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

Tigers Leftovers, Thoughts and Reflections

Making up for lost time with a stream-of-consciousness post …

It’s been almost a month since Miguel Cabrera took a Sergio Romo 0-2 fastball down the middle for the final out of the World Series. In some ways it feels that long ago and in others, still too recent.

So much seems to have happened since the middle of September when the Tigers were a game back of the White Sox and we weren’t certain (well, at least I wasn’t) postseason baseball was in our future.

But it was. A grueling ALDS against the A’s, an exhilarating sweep of the Yankees and then, good God, that World Series.

By the end of Game 2, it became increasingly clear that the Giants were a team of destiny … and the Tigers had gone into another frustrating offensive slumber. As we saw all too vividly, that’s a toxic brew.

Even though the Series was over in a heartbeat, and the Tigers looked overmatched, I was stunned with how it played out. I never for a moment thought they’d lose to the Giants – a mindset that was equal parts homer-optimism and at-least-it-ain’t-the-Cardinals relief. (There was also my anti-Giants bias lingering from the Barry Bonds era.)

And now that I’ve had time to think about it, Bruce Bochy‘s club was perfectly constructed to take down the Tigers. I tweeted that my biggest fear going into Game 1 was that Barry Zito would impersonate Bruce Chen and stymie a rusty Tigers lineup. He did both and, as fate would have it, that was all she wrote.

If I’d created a list of possible World Series scenarios and endings, a sweep by the Giants, an ice-cold Prince Fielder and a caught-looking Cabrera to end it all wouldn’t be on it. None of them.

There was one thing that did not surprise me in the Series: Justin Verlander‘s Game 1 implosion. Who didn’t see that coming?

Listening to the national media leading up to the opener, you’d have thought Verlander had an unblemished postseason (or at least World Series) record. Except, you know, he totally didn’t: 0-2, 5.30 ERA, 1.545 WHIP. And now he’s 0-3/7.20/1.75.

I don’t know about you, but the Game 1 performance is what I feared in ALDS Game 5 … and in the ALCS.

Chances are I wasn’t alone in almost dreading a Game 4 win and what it might mean. Would it prolong the agony? Absolutely. Because at that point it was clear the Tigers weren’t going to beat Zito, Madison Bumgarner, Rick Reuschel, Mike LaCoss or any other starter the Giants rolled out to the mound.

This postseason was one wild ride. One I didn’t expect to come to a screeching halt with Miguel Cabrera* watching one blow by.

*Speaking of the MVP: watch for a post on that whole debate soon.

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Fare thee well, G-Money

When Gerald Laird arrived in Detroit ahead of the 2008 season, I was giddy. At last, a solid backup and successor-ish guy for Pudge Rodriguez. We’d watched Laird abuse Tigers pitching for long enough; time for him to do some damage in The D. Yeah, well, ahem.

I was equally giddy when Laird left Detroit after the 2010 season. He never produced at the level the Tigers had expected (or that fans had hoped) so, good riddance. Right?

When G-Money returned to Detroit for the 2012 campaign on a one-year deal my giddiness returned. He’s the perfect guy to backup Alex Avila and a great mentor for the new young arms coming up, I thought. And how big a lift was Laird this past season? Huge, I’d say.

He was exactly what the Tigers needed as Avila was assaulted game after game. And, Laird actually hit this year (.282) in his 63 games.

Good for G-Money landing a two-year deal with the Braves. Unlike in ’10, I’m sorry to see him go.

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Finally, here are some moldy leftovers. I found this (at best) half-baked post from last October that never saw the light of day:

After watching the Rangers bludgeon the Tigers in a terrifically played series, I just don’t have it in me to watch Nelson Cruz or Mike Napoli again until 2012. That doesn’t, of course, mean I’m not pulling for the Rangers in the World Series. I’d root for any team – even the White Sox – against a Tony LaRussa team.

As it turned out, I didn’t watch any of that Rangers-Cardinals World Series.

No regrets, either.

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.

Baseball Prospectus: Alex Avila is Tigers’ Secret Weapon

Ben Lindbergh at BaseballProspectus.com today makes an interesting case for Alex Avila as the Tigers’ most valuable player.

Miguel Cabrera gets most of the accolades in the Detroit Tigers’ historically top-heavy lineup, and not without reason — the first baseman’s .349 True Average (TAv) trails only Jose Bautista’s among American League batters. However, Cabrera hasn’t been the most valuable position player in Detroit this season. That title belongs to Alex Avila, a 24-year-old catcher who came up through the Tigers’ system before making his major league debut late in 2009.

Avila acquitted himself well in his initial exposure to the majors but his bat crashed back to earth last season, when he hit .228/.316/.340 while splitting catching duties with Gerald Laird. This season, however, he’s hit well enough to take over the team lead in Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), posting a 3.4 figure to Cabrera’s 3.1.

My eyes glaze over on most of the statistical stuff, but the point of the article is interesting.

Friday Fungoes: The 40-game Mark, Verlander’s No-hit Follow Ups, Magglio’s Demise

Every year someone (usually Tom Gage) rolls out the time-worn Sparky Anderson truism about not judging a team until after it’s played 40 games. I suppose it’s my turn.

On Saturday against the Royals the Tigers will play game number 40 and, at worst, will finish that game at an even 20 and 20. So what conclusions can we draw from these first 40 games? For that matter, what conclusions can we draw from the past week, which delivered some terrific baseball?

Are they as bad as they looked against the Royals in April and the Tribe two weeks ago? Or are they as good as the club the swept Chicago at home?

I hate to punt on this, but I think we’ll know more about the Tigers after another series against the Royals, Indians and White Sox.
What do you think?

In the meantime, here’s a look at the Tigers’ record after 40 games since Jim Leyland arrived in Detroit.

  • 2010: 23-17
  • 2009: 24-16
  • 2008: 16-24
  • 2007: 24-16
  • 2006: 27-13

As I’m writing this, Justin Verlander has kept the Royals hitless through four innings. Earlier this week I was wondering how he fared in the start following his June 12, 2007 no-hitter. Well, it was a bit different from his 12-strikeout torching of the Brewers. Verlander’s next start came against the Phillies on Sunday, June 17 at Citizens Bank Park. His final line: six innings, seven hits, two walks, three earned runs.  The Tigers won, 7-4.

I sure hope we haven’t seen the last of Magglio Ordonez, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list today.

“He’s been feeling the effects of his ankle off and on during the season here,” trainer Kevin Rand said. “We decided to look at it, and to err on the side of caution, we’re shutting him down.”

The stats are ugly: .172 with one home run and five RBIs in 26 games this season. I can’t believe that his hitting skills have plummeted to Gerald Laird levels simply due to age. You?

Buried at the bottom of the Ordonez story is this little update on Carlos Guillen.

Guillen was in the clubhouse as well and has started baseball-related activities again.

Guillen says he’s been able to hit, run and take ground balls, although there’s still no timetable for his return.

Talk about a forgotten man.

Finally, on this date in 1913, Joe Louis was born. He was the world heavyweight champion for a record-setting 12 years.

Have a great weekend.

Monday Mankowskis: Boredom City, Florida

PhilMankowski77I know it’s early, but it seems to me this is one boring Tigers Spring Training.

For all intents and purposes, there’s no drama to speak of with most of the coverage focusing on the prospects that are shining in Lakeland.

But here are some of the things that stand out for yours truly:

  • If there’s one player that makes me uneasy heading into the regular season, it’s Alex Avila. In reading Lynn Henning’s Sunday’s A-to-Z review of Tigers so far this spring, he says this:

    He’ll hit. But it’s OK to wonder when he’ll drive the ball the way he did during his 2009 cameo.

    This is the first time since, when?, 2003 that the Tigers have a question mark — or something close to it — at catcher. Once Pudge Rodriguez left town, the club brought in Gerald Laird and he was, well, not the answer. But we all thought he’d start hitting somewhere close to where he did in Texas (at least against the Tigers, that is.)

    Certainly having Victor Martinez around will make the catching corps dramatically less frightful, but still, aren’t the Tigers placing an awful lot of faith in a guy who isn’t long out of college? What do you think?

  • I forgot to mention, or at least I think I did, when I went to watch the Diamondbacks train a couple of weeks ago, I got to see Armando Galarraga get racked in batting practice. Moments before that, I got close enough to talk to him through the fence and told him that we love him in Detroit. He said, “Thanks, man, I appreciate it.” He may not be the most devastating pitcher in the bigs, but a nice guy? That, he is.

  • On March 7, 1965, Tigers manager Chuck Dressen suffered a mild coronary occlusion. He was sidelined until May 19. Coach Bob Swift served as acting manager in the meantime, And on this date in 2000, the Tigers acquired cash from the Royals for catcher Gregg Zaun. Opting instead to go with the stud backup catcher that was Javier Cardona. Zaun hit .274 in K.C. — 99 points higher than Cardona.

    Another Randy Smith gem.

  • One of the reasons I like Jim Leyland so much is his deep history with the Tigers organization. He was the first manager of many players that were on the 1984 championship team. In this piece in Sunday’s Freep, we learn a bit about his relationship with one of my favorites, Jack Morris:

    [Leyland] said Jack Morris was as temperamental as they come.

    “You’ve got to be careful that you don’t take something away that’s a strong suit,” Leyland said. “But you can’t let a pitcher continue like a bull in a china shop.”

    Leyland managed Morris in the minors.

    “I stayed on top of Jack pretty good,” Leyland said. “He handled it well. We have a great relationship even today. I’m proud of that.

  • How’s Nate Robertson doing with the Mariners, you ask? Check out this headline to uncover the answer.

Finally, my apologies for the long stretch without a post. I’ve never wanted to post just for the sake of posting — you deserve better than that.

More to come this week.

News Galore on the Way Out the Door

It’s not often Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski gets loose and talks at length about the club’s plans, but on Sunday in Baltimore he did just that, breaking some news and confirming a few long-anticipated decisions:

  • Inge.jpgBrandon Inge gets offered an extension. As Ian wrote this summer, Inge is either loved or loathed in Detroit — with little in between. But I think even those of us who are frustrated by his lack of a strategy when he’s at the plate feel better about third base next season and maybe in 2012, too. In our recent Fungo Pulse Check, 79 percent of respondents (207 of 263 votes) preferred bringing back Inge over Jeremy Bonderman.

  • OrdonezHead.jpgMagglio Ordonez might be back. This isn’t a surprise. The Tigers aren’t picking up the $15 million option on Ordonez’s contract which means he’ll be a free agent, but the Tigers are open to re-signing him. I kept thinking that sentimental Mike Ilitch would tell Dombrowski to pick up the option for old time’s sake. I hope he comes back. If he does sign elsewhere — and you know Scott Boras is already firing up his hyperbole machine — I just pray that he doesn’t go back to the White Sox.

    Continue reading “News Galore on the Way Out the Door”