2012 Top 10 Stories: #5 – Victor Martinez Lost for Season

About four weeks before the Tigers convened in Lakeland for spring training, the club’s outlook instantly went from brimming with confidence and optimism to soaked in despair and gloom. That’s when Dave Dombrowski received word from Florida that Victor Martinez suffered a torn ACL in his left knee and would eventually be lost for the season.

The Tigers’ front-office boss put on a brave face when he talked to the media after hearing the news:

“After you feel sorry for yourself for a day or so, you move on,” general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “We have a good club. We’ve got a lot of players who will step up.”

But Tigers fans knew the impact this would have on the lineup and most likely the season. Martinez’s provided desperately needed protection for then-cleanup-hitter Miguel Cabrera. As good as Delmon Young was in the postseason, few expected him to be a reliable solution. And, Dombrowski certainly made it sound as if the Tigers would be making no major splash to shore up the sudden loss of Martinez.

Slugging first baseman Prince Fielder remains a free agent, but it’s unclear if the Tigers would want to make a major financial commitment to a long-term contract to replace the injured Martinez.

“Most likely, I would say it’s short term,” Dombrowski said. “But I don’t know that for sure. Depends on what position somebody plays and who they are.”

Dombrowski did seem to shoot down the possibility that Cabrera could move from first base to third, with another first baseman joining the team.

The Tigers signed Gerald Laird to serve as Alex Avila‘s backup, so that part of the equation was solved. The pressing issue was how to replace a guy who in 2011 batted .330 with 103 RBIs and a .855 OPS.

How could they possibly do it? Dave Schoenfield offered some borderline gruesome alternatives:

If there’s good news for the Tigers, there are at least several decent options out there in free agency. One-time Tigers first baseman Carlos Pena could provide a nice alternative, even improving the team’s defense if Jim Leyland is willing to shift Cabrera to DH. Pena needs a platoon partner, but did have a .388 OBP and .504 slugging percentage against righties in 2011. Johnny Damon, another ex-Tiger, would also fit in nicely at DH.

Thankfully, neither of these two options materialized.

And luckily Tigers fans didn’t have to wait long to find out who’d replace Martinez in the lineup.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

2012 Top 10 Stories: #6 – Tigers Win American League Central

After the excruciating 2008 season, all 88 losses of it, one can forgive Tigers fans for being a bit paranoid. That club was destined for World Series glory (Remember the Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview from that year? “This is going to be one of the most dominant offenses that any team has fielded in 10 years.”)

This year’s Tigers club never seriously flirted with or took up residence in the A.L. Central basement like that ’08 team but, as the season dragged on, fans grew increasingly anxious over infuriating underachievement that stretched from late April into July, but lingered for much longer.

The Tigers opened the season at home with a three-game sweep of the Red Sox. Then, they took three of four from the Rays. Before we knew it, the Tigers were 9-3 and off to the races.

Except not at all.

After that strong start, they crawled to the end of April with a 2-8 stretch and finished the month 11-11. May was worse, with a series of win-one, lose-one-or-two stretches, and a 13-16 record, putting the Tigers three games under .500 and five games out of first place. In fact, the Tigers were an even 18-18 on May 15 but wouldn’t return to .500 until July 6 when they beat the Royals 4-2. At that point they were 42-42 and in the middle of a five-game winning streak that took them into the All-Star Break.

Meanwhile, Tigers fans waited for the White Sox to fade and make room for Detroit atop the division. But that didn’t happen … for a long time.

In July, the Tigers continued to pile up wins, finishing the month 16-10. But except for five days when they were anywhere from tied for the division lead to, art most, a game-and-a-half up on Chicago, they seemed to be treading water.

August featured some mystifying streaks and series losses. A sweep of the Indians, a split with the Yankees, winning five of six over the Blue Jays and Angels and then getting swept by the Royals. And not for a day in August did the Tigers move into first place. They finished the month 16-12.

Things changed in September. Detroit swept the White Sox in a three-game series that began on Aug. 31, and moved into a tie for first place. But the next day they lost to the Indians, falling a game back. The Tigers were as many as three games back on Sept. 10 and and again on Sept. 18, the latter after a crushing 5-4 loss to the White Sox in a makeup game.

About that same time, though, the White Sox began a swoon that allowed the Tigers to gain ground and eventually overtake Chicago on Sept. 26 – with just seven games to play. Detroit went 5-2 and built a three-game lead on Sept. 30. The next night, in Kansas City, the Tigers clinched the division title.

Reliving the 2012 season today is no more enjoyable than it was watching it unfold the first time: The inexplicable record against the Indians. The one-run losses. Delmon Young.

So, the Tigers winning the Central turned out to be less a coronation and more a war of attrition with the White Sox – and themselves. And the fans, well, if I may speak on their behalf, would much prefer the Tigers’ 2011 division title and its 15-game cushion to the 2012 ulcer-inducing variety.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

What They’re Saying About Game 1

Cruising around the Web, here are some more notable points on the Tigers’ Game 1 win:

On Jose Valverde

“I don’t think so,” Valverde said early Sunday when asked if he thought he would lose his role. “I’ve been doing my job for a long time. I think I can do it. There’s nothing you can do. It’s in the past, it’s over. You have to get ready for tomorrow. – Valverde’s Struggles Continue With a Collapse in The New York Times

“If anybody is happy with Jose Valverde at this point, raise your hand. Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? No, I didn’t think so.” – Jim Caple, Tigers must avoid using Valverde, ESPN.com

“Eight innings of shutout artistry against the Yankees was wiped away because of Valverde’s disintegration.

It leaves the Tigers in crisis at the very point they can taste a shot at the world championship. It leaves Leyland a target for second-guessers, which might include his bosses.

It leaves them in a collective mess. In essence, the Tigers have no closer.” – Lynn Henning, Jose Valverde’s implosion leaves Tigers bullpen a mess

“Valverde’s been so awful in his last two outings, first against the A’s and now against the Yankees, that Leyland might finally make a move. And it’s not like he doesn’t have any options. The obvious choice to replace Valverde as closer is Dotel. He’s old, but you might also say he’s experienced, and does have 109 career saves. More to the point, he’s pitched better than Valverde in each of the last two seasons. And if Leyland really wants to get radical, he could also dump Benoit as his eighth-inning guy, and let Coke and Al Alburquerque take some of those setup innings.” – Rob Neyer, After Game 1, Joe Girardi and Jim Leyland both face agonizing choices

On Derek Jeter’s Injury

“They still have a chance for a glorious final image from this season. But unless they win eight more games, the Yankees of 2012 will be defined by two portraits of pain, flashing neon reminders of the subtler message the game tells its fans every year. We are all getting older, even the players who seem eternally young. And the end often comes without warning.” – Tyler Kepner, The New York Times.

On Delmon Young‘s Game 1 heroics:

“I just went completely blind,” he said. “It kind of handcuffed me, but I didn’t see for the last 5 or 10 feet.” — Nick Swisher.

An Inexplicable Post about an Inexplicable Game

Ok. Let’s think about this.

Jim Leyland said in his post-game interview that he and his coaching staff will discuss the closer situation. Yeah, I’m sure they’ll discuss it and I’d love to hear someone say this: “Describe an ideal scenario for us to bring Jose Valverde into a game.” If we’re lucky, the answer is followed by a long, long, crickets-filled pause.

And then another.

I can’t imagine such a scenario. Maybe in a blow out – with the Tigers way behind. I guess.

But wait, the Tigers won this game, people – 6-4 in 12 innings.

Unlike Wednesday’s crushing Game 4 loss to the A’s, they escaped the opponent’s half of the ninth and were able to hang on with some stellar relief from Drew Smyly, whose first career win came at Yankee Stadium and now the same can be said his first post-season win.

That was a long sentence. But after a five-hour game, what else do you expect? This game was long on everything, from terrific pitching by Doug Fister to solid defense to the mystifying Delmon Young.

So, yeah. The Tigers won. But they lost a closer (we think/hope) and now have to think quickly about to do about the ninth inning in Game 2 … and every other game in which they need a closer*. For me the answer is Joaquin Benoit in the seventh, Al Alburquerque in the eighth and Octavio Dotel in the ninth. Or maybe you use Dotel in the eighth and Alburquerque in the ninth.

*Mitch Williams on MLB Network says he thinks Leyland will go with matchups from now on in the ninth inning. Coke and Smyly versus lefties, Dotel and Alburquerque versus righties.

Either way, I don’t see Valverde getting meaningful innings anymore with the Tigers. Like never.

For me this is the bottom line on Game 1: The Tigers toughed out a game that so easily could’ve slipped away in extra innings and would’ve made Game 2 more pressure-packed than it needed to be.

Now they can go into Sunday’s game with even more confidence they can win in New York and make a dream scenario of coming back to Detroit up two games to none a reality.

Verlander Shows How Closing is Done

On Tuesday night Jim Leyland said the A’s played a perfect game in the 2-0 Oakland Game 3 win.

I’d submit that the Tigers returned the favor Thursday night in a game the was perhaps the most emphatic decisive game we’ve seen since Game 4 of the 2006 ALCS.

Wow.

I wasn’t sure what version of Justin Verlander we’d see in Game 5. Ends up we saw the model we hoped for: all business, dominant, explosive. A complete-game, four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts to boot.

How about Omar Infante with a two-for-three night and two runs scored — plus a stolen base. (!)

And Austin Jackson: two hits, two runs batted in and a pair of runs scored.

And wait, there’s more: Delmon Young showed up and drove in a run.

But the story of the night was Verlander. He threw 122 pitches, 88 for strikes and saw his ALDS ERA plummet to 0.56.

Awesome.

So now we wait for the winner of the Orioles and Yankees series.

I’m going to savor this win for a day or so. Then I’ll worry about the ALCS.

And if the Yankees and Orioles caught even a glimpse of the Tigers game, they’re no doubt worried about the prospect of facing Justin Verlander in the next week.

Six Months Off, Two Months In: The Daily Fungo Returns

Six months ago I turned out the lights on The Fungo. The other day, I changed my mind. I know you’ve got lots of great Tigers blog choices so I hope you’ll work this site into your rotation.

Allow me, if you will, to catch up on the past half-year:

  • Victor Martinez out. I think this injury, like few others that I can remember, showed how close to the edge a Tigers offense was treading. Suddenly the club had no designated hitter, no number-two catcher (though who expected him to catch more than a handful games – at most – in 2012?) and no one to hit behind Miguel Cabrera. And, with Magglio Ordonez not coming back, who else would be a reliable middle-of-the-order hitter?

    Today, I wonder how much better the Tigers would be with Martinez at DH over Delmon Young? Methinks much, much better. I hope the possibility of a September return becomes a reality. If the Tigers have faded by that point I’m sure we won’t see #41 until Spring Training 2013.

  • Prince Fielder in. When word circulated Tigers had signed him for nine years and $214 million not long after Martinez was lost for the season (presumably) I thought “of course they did.” It was the quintessential Mike Ilitch move – and likely displeased Dave Dombrowski for no other reason than he was forced to again deal with Scott Boras. The immediate thought was “they wouldn’t move Cabrera to third would they? Nah.” Ahem.

    As a Tigers fan, who suffered through so many years of superstar-less teams, how could you not love the addition of yet another All Star? I loved it and, with his current .320 average, still do.

    P.S. I heard this on MLB Network Radio yesterday on the way to work and saw it on ESPN.com today:

    Prince Fielder (at 275 lbs) just hit his 10th career triple. According to baseball-reference.com, Prince Fielder is the second player in MLB history weighing at least 275 pounds to have 10 career triples. Adam Dunn (285 lbs) also has 10.

    Delicious.

  • Brandon Inge whines, whiffs and vanishes. So much has been written on this guy that I won’t waste much of your time with it. My issue with Inge, beyond his anemic hitting, was that he suffered from delusions of grandeur.

    Remember when he was the Tigers’ starting catcher and the club signed Pudge Rodriguez? Inge thought he should still be the starter. Remember when they traded for Cabrera and he thought he should still be the starting third baseman? No one argued that Cabrera was a better defender but did Inge really think the Tigers would stick Cabrera in left field in 2008 … or move him to DH after signing Fielder?

    From all accounts Inge is a tremendous person and certainly didn’t deserve to get booed as loudly as he did at Comerica Park. But if he hit even .240, he’d be the Tigers’ second baseman today.

  • Delmon Young shows his ugly side. We didn’t think the Delmon Era in Detroit would be a light and breezy affair, did we? I’ll be surprised if he’s on the roster at the end of June.

  • Verlander’s gem. I was bummed out when Josh Harrison foisted the ball into center, which I heard on the radio. When I saw the replay, I wondered why Jhonny Peralta didn’t lay out and try to knock it down. After a couple more looks it was clear that it would’ve been tough for him to get his glove on it.

    Not since Mark Fidrych have the Tigers had a pitcher you’d pay to see no matter the opponent. Every Verlander start is appointment TV for me.

I could go on – about the infuriating offense, Max Scherzer‘s Max Scherzerism, the inconsistent relief work, Austin Jackson‘s resurgence, Brennan Boesch‘s slow start, Ryan Raburn‘s woes, Doug Fister‘s injuries, dismal umpiring – but why bother?

Final thought: It’s bad enough to see the Tigers struggling as they are, but to see the White Sox sitting atop the A.L. Central is insulting.

And so is the idea of Craig Monroe as a studio analyst. (But I’m sure Rod is happy to have him around.)

Catching Up on Awards, Moves and Rumors

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend. I hope you and your family had a terrific day yesterday.

After a month of self-imposed baseball exile, I’ve returned to the keyboard while watching the Red Wings game and chowing on green-bean casserole leftovers.

Verlander’s Hardware Store. The Cy Young Award was no surprise, of course, but the Tigers’ ace winning the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award took me by surprise. I always assume there are enough writers in the BBWAA that loath the idea of a pitcher – and a starting pitcher at that – winning the MVP. Lo and behold, the stars aligned and Verlander won both.

Driving to work the other day I listened to Jeff Joyce and Jim Duquette on XM railing about Verlander winning the award (Duquette said that Verlander should’ve been in the top five, but not the winner.) Of course, they both raved about Verlander’s season but decided that it was not a “historically significant” season when compared to other pitchers who won both their league’s Cy Young Award and MVP. To their credit, they called out writer Jim Ingraham’s leaving Verlander off his ballot and his rationale being that J.V. didn’t appear in 79 percent of the Tigers’ games. Whatever. I didn’t expect him to win the MVP, but he did – and he deserved it, just as much as Miguel Cabrera would’ve had he gotten any support. And really, who cares about these awards a week later?

G-Moneyback. In a matter of two seasons, Gerald Laird and Alex Avila have traded places as the Tigers’ starting and backup catchers. While I would’ve preferred they’d gone after Kelly Shoppach, I can live with Laird in a backup role for one season. And with Laird on board, we no longer have to wonder if we’ll see Victor Martinez behind the plate for the remainder of his contract.

Andy Oliver got screwed by the NCAA. Last month a 15,000-word article titled “The Shame of College Sports” appeared in The Atlantic and thanks to a long flight, I was able to read it all. I didn’t expect to come across a Tigers connection but there it was, under the subhead “Restitution”:

In 2008, Andrew Oliver, a sophomore pitcher for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, had been listed as the 12th-best professional prospect among sophomore players nationally. He decided to dismiss the two attorneys who had represented him out of high school, Robert and Tim Baratta, and retain Boras instead. Infuriated, the Barattas sent a spiteful letter to the NCAA. Oliver didn’t learn about this until the night before he was scheduled to pitch in the regional final for a place in the College World Series, when an NCAA investigator showed up to question him in the presence of lawyers for Oklahoma State.

(snip)

Just hours before the game was to start the next day, Oklahoma State officials summoned Oliver to tell him he would not be pitching. Only later did he learn that the university feared that by letting him play while the NCAA adjudicated his case, the university would open not only the baseball team but all other Oklahoma State teams to broad punishment under the NCAA’s “restitution rule” (Bylaw 19.7), under which the NCAA threatens schools with sanctions if they obey any temporary court order benefiting a college athlete, should that order eventually be modified or removed. The baseball coach did not even let his ace tell his teammates the sad news in person. “He said, ‘It’s probably not a good idea for you to be at the game,’” Oliver recalls.

If you get a chance, I recommend reading the entire article. Particularly if you think college athletes should not get paid. This piece might just change your mind.

Martin Prado. If the price is Delmon Young, go get him.

The Last Boy. I’m reading Jane Leavy’s biography of Mickey Mantle and about every three pages I’m tempted to put the book aside for good. Not that it’s poorly crafted, quite the opposite. In that regard it’s exceptional. But Mantle’s was one messed up biscuit of a personal life – thanks in large part to his horrifically bad decision making and his friendship with Billy Martin. Leavy portrays a guy who kinda knows he needs to grow up but when he’s maybe tempted to do so Martin drops by to drag him out to the clubs where fights ensue and the usual stuff you’ve probably learned about Mantle years ago. If you ever thought Martin was a low-life, read this book and your suspicions will be confirmed – and then some.

Finally, this Thanksgiving weekend take a moment to learn about the appropriately named hall of famer Norman “Turkey” Stearnes.

A quiet Southerner who spent his summers blasting long balls for the Detroit Stars and his winters laboring in the Motor City’s auto plants to make ends meet, Turkey Stearnes was one of the most prolific home-run hitters in the Negro leagues.

P.S. Happy 64th Birthday to John Larroquette.