Inside Look: Detroit Tigers
Generally I like to get these Q&As up before the series starts, but I was negligent in my duties as a blogger and took too much time in getting questions to fellow ESPN SweetSpot blogger Mike McClary of The Daily Fungo. Mike was kind enough to answer them pretty quickly, and you can read his perspective below.
1. The Tigers currently sit in second place, a game and a half behind the Twins and four games ahead of the third-place White Sox. Is this where you expected them to be in the preseason? Why or why not?
After the way the Tigers’ season ended in 2009, I think most fans were cautiously optimistic coming into 2010. So, approaching late June, sitting a mere game-and-a-half behind the division leaders is about as good a scenario as we could have imagined. Consider they had two rookies in the lineup on Opening Day — center fielder Austin Jackson and second baseman Scott Sizemore — and at several points in the season the Tigers’ lineup has featured four rookies, and what was thought to be a transition year is turning out to be much better than expected.
2. Do you worry about the White Sox in the rear view mirror? Do you think the Tigers have enough to jump ahead of the Twins?
If Tigers fans learned anything in ’09 it’s that no division lead is safe.
The White Sox are tough to figure out; three weeks ago they were talking about a major retooling and now they’re a .500 team. I guess what worries me most about Chicago is if they maintain their hot play. The Tigers have 14 more games against them and, since at least 2004, they simply have Detroit’s number. A surging Ozzie Guillen-led club is not a welcome sight for the Tigers. Ever.
Now the Twins are a different story. The Tigers play the Twins tough but if there’s a single play, call or break in the game between these teams it seems to always go the Twins’ way. If the Tigers can steady their rotation and the bottom third of the order — especially Brandon Inge and rookie catcher Alex Avila — continues to hit, I think the Tigers can catch the Twins.
3. Austin Jackson has cooled off a bit after a red-hot start, but still over .300. Give us a quick synopsis of his skills, his weaknesses, and what kind of player you think he’ll be 3 years from now.
When Jackson came over from the Yankees in the offseason, word was that he wasn’t ready for the majors, at least offensively. That was the Yankees’ view. The Tigers’ scouts had a different perspective, which is why they club was so intent on acquiring Jackson in the December megatrade with the Yankees and Diamondbacks.
Almost from the moment Jackson stepped onto the field in spring training Jackson has wowed the Tigers and their fans. We knew based on what we read at the time of the trade that he could play sterling defense in outfield, but no one expected him to be as outstanding as he has been. He’s made highlight-reel catches in Comerica Park’s expansive outfield and has helped fans almost forget about Curtis Granderson. Almost.
Offensively, the Tigers knew that strikeouts would be a big hurdle for Jackson, and they have been. Through Tuesday he has 67 strikeouts in 250 at bats and is hitting only .220 in June.
He’s been hurt the past week with back spasms but is expected in the lineup for the Mets series. If he is, Mets fans should expect to see dazzling defense from Jackson and, along with a few strikeouts, a solid hitter who’ll swipe a base here and there.
If he keeps his average above .300, I think you’re looking at the likely American League Rookie of the Year — unless his rookie teammate Brennan Boesch overtakes him. As for the future, I’d expect Jackson to be an All Star sooner rather than later.
4. Who the heck is Brennan Boesch and what can you tell Mets fans about him?
Ah, Brennan Boesch. He’s a rookie outfielder that Tigers fans have heard a lot about in recent seasons as a potential replacement for Magglio Ordonez in right field. An injury to Carlos Guillen in April opened the door for Boesch (pronounced “Bosh”) and he’s done nothing but hit and play above-average defense.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland recently mentioned how much he likes Boesch’s aggressiveness at the plate. In other words, Mets fans should expect to see from him this week is a lot of first-pitch swinging — particularly if it’s a fastball. There’s been talk around baseball that Boesch (much like Austin Jackson) _has_ to cool off eventually. While that might be the case, and likely inevitable to some degree, Boesch is showing no signs of it.
He’s a lot of fun to watch.
5. Jeremy Bonderman had a rough start after missing nearly all of 2009. Does he still have the velocity that made him an occasionally dominating pitcher? Do you think he’ll ever be the All-Star starter he seemed destined to be in his early 20s?
It’s funny. A lot of commentators now talk about Bonderman as a finesse pitcher. When I think of a finesse guy names like Frank Tanana and Jamie Moyer leap to mind. Bonderman? Not so much.
He can still rush it up there in the mid-90s and as he builds up his stamina from that extended layoff he’ll probably do it more often. He has a nasty slider that ties hitters in knots; however, because he’s a two-pitch pitcher, if the slider’s not working he’s in trouble. Every spring training since he arrived in Detroit we’ve heard about him working on a third pitch. For years it was a change-up. Didn’t happen. This year it was a splitter. He’s probably thrown three all year.
Bonderman is in his walk year — and likely will be pitching elsewhere next season. He’ll be an outstanding number-three starter for someone in 2011. Maybe not a Cy Young candidate, but an innings eater who’ll win between 12 and 15 games a year.
If the Tigers fall out of the race in July, look for Bonderman to be traded.
6. Speaking of pitchers in their early 20s, what’s going on with NJ native and former Seton Hall Prep pitcher Rick Porcello? Has the league made an adjustment to him?
I think it’s safe to say that one of two things (or both) has happened: the hitters have caught on to Porcello, or he’s tipping his pitches. The reason I think the latter is true is because one consistent thing we’ve seen this year in his starts is that he’s simply not fooling anyone. I can’t think of a single cheap hit off him.
The consensus within the Tigers organization is that he’s just not throwing his best pitch, the sinker, with any command or regularity. That’s what he’ll be working on in Toledo for the next few weeks.
In a lot of ways, his performance this season is what we feared _last_ year when he was a 20-year-old
rookie. Instead, he was lights out.
Porcello will be back. It might not be right away, though, because when he comes back to the big club, the Tigers want it to be for good.
7. Bonine and Coke always worked for my upset stomach. It seems they’ve done a better job than Pepto-Bismol in taming the nausea that used to arrive during Jose Valverde appearances … give us the spiel in the Tigers’ late inning relief.
Jim Leyland has found the perfect mix in his bullpen. Brad Thomas and Fu-Te Ni are the situational lefties, Bonine is the long-relief guy, and the injured Ryan Perry — who throws in the mid-90s and often higher — can be considered the setup man to the setup man, Joel Zumaya. Before Perry went on the DL, and he’s expected back any time, he was the seventh-inning guy. Zumaya comes in for the eight and Valverde, who’s blown only one save all year, slams the door.
Phil Coke has been nothing short of tremendous for the Tigers. Leyland uses him in all sorts of situations and he’s getting the job done. Lefties are hitting just .231 off him whereas right-handed hitters are hitting .250. In Spring Training, Leyland toyed with the idea of using Coke in the rotation but once the club saw Coke in action they realized what a valuable piece of the bullpen he’d be.
8. It’s now the fifth year you’re seeing Jim Leyland as manager of the Tigers. Do you think he belongs in a conversation of the top 3-5 managers in baseball?
I do. While some Tigers fans may scoff at the notion, I believe Jim Leyland is among the best at managing his bullpen. Sure, some will point to instances where he left a reliever in too long (or not long enough), but name a manager who avoids that criticism. Also, Leyland knows when a player needs a rest. This drives fans nuts on days when it looks like he picked his lineup out of a hat, but in his time in Detroit Jim Leyland has pushed the right buttons more often than not.
Mets fans might not know that Leyland actually got his start in the Tigers organization in the early 1960s. He was drafted as a catcher by Detroit and never amounted to much but transitioned to coaching and then managing in the Tigers’ system. In fact, he was Kirk Gibson’s first manager in professional baseball and managed Mark Fidrych, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish at some point in their minor-league careers. When Sparky Anderson was hired in 1979, the Tigers front office lobbied for him to promote Leyland, then the manager of the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, to third-base coach. Anderson refused, Leyland left to coach third for Tony LaRussa in Chicago, and the rest is history.
9. Top of the ninth, two outs, tie ballgame, Miguel Cabrera is standing on third base. What Tiger do you want to see at the plate?
Well, the lineup configuration wouldn’t allow this to happen in reality, but for the sake of this discussion I’ll say Ordonez. He’s got a terrific eye, can drive the ball to all fields and has performed in the clutch in the past. If I had a second choice I think it would be Johnny Damon for many of the same reasons.
Many thanks to Mike McClary of The Daily Fungo, a blog I’ve been reading and enjoying for several years — long before we ever became associated as “SweetSpotters”. I rank Mike’s blog and his podcast right up there with the best in the baseball blogosphere. FYI, you can also follow Mike’s Tigers commentary via Twitter.