Fungoes

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.”

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2012 Top 10 Stories: #2 – Tigers Win the Pennant

Given how the Tigers’ 2012 season went, months of frustration and a division title that came at the 11th hour, a trip to the World Series was far from assured. Far.

As dominoes fell late in the year, the Tigers ALDS opponent depended on which team, the A’s or Rangers, won the A.L. West. They might play the Orioles. Or the A’s. Or the Yankees. No matter which club they played in the first round, a bad match up could’ve been awaiting the Tigers.

In the end, it was the red-hot A’s which vanquished the Rangers in a stunning sweep to end the season. The good news was that the series, thanks to baseball’s new two-three scheduling, started at Comerica Park and not in Oakland where the A’s had mixed up an amazing collection of comeback wins in 2012. Even with Justin Verlander starting Game 1 against rookie Jarrod Parker, the A’s had a kind of juju that made Tigers fans (at least this one) nervous.

A leadoff  home run by Coco Crisp didn’t help. But the Tigers cobbled together enough offense to take the game 3-1. (And who knew we’d witnessed Jose Valverde‘s final save as Tigers closer. More on that in a moment.)

Game 2 featured shaky relief work by Joaquin Benoit and walkoff heroics by Don Kelly to secure a 5-4 win and a 2-0 series lead. Out in Oakland, the series tightened after the A’s won Game 3 and mounted a late comeback in Game 4 to force a winner-take-all Game 5. Thankfully, Verlander was locked in and the Tigers offense gave him plenty of support to send Detroit to the ALCS for the second consecutive year – but this time against the Yankees.

Was I alone in thinking the Tigers were due for the Yankees to exact revenge for New York’s 2006 and 2011 exits? No? Well, I prepared myself for that possibility.

The ALCS got off to a tremendous start in Game 1 with the Tigers leading 4-0 heading to the bottom of the ninth. That’s when Valverde brought to life the worst-case scenario – one like fans witnessed in Game 4 of the ALDS when he surrendered three runs to give the A’s a walkoff win. This time, Valverde gave up four runs on a pair of two-run shots, the first by Ichiro and then one by Raul Ibanez.

In the top of the 12th a Jhonny Peralta ground ball to Derek Jeter changed the series dramatically and for good. Jeter landed awkwardly and saw his season end with a broken ankle. The Tigers scored two in the inning and Drew Smyly shut down New York in the bottom half to earn Detroit an exhausting 1-0 series lead.

The rest of the series was filled with intriguing story lines: Phil Coke‘s emergence as closer, Anibal Sanchez‘s brilliant Game 2 shutout, the Yankees’ offensive drought.

Even though the series ended in a sweep,  it wasn’t completely dominant. Other than in the 8-1 Game 4 win, the Tigers didn’t pile on the runs. Sure, they scored six in Game 1 but only because Valverde didn’t allow the first four runs to stand up. In Games 2 and 3 they scored a combined five runs. But the Yankees scored six in the entire series – and who saw that coming?

The same people who predicted a Tigers sweep of the Yankees to with the American League pennant.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

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2012 Top 10 Stories: #3 – Max Scherzer Arrives

Three years ago, the Tigers acquired Max Scherzer in a megatrade and the club envisioned him as part of a high-octane one-two punch with Justin Verlander. Scherzer displayed flashes of his potential with the Diamondbacks in 2008 and ’09 and observers in the desert thought that Scherzer would be part of a lethal rotation combo, but with Brandon Webb.

He appeared in 16 games (seven starts) in his rookie season and though he didn’t earn a win, he posted a solid 3.05 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. In ’09, he made 30 starts on his way to a 9-11 record with a 4.12 ERA and fanned 9.2 batters per nine innings.

ScherzerHead.jpgScherzer was an unknown quantity for most Tigers fans when he came to Detroit with Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth in the three-team trade with the D-backs and Yankees. But the promise – oh, the promise! – was tantalizing.

And before long it was baffling.

Here’s part of what I wrote on the SweetSpot blog about six weeks into the 2010 season:

After a dazzling debut on April 7 in which he held the Royals to one hit over six innings in a no-decision, Scherzer has been nothing but a question mark in Detroit’s rotation. He hasn’t won in nearly a month, he’s given up 48 hits in 37 innings so far, and in his last two starts alone he allowed 15 earned runs in 9.1 IP.

Scherzer enters his Friday start against the Red Sox with a 1-3 record and a bulky 6.81 ERA. He’s also been a major contributor to the number of innings the Tigers bullpen has pitched in the first six weeks of the season: Scherzer averages barely five innings of work.

After a dominant two-start demotion to Toledo, Scherzer returned to the Tigers for good on May 30 and finished the year at 12-11, 3.50 ERA in 195.2 innings.

He took a step forward in some areas during the 2011 season but still showed a frustrating inconsistency, often dazzling in one start, imploding in the next. In virtually the same number of innings pitched as in ’10 – 195.0 – Scherzer saw his ERA jump almost a full run, but his walks and strikeouts both decreased. And, he surrendered 20 more earned runs and 33 more hits from the year before.

Given how his regular season played out, it came as no surprise that Scherzer sparkled against the Yankees in the ALDS and, equally unsurprising, he collapsed in two ALCS starts against the Rangers.

The 2012 season was a entirely different story and an entirely different Max Scherzer. In his third season with the Tigers her set career highs with 16 wins and 231 strikeouts.

He led the league with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, finished second with 231 strikeouts and tied for sixth in wins.

Untouchable for stretches, he struck out nine-or-more batters in 13 of his starts during the season – tops in the majors. These marked the most by a Tigers pitcher since Mickey Lolich posted 15 games with nine-or-more strikeouts in 1971.

In his May 20 start against the Pirates, he struck out 15, all swinging.

Of course, Scherzer’s breakthrough season was all the more remarkable to watch after a devastating personal tragedy. As Jason Beck wrote this week:

Alex Scherzer wasn’t just Max’s little brother, he was his best friend and confidant. It was Alex’s skill with numbers that fostered Max’s fascination with statistics as he blossomed into a Major League pitcher. When Alex died without warning in June, Max contemplated the best way to honor his brother’s memory. In the end, the mound became a haven for the right-hander, and baseball was a way for him to put smiles on people’s faces. It was a new appreciation for life while he found the kind of on-field success that had driven Scherzer for years.

Scherzer led the Majors in strikeouts for most of the summer before a muscular issue in his right shoulder cost him a couple of starts. His postseason performances through that adversity earned Scherzer respect from teammates and opponents alike.

He made three postseason starts, one each in the ALDS, ALCS and World Series, allowing 12 hits and four earned runs in 17.1 innings pitched. Against the Yankees in the pennant-clinching LCS Game 4, carved up Joe Girardi‘s lineup: 5.2 IP, one earned run, two walks, a pair of hits and 10 strikeouts.

In Game 4 of the World Series, Scherzer dealt a quality start against the Giants – 6.1 IP, three runs, seven hits, and eight strikeouts. Given how the Giants offense constructed runs, and how punchless the Tigers’ lineup had become, he really had no chance to earn a win.

But that exemplifies the difference between Max Scherzer in 2102 from the one we watched in 2010 and ’11. In those first seasons in Detroit, he often failed to give his team a chance to win.

If we’re to believe what we saw this past season, those days just might be a thing of the past.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

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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.

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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.

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The Wednesday Breakfast

Good Wednesday morning. It’s the last day of August and with a win this afternoon the Tigers will finish the month at 18-10. They were 13-13 in July.

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Leading Off: Ramon Santiago showed that sneaky power we’ve heard so much about (or at least saw a lot on Twitter last night), ending a taut, 1-1 game in dramatic fashion. Doug Fister was brilliant again and the Tigers maintained their five-game lead over the White Sox.

Around the Central: The White Sox downed the Twins 8-6, and the Indians beat the A’s 6-2.

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The Tigers are in first place, 5 games ahead of the White Sox, 5.5 ahead of the Indians.

Today’s Game: Rick Porcello (12-8, 5.01 ERA) vs. RHP Felipe Paulino (2-6, 3.83 ERA) | 1:05 p.m. – FSD/1270 AM and 97.1 FM

Notes on Porcello

Lifetimes against the Royals Porcello’s 4-2 with a 4.65 ERA … He’s limited opponents to a .227 batting average the first time through the batting order this season. Opponents are hitting .339 beginning with the second time through the order … He’s 1-2 with a 7.27 ERA (26.0IP/21ER) in five starts during the month … According to STATS, LLC, Porcello’s 36 wins are fourth-most by a Tigers pitcher prior to turning 23 since at least 1919. Denny McLain posted 42 wins for the Tigers prior to turning 23, while Hal Newhouser collected 38 wins and Art Houtteman registered 37 wins.

Notes on Paulino

Paulino has made a pair of starts in his career against the Tigers, but tonight will be his debut at Comerica Park … he’s 1-0 career vs. the Bengals with a solid 2.63 ERA with two walks and 16 strikeouts … he pitched three and a half weeks ago against Detroit at Kauffman Stadium on August 5, taking a no decision in a contest the Royals would lose, 4-3, in 10 innings … His first career outing against Detroit came in an Astros uniform on June 27, 2009 and resulted in an 8-1 win … he’s 1-0 career vs. the Bengals with a solid 2.63 ERA with two walks and 16 strikeouts.

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Phil Coke enters today’s game having not allowed a run over his last 13 outings dating back to August 2, striking out 20 batters in 12 scoreless innings. He has limited opponents to a .182 batting average during that stretch.

Happy 43rd Birthday to Hideo Nomo; Happy 51st Morris Madden, Happy 59th to Hamtramck native Bill Nahorodny and a Happy 64th to Boots Day, who was a coach on Les Moss‘s 1979 Tigers.

And you think Magglio looks old. On this date in 1906, the injury-riddled Tigers call 46-year-old Sam Thompson out of retirement; he drives in two runs in a 5-1 win over the Browns. Thompson, who last played in the majors in 1898, appears in eight games and bats .226.

On this date in 1937, rookie Rudy York sets a new record for home runs in a month, hitting his 17th and 18th to eclipse Babe Ruth’s mark set in September 1927. He knocks in seven runs against Pete Appleton, as the Tigers beat Washington 12-3. Six years later, York would hit 17 in August.

On Aug. 31, 1988, the Tigers try for pennant insurance: Ted Power from Kansas City and Fred Lynn from Baltimore for players to be named later.

How do you think Will Rhymes feels about returning to the Arizona Fall League in October? The Tigers’ Opening Day second baseman will joing five other Tigers players on the Salt River Rafters: righthanded pitcher Tyler Stohr, lefthanded pitchers Casey Crosby and Matt Hoffman, catcher Rob Brantly and Danny Worth.

Finally, Happy 66th Birthday to Van Morrison.

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Pondering a Mid-Week Pounding

Thinking ManI’ve never been fond of that old baseball chestnut, attributed to long-time Orioles manager Earl Weaver, “Momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher”, but how else can you characterize the atrocities at Comerica Park this week?

Fresh off a once-in-a-millennium sweep of the White Sox, the Tigers, well, got smoked by the lowly Mariners thanks to three more or less devastating pitch performances. Smoked.

There were so many moments and plays during this series that could’ve turned a game in Detroit’s favor but went the other way — big time.

If I had to choose the turning point in the series, it had to be the top of the fifth in game one on Tuesday night. The Tigers clawed back to tie the game at three — a major hurdle when facing Felix Hernandez — only to watch Phil Coke hand the lead and the game back to the Mariners by allowing four runs.

Talk about a momentum killer.

And then there were the errors: five in three games, four on Wednesday alone.

And, how about that bruising top three spots in the lineup for Thursday’s finale? Austin Jackson, Ramon Santiago and Magglio Ordonez amassed an average of .180. In fact, five players in Thursday’s lineup finished the game with an average of .200 or lower.

And, how about Ryan Raburn’s performance — any facet you choose?

Right now, things look bleak for the Tigers’ offensively and it appears they now lack any momentum.

Then again, tomorrow’s starting pitcher is the Indians’ Jeanmar Gomez, whose record is 0-1, 7.36.

Maybe I like that old adage after all.

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