Keys to 2013: Detroit Tigers

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Starting Pitching Key: Justin Verlander

It’s easy to say, “pencil Verlander in for 18-24 wins; 240 innings; 250 strikeouts; consistent dominance; etc.” It’s not that easy to do it on an annual basis no matter how great a pitcher is. Verlander is their horse and everything feeds off of him. The Tigers have depth in the rotation they didn’t have in 2011 when Verlander won—and deserved—the MVP as well as the Cy Young Award. They’d be competitive on the field without him, but the teamwide mental strain of an arm problem for Verlander could open the floodgates to a collapse.

Relief Pitching Key: Bruce Rondon

There are already rumblings that manager Jim Leyland wants to sign former closer Jose Valverde as insurance in case rookie Rondon can’t do the job. Veteran managers whose careers are winding down don’t need aggravation and they certainly don’t want to see a loaded World Series contender come undone because the bullpen ace isn’t ready. Valverde was awful last season, but Leyland has seen him get the big outs before and would trust him more than he’d trust Rondon at this point.

If Rondon is closing when the season starts, he has to convert the first few save opportunities to gain confidence in himself and from his manager. Leyland’s a good liar, but he’ll have a hard time making Rondon, the Tigers, the front office and everyone else believe that he’s confident in his rookie closer until he’s closed a few games.

Offensive Key: Miguel Cabrera

Yes, they have Prince Fielder. Yes, Victor Martinez is coming back. Yes, there’s Torii Hunter, Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta and other guys who can hit. But it begins and ends with the 2012 Triple Crown winner, Cabrera.

Defensive Key: Jhonny Peralta

Peralta’s not as bad at shortstop as he’s portrayed and it was his adequate play on the left side of the infield that mitigated Cabrera’s lack of range at third. Apart from Cabrera, the Tigers’ defense is quite good. If they had a shortstop that covered a lot of ground, Cabrera wouldn’t be a concern at all—he catches the balls hit close enough to him to reach—but with Peralta’s up-and-down defense, it’s something to watch.

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ALCS Preview and Predictions—New York Yankees vs Detroit Tigers

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New York Yankees (95-67; 1st place, AL East; defeated Baltimore Orioles 3 games to 2 in the ALDS) vs Detroit Tigers (88-74; 1st place, AL Central; defeated Oakland Athletics 3 games to 2 in the ALDS)

Keys for the Tigers: Tack on runs and keep the game out of the hands of Jose Valverde; hold down the Yankees’ bats as the Orioles did; get runners on base in front of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.

Valverde has been terrible this year. Yes, he has a fastball and a split that can get strikeouts, but the hitters—and especially the Yankees—know to give him a chance to start walking people and he’ll oblige. His strikeouts were way down this year with only 48 in 69 innings. The Yankees will be supremely confident even if they’re trailing going to the ninth inning with Valverde coming in. The Tigers have the offense to put up big numbers and they’ll feel better en masse if they’re not placing the game in the hands of Valverde.

The focus was on Alex Rodriguez because he wound up being benched, but A-Rod was benched because the Yankees had options to do so. They don’t have that option with their other struggling hitters Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. Nick Swisher isn’t going to be in the lineup every game if he doesn’t provide some offense early in the series. The Orioles did it with Joe Saunders, Jason Hammel, and Miguel Gonzalez. The Tigers are trotting out Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Max Scherzer. Maybe the more familiar pitchers will help the Yankees have better at bats.

With Fielder and Cabrera, the Tigers have bashers that the Orioles didn’t. If the Yankees are in a position where they have no choice but to pitch to one or both, they’ll do damage.

Keys for the Yankees: Hit; don’t hesitate to make lineup changes with Swisher or A-Rod; get similarly great starting pitching as they did in the ALDS.

Mark Teixeira is coming off of a calf injury that could’ve ended his season and is an injury that has a tendency of recurring even when it feels as if it’s back to normal. He’s running hard and his key stolen base set the stage for the Yankees to take the lead in game 5 against the Orioles.

Cano, on the other hand, is running at perhaps 60% of capacity. He does it because he’s allowed to get away with it. It’s unacceptable. I can deal with him struggling at the plate; I can live with an error once in awhile; but this attitude of, “I don’t have to run because I can hit better than 98% of baseball,” is a warning sign to the Yankees that they should think very long and seriously before handing Cano—at age 31 a year from now—a contract for 8-10 years at over $200 million. His laziness on the field could extend to off the field; what once came easy will no longer come easy; and if he’s not willing to run out a double play ball in the playoffs, then what makes anyone think he’s going to work hard off the field to stay in shape when his bat slows down and his reactions aren’t as quick?

He was actually worse that A-Rod in the ALDS because A-Rod has the excuse of age and declining bat speed. I had thought Cano would be mitigated because he wasn’t going to see any pitches to hit, but in the series with the Orioles, he saw plenty of pitches to hit. He just didn’t hit them.

Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia, and Hiroki Kuroda are warriors; Phil Hughes has the fans and media acting skittish whenever he’s out on the mound, but he’s been able to handle the pressure games and do his job.

By my estimation, Swisher will get the first two games against Fister and Sanchez to see if he produces. If he doesn’t hit, by game 3 when Verlander is on the mound, Swisher will be sitting.

It was interesting that both Joe Girardi and Jim Leyland left their aces out on the mound in a game 5 when they definitely would’ve pulled them in favor of their closers in a less-important game.

What will happen:

The Tigers are not the Orioles. They’re not relying on a bunch of journeymen and youngsters. They’re trotting star power out there with Fielder and Cabrera. Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry are speed players who pose a threat on the bases. Alex Avila and Delmon Young have had big hits in the playoffs. With their starting pitching, they’re more capable of shutting out the lights on the Yankees than the Orioles. Sabathia is not pitching until game 4 after his complete game effort in game 5 of the ALDS against the Orioles.

Cabrera has brutalized the Yankees’ pitchers—link.

Fielder hasn’t been as successful, so the series is going to hinge on him and Young, both batting behind Cabrera.

Valverde has had success against the Yankees, but he can’t be trusted. Nor can Yankees’ closer Rafael Soriano who, despite pitching well against the Orioles, has not been trustworthy in playoffs past. Both Leyland and Girardi will be inclined to leave their starters in the game rather than entrust a close game to questionable bullpen arms when they can help it. Joaquin Benoit has been shaky for the Tigers and David Robertson gets himself into trouble seemingly for the sake of getting out of it and that’s not going to work with Cabrera and Fielder.

I don’t see how A-Rod, Swisher, and Granderson will suddenly rediscover their strokes against better pitching than they saw in the Orioles series. I have no idea what to expect from Cano.

Leyland has bounced the Yankees the two times he’s faced them in the playoffs and with the Tigers lineup performing better than the Yankees and an even matchup on the mound, the Tigers will stop the Yankees again.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN SIX

ALCS MVP: PRINCE FIELDER

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ALCS Preview: Detroit Tigers vs Texas Rangers

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Detroit Tigers (95-67; 1st place, AL Central; defeated New York Yankees in ALDS 3 games to 2) vs Texas Rangers (96-66; 1st place, AL West; defeated Tampa Bay Rays in ALDS 3 games to 1).

Keys for the Tigers: Win Justin Verlander‘s starts; score against the Rangers mediocre starters; don’t tempt fate; stick to the script.

Justin Verlander is rested and ready for game 1 of the ALCS after manager Jim Leyland steadfastly refused to even consider using him in game 5 against the Yankees. They won, so they have their pitching set up the way they want it.

Verlander is in the midst of one of those magical seasons and his chance of being the key to dispatching the Yankees was interrupted by the weather. He’ll have another chance against the heavy hitting Rangers. Historically, he hasn’t had much trouble in the hitter-friendly confines of The Ballpark in Arlington, but the Rangers have some hitters who can crush a fastball, notably Mike Napoli, Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton. Michael Young is 6 for 26 in his career vs Verlander with 3 doubles.

The Rangers starting pitching isn’t all that impressive. C.J. Wilson got knocked around in his game 1 start against the Rays, but none of the Tigers hitters have done much with him in their careers. The Tigers don’t want to enter the late innings with Mike Adams, Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz coming at them—they didn’t do much with the Yankees bullpen and won’t do much with the Rangers bullpen either.

The Tigers aren’t particularly patient at the plate on the whole and when they get runners on base, they have to cash them in. They didn’t do that against the Yankees and won anyway; they don’t want to push their luck.

With a lead, the Tigers handed the ball to Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde and it worked; if they’re able to get from solid performances from their starters and enter the late innings with a lead, they’ll win the series.

Keys for the Rangers: Get their starters out of the game if they’re struggling; cash in on baserunners; get the game to their bullpen with a lead.

The Rangers penchant for pushing their starting pitchers deeply into games to get the number of innings they want extended inexplicably to game 1 of the ALDS against the Rays.

Why manager Ron Washington left Wilson in to absorb a beating and essentially put the game out of reach is mind-boggling. That can’t happen in the post-season.

Colby Lewis has proven himself to be a big game pitcher who thrives in the playoffs; I’m not sold on either Matt Harrison or Derek Holland.

Ryan Raburn is—get this—8 for 12 vs Harrison with 2 homers and 2 doubles. Brandon Inge is 3 for 7 with 2 homers; and Alex Avila is 4 for 4 with a homer.

Against Holland, Delmon Young is 6 for 12 with 2 homers; the other Tigers experience against him is limited and not noteworthy.

Has Ogando usurped Adams as the eighth inning man? Or was that just for the last series and because Adams was struggling? Does Adams get a reboot as the set-up man?

Miguel Cabrera is 4 for 4 in his career vs Adams.

Cabrera murders Ogando as well with 5 hits in 9 at bats and a walk.

Inge is 2 for 2 with a homer in his career vs Feliz.

One of the reasons the Tigers beat the Yankees is because the Yankees left so many runners on base; the Rangers can’t repeat that mistake.

I doubt we’re going to see Koji Uehara and his gopher ball with anything important on the line in this series, but it is Ron Washington managing the Rangers and he wears a path out to the mound late in games and he does…strange…things.

What will happen.

The Tigers starting pitching is clearly better than the Rangers and they have an advantage in that their manager isn’t going to do something deranged to blow a game up. The bullpens are evenly matched when it gets down to crunch time; if the middle-relievers Phil Coke, Darren Oliver, Daniel Schlereth, and Scott Feldman have to be counted on at any point, that means strategies are flying out the window and both sides are trying to survive.

The Tigers will get to the Rangers starters; Verlander may get touched up in one of his games, but the Tigers will mitigate it by scoring enough runs to win.

Adams has been having control problems, but the Tigers are over-aggressive; if they’re patient, they can get to the Rangers bullpen.

Cabrera was relatively quiet in the ALDS and that’s not going to continue.

Avila was also held down in the ALDS, but he hits Lewis and Harrison well and is going to go on a hot streak in this series.

Getting past the Yankees was the hard part; getting past the Rangers will be easier and that’s what the Tigers are going to do.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN SIX.

ALCS MVP: ALEX AVILA.

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Detroit Tigers vs New York Yankees

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Detroit Tigers (95-67; 1st place, AL Central) vs New York Yankees (97-65; 1st place, AL East)

Keys for the Tigers: Score early, score often against the Yankees starters; get into the bullpen early; ride their own starters deep into the games; win Justin Verlander‘s starts; Magglio Ordonez.

The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games, but that’s not an accurate gauge as to how they played this season.

Up until August, their position was precarious in terms of whether they would even make the playoffs; they made a series of trades to get Delmon Young, Doug Fister and Wilson Betemit; the Indians—who had led the Tigers by as much as 8 games in May—came apart.

It was Justin Verlander who carried the Tigers on his shoulders before they took command of the division by ripping off a 12 game winning streak in September. It will be Justin Verlander who will lead the Tigers past the Yankees or into the winter after a first round playoff loss.

They have to ride their horse.

Manager Jim Leyland is insisting that Verlander will pitch games 1 and 5 and under no circumstances is pitching in game 4.

We’ll see.

Fister has been masterful since his acquisition from the Mariners with an 8-1 record and ERA under 2. He’s only allowed 11 homers in over 200 innings this season, but Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson have gotten to him; he lost his only start against the Yankees this season; it was his last start as a Mariner and he went 7 innings surrendering 3 runs on 7 hits.

Max Scherzer is starting game 3 and Rick Porcello game 4. Scherzer has a power fastball and wicked slider, but is either on or off—if he’s got his stuff and control, he’s nasty; if not, he gets hammered.

I wouldn’t trust Porcello in a game 4.

The Tigers bullpen before Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde is a question mark, but Leyland will push his starters further than he does in the regular season. Verlander’s pitch limit will be somewhere in the 140-150 range if necessary and since they’re insisting they’re not pitching him in game 4, don’t expect a quick hook if he gets off to a bad start in game 1.

The Tigers have to decide what to do with their veteran bats who’ve played sparingly in 2011. Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen have handled CC Sabathia in their careers, but will Leyland rely on his vets or stick with the players he was using for the bulk of the time over the second half?

Guillen has a calf issue and is probably out for the ALDS.

I’d play Ordonez against Sabathia.

Ordonez is also 7 for 14 in his career against Mariano Rivera.

The Yankees are starting rookie Ivan Nova in game 2; soft-tossing veteran Freddy Garcia in game 3. Nova and the Tigers don’t have much history. Garcia, however, has a long history with several of the Tigers hitters and has gotten blasted by Miguel Cabrera, Ordonez and Young. Yankees manager Joe Girardi will have a quick hook with Garcia and A.J. Burnett could be important in game 3 if he’s needed to restore order after a Tigers outburst. Burnett’s numbers against the Tigers are quite good.

The Tigers do not want to be nursing 1-run leads in the late innings against the Yankees; they need to build a bigger lead and hold it.

Keys for the Yankees: Beat Verlander; don’t let any pitcher other than Verlander beat them; make Verlander work and get his pitch count up to get him out of game 1 early; get into the Tigers middle-relief; score a lot to make moot their pitching issues; A.J. Burnett; end the series before game 5; Verlander, Verlander, Verlander.

Other than Sabathia, the Yankees aren’t going to mess around and leave their starters in the game if they’re getting roughed up. Burnett will be in the bullpen; presumably Bartolo Colon will be on the roster—they’ll have veteran arms to turn to if Nova or Garcia struggle.

If this were a best 4 of 7 series, I’d seriously consider shifting either Sabathia or Verlander so they didn’t have to pitch against each other. With a 3 of 5 series, that’s not really an option.

Nick Swisher is only batting .167 in 54 career plate appearances vs Verlander, but has 3 career homers. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Brett Gardner have very solid numbers against him and Ramiro Pena of all people is 3 for 5 in his career facing Verlander. The Yankees needn’t be terrified of the Tigers ace because they’ve hit him before, but they do not want to be dealing with a game 5 and Ivan Nova or anyone other than Sabathia scheduled to pitch; I don’t care how mentally tough Nova is, that’s not a fair position for a rookie to be in and if it happens, they’re going to lose.

Girardi has said that Posada is going to DH in the series and that’s a good move—I always defer to my experienced veterans who’ve been through playoff battles before and if this is Posada’s final post-season in his career, he’ll be looking to end it with an exclamation point.

I wouldn’t be concerned about facing Porcello—if there’s a game 4 and the Yankees are trailing in the series 2-1, they’re going to maul him.

Valverde is one of the best closers in baseball that no one knows. That said, he can lose command and walk people; he also gives up some homers. Andruw Jones is 3 for 7 in his career vs Valverde with a homer and he’s the type of pitcher upon whom Robinson Cano will feast in a big spot.

If the Yankees use Rafael Soriano with a lead, he’s going to give up a homer or three—he cannot abide post-season pressure, or any kind of pressure. He’s pitched 3 post-season innings in his career and allowed 2 homers including a backbreaker for the Rays last season in the ninth inning of game 5 against the Rangers and Ian Kinsler.

The Yankees won’t be worried about Verlander in game 1; if it gets to game 5, they will be worried about him. A lot.

What will happen.

I wouldn’t anticipate mutual dominance between Verlander and Sabathia in game 1. In fact, it could degenerate into a shootout between the bullpens. If Verlander gets knocked out early, would that change Leyland’s strategy in a game 4? Would he bring his ace back on short rest if he only throws 60 or so pitches in game 1?

If they’re down 2 games to 1, I would.

The other starters in the Yankees rotation are only going to be in games as long as they’re getting outs and will be subject to a quicker hook that you or Girardi’s Binder could fathom. Burnett is decried and despised by Yankees fans, but they’d better hope “good A.J.” shows up when that bullpen door opens because if they need him in game 2, 3 or 5 he has to pitch well.

Girardi won’t put Soriano in a big spot; David Robertson tends to get himself in trouble just for the sake of getting out of it. His strikeout prowess comes in handy in those situations.

If the Tigers get a big performance out of Fister and/or Scherzer, the Yankees will be in a lot of trouble. I’d expect one to pitch well. Either game 2 or 3 will be won late and is dependent on whose bullpen performs better, which specialists—Boone Logan of the Yankees; Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth—get the job done. Logan would be called on to pitch to Alex Avila. The Tigers are righty-heavy.

Will the young Schlereth be able to deal with Cano? With Granderson? Cano’s 1 for 4 vs Schlereth with a homer; Granderson 0 for 2 with 2 walks. Coke allowed homers to lefties Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez in game 5 of the 2009 World Series while pitching for the Yankees so he’s not exactly frightening to good-hitting lefties. But the Tigers won’t have a choice. The best case for the Tigers is to not get it to that point.

Two veterans—Ordonez and Posada—with excellent careers behind them and the windows closing on those careers will see important at bats in big situations.

The Tigers will win 2 of the first 3 games.

The Yankees will batter Porcello in game 4; this series will come down to a game 5 in Yankee Stadium with Verlander standing between the Yankees and the ALCS.

And he’s going to slam the door in their faces.

The Tigers and Verlander are taking them out.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN FIVE.

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The Verlander No-Hit Bid—If You Can’t Do The Time, Don’t Do The Crime

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Justin Verlander‘s bid for a third career no-hitter was—in a bizarre turn of events—a background story when this afternoon’s game between the Angels and Tigers was over.

Angels starter Jered Weaver was ejected in the seventh inning for firing a pitch over Alex Avila‘s head after Carlos Guillen went into a silly bit of histrionics after homering and Weaver yelled at him. This was in response to Weaver also yelling at Magglio Ordonez for standing at the plate on a homer which was barely fair—ESPN Story.

I doubt Ordonez was showing up Weaver; he just stood to see if the ball was fair or foul and Weaver—either angry about allowing the homer or misinterpreting Ordonez—overreacted.

The Guillen act was ridiculous.

But that paled in comparison to what Angels shortstop Erick Aybar did leading off the top of the eighth inning.

Aybar tried to bunt his way on.

Verlander fielded the ball and threw it away. According to Aybar, Verlander said he’d “get” him next year.

The question of propriety is somewhat valid in theory, but both the Angels and Tigers are in a playoff race; in fact, it could be argued that they have a case for competing with one another for the Wild Card if the races break a certain way. These games are not meaningless. The Angels need to win; the Tigers need to win; the score was 3-0. If it was 10-0, Verlander can complain, glare and threaten all he wants. At 3-0, he needs step back and think about the big picture.

Regarding the extracurricular stuff—the Weaver anger; the Guillen prancing; the Aybar bunt; the Verlander threat—if you can’t do the proverbial time, don’t do the proverbial crime.

Guillen acted like a fool and his teammate was thrown at; Aybar bunted to break up a no-hitter, Verlander is presumably going to throw at him with a 100-mph fastball when he gets the chance.

These things will be handled in time. The testosterone-filled, reputation-laden, “right and wrong” world of baseball collided today in Detroit. Barring an unforeseen run into the ALCS for both teams, they won’t face each other again until next season.

They’ll remember this because it’ll continually be brought up by the media, fans and other players until it—whatever “it” is—happens.

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Stardom

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The All Star Game is meaningless.

It’s a moneymaker and gets the fans involved.

The winning league gets home field advantage in the World Series. That’s one extra game. Given the lack of importance home field plays in baseball, the game “mattering” isn’t even an issue.

The Home Run Derby with the new wrinkle of “captains” David Ortiz and Prince Fielder picking their teammates hearkens back to the days (daze) of the schoolyard.

It’s boring. It’s tiresome. Therefore there’s nothing to argue about, fight about or complain about for snubs and votes for players that are “undeserving”. People want to see Derek Jeter, they voted for Derek Jeter.

If you’d like to make it a game, make it a legitimate game. Here are the All Star starters as they should be:

American League: C-Alex Avila-Tigers; 1B-Adrian Gonzalez-Red Sox; 2B-Robinson Cano-Yankees; 3B-Alex Rodriguez=Yankees; SS-Asdrubal Cabrera-Indians; LF-Alex Gordon-Royals; CF-Curtis Granderson-Yankees; RF-Jose Bautista-Blue Jays; SP-Justin Verlander-Tigers.

National League: C-Brian McCann-Braves; 1B-Prince Fielder-Brewers; 2B-Rickie Weeks-Brewers; 3B-Aramis Ramirez-Cubs; SS-Jose Reyes-Mets; LF-Ryan Braun-Brewers; CF-Matt Kemp-Dodgers; RF-Justin Upton-Diamonbacks; SP-Roy Halladay-Phillies.

The other pitchers and reserves should be picked strategically rather than based on pure numbers. You need a lefty bat off the bench who can hit the ball out of the park and perhaps walk? Pick Jason Giambi. Need a righty set-up man to strike someone out? Pick David Robertson.

Have the managers execute strategy and toss the “every team must be represented” stuff into the trash. Keep the starters in the game and play to win.

Or have what we have now.

It’s either-or.

Have it be a show or have it be a game. But if they made it into a game, there wouldn’t be the attention paid to the gimmicks like Home Run Derby and the fans voting in the first place.

It’s not worth the effort to fix. It simply is.

Leave it be.

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