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2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

The Miguel CabreraJustin Verlander Tigers era is not yet over. Not necessarily. Cabrera, though he missed a huge chunk of the middle of the year due to injury, was still one of the game’s best hitters when healthy. Verlander, despite himself missing a lot of time to start the year and despite hitting a lot of bumps in the road early after he returned, settled down nicely and improved as the year progressed. He has looked sharp this spring and seems to be poised for a new phase of his career in which he truly commits to getting hitters out without thinking that he can simply throw the ball by everyone. It’s a nice adjustment to see and it suggests that he can age more like wine and less like, well, a normal pitcher.

It’s entirely possible that this Tigers team, which had seen so much success before last year’s injury-fueled collapse, has another run left in them. If they make that run, however,  it will be based more on just their Big Two. There were a lot of offseason additions made to the Detroit roster, and they’re going to need to pan out for the Tigers to get back into the thick of things in the Central.

Jordan Zimmermann was brought in on a five-year $110 million deal to help to fortify the front half of the rotation alongside Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, who himself missed a lot of time and underperformed last year. Mike Pelfrey was likewise added. Both of those guys come with some serious warning signs of decline, but Zimmermann is capable of solid production and Pelfrey just has to eat some innings and keep Brad Ausmus from having to use the bullpen quite as much as he has in the past. Verlander and Sanchez are key here — if they’re not back to ace and ace-esque form this year forget it, but the rotation is not necessarily a problem.

But ah, that bullpen. Long a sore spot for the Tigers, even when they were winning divisions, it’s gonna be sore again. It’s a totally new cast of characters out there under the Comerica Park shrubbery. That beats Dave Dombrowski’s old habit of simply running the same guys out there and hoping for different results, but it’s still a pretty suspect cast. Francisco Rodriguez saved 38 games last year and looked pretty good doing it, but there are a lot of miles on that odometer. Mark Lowe will set him up. He looked amazingly good for Seattle in 2015 but that was very clearly a fluke. His meh performance after being traded to the Jays is more in keeping with expectations. Justin Wilson could be a nice pickup, but he has been uneven at times. There are a lot of other moving parts, but none of them enthralling. The less this pen is relied upon, the better things will be going for the Tigers.

The real power here is the lineup. Beyond Cabrera, the pickup of Justin Upton has to make people happy and will definitely solidify a left field situation which didn’t have any obvious answers after Yoesnis Cespedes was traded last year. In right, J.D. Martinez‘s 38-homer year showed that his 2014 was no fluke. Ian Kinsler continues to be Ian Kinsler and that’s a good thing to be. The Cameron Maybin pickup for center was promising, but he’ll start the year on the DL. Less sexy than the Cabrera-Upton-Martinez triumvirate is the hops of a bounce back from Victor Martinez and some improvement many have hoped for from Nick Castellanos. The James McCann/Jarrod Saltalamacchia combo behind the plate presents the Tigers with offensive upside they haven’t had back there for a while. This lineup could be very special.

Ultimately the Tigers’ prospects in 2016 are going to depend on some old guys showing they still have something left and showing that they can avoid the injury bug. They have lots of big names and, if things all break right, they could easily contend in the AL Central. All of those guys on the wrong side of 30 breaking right and simply not breaking is not the sort of thing I’d bet a ton on, however, so I’m going to temper my expectations and allowed myself to be pleasantly surprised should they prove to be too pessimistic.

Prediction: Fourth place, A.L. Central.

The Astros continue to refuse to take responsibility for the Taubman Affair

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I’m calling it the “Taubman Affair” because writing “the incident in which a top front office executive — Astros Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman — taunted a reporter for her past opposition to the team acquiring a domestic abuser, after which the team lied, aggressively about it, accusing another reporter of fabricating a story, then admitted that they lied but made no apology for smearing the reporter” is too unwieldy for a headline.

If you need catching up on it, though, you can read this, this or this.

The latest on it all: yesterday, after walking back their angry denial that the incident ever occurred and admitting that, yes, Taubman did in fact gleefully and profanely target a reporter for taunting, the team basically went silent and let Game 1 unfold.

Today General Manager Jeff Luhnow went on a team-friendly radio station (i.e. the station that broadcasts Astros games). In the entire segment he was asked only one question about it: “Your thoughts on the SI article, Jeff.” Luhnow said that he would withhold comment, but apologized to “everybody involved,” including the fans and the players, saying “this situation should have never happened.” You can listen to the entire segment here.

He did not, however, make any specific mention of what “this situation” was. Nor did he acknowledge that, actually, it’s at least two “situations:” (1) the initial behavior of Taubman; and (2) Monday night’s team-sanctioned attack of Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein, who reported it. Indeed, at no time in the team’s now multiple comments has anyone acknowledged that, as an organization, the Houston Astros’s first impulse in all of this was to attempt to bully and discredit a reporter for what has now been established as a truthful report to which the Astros have admitted. And they certainly have not voiced any specific regret or offered any form of accountability for it.

Major League Baseball is apparently investigating Taubman’s conduct. But it is not, presumably, investigating the Astros’ disingenuous smear of Apstein. A smear that the Astros likely undertook because they figured they could intimidate Apstein and, what may even be worse, because they assumed that the rest of the press — many of whom were witnesses to Taubman’s act — would go along or remain silent. If they did not think that, of course, releasing the statement they did would’ve been nonsensical. It speaks of an organization that believes it can either bully or manipulate the media into doing its bidding or covering for the teams’ transgressions. That part of this has gone wholly uncommented on by the Astros and apparently will for the foreseeable future. No matter how this shakes out for Taubman, if the Astros do not talk about how and why they decided to baselessly attack Apstein on Monday night, nothing they ever say should be trusted again.

More broadly, everything the Astros are doing now is the same as when they traded for Roberto Osuna in the first place.

In 2018 they wanted to do an unpopular thing — arbitrage a player’s domestic violence suspension into the acquisition of cheap relief help — while wanting to appear as though they were good actors who had a “zero tolerance for domestic violence” policy. To solve that problem they shoveled a lot of malarkey about how “zero tolerance” actually includes a fair amount of tolerance and hoped that everyone would go along. When not everyone did — when fans brought signs of protest to the ballpark or expressed their displeasure with Osuna’s presence on the roster — they confiscated them then hoped it’d all blow over and, eventually, via Taubman’s rant on Saturday night, lashed out at their critics.

Here, again, they want to do something unpopular: retain a boorish and insensitive executive in Taubman without him or the team suffering any consequences for it, be they actual consequences or mere P.R. fallout. Again, it’s kind of hard to pull that off, so to do so they falsely accused a reporter of lying and then circled the wagons when they caught heat for it.

I have no idea how long they plan to keep this up. Maybe they are calculating that people will forget and that forgetting is the same as forgiveness. Maybe they simply don’t care. All I do know is that folks will be teaching the Astros’ response to all of this as a counterexample in crisis management courses for years.