2012 Top 10 Stories: #8 – The Black Hole at Second Base

Remember when Scott Sizemore was the answer to the Tigers’ second base question? After nearly five seasons of Placido Polanco’s wizardry at second, and in the number-two slot of the lineup, the Tigers tried to convince fans – and maybe themselves – that Sizemore could take over with gusto.

After 65 games spread across two seasons, Sizemore was dealt to Oakland and suddenly second base became a giant black hole. Again.

In 2010, Carlos Guillen and Will Rhymes both played more games at second than Sizemore, fully cementing the second-base-by-committee approach.

Last season, Ryan Raburn made his play for the job, appearing in 56 games at second and committing 10 errors in 201 chances. Backed by his usual second-half surge, he convinced the Tigers he could hold down the job full-time in 2012.

The assumption, naturally, was that Raburn would hit enough to mask some lead-gloved D. (The same was said of Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and, to a lesser degree, Jhonny Peralta.)

Except, he didn’t hit well enough to warrant a job anywhere on the diamond. Neither did Plan B, Ramon Santiago.

Combined, Plan A and Plan B hit .189.

That’s why, as the July 31 Trade Deadline inched closer, the Tigers were linked to every available second baseman in the majors: from Darwin Barney to Kelly Johnson to the man the landed on July 26 along with Anibal Sanchez: the prodigal son Omar Infante.

Having a full-time second baseman certainly settled the lineup but Infante look anything but settled at times, at least defensively after his arrival. He made nine errors in 267 chances over 61 games at second, At the plate, he hit .257: 80 points higher than Raburn and 50 more than Santiago.

Heading into 2013, Infante is the incumbent at second and in the final year of his contract. Given the slim pickings in the Tigers’ minor-league system, a solid first half could earn the 31-year-old Infante a contract extension and make him the second baseman for the foreseeable future … just as he was in 2001.

Go figure.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

Is Detroit Still a Great Baseball Town?

With the Tigers marching toward three million in attendance for 2012, this might seem more than borderline preposterous. But stick with me.

I lobbed a tweet last week about how Tigers fans are coming unglued online and on the air. I could even take it a step further and suggest the faithful are assuming the personality traits – obsession, paranoia, rage – of Yankees fans.

Last Thursday morning, listening to Power Alley on MLB Network Radio, a Tigers fan called in to rail on Joaquin Benoit and how he just can’t be trusted, Leyland shouldn’t use him in the 8th inning anymore. Why? Well, he allowed four runs to score in an 8-6 win over the White Sox. And, well, because.

Hosts Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette politely disagreed that Benoit was a problem – much less the problem, as the caller also suggested – and that in fact he’d been quite good of late and for the majority of the season. They acknowledged his stretch of surrendering home runs (looking at you, Taylor Teagarden) but that he’s certainly not someone about whom Tigers fans should waste energy.

This is just one example. Since April, Tigers fans have been scorching Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn, Jose Valverde and, of course, Jim Leyland*.

*Recently Reds GM Walt Jocketty was on Power Alley and he answered a question from the hosts about Dusty Baker‘s approach to resting players throughout the season, even into September. Jocketty defended his manager and talked about how the great managers know who needs a rest and when – and how this can payoff late in the season. He mentioned Leyland by name as another skipper who knows when to give his players a day off. Then he said something like, “I heard on this show a Tigers fan was complaining about Jim Leyland resting players. Jim’s one of the best in the game at this and I can’t believe they’re complaining about it.”

How did this happen? Is it all because of pre-season expectations and the season drawing to a close? Is it the number of outlets fans have to air even the flimsiest arguments? Yes to both, I think.

I acknowledge this is likely coming across as Old Man Thinking and to some degree it is. What’s really puzzling to me is that Detroit has a reputation as being a great baseball town. And it is.

Or it was. Right now, I’m not so sure.

I’ve never witnessed such vitriol being sprayed in so many places against a manager and his players – ever. Fans are treating Leyland like they do their political villain of choice. (Two years ago I wrote my case for Leyland and stand by it today.) It wasn’t long ago that the Tigers had managers the likes of Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish and, inexplicably, Luis Pujols. People: Luis Pujols.

Granted, you could argue (and I’d have a hard time disagreeing with you) that the days of Bell, Parrish and Pujols were dreadful seasons in which most Tigers fans were apathetic at best. But people still went to the games, followed the team and called into the sports talk shows to complain about Bobby Higginson. Some people cared … but not many, and not much. But still.

Does all the moaning and groaning mean Tigers fans are as engaged as ever? Or does it mean Detroit has lost its collective mind when it comes to baseball and the expectations of a team that, for an enternity, was an embarrassment?

What do you think?

Who’s the Tigers’ Youkilis?

White Sox third basemen are hitting something like .180 this season with a single home run. As usual, Ken Williams does his thing and plugs in Kevin Youkilis to anchor the hot corner.

Tigers second basemen are hitting .196 (.192 if you include 20 at bats from Brandon Inge and a pair from Hernan Perez) with three* home runs – two from Ramon Santiago and one from Ryan Raburn). Dave Dombrowski is looking to plug this hole with … Matt Garza. Wha-?

*It’s four if you add Inge’s one homer.

I get why DD is looking for a dependable arm in the fourth spot; Rick Porcello‘s days in the Tigers rotation should be drawing to a close and who wants to see two rookies at the four and five spot? Not me. (Though, of course, I love what Drew Smyly has done and what Jacob Turner will do later this year or next, but come on.)

My guess is the Tigers are looking for – have to be looking for – a package deal with Garza and maybe second baseman Darwin Barney to patch the roster.

As I’m watching Tigers games I picture the opposing second baseman in a strategically placed slot of Jim Leyland‘s lineup maybe hitting second.

But as Lynn Henning writes today, just about every team is alive in their division and has needs of their own. You have only to look at the Pirates’ offense to see that teams hovering near the top of their division could use a serving of firepower.

If the Tigers are going to make a move chances are it will involve lots of bodies, like last year’s Doug Fister trade, right? And if they do, it can’t result in only one decent player coming to Detroit (calling David Pauley.)

My guess is Dombrowski isn’t feeling any pressure because of Williams picking up Youkilis. He’s been dealing with him for 10 years in the A.L. Central. Any pressure is coming from the calendar, the lineup and perhaps the owner.

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.)

Tigers Finish White Sox 9-8 in Dramatic Comeback

Saturday evening, Tigers utility man and fan base lightning rod Ryan Raburn helped almost mathematically eliminate the vaunted preseason AL Central favorite Chicago White Sox and did it in spectacularly dramatic fashion.

It’s been quite some time (about four months) since anyone thought the White Sox were poised to make a run at taking this division and now that the team is seven and a half games back of the Tigers with just four games left against their rival, the Sox chances have gone from slim to extremely slim to not even the Mets could blow this lead.

Raburn, who entered the game in the 7th to face Jesse Crain because he was 5-for-10 career against him, stepped up to the plate with a runner on third and the Tigers down two runs in the ninth.

White Sox closer Sergio Santos, who Raburn was 0-for-3 in his career against, was two outs away from a save and bringing his team within 5.5 games in the division. It’s an understatement to say that Santos had been dominant on the road this year coming into Saturday’s ninth inning. Santos was yet to allow a single run in 25 appearances on the road and had just allowed six hits.

According to ESPN’s baseball research specialist Mark Simon, Santos hadn’t allowed a single hit on a 2-strike slider to a right-handed hitter all season (43 K, 0 HA) before Raburn wrapped a belt high offering 423 feet around the left field foul pole.

I guess he was due. Continue reading “Tigers Finish White Sox 9-8 in Dramatic Comeback”

Avila at Third? Not All That Uncommon in Tigers History

Tonight Alex Avila is the Tigers’ starting third baseman in the opener of a three-game series in Denver against the Rockies.

Avila’s never played third in the majors but he’s not the first Tigers player to be pressed into action there. Did you know that Al Kaline appeared in two games at third during his career?

In 1961, he played a full nine innings at third, fielding a pair of chances cleanly, with a putout and an assist. Four years later he played 5.1 innings of a game with three chances, two putouts and an assist.

Johnny Wockenfuss, who played mostly at first, catcher and in the outfield, became even more of a utility man for Sparky Anderson when he played … parts of two games – all of 2.1 innings – at third base but never saw any action.

Like Kaline, in 1965 Willie Horton played third but outlasted him be two-thirds of an inning. In one game he played six innings, fielded two chances and earned an assist on both.

Others taking a turn at the hot corner include:

  • Mickey Stanley: 18 games over two seasons (1975 and ’76), 61 chances, 13 putouts, 46 assists and two errors
  • Alan Trammell: 43 games in two seasons (1993, ’96), 100 chances, 26 putouts, 69 assists, five errors
  • Ty Cobb: 1 game in 1918, two chances, with an assist and a putout.
  • Charlie Gehringer: 6 error-free games (and 26 chances) in 1926 for The Mechanical Man

I’m looking forward to this experiment. Having Avila’s bat in the lineup is huge and having him at third, well, can’t be any worse than Ryan Raburn.

What do you think?