June 13, 2013

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Valverde?

It’s been more than 24 hours since Valverde did his latest hack job on a brilliant outing by a starting pitcher. And most of Michigan is still pretty furious. I immediately declared myself part of the “Anyone But Valverde” camp, and I stick by that. But now, someone has to figure out the “Anyone” part. The one thing we do know (or hope) is that the Tigers realize they can’t afford to use Papa Grande in the ninth inning ever again. Plenty of articles, blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts have given their opinions, so I might as well throw my two cents in. Here are the five in-house choices, in order from least objectionable to most heinous:

1. Joaquin Benoit: The good news is he’s here, he’s pitching well, and he has closing experience. The bad news is he has a history of bouts with longballitis. Then there’s the fact that he’d be vacating the 8th inning slot.

2. Drew Smyly: He’s young, versatile, pitching well, and has a much better repertoire than the usual closer. The problem with him is similar to the problem with Benoit: vacating the role he currently holds. Not to mention the fact that it could delay and/or harm his development as a closer (although a similar move didn’t seem to hurt Chris Sale). If Benoit gets the nod as closer, Smyly could be be the 7th-8th inning guy.

3. Bruce Rondon: He’s dominating AAA hitters, but he’s still having control issues. the best course, if they bring him up, may be to put him in the 7th-8th inning roles and let him work his way into the closer role, with Benoit or Smyly keeping the spot warm for him.

4. Putkonen/Downs: Neither is the prototypical closer, but both have been effective in long-relief stints at times.

5. Phil Coke: Coke’s 2013 struggles, especially against right-handers, have been well-documented. He’s not the answer any more than Valverde was.

Of course, there’s always the chance that Dombrowski could trade for a closer, or another bullpen arm who would free up one of the above for the role.

My favorite trade targets would be San Diego’s Luke Gregerson or Washington’s Drew Storen. Neither of these is probably realistic. Washington has the depth to trade Storen, but why should they? They’d ask for a lot. Same with Gregerson. He’s young, cheap, and probably San Diego’s closer of the future after they trade Huston Street.

Street is probably available but would cost significant talent, and he’s not having a great year either. Plus, he’s currently hurt.

Jonathan Papelbon might be available, but he’s getting stupid money for the next three years. Of course that money could keep Philly from asking for top prospects (read: Castellanos or Garcia) for him. The other problem is I can’t stand him. But he’d be just what the Tiger bullpen needs.

Brian Wilson‘s name occasionally floats into the conversation, but no one is sure how healthy his arm is. Not to mention that he’s an attention-craving loon.

The other closers or possible-closers that the non-contenders may offer up would surely cost the cream of the farm system crop.

So we’re back to the question of who will close for the Tigers. The only answer anyone (except Leyland) is sure of is “Anyone but Valverde.”

May 29, 2013

Jason Grilli’s Triumphant Return to Detroit

Did Detroit Tigers fans recognize the pitcher who took the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 11th inning Tuesday night at Comerica Park?

The Pirates closer mowed down the best part of the Tigers batting order, striking out Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in succession to finish off a 1-0 win. (Cabrera was punched out in just four pitches, by the way.)

The mullet on that reliever looked familiar, though perhaps more stringy than it was before.

Wait — that was Jason Grilli? And he leads MLB with 21 saves? He’s even perfect, converting all 21 of his save opportunities?

grilli_piratesYep, that was the same Jason Grilli who Tigers fans couldn’t wait to run out of town during his four seasons in Detroit. In 2008, the team granted their wish by shipping Grilli to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for minor leaguer Zach Simons.

On his way out of Detroit, Grilli made sure the door was slammed shut behind him by saying the Tigers clubhouse had become “stale and stagnant.” Chemistry suffered, he claimed, when the team didn’t bring back Sean Casey.

That led to the best rant Jim Leyland has ever unleashed on the Detroit media.

“You have to be kidding me,” Leyland told reporters, including MLB.com’s Jason Beck. “I mean, please. Jason Grilli ought to just worry about Colorado.

“Jason Grilli’s not here any longer because Jason Grilli didn’t pitch good under pressure situations and didn’t pitch very well in Detroit. You want to tell it like it is? When players want to start talking, I’ll start talking. But I’m very reserved about stuff like that. Jason Grilli ought to worry about Colorado, not Detroit.”

You can listen to the audio of Leyland’s remarks at MLive.

I enjoyed the rant so much that I still have it on my iPod. If it comes up on shuffle while I’m at the gym, I start giggling and people around me wonder what’s wrong with this guy.

So at least we can always thank Grilli for that. Oh, and the windshield-wiper goggles that he wore during the clubhouse celebration in 2006. Those set a standard that really have yet to be matched since, despite attempts to avoid stinging champagne in the eyes by snowboarding and ski goggles.

Personally, I should also show gratitude toward Grilli for providing me with some great material back when I was writing at Bless You Boys. As infuriating as it was to watch Grilli pitch poorly for the Tigers, it gave me the opportunity to unleash some rants of my own. This one, for example, after he blew a game early in the 2008 season.

If a tied ballgame were a carton of eggs handed to Grilli, he not only would’ve dropped the eggs on the floor, shattering the shells, and pooling yolk and white all over your kitchen tile.  But he would’ve then slipped on the viscous puddle, gone feet-first into the air, came crashing back down ass-first into the sticky, gooey mess, getting it all over his clothes, spreading and spraying the now-inedible sludge across the floor and onto the walls.

Even worse, Grilli would’ve pulled the person who was trying to help him up down to the floor with him, causing the innocent to also fall injuriously, soil his or her clothing, and causing a further spread of slop around the room.  And you know what?  Grilli might not have even cleaned up the mess, leaving all that broken egg to cause a salmonella outbreak in your household.  And all he was supposed to do was put the damn eggs in the refrigerator.

Ah, I kind of miss those days. Along with the ability to coin a nickname like “Gas Can Grilli.” (I even tried to cash in on the anti-Grilli sentiment with t-shirts.)

Grilli pitched well for the Rockies after the Tigers traded him, compiling a 2.93 ERA in 51 appearances. He also struck out 59 batters in 61.1 innings. Going to the National League looked like a good career move for him.

The next season didn’t go so well, however. Grilli lugged a 6.05 ERA in 22 appearances with Colorado in 2009 and he was designated for assignment. The Texas Rangers picked him up, but as you might expect, it didn’t go much better for him in Arlington. Grilli struck out 27 batters in 26.1 innings, but allowed 14 hits and 14 walks while posting a 4.78 ERA.

grilli_tigersAt 32 years old, it wasn’t outlandish to wonder if Grilli’s career was near its end. That seemed like even more of a possibility after Grilli missed the entire 2010 season due to a knee injury suffered in spring training with the Cleveland Indians.

But something seemed to click for Grilli after he returned in 2011. Following a minor-league stint with the Phillies in which he compiled a 1.93 ERA in 28 appearances, Grilli caught on with the Pirates. Since then, he’s been one of the best relievers in the majors.

Into his third season with Pittsburgh, Grilli has a 2.43 ERA in 118 appearances (almost as many as he had with the Tigers) and is averaging 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

If you’re a believer in holds, Grilli racked up 32 of them last season. This year, he has those 21 saves, three more than the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera. He’s a big reason that the Pirates are 32-20, 2.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the NL Central.

What’s been the big difference for Grilli? Experience may have made him a smarter pitcher, as Hunter alluded to after Tuesday’s game. But the primary change in Grilli’s game is his slider.

As FanGraphs shows, Grilli has ditched the curveball and changeup that he mixed in while he was with the Tigers. He’s primarily a two-pitch pitcher now, featuring a fastball and slider.

That slider is even more effective than his fastball. He gets a strike with it nearly 44 percent of the time. Opposing batters are hitting .133 against it with a .295 OPS.

Interestingly, according to Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was former Tiger Jeremy Bonderman who talked to Grilli about how to throw a slider more effectively. Maybe Grilli can someday return the favor and advise Bondo on how to reinvent himself as a lights-out major league reliever.

Did I really just use the term “lights-out” in reference to Grilli? Well, look at the numbers. He might just be the best closer in MLB right now.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve mentioned on a few radio and podcast appearances that the Tigers might want to look at Grilli if they find themselves looking for a closer at the trade deadline.

I meant it somewhat jokingly, since things generally didn’t go well for Grilli in Detroit. That’s also presuming, of course, that the Pirates fall out of the NL playoff race in the second half of the season, as they have during the past two years. But if they do, Grilli will likely be the best closer available.

Tigers fans surely wouldn’t want to see Grilli return. Yet all would likely be forgiven if he was just as effective for the Tigers as he’s been for the Pirates and helped fill the one big hole on Detroit’s roster.

How strange would that be?

May 23, 2013

Can’t Wait to See This Bryce Hunter Kid Play

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 9.59.22 PM

The screen grab spreading across the baseball Twittersphere Thursday night is this graphic from the FOX Sports Kansas City broadcast of the Royals-Angels game.

The poll question to FS Kansas City viewers was “Which young player would you like to start a franchise with?” That’s a fun one to debate, right?

Mike Trout and Manny Machado would be fine choices. Except… does Trout play for the New York Yankees? When did Machado join the Chicago White Sox? Nice work on the graphics there.

But it’s the other players listed that truly make this hilarious. “Matt Jones”? Pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles? Well, he has Matt Harvey’s face and he’s wearing a New York Mets uniform, so I guess that’s a mistake anybody creating on-screen graphics could make. Ahem. 

The best one for Tigers fans, however, is “Bryce Hunter.” The picture says Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals, but that logo graphic is the Old English D.

I suppose we can expect this other Hunter to join Torii in the Detroit outfield. Maybe Jim Leyland can give him the start in left field? Bat him fifth behind Prince Fielder? Those 12 home runs would be second on the team to Miguel Cabrera.

(via Awful Announcing)

May 23, 2013

Was Getting Justin Verlander Back on Track Worth Risking Him After a Rain Delay?

So should we still be worried about Justin Verlander?

After two consecutive subpar — some might call them poor — starts, you could feel the panic level rise among Tigers fans. What was wrong with the best pitcher in baseball?

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland IndiansJustin Verlander doesn’t walk five batters in a game. Yet that’s what he did May 11 against the Cleveland Indians.

He certainly doesn’t give up eight runs in a start. Well… Verlander did just that  last Thursday (May 16) versus the Texas Rangers, throwing less than three innings in what was supposed to be a pitching duel with Yu Darvish.

Maybe it’s the online contingent of Tigers fans that’s fretting the most.

I’ve made the mistake in the recent past of presuming that what I read from blog comments, Twitter and Facebook indicates what the fanbase at large is feeling. (I don’t really do message boards anymore and since I no longer live in metro Detroit, sports talk radio can be easily avoided.)

So I won’t make a blanket statement. I think Tigers fans are largely pretty rational. (Look at Scott Rogowski being the voice of reason.)

But the vocal minority — if it is a minority — seemed to be freaking out after Detroit lost three of four games last weekend in Texas.

That anxiety was focused individually on Verlander after his previous two starts, when he suddenly didn’t look as invincible as he has during the past two seasons.

Has Verlander’s performance been a concern? Certainly.

But he was so good in 2011 and 2012 that Tigers fans — and baseball fans, in general — expect greatness every single time he takes the mound. Given how great he’s been, maybe that’s not unreasonable.

Yet it’s also not inconceivable that elite pitchers can have bad games. Starting pitchers make 33 to 34 appearances per season. They’re not all going to be stellar.

Having said that, Verlander didn’t necessarily calm these fears down with his effort on Wednesday night against the Indians. He still didn’t look sharp, ultimately allowing five runs and 10 hits in five innings of work.

The initial impulse might be to blame a 62-minute rain delay for Verlander going only five innings. But he’d thrown 100 pitches by that point. He wouldn’t have pitched past the sixth, unless he got by with some quick innings.

However, the Tigers’ ace did rack up nine strikeouts and issued only one walk. So whatever Verlander worked on between starts in bullpen sessions appears to have helped him locate his pitches better.

But back to that rain delay. Again, it was 62 minutes long. Verlander had thrown 100 pitches. The Tigers had a 9-5 lead. Once play resumed, Verlander’s night would be over, right?

Yet Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to send Verlander back out there to complete the fifth inning, breaking what he said was his personal rule in the process.

The consensus among analysts seemed to be that an hour is as long as you would want a pitcher to go during a rain delay. After that, the arm is no longer warm, no matter how a pitcher tries to stay loose. The risk of injury is considerable. Leyland supposedly agrees with that philosophy.

But the Tigers surely wanted to make the game official, had the umpires opted to call it short due to rain. It’s difficult to believe that making sure Verlander earned the win was any sort of consideration, but perhaps that factored in just a bit. After getting the decision and his fifth victory, Verlander is now 5-4 for the season.

Maybe it’s that Leyland trusts Verlander. If Verlander said he still felt good and could pitch, Leyland would let him. Besides, the time span was close enough to the one-hour limit that it didn’t seem like a stretch.

Leyland told reporters after the game that breaking his rule for Verlander was “a reward” for all of the ace’s hard work and success.

But was sending his pitcher out there after an hour delay worth the risk of possible injury? There were already rumblings that Verlander was struggling because he was hurt. Even if he wasn’t — and his problems were solely mechanical — why take the chance that the Tigers’ No. 1 arm could get hurt?

Perhaps that’s an overreaction as well. Verlander needed only 10 pitches to finish off Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn, complete the inning and put the game in the books. Leyland knew the risks, but knew his player well enough that he was willing to bend his rule. He probably wouldn’t have done it for any other pitcher in his rotation.

At the time, I thought it was something of a desperate move. This wasn’t a must-win game, but maybe Leyland felt like his team really needed to finish a two-game sweep against the team ahead of them in the AL Central and coming off a series loss at Texas.

Or maybe he just needed to give Verlander an opportunity to get back some confidence after recent uncharacteristic struggles. If that was the objective, it appears to have worked.

May 21, 2013

What We Learned From the Tigers Losing Three of Four in Texas

While the Detroit Tigers’ four-game visit to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington wasn’t disastrous, it seems fair to say that it could have gone better.

A match-up between two of the top teams in the American League provided an opportunity for early bragging rights for league supremacy. While the Tigers came in with the most productive offense in MLB, the Texas Rangers were pitching very effectively.

But it was the Texas offense that pounded Detroit pitching in three of the four games, reminding us that the Rangers can still slug their way to victory.

So did we actually learn anything from the Tigers losing three of four games to the Rangers? Here are five things that come to mind, as Detroit gets ready for a two-game set with the Cleveland Indians.

cabrera_0519131. Miguel Cabrera is going to win another AL MVP. Maybe that’s selling him short. Could he win a second consecutive Triple Crown? That seems like a bit much, though Cabrera does lead MLB with a .387 batting average and 47 RBI. His 11 home runs are only two behind the AL lead as well.

The Tigers are in contention, which will certainly help Cabrera’s cause. (Of course, Tigers fans would like their team to be in a better position than 2.5 games behind the Indians for first place in the AL Central. Perhaps they can take care of that during the next two games versus the Tribe at Progressive Field.) Detroit’s third baseman also left a major impression on voters with a huge performance in a nationally televised game against another playoff contender.

Obviously, one game isn’t going to determine anyone’s MVP vote. (If it did, that voter’s Baseball Writers Association of America membership card should probably be rescinded.) But Cabrera’s three home runs on Sunday night, with the national ESPN crew in attendance, was a strong reminder that the reigning AL MVP is playing at the height of his abilities. He batted 9-for-16 (.563) in the four-game series. There’s no better hitter in baseball right now.

And unlike last year, there may not be a suitable challenger to Cabrera for top player honors. The biggest threat might be Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees. Can the Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis keep up his current production? Maybe Dustin Pedroia? Why am I listing hitters only from the AL East?

2. Detroit’s starting pitching isn’t invincible. Perhaps this was just one bad series, with most of the Tigers’ starters pitching poorly in one series.

Justin Verlander had what might have been the worst start of his career, giving up eight runs in less than three innings. Two bases-loaded walks and poor location on several pitches call into question whether Verlander’s mechanics are out of sync or even if he’s injured.

Anibal Sanchez certainly had his worst start of the season, allowing five earned runs and nine hits as he had trouble finding the strike zone. He couldn’t make it out of the third inning either.

In addition, Doug Fister couldn’t help Detroit salvage a series split on Sunday. At least he was able to get through the third inning. Unfortunately, he couldn’t last through the fifth after giving up four runs during that frame.

Surprisingly, the Tigers’ starting pitching standout was Rick Porcello, who allowed just one run in 5.2 innings. Porcello also racked up six strikeouts, which was encouraging. He’s given up three runs or fewer in his past four starts, while striking out 24 batters in 25 innings. (Porcello credits his changeup for the improvement, according to MLB.com’s Jason Beck.)

Detroit might just hang on to this guy after all. Right, Lynn Henning?

jackson_tigers3. The Tigers’ lineup misses Austin Jackson. Here’s our Captain Obvious statement for the day. Jackson has been an extremely valuable player for Detroit going back to last season.

Making matters worse, the Tigers don’t really have a viable replacement for him. Andy Dirks batted 3-for-13 (.231) with no walks batting leadoff for three games in Texas. Omar Infante hit well against lefty Derek Holland on Sunday, going 2-for-5.

Maybe Jim Leyland should continue to bat Infante leadoff, regardless of whether a right- or left-handed pitcher is starting against the Tigers. Fortunately for Detroit, Jackson should be back next Tuesday when he’s eligible to come off the disabled list.

4. The Rangers are the best team in baseball right now. If one team in this series won three games or completed a four-game sweep, a strong argument could have been made that either Texas or Detroit was the top club in the AL.

While it’s not a definitive statement that could last throughout the season, the Rangers certainly asserted themselves early in the season as an AL favorite. The Tigers scored some runs against a pitching staff that allowed the fewest runs in the league coming into the series. That’s encouraging for the next time these two teams meet — and perhaps further down the line, in the postseason.

Of course, Texas could say the same after pounding three of Detroit’s best starting pitchers, something that would presumably give the Tigers an advantage in a five- or seven-game playoff series.

5. The bullpen continues to be an issue. Detroit’s relief struggles were exacerbated by the starting pitchers not being able to work deep into ballgames. Having your starter chased before the fifth inning is going to expose the soft underbelly of a team’s bullpen, namely its middle relief.

That’s true for almost every major league club. The Tigers are obviously no exception to this, as even their closer situation is relatively uncertain.

To be fair, Detroit’s middle relief pitched relatively well in the first three games of the series. Darin Downs and fresh-from-Toledo Evan Reed each gave up a run on Thursday in their combined 5.1 innings. But Jose Ortega, Drew Smyly, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde protected a one-run lead with 3.1 innings of scoreless baseball on Friday. Smyly and Phil Coke allowed one run in 5.1 innings after Sanchez was knocked out early on Saturday.

That appeared to have tapped the bullpen out for the final game of the weekend, however. Ortega and Coke (which sounds like a taqueria special) were hammered for six runs in 1.2 innings of work, killing whatever chances the Tigers had at a rally.

Would the results have been better if Octavio Dotel wasn’t injured and Al Alburquerque hadn’t been demoted to the minors? We’ll never know, but this question will surely come up again several times this season.

May 16, 2013

Verlander and Darvish Lead Off Four-Game Heavyweight Tilt Between Tigers and Rangers

Seven weeks into the 2013 season, there can only be so many important “showdown” or “statement” series for a Major League Baseball team.

Yet the Detroit Tigers seem to have found themselves in several series thus far that could be viewed as playoff or World Series previews.

darvish_5

Having interleague play earlier in the schedule due to realignment has something to do with that. The Tigers have already faced the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, both of whom could be potential World Series opponents.

Approximately three weeks ago, I suggested that the first meeting of the season between the Tigers and Kansas City Royals was a “showdown,” arguing that Detroit needed to step on the upstart Royals and assert themselves in the AL Central.

Last weekend, the Tigers faced the Cleveland Indians for a three-game set at Comerica Park, with the Tribe just two games out of first place. The Indians came into the series having won 10 of their last 11 games and looked ready to make a run at Detroit for the division lead. Cleveland ended up winning two of three to reach a first-place tie with Detroit.

(Some writers out there think the Tribe will hang with the Tigers far longer into the season than they have during the past two seasons. Indians fans actually seem to be skeptical of that, given those collapses in 2011 and 2012.)

But the Tigers will play the Indians and Royals plenty more times through the rest of the season since they’re divisional opponents. Detroit has 17 more games with Kansas City and 16 more versus Cleveland on the schedule. That’s probably why it’s not worth getting too excited about early-season match-ups.

However, MLB teams face inter-divisional opponents six or seven times this season. The Tigers begin a four-game series with the Texas Rangers Thursday night in Arlington. Detroit and Texas only have seven games against each other. They’ll play a three-game set at Comerica Park in mid-July.

Even though it’s May 16 as I write this, with 126 games remaining on the Tigers’ schedule, this series seems like kind of a big deal.

At 24-14, the Rangers are tied with the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League. (The Yankees’ success thus far warrants a whole other blog post.) Only the St. Louis Cardinals have a better record in MLB.

Texas has allowed 135 runs, the fewest in the league. Pretty impressive for a team that wasn’t able to sign Zack Greinke during the offseason or get an ace-level starter like Greinke or Cole Hamels at last year’s trade deadline.

A big reason for that pitching success has been Yu Darvish, who appears to be worth every bit of the $112 million ($60 million contract plus $51.7 million posting bid to his Japanese team) that the Rangers invested in him.

In his first eight starts, Darvish compiled a 6-1 record and 2.73 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 52.2 innings. That strikeout total leads the majors, as does his rate of 13.7 Ks per nine innings.

Sure enough, that’s who the Tigers are facing in Thursday night’s series opener.

Of course, Detroit has their No. 1 guy opposing Darvish. Justin Verlander starts for the Tigers, creating the best pitching match-up of the early season. (Normally, I’d say “probably” or “arguably” in a sentence like that, but I think we can be definitive here. Has there been a better match-up yet this year?)

Verlander’s 4-3 record doesn’t look terribly impressive at the moment, though we know better than to judge pitchers by their win-loss record these days. His 1.93 ERA, ranked fourth in the AL, is far more indicative of his performance.

verlander_4

With 57 strikeouts in 51.1 innings, however, there have been concerns over Verlander showing diminished velocity and movement on his pitches this season. His strikeout rate of 10 per nine innings is the eighth-best in MLB, but as Rob Rogacki pointed out at Bless You Boys, Verlander’s fastball and curveball aren’t as effective as they have been in recent years.

(I’m writing this very late in the day, so it’s likely you’ll either read this during or after Thursday’s game. Let me know how it turns out.)

Based on numbers, the Tigers appear to have the starting pitching advantage in this series. (Though Rick Porcello and his 6.68 ERA start on Friday.) Sunday’s match-up between Doug Fister and Derek Holland looks to be another good match-up.

Detroit’s 206 runs are the most in baseball, so something will obviously yield between the Tigers’ offense and the Rangers’ pitching.

Of course, these two teams could split the four-game series, which probably wouldn’t tell us too much. But winning three of four or finishing off a sweep could make a definitive statement as to who is the best team in the AL right now.

 

 

May 6, 2013

The Special Events at Comerica Park Keep Getting More Special

Between this post and the last one I wrote here at the Fungo, I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m against ballpark promotions.

Far from it. I want a t-shirt, bobblehead, mini-bat or commemorative cup as much as any baseball fan.

tigers_glutenI think the Detroit Tigers have been pretty darn creative with their promotions and theme nights over the past few seasons. Disco Night, Star Wars Night, Country Night, etc.

Even if you’re not at Comerica Park enjoying the events, you get some fun visuals on TV — especially if Mario Impemba and Rod Allen join in the fun (often with creative Photoshopping by the Fox Sports Detroit production crew.)

I especially like the ethnic heritage nights that the Tigers hold because they highlight and celebrate the many backgrounds and nationalities that live in the metro Detroit area. I certainly haven’t lived everywhere, but I’ve lived in a few different places now and can say that other cities are sorely lacking in the sort of ethnic diversity and varied cultural backgrounds that you can find in Detroit.

In looking over the special events schedule this season (courtesy of an e-mail from the Tigers), a couple of occasions do stand out.

Zubazpalooza looks pretty fun. I’m sure it’s a celebration for those who actually held onto those zebra-striped monstrosities from the early 90s. It would be even better if Prince Fielder took the field in some Zubazs, as he did during batting practice as a kid.

But how about the event on June 17? “Gluten Free Package” night?

Seriously? This is a thing?

I understand that gluten-free diets are the trendy thing nowadays. The increasing number of items at grocery stores and restaurants will tell you that. I do wonder, however, how many people actually need to follow a gluten-free diet because they suffer from celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

But hey, if you feel better by eating gluten-free, that’s all that matters.  Maybe I should try it.

I guess my point — I was getting to it eventually — is being surprised gluten-free eating is such a thing that baseball teams such as the Tigers are creating theme nights based around it. I get that there’s not a “Vegetarian Night” or “Paleo Diet Night” because people could create those sorts of meals from what’s already available at the concession stands. Well, presumably. I’m not saying it would be easy.

Perhaps the Tigers feel like they missed the boat on the low-carb thing and should’ve had a “Low Carb Package” night years ago, including hot dogs without the buns and Michelob Ultra beer.

Maybe I shouldn’t poke fun at this. Are the Tigers providing a service to those who have felt underserved? Are you gluten-free with a gluten-free family and excited about June 17 at Comerica Park? I’m just trying to learn here; I’m trying to understand. Help me bridge the gap.

May 4, 2013

A Wretched Jersey of Scum and Villainy

mudhens_wookieeYou’ve likely heard about the special jerseys that the Toledo Mud Hens are wearing for Star Wars weekend at Fifth Third Field. (“May the 4th be with you,” by the way.)

The Tigers’ Triple-A team will be outfitted in jerseys inspired by Chewbacca. These really look like a bad choice, as you can see from the accompanying photo.

Sure, the jerseys are memorable — likely more so than if the Mud Hens went with a C-3PO or R2D2 theme. Han Solo and his vest or Darth Vader and his calculator chestpiece probably wouldn’t work. So maybe Chewie was the right way to go.

If only these tops didn’t look so hideous with their brown color and what’s supposed to be fur, but really looks kind of like feathers. Maybe a wookiee’s coat is feathers — alien feathers from a galaxy far, far away.

Oh, and then you also have Chewbacca’s ammunition belt draped across the chest and the Mud Hens local imposed over the whole design. Wow.

Maybe these things will look better in action. And the poor Mud Hens players can console themselves by remembering that Derek Jeter once had to wear an ugly July 4th-themed jersey while on a rehab assignment with the Double-A Trenton Thunder.

But maybe the players like these jerseys. Danny Worth told MLive’s Chris Iott, “I like it though, switching up from the regular ones.” You probably just have to embrace this sort of minor-league craziness. It’s part of the game.

No matter what, you’re still playing baseball, right? Even if you have to dress up — sort of — like a Star Wars character. Besides, this is a story these players will always be able to share and laugh about. How many will be able to say they wore a Chewbacca top during a game?

That probably goes for the fans too. They’ll be able to say they once watched players wearing perhaps the ugliest jerseys ever created for a baseball game. Of course, they might also have to admit that they were wearing a Princess Leia outfit or their own homemade Chewbacca costume while watching the ballgame.

I know I’m late on writing about this. It’s been out there for a while. I should be happy as a baseball fan and a Star Wars fan. (I wouldn’t call myself a Star Wars fanatic, though. I’m more of a comic book guy.)

Yet I think this somehow offends me as both a baseball fan and Star Wars fan. No one is winning here. Search your feelings; you know it to be true.

April 29, 2013

5 Things We Learned From the Tigers’ Sweep Over the Braves

braves_tigersPerhaps it would’ve been hasty to call this weekend’s Detroit Tigers-Atlanta Braves series a World Series preview.

But having interleague play every day on the schedule presented us with this matchup in late April, pitting two pennant contenders against each other. Regardless of how the series turned out, to react too strongly one way or another wouldn’t have been sensible.

Yet a sweep over the Braves, who came to Detroit with the best record in MLB at 15-6, is certainly notable. It’s even more of an eyebrow-raiser considering how dominant the Tigers looked, winning the three games by a combined score of 25-7. Would anyone have predicted that result?

Surprises aside, there were definitely some things to take from this three-game sweep. Here are five things we learned from the weekend.

1. The Tigers can destroy good pitching. Maybe this is a Captain Obvious statement. Detroit has one of the best lineups in MLB, led by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Still, it was somewhat of a surprise to see the Tigers blow up three Atlanta pitchers that came into this series with impressive numbers.

Left-hander Paul Maholm had a 3-1 record and 1.03 ERA in his first four starts. He’d allowed three runs in 26.1 innings. Was Maholm pitching over his head? Yes, probably. His ERA was close to 4.00 in each of the past two seasons, with a career mark of 4.24. Nonetheless, the Tigers rocked him for eight runs and 10 hits in less than four innings.

Kris Medlen has gotten off to a slow start this season, but ended last year as one of the best pitchers in the National League. After the All-Star break, he went 9-0 with an 0.94 ERA in 19 appearances (12 starts). Medlen wasn’t at his best on Saturday, leaving several pitches up in the strike zone, and Tigers hitters didn’t miss. Detroit roughed him up for five runs and 10 hits (two of them home runs) in 5.1 innings.

Lefty Mike Minor also came into Detroit with a 3-1 record, along with a 1.80 ERA. He looks ready to have a breakout season for the Braves. Against the Tigers, however, Minor lasted almost seven innings, but not before he allowed six runs on six hits (two of them homers).

2. Victor Martinez is OK, everyone. Before this weekend’s series with Atlanta, Martinez was carrying a .187 average and .492 OPS.  For a guy who’s only job it is to hit, he wasn’t doing much of it. But it’s worth remembering that Martinez missed all of last season. That’s a long time to go without facing major league pitching. It stands to reason his timing would be off and his swing could be out of whack.

Additionally, one of the hazards of playing designated hitter is that a player doesn’t get to play the field and take his mind off struggles at the plate. That’s probably a reason why Jim Leyland played Martinez at first base on Saturday.

But Martinez looked like he’s clicking in the three games versus the Braves. He batted 4-for-12 with two doubles and three RBI. Now that his swing appears to be there, perhaps we’ll see Martinez hit for some power against the Twins and Astros this week.

valverde_0427133. Maybe this Jose Valverde thing will really work. It’s only been three games, of course. And in those appearances, a few batters have taken Valverde deep to the warning track and given Tigers fans a bit of a scare.

But his performance on Saturday is the one that provides some hope. Perhaps Valverde has never been a dominant, lights-out closer, per se, but he looked capable of being one by striking out B.J. Upton and Juan Francisco to close out Saturday’s win.

That two-seam fastball had some movement to it. According to MLB.com Gameday, Valverde hit 94 mph on the radar gun, showing the increased velocity the Tigers were talking about. He also mixed in a couple of splitters to Evan Gattis.

Perhaps it should also be encouraging that Valverde got three outs in a non-save situation Sunday night, something he was disastrous in last year. With no save on the line, Valverde had a 4.55 ERA, allowing 15 runs and 30 hits in 29.2 innings.

4. No Verlander, no Scherzer? No problem. The Tigers swept the Braves emphatically without Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer pitching in the series. I wasn’t crazy about Detroit signing Anibal Sanchez to a five-year, $80 million contract in the offseason, but maybe I need to drink a cup of shut the eff up. If Sanchez keeps pitching like he did on Friday night — striking out 17 Braves batters — can anybody match the Tigers’ top starting three?

Granted, the Braves strike out a lot, ranking second in MLB in that category. There are maybe two teams capable of whiffing that many times right now. The Tigers play that other club — the Houston Astros — this coming weekend. Oh, if only Sanchez was scheduled to face the Astros…

Nonetheless, it’s definitely notable that Verlander or Scherzer wasn’t the one to break Mickey Lolich’s team record for strikeouts in a game. Did anyone else think as they were watching the game that Sanchez might match the 20 strikeouts racked up by Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood? Maybe that was asking a bit much, especially since all those strikeouts took 121 pitches from Sanchez.

5. Matt Tuiasosopo might be the new starting left fielder. To be fair, Andy Dirks probably wouldn’t have started against left-hander pitchers Maholm and Minor. But he was also struggling badly going into the weekend, batting .167 with a .468 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 58 plate appearances.

Tuiasosopo made the most of his opportunity, batting 4-for-10 in the Braves series. That included a breakout 2-for-4 performance on Friday that included one homer and five RBI.

As it turns out, Dirks is batting a knee injury that’s bothered him since slamming into a wall during spring training. So he really can’t be properly judged, as he’s not playing at full strength. However, that injury is obviously preventing him from being productive. Maybe this is something Dirks has to just play through or he’ll get better by sitting out for a while and maybe even going on the disabled list. He and the Tigers have to figure that out in the next few days.

The Tigers would surely prefer to have Dirks’ left-handed bat in the lineup for balance. Putting Tuiasosopo in the batting order leaves only Alex Avila, Prince Fielder and the switch-hitting Victor Martinez batting from the left side against right-handed pitching.

But Tuiasosopo is putting up the better numbers right now, and it wouldn’t be the first time Leyland went with the hot hand at one of his corner outfield positions.

— Follow @iancass on Twitter

April 24, 2013

The Return of Jose Valverde: This is Really Happening, People

So this is really happening? The Detroit Tigers are actually going to do this?

Welcome back to Tiger Town, Jose Valverde. Hey, where have you been?

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Oh, that’s right — the Tigers wanted nothing to do with him after last season, especially when he couldn’t get anyone out in the postseason. You’ve probably repressed this memory, so I apologize for bringing it back.

(Actually, the Tigers should probably apologize since they made the decision to bring Valverde back.)

Valverde pitched fewer than three innings in the playoffs, finishing with a 30.37 ERA.

He allowed nine runs and 11 hits (two of them home runs). He did rack up six strikeouts among the eight he recorded. Unfortunately, when opposing batters weren’t swinging and missing, they were hitting Valverde and hitting him hard.

Jim Leyland just couldn’t trust Valverde to get anyone out, so Phil Coke ended up becoming the de facto playoff closer.

That knocked the Tigers’ bullpen setup out of whack, forcing Leyland to use his relievers in roles they weren’t accustomed to during the season. Having to save Coke for the ninth meant he wasn’t available to pitch to left-handed batters when needed in earlier innings.

Was it the only reason the Tigers lost the World Series? Of course not. Unless Valverde could’ve gotten a hit against San Francisco Giants pitching.

But Dave Dombrowski couldn’t wait to get rid of Valverde once the season ended. He probably thanked Valverde for his services even before the season was over.

That let Valverde know that he wouldn’t be getting a new contract from the Tigers and told Scott Boras that he better start getting one of those thick presentation binders ready for his client’s free agency.

Boras had other fish to fry anyway, working Dombrowski hard to sign one of his other free-agent clients, closer Rafael Soriano.

Every other MLB team that might have had interest in a closer or setup man saw the same stuff from Valverde that everyone else watching the playoffs did. Valverde looked finished.

He became a one-pitch pitcher, relying mostly on his fastball with some splitters mixed in. But that fastball (a two-seamer) had less velocity on it than it did in previous seasons, as well.

While Valverde was waiting to be signed by any team, the Tigers decided to move on to Bruce Rondon. As MLB.com’s Jason Beck reminds us, Dombrowski (and presumably, Leyland) all but handed the 22-year-old fireballer the closer job.

“This guy is a special potential closer with the makeup of a closer, and normally you’re not going to thrust that in a young guy’s hands and say automatically, ‘It’s your job.’ But it would not surprise me if he earned that job. With the number of good arms that are out there, there are not many arms like this, and he cherishes that type of role.”

It looked like sound judgment by the Tigers. Over the years, they’ve spent money on free-agent closers like Troy Percival, Todd Jones and Valverde with little return. Go with the kid this time. Not only was he younger and cheaper, but he was probably better than anyone the Tigers could sign.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 2013 season. Rondon couldn’t win the job in spring training, showing the same control problems that he exhibited last season in the minors.

Suddenly, Leyland (and presumably, Dombrowski) had significant questions as to whether or not a rookie could handle the pressure of being a closer in the major leagues, let alone a closer for a World Series contender.

The decision was made to assign Rondon to Triple-A Toledo and go with the closer-by-committee approach. Who would be the Tigers’ closer? Hey, it could be anybody!

That made many several observers rub their hands together in anticipation. In theory, any competent MLB  reliever should be able to close out a game in the ninth inning. The Tigers had their deepest bullpen in years with Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel and Al Alburquerque all capable of getting those three final outs.

Yet Leyland didn’t manage like someone who would pick his closer based on the matchups presented to him in a particular game. He managed more like someone hoping that one of his relievers would eventually seize the job.

Coke was the first one to get that chance, but Leyland apparently didn’t get the memo about how poorly Coke pitched against right-handed hitters. Why not use someone like Dotel or Alburquerque in those situations? Only the skipper knows.

Benoit looked like the next guy to get a shot. But again, for whatever reason, Leyland wasn’t comfortable with him in those situations, despite being given little opportunity to prove himself.

Leyland wanted a closer. And there was one guy in the organization that, in his mind, could fill that role.

Valverde was still out there, waiting to be signed. So the Tigers finally decided to bring him back, albeit to a minor-league deal that presented little risk. Though it appeared to be a desperate move for Detroit, there wasn’t much to lose. If Valverde was terrible, the Tigers would never call him up and could let him go after May 8.

However, the team seemed to like what they were hearing from their staff about Valverde’s performance in Single-A Lakeland. Never mind that, as Yahoo! Sports’ Eric Adelson pointed out, he was pitching in front of 63 people and facing hitters straight out of high school.

But as Valverde’s friend told Adelson, perhaps three straight seasons of nearly 70 innings caught up with Papa Grande and he wore down. Valverde often looked like a pitcher who may have been hiding an injury, but maybe he was just fatigued.

Couldn’t Valverde just tire out again this year, if Leyland used him as he has the past three seasons? One would think so, but maybe Valverde is in better condition to guard against that. The Tigers are obviously hoping so.

From most accounts, Valverde has his velocity back, touching 97 mph on the radar gun. His secondary pitches are also showing good movement. Valverde never featured a changeup or sinker in his previous three seasons in Detroit, but apparently has been working on those pitches.

So this is really happening.

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With no one stepping up to take the closer job, Dotel on the DL and Rondon’s suitability for the role still uncertain, the Tigers are going with someone familiar. Dombrowski announced Tuesday night that Valverde would be added to Detroit’s roster for Wednesday’s game versus the Kansas City Royals. Leyland confirmed to reporters that Valverde would get the ball if there’s a save opportunity.

Desperate? Maybe. But the Tigers don’t seem to have any better options. Or at least Leyland isn’t willing to try them.

It’s still early in the season, but the Tigers do have to get their bullpen roles figured out as the schedule moves into May. If they feel Valverde can be the guy — even if recent history suggests that he can’t be — then he should get the ball in the ninth inning.

If Valverde doesn’t work out, it’s still early enough in the year to make another move. Much like second base and left field last season, this is increasingly looking like a need Dombrowski will have to address at the trade deadline.

This is what it’s come to for the Tigers. But did it ever need to get to this point? The only person who can bury those questions at this point is Valverde.