As we approach the mid-point mark of the 2013 season, some things are abundantly clear, some are positively puzzling, and others are to be determined.
- Justin Verlander is not getting the same results as he had in 2011 and 2012, when he was historically great. His fastball is oddly 5-7 MPH slower than it was the last two seasons, when he finished 1st and 2nd in Cy Young voting and won the ’11 AL MVP Award. Does he have a dead arm? Has he developed a flaw in his mechanics that’s causing him to lose that velocity? No one seems to know, but after nearly three months of the season, it doesn’t look like we’ll see JV dominate start-after start like he did the last two years.
- Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera has only gotten better. He’s crushing the ball on his way to his third consecutive batting title, while also threatening to do the unthinkable – win back-to-back Triple Crowns. Given the cavernous size of Comerica Park, it’s a long shot that Miggy will overcome Chris Davis in the home run race, but don’t bet against the Tiger slugger.
- Catcher Alex Avila has peaked and is probably never going to be an impact major league hitter again. Avila looks overmatched by big league fastballs and downright foolish on pitches up and away in the strike zone. It’s as if American League pitchers called a meeting after the ’11 season and pooled their brain power to figure out the perfect approach to stymie Avila. He has all the looks of a player who should be platooned. When he was placed on the DL, there was almost a sigh of relief from Tiger fans.
- Last season’s trade that brought Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez to Detroit was another brilliant move by Dave Dombrowski. Before his arm injury (or shoulder tightness), Sanchez was clearly the best pitcher in the Tiger rotation (yes, better than Max too), and Infante is playing his solid defense while also hitting near .300 with decent pop. With Sanchez (who has already done some pretty amazing things, like nearly toss a no-hitter and break the franchise single-game strikeout record) tied up for years to come, this trade will continue to reap benefits for the Tigers for a long, long time.
- Lefty reliever Phil Coke continues to baffle everyone. On the one hand he has great stuff: a quality fastball and the makeup to be a closer in the majors. On the other hand he’s inconsistent, easily rattled, and struggles with bouts of wildness. Don’t even bother asking him to try to get more than 3 outs, it’s bound to be a nightmare. Coke’s role needs to be redefined and lessened, but with injuries to Octavio Dotel and Al Albuerquerque, and the topsy-turvy drama of Jose Valverde, Jim Leyland has been forced to rely on Coke more than he’d probably like to.
- Why Dombrowski and Leyland bought tickets for another run of the Pape Grande Experience. We know DD and JL share the same Achilles heal: their undying loyalty to players who are washed up. Still, it seemed the demons had been expelled and we’d seen the last of Valverde in a Detroit (2X-size) uniform. In a move that was part desperation and part misguided loyalty tinged with reminiscing for the past, Big Potato was reheated. (I assure you this is the last of the food analogies with Valverde’s nicknames). Predicatably, for those of us who don’t count ourselves as personal friends of Valverde, the comeback failed miserably. Valverde is not a major league pitcher anymore. He has one pitch, and if he doesn’t throw that pitch perfectly, hitters tee off on it. In other news that should have been easy for the Tiger brass to understand: Jose is a headcase. Somewhere between the start of the 2011 postseason and the early part of 2012, he had a meltdown in confidence. I assert, and I have been saying this for a while now, that Valverde knew he was lucky in 2011. He knew he was a one-trick pony with mediocre stuff, and he was getting by on some guile and dumb luck. The check was going to come due, and it did in 2012. He’s been living off past glory for way too long, and it’s time Leyland and Dombrowski started acting like responsible parents and cut the problem children loose.
- Why the Tigers, with the best starting rotation in baseball, are carrying 7 relief pitchers. Given the fact that the top four guys usually get into the 7th inning, it doesn’t seem to make sense to carry that many relievers. Strangely, Leyland has admitted that he has had a tough time getting enough work for his relief pitchers, and when he does bring in a guy who pitches little (Darin Downs, for example), it’s no wonder that the pitcher struggles. The Tigs could improve their team quite a bit by reducing their bullpen to six pitchers, which would do two things: allow the pitchers in the bullpen to pitch more, and give Leyland another bench spot to add a bat.
To Be Determined
- Whether or not Prince Fielder will ever be appreciated by Tiger fans. It seems that Fielder, for whatever reason, is going to have a hard time overcoming the label of “overpaid superstar.” Fielder’s biggest mistake seems to b that he’s not Cabrera, which is really unfair. No one is as talented as Cabrera. But Fielder plays every stinking day, he hustles as much as anyone on the team, and he’s one of the best hitting first basemen in the game. As long as Cabrera is in this monsterish stretch of what we call his “peak”, opposing managers are going to walk him to pitch to Fielder when it’s appropriate. So far in 2013, Prince has made them pay, driving in runs and shrugging off the disrespect. Now, if only more Detroit fans would start respecting our Prince…
- The closer role is overrated, I’ve written that before, and others have also chimed in with the same point of view. But like it or not, ML teams are going to use their bullpen in this silly, formulaic fashion: long reliever, one-out situational specialist, 7th inning guy, 8th inning setup man, and closer. So, who will emerge as the Tiger closer this year? Joaquin Benoit has had two cracks at it, Valverde had his shot, and prospect Bruce Rondon was even promoted briefly to get a look-see. When will Rondon be ready? This should all be fleshed out in the second half of the season. If that worries you, remember that it’s been done before with success. The two most recent World Series champions – the Cardinals in 2011 and the Giants in 2012 – each shuffled the back end of their bullpens in mid-season. (Which, by the way, supports my theory that finding an adequate stopper for the bullpen isn’t that tough). The Tigers should be able to figure this out. Let’s just hope that whoever it is, his name doesn’t rhyme with Shmozay Halverde.
- What does the future hold for Drew Smyly? This past spring, it looked like he would be pitching every fifth game, but then Leyland tabbed Rick Porcello for the rotation. Some felt that Smyly would be better off starting at Triple-A Toledo, but the Tigs tossed the young lefty into bullpen, perhaps because of his poise in the postseason in 2012. The young southpaw with the toothy last name has responded by being Detroit’s most valuable reliever. In 26 games, Smyly has allowed just one inherited runner to score, is striking out batter per inning, and has allowed just one home run. He consistently wriggles out of tight spots, and several times has held the other team at bay while the Tigers have clawed back to win the game. There’s no question that Smyly has been the MVP of the Detroit bullpen, but given his importance to a difficult part of the team, it begs the question: is he the MVP of the Tigers this year?