Will History Repeat Itself For Detroit Tigers?
Well…..in baseball it’s amazing how things seldom go as expected. Or history repeats itself.
The Detroit Tigers dropped two of three in Minnesota against a supposedly downtrodden and hopeless Minnesota Twins team to open the 2013 baseball season. Some of their struggles surprised very few, but some were probably not expected.
For those in the “history repeats itself” camp, the opening three days of the season looked a lot like the first half Tigers’ offense of 2012 that was stagnant all too often and left multiple scoring opportunities on the table on a continual basis. I was having an online chat with a person who mentioned “it’s 2012 all over again”….there is truth to that, of course we also need to note that 2012 included a division title and an AL Pennant. So it wasn’t all bad!
Austin Jackson looked very solid in the Opening Series and Omar Infante also came up with several good at-bats. Otherwise there was a definite paucity of hard hit baseballs in the Twin Cities by the fellows wearing the road grays. Extra-base hits were hard to come by and with the lack of overall athleticism on the basepaths the Tigers need to be knocking balls off of, or over, the wall in order to break through for offensive success. This edition of the Detroit Tigers simply isn’t constructed to piece together singles that score runners from second base or send someone from 1st to 3rd consistently. They have to mash doubles and homers while drawing walks. Through Game 3, this offense hasn’t shown itself. Miguel Cabrera knocked in some runs but hit nothing hard. Prince Fielder‘s only extra-base hit came on a cue shot down the third-base line. Torii Hunter‘s bat looked slow at times. (by the way, Tigers radio color man, the venerable Jim Price, evidently (according to Detroit News columnist Tony Paul via Twitter) said Hunter missed a fastball that was “right down the poop chute” late in Thursday’s loss. I can only imagine that Price’s dignified partner, Dan Dickerson, nearly swallowed his tongue when Price unleashed this gem. Try for a second to imagine the late great Ernie Harwell saying something like “and Ron LeFlore, missed a fastball right down the ol’ poop chute”. You can’t do it. Harwell might be the greatest of all time, meanwhile Price is, indeed, Price-less. He’s bad…..but he’s ours.)
Much has been made of the Tigers’ bullpen issues. It’s been a focal point of Spring Training. The Bullpen by Committee approach makes many skittish in the media, fan circles, and even in some front offices. In the Tigers’ Game 1 victory on Monday all was well as the bullpen held up and secured the win. But in Game 2 the Tigers held a slim 2-1 lead as the offense was unable to break through against Kevin Correia. Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland came out trying to copy the strategy that worked two days before. Joaquin Benoit worked a scoreless 8th and then came out to get the leadoff man in the 9th so that he could then hand it off to Phil Coke. On Monday this worked swimmingly. But on Wednesday Benoit walked the leadoff man. Coke came on to retire the first man he faced. Then things came off the rails and I have my opinions why they did…..first, I need to admit that after the Opener in this space, I professed that Jim Leyland is capable of handing this bullpen, so offering criticism right now makes me feel a little squirmy and reactionary…but criticism over a decision on the micro-level doesn’t mean I have zero faith in him on the macro-level…in the 9th, Leyland tried to go with a Closer instead of the matchup. Phil Coke was utterly strafed by right-handed batters last season to the tune of about .395 (seriously). Simply because he made it through a couple of Save Opportunities in the 2012 Post-Season he didn’t acquire some new trait of being impervious to a massive platoon split. Twins middle infielders, and right hand batters, Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar happily took their hacks against Coke, got their knocks, cleared the bases, and won the game for Minnesota. Meanwhile Octavio Dotel, who gets righties out pretty well, was cooling his heals.
I believe the Tigers can get by with what they have in their bullpen, but Leyland needs to commit playing the matchups as they come across his plate. He attempted to impose a formula where Phil Coke is the nominal Closer but just with a little help from Benoit at the front end of the inning. If Leyland had played matchups I feel that Dotel was his best bet to navigate the 9th inning. (It should be pointed that Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks looked awkward, at best, on Escobar’s game winning double. That should have been caught if not for their lack of communication. If so, it’s a tie game with the Tigers still in the fight. This little tidbit gets lost in all the hand-wringing over the bullpen situation. Defense matters.) The Tigers simply must commit to a relentless pursuit of the best matchup in the late innings and not be held to a paint-by-numbers “this guy pitches only in this spot” formula.
Thursday’s Game 3 loss featured a vintage Rick Porcello performance (not a compliment, Porcello wasn’t awful. His results were pedestrian.), more offensive stagnation featuring a boatload of men of left on base, and an 8th inning bullpen meltdown allowing 5 runs by hard-throwing Brayan Villarreal. Villarreal lost a 11-pitch battle trying to retire Justin Morneau and the floodgates opened. This poured a bit more gas on the fire for Detroit’s relief corps.
Oh…..and there was more news. The Tigers signed former Closer extraordinaire Jose Valverde on a minor league contract. Twitter lit up….Facebook forums went wild….the buzz about Papa Grande’ was palpable. “I threw up in my mouth a little” has become a hackneyed phrase but it was put into action more than once. Others were fine with the idea. I come out on the side of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. It’s a minor league deal. It hurts nothing. If he shows up in Toledo and gets pummelled he’s gone, likely by May 5th when he can opt-out of the deal. If what the Tigers saw in the Dominican last week at a bullpen session is real (increased velocity and he was throwing his Splitter evidently), then maybe he shows some of his magic in AAA and merits a triumphant return to Detroit. We’ll see….it’s a sideshow until he proves valuable. It’s all on him now. I love Valverde. I didn’t like the signing in 2010 because of the first round pick it cost the Tigers…but not liking the signing doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy watching his shtick all these years.
The New York Yankees now venture to Detroit and the Tigers will hold the pomp and circumstance associated to the Home Opener. The question now is whether or not the big Tigers bats are ready to unleash some real offense that the club is built upon. The starting rotation actually performed decently in Minnesota. No starter complete 6 innings but none were shelled either. The Tigers simply didn’t hit in the frigid Minnesota-spring conditions. Perhaps some fans are jumping ship early….that would be a shame. The Tigers are 1-2 with a long way to go. They’ll be fine. But it would a lot more fun to get the offense cranked up and provide the bullpen a little more cushion to work with. Jim Leyland will likely appear to navigate the bullpen minefield a lot better when his offense has 5+ runs on the board instead of 2.