Three Reasons Not to Worry About the Tigers Bullpen

FireballXSmall.jpgOkay, we get it. The Tigers bullpen is to the team’s championship aspirations as an anvil is to a skydiver.

But what, pray tell, if it’s not?

I, for one, refuse to buy into the bullpen as Achilles’ heel conspiracy theory, and here are three reasons why:

  1. Healthy starters
  2. Dave Dombrowski
  3. Zach Miner

1. Healthy starters. Among the many problems last season, the one that stands out most prominently for yours truly is the regularity with which Jim Leyland had to go to his bully in the sixth inning or sooner. Not only did it wear a path from the dugout to the hill, it prevented the bullpen from getting the rest required to be fresh when it was really needed. Instead, by Aug. 1 the Tigers bullpen was spent and Joel Zumaya‘s return proved to be too little, too late.

Oh, we’re all concerned that the Tigers staff has lingering questions including Kenny Rogers‘ age and ability to pitch deep into games — and the season. There’s concern over Dontrelle Willis‘ declining stats the past two seasons and whether he’ll pitch closer to 35 rather than his actual age. And, let’s not forget Fungo-favorite Nate Robertson. Can he at last shed the Tough Luck Nate label and win some close games?

By all acounts, Jeremy Bonderman‘s elbow is sound and should be helped by the change-up he’s supposedly improved — if not mastered. That leaves Justin Verlander. So far, so good and let’s keep it that way.

In all, the only health concerns surround Rogers and he appears good to go. The healthy outlook of the starting five should mean more quality starts, more starts lasting into the seventh or eighth innings and a more-rested relief corps.

2. Dave Dombrowski. Let’s assume — for a moment — that the bullpen underachieves. Then what? I’m betting that Dave Dombrowski will find the right arms (or, I suppose, left arms) to keep the bullpen afloat until either Zumaya or Fernando Rodney get healthy.

By now hasn’t Dombrowski proven to Tigers fans that, with the exception of Neifi Perez, he’s pulled the trigger on the right deals for the Detroit Nine?

And let’s not forget that Dombrowski has a potentially rock-solid chip to parlay into bullpen depth: Brandon Inge. Whether it’s May 1 or July 31, Inge will be gone and you can bet in return the Tigers will have acquired the reliever they need.

And who knows, Francisco Cruceta might have resolved his visa issues by then and logging valuable work in the seventh and eighth.

If I had to have GM at the wheel in this scenario, I’d want it to be the Tigers’.

3. Zach Miner. I’m a Zach Miner Fan Boy. There. I said it. Miner, in my view, is the Tigers most versatile and under-appreciated pitcher. All he’s managed to do since he came to Detroit is eat innings and fill the roles of spot starter and middle-relief guy with aplomb. Sure, he cratered in the second half of the 2006 season — his first in the bigs — but according to Baseball Prospectus 2008:

Miner kept the ball down on the way to an effective [2007] season, posting a 2.3 G/F [groundball to flyball ratio] and allowing just 14 extra-base hits in 232 opponent plate appearances. Miner was also effective with runners on, stranding 24 of the 30 he inherited. Of the Tigers three garbagemen, Miner has the most upside.

(In their assessment of Miner, BP included Chad Durbin and Jason Grilli as the others in the Garbage Time Trio.)

Granted, it’s not a rousing endorsement but if nothing else, the Baseball Prospectus folks do their homework. If they thought Miner was a dog, they’d say it.

Bottom line: If the first two in my recipe fail to hold up their end of the bargain, I feel considerably better knowing that Zach Miner is around to start, mop up or close shop.

In Like with the Tigers

Yahoo! Sports’ Steve Henson loves the Tigers. But just not as much as he loves the Red Sox or the Indians. Can’t really argue with experts preferring the World Series champion and A.L. Central Division winner over a second-place, non-playoff team. But just a year ago few were giving the defending-league-champion Tigers repeat lovin’.

What gives?

If the Tigers were in the NL, they would be the prohibitive favorite to waltz to the Fall Classic. In the AL, though, they are merely one of five, in the mix, running with the big dogs, but perhaps not even the favorite in their own division.

(snip)

It’s jarring to think that only three of the four top teams in baseball will make the playoffs.

(snip)

Leyland, the Tigers manager, gave that unappetizing prospect thought during a luncheon at the winter meetings. He took a sip of red wine and reflected on the razor’s edge between getting to the World Series in 2006 and missing the playoffs in 2007.

“It’s a subtle difference, and it can be hard to pinpoint,” he said. “But you know it when you feel it. And we didn’t like the way it felt.”

What’s that old line? That’s why they play the games.

Emptying Out the Mental Notebook

There have been lots of thoughts percolating around my head lately. Now that I’ve cleared my driveway of snow for the third time today, it’s time to get those thoughts out to the masses.

Brandon Inge
If you recall prior to the 2004 season Mr. Inge acted like a petulant little child when the Tigers signed Pudge Rodriguez. He whined and complained about how the catching job was his and he wasn’t giving it up without a fight. Of course he turned into a super-sub of sorts (playing 139 games, logging 400+ ABs at five different positions) and eventually won the starting third base job.

Fast forward four seasons and Mr. Inge no longer wants to be a catcher; he fancies himself a third baseman apparently. Though not as loudly, he appears to be lobbying to move out of town now that Miguel Cabrera appears to be the Tigers’ new third baseman. I don’t believe for a minute the Tigers can trade him and the $18 million left on his contract and receive anything close to good value. With that said, I suggest Brandon close his yap, buy a few extra gloves, learn how to scoop balls at first, play all three outfield positions, and get comfortable in the tools of ignorance again. Return to the role of super utilityman for this season. Milwaukee Brewer Bill Hall logged over 500 ABs in a similar role in 2005, playing three different positions. If Inge can play 3B, 1B, OF, and even a bit of C, I would expect enough at bats will come his way to keep him happy.

The goal, or promise to Inge, is that he becomes your full-time catcher effective 2009. He’ll have this year to study the pitching staff, pick Pudge and Vance Wilson‘s brains, and relearn the position. With the offense that will be surrounding him, Inge would merely have to concentrate on his fielding — any hitting would be a bonus. And if you’re really trying to do the hard sell, remind him the staff he would have to catch would include Justin Verlander, Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman, and — at some point — Rick Porcello.

Dontrelle Willis

I heard Willis’ first interview on local radio following the trade. WXYT had him on and I liked what I heard. He has a passion for the game, he has a personality, he’s energetic, and he should endear himself to the Detroit fanbase. Will he be able to pitch? The good news, I suppose, is that Detroit isn’t counting on him to be the ace. All they really need from him is 200+ serviceable innings. Ideally (with the bullpen the Tigers have) that’s what they’d like to get from all five starters — save Rogers I suppose. Chew up innings boys. The bats should get enough runs to keep this team in virtually every game.

One other item about Willis. Don’t underestimate the impact another African-American will have on the Tigers’ fan base. Willis is an inner-city kid and, like Curtis Granderson, has a personality that will make him popular. For a city that’s attempting to make a comeback, I think it’s outstanding the youngsters in town will have a couple of role models on the home team to look up to.

By the way, has anyone else noticed an entire Hispanic infield? Non hablas Espanol?

The Mitchell Report

Nothing surprises me (nor should it), but I’d like to launch a conspiracy theory on Roger Clemens. I wonder if his decision to stall his comeback each of the past couple of seasons was due merely to making sure he had it in him or rather he had it in him? I’m certainly no expert on performance enhancing drugs, but doesn’t it suddenly seem plausible that The Rocket was taking a late-winter cycle of PED’s before deciding to come back? Are unsigned free agents subjected to the testing? If not, it wouldn’t surprise me if Clemens got his body finely tuned and then gave his body time to flush the evidence before signing. So much for all those stories of his legendary workouts that I always admired as a younger man.

Mitchell Report Part II

Nook Logan? Mark Carreon? Alex Sanchez? This is our Detroit connection? No wonder our home team stunk during the Steroid Era!

Clearly Carreon wasn’t on the juice when he was a Tiger. He hit a career-low .232 that year.As for Sanchez — the first to be busted — it’s a good thing he was on the stuff, otherwise half of those swinging bunt singles he had would’ve rolled foul at the plate, right?

And Nook? Well, I got nothing for Nook.

Bullpen

If the starters can get into the seventh inning I don’t feel too bad about things. It’s that middle/long relief that gives me the Guillermos. I know Zach Miner will be serviceable and I shouldn’t fret about Jason Grilli, but neither instill a lot of confidence — especially if they get thrown into roles they’re not comfortable in.

I actually feel pretty good about the two situational lefties they’ll enter camp with: Tim Byrdak and Bobby Seay. Seay was especially effective the last half of the season when used correctly. Speaking of using folks correctly, Memo to Jim Leyland: Todd Jones can only pitch one inning this year and it should be at the start of the inning, not mid-inning with runners on base.

I’m not expecting Joel Zumaya to contribute anything this year.

So Long, Matt Walbeck

In one of our recent (and frequent) late-night instant-message conversations, Ian Casselberry and I discussed possible successors to Jim Leyland. We both thought AA Erie manager and former Tigers catcher Matt Walbeck had the best chance of any internal candidate.Not anymore.Walbeck will join Ron Washington‘s staff in Arlington as the Rangers’ new third base coach.Wonder what the story is behind this move. It appeared that Walbeck was on the fast-track in the Detroit organization.Perhaps he’s going to Texas to get some big-league experience under his belt so he’s more prepared when Leyland decides to call it quits?Or maybe he wants to be first in line when Washington is fired next June.

Get ready for a healthy dose of divisional play

Here’s the Tigers schedule for the next 10 days:

  • 3 at Minnesota
  • 3 versus Kansas City at Comerica Park
  • 4 at Chicago

Looking a bit further out, after they leave Chicago, the Tigers’ opponents don’t get much easier:

  • 3 at Anaheim (and I’ll be there!)
  • 3 at Oakland
  • 3 versus Chicago at home

If only the Tigers could play the National League Central as frequently as they play the American League Central. The Tigers are barely playing .500 ball against division: 17-15. Against the N.L. version, they won at a .778 clip.Remember earlier in the year when Jim Leyland said that the division winner would come down to which team played best within in the division and in interleague? With the latter portion of the schedule wrapped, it’s time for the Tigers to start putting some distance between themselves, the Indians and Twins.Don’t look now, but like last year, the Tigers’ August schedule is brutal

Clearing out a crowded mental notebook

It’s been a while, I know, but a weeklong vacation to New Jersey followed by an annual physical and a balky back will do that to you.

Let’s empty my mental notebook before a family function this afternoon:

Thank you Jim Leyland for finally seeing that Marcus Thames provides more consistent offense than Craig Monroe. The man can hit (righties/lefties it doesn’t matter) and therefore deserves the opportunity to play five times a week. Fill in with Monroe if you must, but I’d just as soon see Ryan Raburn get the spot start out there as well. The kid worked hard to earn his way back up to the bigs, so reward him with the playing time.

I predicted to no one in particular (maybe it was just to myself) that Magglio Ordonez would have to cool off and it appears his offensive inferno has been put out. This isn’t a Home Run Derby hangover is it? That means it’s all the more important for Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco to get on so opposing pitchers can’t pitch around Gary Sheffield. Sheff will wind up leading this team in RBIs when it’s all said and done.

Speaking of Sheff, I’m with our host Mike McClary. I had no idea how good of a ballplayer he was. His baseball instincts are so good and he does the little things that put teams in a position to win games. It’s been a pleasure to watch him play. Of course D.J. on my t-ball team who insists on wagging his bat like Sheff scares the bejeebers out of me, but that’s a story for another day.

Sheffield’s productivity aside, I still think my MVP this year will be Granderson. He’s really growing into an all-around, five-tool player before us this year. He hits for power, has speed, and not enough is made of his fine defense. On a team full of players that are fun to watch, he’s the one I most enjoy. Maybe it’s because I feel the triple is the most exciting play in sport this side of an inside-the-park-homer or maybe it’s because he’s so effortless hawking balls in CF. No matter, he’s the guy I hope’s in the lineup when I show up at CoPa.

Todd Jones still doesn’t instill any confidence in me when he marches in from the pen. But aren’t Cleveland Indians fans saying the same thing about Joe Borowski?

J.J. Putz? Seriously? I believe I saw this kid in college and I never could have predicted this.

Say what you will about the Wildcard in baseball, but it certainly has had the desired effect on teams selling off high-priced players by the end of the July. With over half of each league still in the mix for the post-season, it sure looks like the Tigers are going to have to overpay to get anything of quality to shore up their bullpen.

Ty Cobb died 46 years ago today at the age of 74. Irrascible yes, but I guarantee you he wouldn’t allow Monroe and others to swing at the first pitch after the pitcher walked the previous batter on four straight pitches. To me it’s inexcusable.

Speaking of Cobb, I’ve been reading New Baltimore author Tom Stanton’s latest book Ty and The Babe. An excellent read that chronicles their vituperative-filled playing days and then their peculiar friendship that led to a three-match golf tournament in 1941. Some terrific nuggets to be found in there, like the fact Ruth’s second wife Claire had dated Cobb years before. Who knew?

Is there a better way to fall asleep than to the soothing tones of a baseball game? Sounds crazy I know, but I ponied up and bought XM primarily so I could have baseball filling my ears as I drifted off to sleep. Best $200 I’ve ever spent.

Now if only we could do something about that Price fellow who works for the Tigers!

I went to Cooperstown earlier this year with my father. I thought many of you would find it interesting to note that Gabe Kapler has a Tigers’ jersey in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, that Gabe Kapler! It’s his jersey from the Tiger Stadium finale with no name or number on it when he was representing Cobb. Couldn’t they have chosen Robert Fick‘s #25 in honor of Norm Cash? After all, he cleared the roof in that game against KC.

The Non-Sequiturs: Matinee Edition

After reading Doug‘s pithy and spot-on assessment of Todd Jones — heretofore known by me as the Tigers “opener”, not “closer” — I decided not to waste my or your time with a vitriolic post about him. What more is there to say? For me, nuttin’. For Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski, lots apparently.According to today’s Detroit News:

“I have no problem with Todd Jones. None,” Leyland said. “He’s done an outstanding job, and he’s a heck of a pitcher.“But he’s such a perfectionist and competes so hard, what I think happens to him on occasion is that he outthinks himself. You try to pitch too carefully, it can backfire on you.”

Ahem.And this from the GM in the Freep:

“He’s our closer. He’s done a solid job for us. He’s pitched well at times. Other times, he hasn’t. He’s pitched very similarly to the way he did last year. He’s not your dominant-type closer, but we know what Todd is.”

Insert your own punchline. Or, better yet, don’t:

“It’s not fun to be the butt of everybody’s jokes,” Jones said Wednesday.

Will Jones be summoned from the ‘pen this afternoon? Yeah, probably. Settle in.How’s that for not writing about Todd Jones? Now, on to the Non-Sequiturs:

  • Peter Pascarelli, the new host of ESPN’s Baseball Today Podcast, is a Tigers believer. He’s been on board for a while now and again this morning said he knows this Tigers have inquired about both Eric Gagne and Akinori Otsuka. Earlier this week he interviewed Leyland about the Tigers’ season so far. Check it out here.
  • One other Pascarelli note, he said that if the Tigers get the bullpen together they could run away with the division.
  • I don’t know about you but yesterday’s rainout was just what the Tigers needed to put the Tuesday nightmare behind them. Let’s see how they respond today. (Rod Allen just said the same thing on the telecast.)
  • Remember in the winter of 2005-06 when Tigers fans were clamoring for Kevin Millwood? Remember, too, the outcry (I might have been the loudest) when the Tigers signed Kenny Rogers instead? So how’d that workout for both teams?
  • Looking to buy the ugliest Detroit Tigers hat ever created? Here it is.
  • I suppose I’m in the minority when it comes to the Tigers first base situation and its lack of pop. I know that the offense is clicking and all that but I’m sorry, one dinger from Sean Casey and six from Marcus Thames is unacceptable. Detroit hasn’t had a full-time power threat at first since the days of Cecil Fielder and Darrell Evans. (Apologies to Tony Clark.) Get Mark Teixeira, if not for this season then at least for the long haul and before the Yankees scoop him up. Here’s what Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal has to say about it:

Tigers: An obvious possibility, considering that the team ranks 11th in the American League in on-base/slugging percentage at first base. However, Sean Casey’s OPS is over .800 since his horrid April, Marcus Thames helps against lefties and Chris Shelton is performing decently at Class AAA.”Our offense is not a problem,” GM Dave Dombrowski, noting that the Tigers are on pace to set the all-time franchise record for runs scored. “I don’t think we would put resources into position players at this time. Our biggest need is the bullpen.”

  • Question for you: Who gets an All Star Game invitation as a reserve: Gary Sheffield, Curtis Granderson or Carlos Guillen? One, two or all of the above?
  • Another question: If the Tigers do take the plunge and shore up the bullpen via trade(s), who are you willing to give up for relief help? Nate Robertson? Craig Monroe (but of course)? Thames? Shelton? Omar Infante?

Finally, during the rain delay on Wednesday I had to endure the Monroe spotlight on FSN Detroit. Mike McClary enjoyed Craig Monroe talking about Craig Monroe in the third person. Mike McClary particularly enjoyed the segments of the show in which Monroe was wearing a Texas Rangers uniform.If only it weren’t six-year-old footage.