Tag: Ian Kinsler

Photo by Craig Calcaterra

Tigers in Transition: The two weeks which changed everything

Photo by Craig Calcaterra

DETROIT — I came to Comerica Park with the idea that I’d write a story about how a team which has won consistently for several years maintains its momentum. I’d talk to some veterans and some coaches and some front office people and ask them the difference between winning when everyone is young and enthusiastic and winning when everyone is older and has been there and done that and now needs to find ways to stay fresh. Teams rise, win, then lose, then fall, and you hear an awful lot about the rise and the fall. You don’t tend to hear, however, all that much about that time in the middle when they’re simply keeping the momentum going. It seemed like something worth writing about.

And, at the time, heading into the July 4th weekend series against the Blue Jays, it was something the Tigers were more than eager to talk about. Particularly about how they have always been good at integrating new players into their core of established veterans and keeping their winning ways going. It’s a team that always shoots for first place and, if anything, makes some little tweaks over the course of the season. Consistency and continuity is the name of the game. Since 2011 they have won four straight AL Central titles, one AL pennant and have made three appearances in the ALCS.

“We know we have a good ballclub but we’re uniquely kind of relaxed. Happy. Good clubhouse, good atmosphere. You don’t let all of the outside noise creep in and let its way into what we have going on here,” starting pitcher Justin Verlander said.  “The main thing since we’ve been on this run is the mix of veterans and young guys. We don’t have anyone on this team that’s a prima donna or who won’t say ‘hi’ or won’t talk to the young guys,” Verlander told me. “Everyone is kind of easy to approach or will take someone under their wing or whatever. It’s pretty easy for guys to slide in and quickly figure it out.”

Bench coach Gene Lamont echoed that sentiment, saying that “Dave [Dombrowski] has always brought guys in,” and that there has never been a problem keeping a good winning clubhouse chemistry going. “It’s easy when everyone wants to win and we’ve always had players who want to win,” Lamont said.

Tigers Legend Al Kaline, a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski but present in the Tigers clubhouse far more than your typical special assistant usually is, agrees that the current Tigers are particularly good at seamlessly integrating new pieces to the machine and keeping things running.

“When I was playing, young players weren’t particularly welcomed by the older players. Today the veteran players take these kids under their wing, take ’em out to dinner, buy ’em clothes. Spend time with ’em. Back when I played they pretty much ignored you and figured you didn’t belong here if you were young. Until you won your stripes. It’s harder to play right now but it’s easier to be here.” He singled out Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez as two guys who have helped keep the clubhouse happy and cohesive and who makes sure everyone keeps their head screwed on straight.

But happy is not enough. Winning is the bottom line. Of that Kaline said  “We’re a good team. We’re gonna be competitive all year long. I think we can still contend in the Central.”


In late June and the first few days of July it was hard to disagree with Kaline’s sentiment. No, the Tigers were not in first place, but they hovered between four and six games back of the Royals. We’ve seen this sort of thing from them before. In 2014 they were three games back in late August. They were six games back in June of 2012 and still trailed by four and a half as late as July 7, but again won the division. They’ve rarely been a perfect team, but they have the best hitter in baseball and you can never go more than a couple of days without having to face one of their former Cy Young winners. The Tigers have always had another gear.

On the Friday night of my first weekend trip, however, Miguel Cabrera was on first base and then broke for second base on an attempted hit-and-run. He pulled up lame and was eventually diagnosed with a Grade 3 calf strain. He’d be placed on the disabled list the next day and is not expected back until late August at the earliest.

Cabrera’s prognosis was announced on the morning of July 4, before a daytime tilt with the Blue Jays. And, that morning, everyone seemed pretty relaxed. Despite losing Cabrera, the Tigers won the game the night before.

Manager Brad Ausmus was certainly not pleased to lose the man he called “the best hitter on the planet,” but he was pretty zen about it all, saying “We still have a very good offense, with names like Cespedes, and [J.D.] Martinez and [Victor] Martinez. And we’re going to need some contributions from other places as well. It doesn’t have to be one person that steps up. It can be a number of people that step up over the course of this timeframe.”

Justin Verlander has more time in with this club than Ausmus does and he, for one, was not panicking.

“You can either look at it negatively or positively. And I think this is a positive clubhouse,” Verlander said. It’s time for everyone to step up . . . If the veterans aren’t panicking the young guys aren’t.”

Catcher Alex Avila said “I don’t think anyone is going to feel sorry for us . . . I’m not giving up in here, and if there’s anyone else giving up in here you can pack your bags and leave. With him going down, it hurts us, but there’s still a lot of good players on this team. We’ve got to keep it there for when he gets back and make a run at this.”




Those sentiments were expected. But wouldn’t the Cabrera injury be an awful lot to overcome? Wouldn’t this team, with its porous bullpen and depleted starting rotation be well-served to use the Cabrera injury as a pretext for a restructuring? Maybe not a wholesale rebuild, but might it be worth punting 2015, trading the players who were likely to leave via free agency after the season, and going back at the Central with a healthy Cabrera in 2016?

At the time I asked several Tigers officials, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, about that possibility. One said “Dombrowski is a buyer. He’s never been a seller.” Two made mention of the fact that owner Mike Illitch is 85-years-old (he turned 86 yesterday) and that given his age and the amount of money he has poured into the team, the notion of tearing things down was just not a thing anyone discusses. When I asked them to tell me what they’d do as the GM right now, especially given that the Tiger’s farm system is mostly barren of desirable, projectable talent, I was given variations on NBA-style trades in which good players were acquired via the acquisition of bad contracts. One suggested getting Jonathan Papelbon. Another thought that the Reds may be willing to trade Aroldis Chapman if the Tigers took on Jay Bruce.

Since that morning the Tigers are 6-7. The division-leading Royals are 10-4. The second place Twins are 8-4. Even the Indians and White Sox have gained ground on the Tigers, who now find themselves nine and a half games out of first place. The mood among the fan base has changed as has the front office’s idea of how to proceed for the rest of the season.

“Blow it up. We gotta blow it up and start over,” said one Tigers fan I spoke to when I returned to Comerica this past weekend. “We’re old. We’re hurt. Verlander is lost. The pen sucks. We’re not going to sign David Price. We need to trade everyone and start all over.” This came after Friday night’s 7-3 win over the Orioles. As the weekend wore on, the sentiment of fans and team officials I spoke to, and even that of some players, turned even more sharply negative.

On Saturday night the Tigers got a strong performance from David Price. Chris Tillman, however combined to toss a one-hitter. The crowd was never into it and, by the time Price was gone and the pen had given up two runs, there were scattered boos throughout Comerica Park. One of those pro-buying team officials I had spoken to previously — who is not in baseball operations, it should be noted — was now all about a fire sale. “Price has one foot out the door. Soria too. Maybe you let them walk and get draft picks, but you could get real talent for them now. Cespedes too.”




Sunday was worse. Justin Verlander took the hill and didn’t survive the fourth inning, surrendering seven runs on eight hard hit balls. Getting shelled is something he’s been doing a lot lately — more on him tomorrow — and Tigers fans are all but resigned to it. Ian Kinsler was ejected by the home plate umpire for throwing his bat in frustration. Third baseman Nick Castellanos took a grounder to the face that, somehow, also injured his finger. It was an ugly, ugly game and those scattered boos from Saturday night turned into widespread boos on Sunday. “I don’t think booing is the way to help,” Verlander said after the game. “I think cheering would be more beneficial than booing, but we’re frustrated, too. We don’t want to be in this position.”

Late in the game I looked up from where I was sitting and saw this:


It was a car fire in a nearby parking lot. I tweeted the picture out and was met with dozens of replies from Tigers fans, all of whom rushed to joke about how it was really a picture of the dumpster fire that was the Tigers bullpen. Or the tire fire that was Verlander’s approach to hitters with his diminished velocity. Or a symbol of what the Tigers’ 2015 season has become.

The man in charge, Dave Dombrowski said nothing at all that weekend. I requested a chance to speak with him or someone else in baseball operations on Sunday, but was politely, and perhaps understandably, invited to interview him or an assistant by phone sometime later this week. Seems they’re quite busy at the moment, with a report out now that he is planning on punting on 2015 and trading multiple veterans, including David Price and Yoenis Cespedes. You have to figure Soria is on the block as well. Officially Dombrowski said that plans have not yet been finalized, but he didn’t deny the report either. In the past two weeks the conversation has turned away from integrating new pieces into the core of veterans and keeping the Tigers mini-dynasty alive and, instead, breaking things up and, if not rebuilding, certainly retrenching.

The question I had in my mind as I drove up to Detroit two weeks ago was “how do you keep a dynasty alive?” The answer, it seems, is “you don’t.”

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

Albert Pujols

Angels 11, Red Sox 1; Angels 7, Red Sox 3: The Angels pick up their fourth and fifth wins in a row with lots of bombs helping the effort. Kole Calhoun, Albert Pujols and David Freese went long in game 1. In game 2 Pujols struck two more times, one of which pushed him past Mike Schmidt for 15th place all-time with his 549th career homer. He also took over the league lead from teammate Mike Trout who hit a measly one homer in the twin bill. Really, Trout, what’s wrong with you man? The Red Sox scored four runs in the four-game series, all coming in yesterday’s two games.

Nationals 7, Mets 2: The Nats didn’t have much trouble with Matt Harvey, who gave up five runs — four earned — on five hits in seven innings. The Mets left ten men on base and were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, which continued the pattern from Sunday’s 18-inning win. I suppose this will become a new hot button issue in the Mets’ press because the press LOVES to talk about teams who have trouble with runners in scoring position. The larger issue, however, is that hitters who aren’t very good don’t hit well with runners in OR out of scoring position.

Rockies 8, Rangers 7: A walkoff single for Rockies’ first baseman Ben Paulsen. In supplying a walkoff RBI single, a member of the Rockies who is otherwise anonymous to all but Colorado fans has a name. His name is Ben Paulsen. His name is Ben Paulsen. HIS NAME IS BEN PAULSEN. HIS NAME IS BEN PAULSEN.

Pirates 10, Royals 7: Travis Ishikawa has stunk on ice since the Pirates picked him up on waivers, but here he hit two doubles and a homer and drove in four runs. After the game he chalked it up to luck, saying that sometimes the pitcher makes a perfect pitch that still gets hit, sometimes the batter knocks the heck out of the ball but it still gets caught. He concluded by saying “tonight was just my night when the balls began to fall.” In other news, “When the Balls Began to Fall” sounds like, say, a second album from some moderately obscure alt-country guy who is a darling in the press but who can’t really connect with a larger audience. Hipsters like to say how much they like him even though “generally, [they] don’t care for country music. Except for Johnny Cash, of course.”

Phillies 5, Rays 3: David Buchanan won the game, allowing three runs on six hits in six and a third and then he was promptly sent down to Lehigh Valley because that’s the life of a fifth starter sometimes. Cesar Hernandez doubled, tripled and drove in two and Maikel Franco had a couple of hits and an RBI for the Phillies who have won four straight.

Tigers 5, Mariners 4: Ian Kinsler homered twice, the second of which was a go-ahead two-run shot in the eighth inning. The Tigers pulled back to .500. Though it may not matter. Come back to HBT later today as I’ll have the first of a three-part series about my recent visits to Detroit and a look at the Tigers as a team in transition.

Braves 7, Dodgers 5: Nick Markakis hit his first of the season. On July 20 which, well, OK. The Braves notched four runs and five hits in four innings off of their old friend Brandon Beachy, who was making his second post-Tommy John surgery start for L.A. Eury Perez threw out Adrian Gonzalez at the plate on a play that still counts as a nice one, even if Adrain Gonzalez is slower than your grandma:


Reds 5, Cubs 4: Three homers were hit by Reds batters — Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce and Marlon Byrd — with Frazier’s being his first that was not a part of a home run derby since last month. Not that it was all homers. Because this happened. Which, mercy:


Diamondbacks 3, Marlins 1: The Diamondbacks  snapped a six-game losing streak and gave the Marlins their fourth straight loss. So a lot of good stuff going on here. Shortstop Nick Ahmed had ten assists, some of them slicker than grease, and hit a triple as well. David Peralta drove in two.

Padres 4, Giants 2: Matt Kemp hit a two-run homer. Kemp 15-for-39 with 4 HR in his last 10 games. Guess he’s coming back to life, though it’s likely too little, too late.

Looking ahead to the second half: The Tigers are in deep, deep trouble

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 8.09.16 AM

The Tigers have made the playoffs in each of the last four years. They came into 2015 as a somewhat diminished team, but many nonetheless expected them to once again win the AL Central or, at the very least, remain relevant in that conversation.

As of now, however, they are a full nine games behind the Kansas City Royals in the division. They are only three and a half back in the Wild Card race, but there are three teams ahead of them, another team tied with them and another four teams within two games of them on the backside. And the worst part about it, Detroit looks to be in worse shape than any of them heading into the second half.

The biggest reason for that is obvious: Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the best hitter in the game, is on the shelf with a Grade 3 strain of his calf muscle. That will keep him out of action until at least mid-August, and likely a bit later than that. Losing a guy hitting .350/.456/.578 for weeks on end is going to hurt anyone, but there is perhaps no other team who relies on one guy as much as the Tigers rely on Cabrera.

The rotation is also kind of a mess, as only All-Star David Price has posted a better-than-league average ERA on the year. The back end of the rotation has been horrific lately, with Alfredo Simon posting a 11.12 ERA in his last five starts, Shane Greene has posted a 12.57 over that time and Justin Verlander, finally back from the DL, has been getting beaten around on the regular.

Because there may be children reading this we will not speak of the bullpen, as they need not be exposed to such obscenity.

So what can the Tigers do? And, more importantly, what will they do?

If you were looking at this objectively, you’d probably think that it’s time to rebuild or, at the very least, re-jigger with the hope of competing anew next year or the year after. How to do that? Think hard about shopping David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, Joakim Soria, Alex Avila, and Alfredo Simon, all of whom are in their walk years. Price may be nice to keep around but he’s going to be super expensive on the market this winter. The rest could all bring in some much needed young talent to place around Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler young catcher James McCann and an aging yet still effective Victor Martinez. It’s not ideal — questionable trades and free agent decisions have decimated a once-dominant rotation — but getting something for these guys rather than nothing seems to make a heck of a lot of sense given where the Tigers are right now.

Except that scenario is highly unlikely given what we’ve seen from the Tigers front office in the past and given what they’ve been saying publicly. Owner Mike Illitch is 85-years-old and has plowed money into this team. Nothing about his approach or what people close to the Tigers say about his expectations suggests that he’s interested in a rebuild. GM Dave Dombrowski is likewise an historical buyer, not a seller, and nothing he or people close to him have said anything to suggest he’s approaching this trade deadline any differently.

But what is available for him to buy? And what does he, with his nearly barren farm system, have to sell? Not much, frankly, so if he is buying, it would likely involve taking on some bad contracts and accepting second-tier trade fodder. That doesn’t seem like a difference-making proposition in a longshot battle for the division title and a chaotic Wild Card race.

What it does seem like, however, is a futile gesture. The Tigers are old, they’re hurt and they’re expensive. If nothing changes in the second half, they’ll also be on the outside looking in come playoff time for the first time in years. And, perhaps, they’ll be facing a future like that of the Cincinnati Reds or — perish the thought — the Philadelphia Phillies. Teams which didn’t rebuild aggressively when it became clear they were about to fall short. And which now face a long time in the wilderness.

And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights

Zack Greinke

Dodgers 6, Phillies 0: The Phillies were shut out for the second straight night, this time by Zack Greinke over eight one-hit innings. He only threw 94 pitches and probably could’ve gone the distance, but Don Mattingly likely pitied the Phillies and allowed them to take a shot at a reliever. They couldn’t do anything against Joel Peralta either, so I guess it didn’t matter. Greinke didn’t walk anyone. And he reduced his ERA to a crazy 1.39.

Yankees 6, Athletics 2: Masahiro Tanaka allowed only one earned run, two total, in seven and two-thirds innings, Jacoby Ellsbury drove in two and newly-named All-Star Brett Gardner went 3-for-5. You should really read the game story, though, which focuses on Cole Figueroa’s debut for the Yankees. The key takeaway: after his Wednesday night game for Scranton, on the road in Syracuse, he was called up and took a car service from Syracuse down to a hotel in Manhattan, getting there at 3AM. That may sound fancy, but I have had the privilege of using a car service before and I can tell you that there is nothing more awkward in the world than either (a) talking to the car service guy; or (b) NOT talking to the car service guy. It’s like that awkward small-talk-with-the-hair-stylist thing, but way longer — it’s almost four hours between Syracuse and Manhattan — with an added sheen of class stuff on top because, really, who gets driven around like that? So props to Figueroa for his 2015 debut, his sleep deprivation AND surviving a four hour ride with a total stranger.

White Sox 2, Blue Jays 0: Jeff Samardzija with a four-hit shutout. If the White Sox are considering trading him it was a nice showcase, especially given that Toronto has the best offense in the game. The Sox have won seven of nine.

Royals 8, Rays 3: Yordano Ventura came back from the DL and pitched five innings. Not fantastic innings, but healthy ones, and that’s more important right now. The Royals scored three runs in the first inning, all coming on the first five pitches. The sweep the Rays. They’re gonna miss Alex Gordon, but they’re gonna be fine.

Cardinals 4, Pirates 1: Carlos Martinez shuts out the Pirates over seven and a third innings, striking out eight. The Cards had a 4.5 game lead over Pittsburgh coming into this series and extend it to 5.5. There’s a lot of baseball to be played, but if the Cards can bury the Pirates in this series, on the road, heading into the break, it would go a long way toward ending the NL Central race before it even becomes a race.

Indians 3, Astros 1: Cody Anderson pitched three-hit ball into the seventh inning in his fourth big league start. He has a 0.89 ERA since being called up from Columbus. People always seem to do better after leaving Columbus.

Marlins 2, Reds 0: Jose Fernandez wasn’t fantastic in his first start back from Tommy John surgery. He was amazing in his second, however, striking out nine batters over seven scoreless innings. He didn’t walk anyone and threw 72 out of 94 pitches for strikes. And he sure loves Miami: he’s undefeated through the first 22 home starts of his career.

Tigers 4, Twins 2: There sure were a lot of good pitching performances last night. Another: David Price’s, who allowed two unearned runs in eight innings. Ian Kinsler was 2-for-4 and drove in three. The Tigers are 8-2 against the Twins this year. They’re also amazingly dominant against the Indians. Against everyone else they rather suck. Ain’t no one loves the unbalanced schedule more than Detroit.

Rockies 5, Braves 3: Troy Tulowitzki extended his hitting streak to 21 games and Carlos Gonzalez hit three doubles. Nolan Arenado had three hits too. How a team can have a core like those three and do nothing is beyond me. It was a soggy night, with a two-hour rain delay just after the dang game started, which ended up burning both starters, seemingly needlessly. I guess they don’t have the Weather Channel in Denver.

Mariners 7, Angels 2: Felix Hernandez threw seven shutout innings and won his 11th game of the year. That ties him with Dallas Keuchel for most wins in the American League while Gerrit Cole has 12. He’s on perfect rest to start the All-Star Game on Tuesday. If I’m Ned Yost, that’s the call I make.