will guarantee him some Cooperstown consideration once he retires.
    Leyland currently has a sub-.500 record as a manager. But so do HOFers Connie Mack and Bucky Harris.
    If you had a vote, what would you do?

Monday, September 6, 2010

St. Pierre's feel-good story shows power of perseverance and positive thinking

    One of the pre-game chores that many  big leaguers dread the most is autographing the seemingly-endless supply of baseballs in the locker room. But when one of the kids who works in the Tigers' clubhouse approached Max St. Pierre with two dozen blank balls to sign Monday morning, the rookie catcher gladly grabbed them and immediately began affixing his autograph.
    "I'm in the big leagues," St. Pierre explained, smiling. "I've been waiting all these years just to get here. It's been unbelievable."
    And he's not about to complain -- about anything.
    St. Pierre's feel-good story is a monument to the power of perseverance, patience and positive thinking.
    For 14 seasons, St. Pierre toiled in the bushes, playing in places like Oneonta, Lakeland, Erie (six times), and Toledo. "I tried to stay positive, but I'm not getting any younger," he admitted.
    Along the way, St. Pierre overcame a drinking problem, was traded and released.
    "It would have been easy to quit, I thought about it," he confessed.
    Because he was born in Quebec and spoke with a French accent, he had a hard time communicating with the pitchers when he first signed with the Tigers in 1997. "They couldn't understand me because of my accent," he recalled. "They thought I was dumb."
    But St. Pierre didn't let that derail him, either.
    For nearly 1,000 minor league games, St. Pierre crouched behind home plate, waiting for his dream to happen, waiting for the chance that even he was beginning to believe might never come.
    Particularly this year after he dislocated his left thumb in mid-May and broke his left hand in late June.
    St. Pierre's hand still hurts every time he catches a ball. "They tell me it'll take two or three months to heal," he said.
    But he doesn't mind.
    "I'm in the big leagues," he said again.
    For the 30-year-old St. Pierre, the call he had been awaiting for nearly half his life, finally arrived last week when the Tigers summoned him to the big leagues because of Gerald Laird's lingering back spasms.
    And his phone hasn't stopped ringing since.
    "In the minors, when my phone would ring, it was only my mother or my wife who would be calling," St. Pierre said.
    "Now it's everybody.
    "Voice mail, texts, lots of face book -- everything.  Since I've been here it's been on fire. Radio shows, newspapers, friends -- people I haven't even talked to since high school now what to be my friends. I'd say, total, 200 or 300 messages. And it's not stopping. It's been unbelievable.
    "I'm enjoying it, for sure," he added.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tigers' plight proves it's not how much money you spend, it's how you spend it

    Much has been made and much will continue to be made about the mountain of money -- nearly $134 million this season, and almost $500  million over the last four -- that Mike Ilitch has spent in the futile pursuit of another pennant.
    However, although dollars dominate so many baseball conversations these days -- and understandably so --  money isn't everything.
    If the season were to end today, 13 of this year's 16 biggest spenders -- the Red Sox, Cubs, Tigers, Mets, Angels, White Sox, Dodgers,  Giants, Cardinals, Astros, Mariners, Brewers, and Rockies -- would all miss the playoffs.
    With the exception of the ridiculously rich New York Yankees,  it's not how much you spend, but rather how you spend it.
    And that, after all, is the way it should be.
    The Texas Rangers have won 75 games. They're in first place in the American League West and a cinch to reach the postseason. Their payroll is $64.811 million.
    The Tampa Bay Rays have won 82 games. They are one game behind the Yankees in the AL East and likely to be the wild card, at worst. Their payroll is $72.847 million.
    The Minnesota Twins  have won 77 games. They're in first place in the AL Central by four games. Their payroll is $97.659 million.
    The surprising San Diego Padres have won 76 games. They're in first place in the National League West. Their payroll is $37.799  million.
    The Cincinnati Reds have won 78 games. They're in first place in the NL Central and headed for the postseason. Their payroll is $76.152 million.
    The Atlanta Braves have won 78 games. They're in first place in the NL East. Their payroll is $83.890 million.
    The disappointing Tigers have won 65 games. They're in third place in the AL Central. Their payroll is $133.995 million.
    Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Tigers, too, have something to play for this month -- but it's personal

    The long-shot White Sox plucked Manny Ramirez, a major league problem child with Hall of Fame credentials, off the waiver wire, renting him for the rest of the season for $3.8 million. The front-running Minnesota Twins have bolstered their suspect bullpen, picking up proven relievers Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes.
    Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the Tigers summoned career minor league catcher Max St. Pierre and recalled right-handed reliever Robbie Weinhardt.
    Therein lies the difference between the true contenders and the also-rans.
    And it's a big difference.
    Another day, another rookie. Or two.
    In case you haven't noticed, on most nights the Tigers' starting lineup now includes four or five freshmen.
    While the Twins battle to hang on to the lead in the American league Central, and the ChiSox struggle to catch them, the Tigers, veterans as well as rookies, are auditioning for 2011.
    Veterans Johnny Damon, Jeremy Bonderman and Brandon Inge hope to convince the Tigers, meaning Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland, to bring them back next season.
    Rookies, such Will Rhymes and Casper Wells, and trying to prove that they belong in the big leagues.
    The Tigers, too, have something to play for this month -- but it is personal, not the postseason.
    For some, such as Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, this will be a season to forget.
    But for St. Pierre, who has toiled in the bush leagues since 1997, pursuing a dream that has long seemed impossible, this will be a year to remember.
    St. Pierre's call-up came a couple of days early because of Gerald Laird's lingering back spasms.
    Those who know St. Pierre, those who played with him in the minors, applauded the decision as well-deserved.
    But the fact remains, if the Tigers were still in the pennant chase, they would look at this last month of the season a lot differently.