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.

The Monday Report: Non Sequiturs to Start Your Week

  • How time flies. It was 18 years ago Saturday (Jan. 12) that the Tigers traded right-handed starter Jeff Robinson to the Orioles for catcher Mickey Tettleton. (Somewhere I have Robinson’s autograph on a bleacher-seat ticket stub.) 
  • No one really knows how long Joel Zumaya will be out — perhaps all season. If that’s the case, and he’s able to come back next year in 2006 form, could this injury actually prolong his career? I’m just sayin’… 
  • If you, like me, have wondered why the Tigers of the 1980s don’t get more love from Hall of Fame voters, be sure to read John Brattain‘s piece on The Hardball Times. 
  • If you want your retinas scarred forever, visit the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Web site. If you don’t, don’t. 
  • One more thing on Brandon Inge. I realize his world’s been rocked since the trade for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, but I’m still a little surprised that he’s been so quiet this offseason. He could have pulled an Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh and talked with reporters using nothing but clichés. Instead, he’s said nothing and now must face the questions over and over again in Spring Training. Think that won’t be a bit distracting to him and the team? 
  • Did you know that Dontrelle Willis will be only the second “Willis” to play for the Tigers in their history? He’s the first since current Indians’ pitching coach Carl Willis. You can look it up. 
  • Finally, Tigers birthdays galore over the past few days, starting with Dave “Soup” Campbell of ESPN Radio’s MLB coverage. He played for the Tigers from 1967-69; he turns 66 today. On Sunday several former Tigers celebrate their big day. From oldest to youngest:

    And on Friday Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon turned 49.

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.

The Monday Report

My son woke me up at 5:45 this morning so I had some time to catchup on my reading and thinking…

  • Call me naive, but I thought the Kenny Rogers thing would be a slam dunk, even with The Scott Boras Factor. Now that Rogers, who turned 43 on Saturday, is testing the market — the market for a mid-40s pitcher coming off a season virtually lost to serious injury that is — one has to wonder if the Tigers have used up the patience they reserve for dealing with Boras. From everything I’ve read, most still expect a deal to get hammered out. And I tend to think so too if only because Dave Dombrowski doesn’t seem to be a cut-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face kind of guy.Speaking of Rogers, I thought I’d stumbled upon major news over at Yahoo! Sports when I read in this Tigers rumor:

    According to the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Tigers and free agent lefty Kenny Rogers have parted ways.  

    If you read to the story referenced in the piece you’ll see that nowhere does it say Rogers isn’t coming back. Perhaps a little fact checking would help.I’m intrigued by the Dontrelle Willis thing but can’t fathom what it would take to acquire him (for starters, Brandon Inge, perhaps?). Sure seems like a drastic change of course going from re-signing Rogers to dealing for Willis.Ah, but you gotta love the smell of hickory on the Hot Stove.

  • Our man Ian Casselberry notified me of the Omar Infante-for-Jacque Jones trade this afternoon. I think it’s safe to say Ian and I were both underwhelmed by the move. As Jon Paul Morosi suggests, this is likely a stop-gap solution until Cameron Maybin is ready for prime time, all the time. If that’s the case, I supposed I can live with it.

Still, you have to believe that somewhere in the Dominican Republic, Timo Perez is wondering what he has to do to become more than a September call up.But probably not in those words.

  • If you missed it, Joel Zumaya turned 23 on Friday. Here’s hoping his birthday wish was for health and wellness. And, while the Lions were stinking up University of Phoenix Stadium yesterday, Jason Grilli and Chuck Hernandez were celebrating birthdays. A belated #31 to Grilli and #47 to Hernandez. To help you plan your card and gift shopping, here are the upcoming Tigers birthdays of note: Nov. 18 – Gary Sheffield (39); Nov. 19 – Preston Larrison (27); Nov. 29 – Tony Giarratano (25); Nov. 30 – Ivan Rodriguez (36). 
  • Mr. Casselberry and I also wondered aloud who the Tigers backup catcher would be on Opening Day. Vance Wilson should be ready to come back and reclaim his job, but Mike Rabelo certainly made a case for himself in 2007. Too bad one of them can’t play another position — or that Ryan Raburn can’t catch. Ian thinks Rabelo comes North. I’m undecided but tend to think Wilson will rejoin the team if he has anything that resembles a decent spring.

Zumaya & Fidrych: Birds of a Feather?

11-5-07 Update: In Monday morning’s Free Press, columnist Drew Sharp has a similar piece on the Fidrych/Zumaya comparison.

Thirty years ago, Tigers fans held out hope that the knee injury suffered by Mark “The Bird” Fidrych in spring training was merely a moment of turbulence on his career’s soaring trajectory. Unfortunately, Fidrych’s career — which showed such promise after a 19-9, Rookie of the Year campaign in 1976 — all but ended 11 starts into his sophomore season.

Despite a rotator-cuff fueled flame-out, to this day The Bird is a revered character in the Tigers’ rich history. (I still like to imagine a 1984 rotation of Jack Morris, Fidrych, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox.)

In the wake of Joel Zumaya‘s shoulder injury — coming six months after his finger injury — one has to wonder if the closer-in-waiting could become this generation’s Fidrych.

Comparing these two pitchers isn’t apples to apples, of course. In fact, they couldn’t be any different in just about any category. Fidrych was an innings eater, which likely contributed to his truncated career. He threw 250 innings in 1976 — as a rookie. Those were the days before meticulous pitch-count management. (In contrast, consider that in 2006 the Tigers were concerned with Justin Verlander topping 130 innings pitched in his Rookie of the Year season.)

At most, Zumaya pitches two innings a game.

In 1977, Tigers fans expected more of the same from The Bird. Little did they know they’d already seen his best.

Thirty years later, after Zumaya’s early-season hand injury occurred, fans expected him to pick up where he’d left off. Instead, he showed only flashes of his 2006 dominance. Now we must wait until mid-season, at best, to learn more about his prospects for a long major league career.

Still, until Zumaya burst on to the scene in 2006, no pitcher has electrified Tigers home crowds like Fidrych.

Let’s hope that’s where the similarities end.

Zumaya Out, Mariano Rivera In?

So Joel Zumaya‘s out until…well, who knows? Not to worry, the Tigers might have a fall-back position in the person of Todd Jones. Unless he signs with the Braves or some other team in the southeast.Worried? Me too.I wonder if the Tigers front office is mulling a call to Mariano Rivera‘s agent. He could be a perfect one- to two-year stop gap (and not a bad one at that) until Zumaya is healthy.Thoughts?

Putting the “Dead” in Trade Deadline

Those of us old enough to remember when Pat Gillick was general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays (before moving on to similar roles with the Orioles, Mariners and his current employer, the Phillies), may be thinking of him today when pondering the Tigers approach to the non-waiver trade deadline.In the late 1980s, Gillick earned the nickname “Stand Pat” primarily because he would do just that at the trade deadline and leave Blue Jays’ fans scratching their collective noggins until Opening Night at Maple Leaf Gardens.Now that I’ve had a few hours to ponder the Tigers lack-tivity, I’m surprisingly relieved. What I found throughout the day as I listened to coverage on XM Radio and on ESPN, was that I was more anxious to learn who the Tigers would give up in a trade more so than who they acquired.The Tigers were not giving up Cameron Maybin; No drama there. And, given how fragile the Tigers’ pitching staff has proven to be this season, I couldn’t fathom the Tigers peddling the solid arms currently tending the farms in Toledo, Erie, Oneonta, Comstock Park and Lakeland.I’ll admit I’m a little late to this party.Our man in Connecticut, Peter Fuhrmeister, commented in podcast #24 that he didn’t want to see the Tigers make a move at the deadline. He’s content to ride out this season with what the Tigers have to offer in the bully. John Milton, my brother and I all disagreed with Peter but managed to avoid calling him nuts.After watching the first game of the Angels series, we were stinging from the dismal pitching performance on Friday night. Two games later, you could not convince me that a better, reasonably priced bullpen solution wasn’t out there. Somewhere. (Could the Tigers swallow some pride — and salary — to bring back Jamie Walker?)Today, Peter, as usual, looks to be the wise man.And now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m willing to accept that a pair of healed, experienced arms are on the way in Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya. If they are back to full strength, the Tigers should be okay. I’m also willing to concede (again) that this team is going through a particularly grueling stretch of baseball right now. A couple of wins, a day off and a healthy back-end of the bullpen should put the Tigers back in business.If not, maybe Dave Dombrowski can phone Gillick and see what arms he’s willing to part with for a package of Jason Grilli, Craig Monroe and Omar Infante.I can almost hear Gillick’s response now: “Well, Jose Mesa‘s available…”Update: Jason Beck tells us what the Tigers had brewing today. Wasn’t much.