leyland and dombrowski tigers

2013 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Are the Tigers the American League’s best team?

Last season the Tigers won 88 games, beat the A’s in the ALDS, swept the Yankees in the ALCS, and then lost to the Giants in the World Series. And on paper at least they got significantly better this offseason. Delmon Young and Jose Valverde are the only major departures from last year’s team and that qualifies mostly as addition by subtraction based on their 2012 performances.

Jim Leyland has yet to decide who’ll replace Valverde as closer, but the Tigers’ overall bullpen depth isn’t bad and playing things by ear in the late innings worked well in the playoffs. Torii Hunter essentially replaces Young, which is a big upgrade offensively and a massive upgrade defensively. Victor Martinez returns to the middle of the lineup after sitting out all of last season following knee surgery, which is basically like adding an elite free agent signing. And both Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante will be around for the entire season after arriving as midseason pickups last year.

If you take an 88-win, AL-champion team and subtract Young and Valverde while adding Hunter, Martinez, and full seasons from Sanchez and Infante it’s hard not to think the Tigers are improved. And even if there’s a little doubt about that there’s no doubt that Detroit has the easiest path to the playoffs among AL contenders, as the rest of the AL Central once again looks weak. Can the White Sox, Indians, or Royals (or Twins, in some alternate universe or something) provide a legitimate late-season challenge by winning 85-plus games?

If that were to happen–which seems unlikely to me, at least–there’s a strong chance that the Tigers will make it a moot point by beating up on the unbalanced schedule so much that they clear 90 wins with ease.  Of course, it’s worth noting that I thought the Tigers would run away with the AL Central last season as well and instead they ended up having to overtake the slumping White Sox in September. However, now the Tigers appear stronger, the White Sox appear weaker, and I’m not buying into the Indians or Royals being ready to take a big leap yet.

There’s plenty of room for debate about whether Detroit is the best team in the American League, but more so than any other team in the league– or in baseball, period–I’ll be shocked if the Tigers don’t win their division. They’re too good, the rest of the division is too mediocre, and the unbalanced schedule is too favorable for it not to happen.

What else is going on?

• I’m fairly convinced that the Tigers have the best rotation in baseball. Justin Verlander is obviously amazing, Max Scherzer led MLB in strikeout rate last season and went 15-4 with a 3.14 ERA after a rough April, Anibal Sanchez has averaged 196 innings with a 3.70 ERA in the past three seasons, and Doug Fister has largely flown under the radar despite a 3.48 career ERA. And while Rick Porcello has underwhelmed so far he’s still a helluva fifth starter. For all the focus on Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder putting up huge numbers in the middle of the lineup, starting pitching can carry the Tigers.

• This time last year the Tigers’ defense was a big worry and that proved accurate, as Detroit turned the league’s second-fewest balls in play into outs and ranked 27th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Defense cost the Tigers a bunch of runs, but the pitching staff racking up the league’s second-most strikeouts minimized that somewhat and the rest of the team was strong enough that it didn’t matter. This season the pitching staff again looks capable of missing a ton of bats and the defense should be improved with Hunter in the outfield and Infante full time at second base.

• Nick Castellanos will begin the season at Triple-A because he’s 21 years old and has spent all of two months above Single-A, but if Dirks struggles as the primary left fielder the Tigers could turn to their top prospect pretty quickly. Castellanos was a first-round pick in 2010 and shifted from third base to the outfield last year. MLB.com and Baseball America each rated him as a top-25 prospect and he’s hit .316 in 276 pro games (although he did struggle some at Double-A). And if the Tigers decide Castellanos needs a bit more time in the minors Avisail Garcia is another outfield option.

• Cabrera begins his 30s this season, so it’s a good time to look back at how amazing his 20s were. Because he debuted at age 20, was almost immediately an elite hitter, and has avoided injuries Cabrera has piled up some incredible totals. Among all hitters in MLB history through age 29 he ranks third in doubles, fourth in intentional walks, sixth in RBIs, seventh in extra-base hits, eighth in total bases, eighth in times on base, and is also in the top 20 for hits, homers, runs, and games. His defense leaves a lot to be desired, but purely in terms of hitting Cabrera is on track to truly become one of the all-time greats.

Prediction: First place, American League Central

Eyebrows raised as ESPN cuts Schilling’s segment from a 2004 Red Sox documentary

Curt Schilling
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Several years ago ESPN produced a documentary about the 2004 Boston Red Sox’ amazing comeback in the ALCS called “Four Days in October.” They’ve re-run it a lot. Yesterday, in the run up to last night’s Yankees-Red Sox game, they ran it again, on ESPN2. Only it was a bit shorter than usual. Why? Because it omitted the part about Curt Schilling and his bloody sock in Game 6.

Which, um, that’s one of the signature moments of that series, right? It’s one of the signature moments of the entire modern era of the franchise. Why edit that out? Many Red Sox fans — who also didn’t much care for ESPN’s handling of the DeflateGate story — believe that it was a vindictive act. A figurative airbrushing out of Schilling and his moment given his recent termination by the World Wide Leader. Even Schilling himself snarked about it:

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For its part, ESPN had a simple explanation: the softball game which led in to the documentary ran long and they needed to cut someplace. Which makes some sense. It’s probably also worth noting that decisions about programming on their secondary network on a sleepy Sunday afternoon are not likely made in a board room by mustache-twirling villains. If ESPN really has it in for Schilling at this point, that’s a rather random and passive aggressive way to show it. My gut instinct is that this is just a coincidence.

But when it’s ESPN and Schilling it’s understandable when people assume there’s something more to it than coincidence. Both sides have, in the past, behaved in curious enough ways with respect to innocuous things that the benefit of the doubt is not something which is likely to be given automatically by some. Especially in Boston.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw throws to the plate during the second inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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WE’RE GOING STREAKING!

Well, we’re talking  a lot about streaks or the end thereof. The end of a lot of losing streaks. The end of some winning streaks. Getaway day games can be momentum disruptors. Anyway, here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 1, Padres 0: Clayton freakin’ Kershaw, man. A three-hit complete game shutout with fourteen strikeouts AND he drove in the only run of the game with an RBI single. That’s some one man gang action there, buddy. Still, I wonder if it’s yet safe for me to note, again, that the Padres are terrible. Phillies fans got mad when I said that after Vince Velasquez dominated them. Maybe Dodgers fans won’t get mad if I note it again given that, you know, a pitcher being great and a team sucking aren’t mutually exclusive things.

Nationals 6, Cardinals 1: When people ask me why baseball can’t market its young players like the NBA does, I point to games like this one in which the biggest star in the game, Bryce Harper, goes 0-for-4 with 4Ks and the Nats still cruise to victory. If you tease a big Cards-Nats matchup with “Watch Bryce Harper take on the Cardinals!” he might go 0-for-4 and strike out four times and the Nats could still win easily. Or, he might have a big game and the Nats may still lose. Thing is, in lots of games what a big star does doesn’t matter a lick to the outcome. If someone neutralizes Steph Curry like that, the Warriors probably aren’t winning. There are so many moving parts in baseball, however, that no one game is ever likely to live up to NBA-style hype, especially with respect to one big star. Anyway, Max Scherzer is a star too and he pitched seven shutout innings and struck out nine. That helped. That’s a three-game sweep of the Cardinals for Washington. The Redbirds have lost four in a row overall and now go to take on the [checks glasses] dangerous Philadelphia Phillies.

Phillies 2, Indians 1: Six straight wins for a team most thought would be garbage. They’re 15-10 now. They may wilt, but once you bank wins no one takes them away from you. Vince Velasquez pitched six shutout innings and struck out six.

Astros 2, Athletics 1: Houston only got two hits but one of them was a Jose Altuve homer. It was his seventh, by the way. That’s a 40+ homer pace for the diminutive second baseman. Doug Fister allowed one run in six and two-thirds. He needed that one. He’s been pitching like a dog this year.

Giants 6, Mets 1: The Mets had won eight in a row before this one and lost due to a dominant performance from one of the best pitchers in the game in Madison Bumgarner, so no reason to feel ashamed. Bumgarner has shut the Mets out for the last 18 innings in which he has faced them. Hunter Pence homered and drove in three.

Blue Jays 5, Rays 1: It was Marcus Stroman‘s birthday yesterday. He partied too, allowing one run in eight innings on only three hits and struck out nine. Still, when he left the game he had every reason to think he’d get a no decision, as it was tied 1-1 through eight. The Jays rallied for four while he was still pitcher of record, however, capped off by a Troy Tulowitzki three-run homer.

White Sox 7, Orioles 1: Chris Sale‘s amazing start continues, as he allowed only one run, five hits over five and a third. Walked four too, as he wasn’t particularly sharp, but he’s now 6-0 on the year in six starts.

Reds 6, Pirates 5: The Reds end their six game losing streak. The Pirates’ six game winning streak is snapped. This is very satisfying for those of us who seek out the symmetrical in life. Scott Schebler hit a go-ahead double in the ninth inning for Cincy, they blew that lead, so then he hit another RBI double in the 11th. “I can do this all day,” he would’ve said evenly, if this was some kind of movie and he was a badass. Instead I assume he said something bland about finding his pitch to hit and then credited his teammates more than himself. That’s another reason baseball can’t market young stars, by the way. Most of them don’t act like the sorts of stars who are easy to market. And when they do, they’re criticized for being all me-first. Why this occurred to me in response to a guy like Scott Schebler I have no idea, but the point stands.

Brewers 14, Marlins 5: Lots of streak-ending yesterday. Here the Marlins’ seven-game winning streak ended. Chris Carter went 3-for-5 with two homers as the Brewers got 18 hits in all. After the game Carter, who had been struggling, said “You can’t let the past get to you. You’ve just got to focus on looking forward.” “Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cried incredulously in response. “Why, of course you can!”

Tigers 6, Twins 5: The Tigers’ bats have warmed up and, less than a week after Victor Martinez complained about their “horses**t” offense, they’ve won five games in a row. Jarrod Saltalamacchia doubled home the go-ahead run in the eighth inning and Nick Castellanos hit a three-run homer

Braves 4, Cubs 3: Julio Teheran pitched seven scoreless innings striking out nine, but the Braves’ bullpen blew it. Nothing we’ve seen from this team suggested that they wouldn’t just wilt after that, but they showed a bit of fight for once when Daniel Castro singled and scored on Nick Markakis‘ sacrifice fly in the 10th inning and they held on. It wasn’t all glory, however, as the Braves were playing with only 24 men because the front office messed up a transaction yesterday morning. I’ll post on it later. Let me enjoy a win for a few minutes.

Angels 9, Rangers 6: L.A. stops the Rangers four-game winning streak. Starter Garrett Richards was pulled after four innings because of dehydration, but the pen responded with four shutout innings before running into some trouble in the ninth. Kole Calhoun got three hits and drove in two.

Royals 4, Mariners 1: The Royals’ five-game losing streak ends. The last two of those losses were shutouts to the M’s so the fact that Eric Hosmer homered, Lorenzo Cain had an RBI single and Alex Escobar had three hits would’ve been welcome even if they lost again.

Rockies 6, Diamondbacks 3: Nolan Arenado had two hits and three RBI. One of those hits was his major league-leading 11th. I have no idea if the Dbacks will turn their season around and challenge in the NL West like many thought they would, but if they do and fall short, they’ll recall that they dropped five of their first six against the Rockies this year and that’s not the sort of thing a would-be contender does.

Red Sox 8, Yankees 7Christian Vazquez hit a two-run homer to break a tie in the seventh. Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts each had three hits and Travis Shaw homered. The Sox have won seven of eight and are in first place in the AL East. The Yankees have lost five in a row and six of seven. You’re gonna see some “if the Boss was still alive!” action in the coming days. Count on it.

Tim Lincecum to hold long-awaited showcase on Friday

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 16:  Tim Lincecum #55 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the game at AT&T Park on Tuesday, June 16, 2015 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images
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At long last, the Tim Lincecum showcase has an official date: this Friday, May 6 in Scottsdale, according to CSN Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic (citing a report from MLB Network’s Jon Heyman). Lincecum, still a free agent, has been allowed to throw at the Giants’ facility in Arizona.

Lincecum, 31, has reportedly still drawn the interest in at least half the league. San Francisco remains Lincecum’s preferred landing spot, however, per Pavlovic.

The right-hander showed better results in 15 starts last season after three consecutive tough campaigns. He finished the 2015 season with a 4.13 ERA and a 60/38 K/BB ratio in 76 1/3 innings. Given how starting pitching is always in demand, Lincecum should walk away with a handful of offers.

Video: J.J. Hardy collects carom off Manny Machado’s glove, converts the out

A ball hit by Chicago White Sox' Todd Frazier gets by Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Baltimore. Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, not seen, was able to get the ball and throw it to first to get out Frazier on the play. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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Some great defensive plays leave you saying, “Wow!” This one will leave you saying that, and, “How the heck did that happen?”

In the top of the fourth inning at Camden Yards, White Sox slugger Todd Frazier lined a Ubaldo Jimenez offering right at third baseman Manny Machado. The ball skipped and caromed off of Machado’s glove, creating what seemed to be an easy single for Frazier. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, however, was ranging to his right and used his cat-like reflexes to snag the redirected ball. He planted and threw a one-hopper to Chris Davis at first base to convert the out.

The replay at about 21 seconds really does the play justice. Outstanding stuff by Hardy. The Orioles, however, wound up losing 7-1 to the White Sox.