What we’ve learned about the Tigers so far this season

Torii Hunter has been a good addition to the Tigers, but he has made a few boneheaded plays.

Torii Hunter has been a good addition to the Tigers, but he has made a few boneheaded plays.

We’re now more than a quarter of the way through the 2013 season, and the Tigers find themselves looking up at the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, albeit by just a game or so. Much has gone right, and some has gone wrong, and a few other things have been puzzling. Here’s a glance at what we’ve learned so far.

The off-season dealings were a stroke of genius
The players that GM Dave Dombrowski inked to deals in the off-season: Torii Hunter from outside the organization as a free agent, and Anibal Sanchez as a free agent returnee, were excellent moves. Signing Justin Verlander to an extension was a good idea too. As I’ve written before, Dombrowski is one of the shrewdest executives in the game, and his moves have been remarkably positive in his decade in Detroit. Four starters in the rotation, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, are all locked up for years to come. The Tigers will be a good team for as long a stretch as they ever have been.

The roster composition has been less than genius
I used to think Dombrowski deserved a lot of blame for the strange roster choices the Tigers have made at times. After all, he’s the GM and the manager reports to him. But over the last 2-3 seasons, evidence shows that Jim Leyland has more sway on how his 25-man unit is selected than many managers normally do. This is not Brad Pitt telling Philip Seymour Hoffman what players he gets and who starts, ala Moneyball. Detroit is not Hollywood, and unfortunately Leyland gets to keep guys like Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago on his roster. It was Leyland, not Dombrowski, who thought Ryan Raburn would be a great platoon partner with Brandon Inge last season at second base. It was Leyland who stuck up for Kelly and who stubbornly insists on carrying 7 relievers, paying homage to Tony LaRussa, one of his managerial heroes. On one hand, it’s hard to criticize the Tiger roster selection: the team has advanced to the post-season’s final four the last two seasons and won the pennant last fall. But, it’s quite obvious that the Tigers have won in spite of their weak bench and strange roster gambles (remember Brad Eldred last year?).

The Tiger bench is just a touch above anemic. Santiago lost it about two years ago, yet he still gets about one start per week and usually tries to drag bunt in at least two of his at-bats. He’s had three extra-base hits since last July 1, and only one RBI since June 25 of last year. The only Tigers he deserves to be playing for are the Hanshin Tigers in the Japanese Baseball League.

Don Kelly? Well, the best thing I can say about Don is that he means well. But on a major league roster that has only four bench spots for non-pitchers, there’s absolutely no room for a player as untalented as Don Kelly. His career slugging percentage is .343, and over the last 2 1/2 seasons it’s under .300 while he’s also hit under .200.

The Tigers should have two proven bats on their bench – one from each side of the plate – that they can use when regulars need a break or as pinch-hitters. Instead, they have Matt a backup catcher, two players who shouldn’t even be in the majors, and Matt Tuiasosopo, who has been fine as the RH bat off the pine. Ideally, a better situation would be to have one more roster spot used for a non-pitcher.

The starting rotation is the best in baseball
Quibble if you want over two poor starts (out of 9) by Justin Verlander, and a few less-than-stellar outings by Sanchez and Doug Fister, but the Tiger rotation, 1 through 4, is the best in baseball. Any one of the big four can throw a masterful game any time out there. Sanchez and Scherzer have shown that they have the stuff to be two of the better starters in the game and they are starting to mature at just the right time. Fister is a pro, and of course JV will end up among the top 4-5 pitchers in every category again once the season is finished. The Tigers will not suffer a long losing streak with that quartet on the hill, and they’re going to be a handful should the team make the post-season again.

We have seen the best of Alex Avila
It seems like ages since Alex Avila was an All-Star back in 2011. That season he had 56 extra-base hits in 141 games. Since then, he’s played 147 games and has 38 extra-base hits. His power stroke to the opposite field has all but disappeared, and he doesn’t drive balls to right field with authority very often. He still doesn’t run well, of course, and he’s an average defender behind the plate. As much as he gets beat up in back of the dish, it doesn’t seem like the 26-year old will be a regular catcher by the time he gets to 29. Catchers age quickly, that’s why it’s rare to see any of them still catching regularly into their 30s. If Avila can recover his stroke, he could ensure that he’ll be a regular player for a while, but if he keeps hitting well south of .200 with little to no power, he’s nothing more than a backup catcher. I personally think he’s playing injured and has been since the ’11 season when Leyland started him in something like 35 games in a row. A young catcher should be readied to take his spot soon.

The bullpen isn’t as bad as you might think
Bump into your favorite Tiger fans and it won’t be long before they’ll gripe about the bullpen. But actually, the pen hasn’t been as terrible as most people think. Detroit’s bullpen ERA is just below league average, but it’s inflated because a couple guys (Brayan Villarreal, Octavio Dotel, and Phil Coke) have been pummeled in a combined total of about 21 innings. Other than that, the pen has been excellent. Papa Grande is back and he’s tossing pretty good, though he did blow one save. Joaquin Benoit, Drew, Smyly, and Darin Downs have been great, and they’ve gotten most of the work. To be fair, Coke, Dotel, and Al Alburquerque (now in Toledo) have all had injuries at times. Once the pen is fully healthy and Coke and Dotel are back to form, Detroit’s relief corps will be just fine. I’m not sold on Valverde as the closer, but in most cases the closer has an easy job, and Papa still seems to have enough mettle to get through most of the tough closing situations, so it should be fine.

Torii giveth and he taketh away
It’s been a pleasure to watch Torii Hunter on a daily basis after seeing him as an enemy on the Twins and later the Angels for so many years. Hunter is a pro, and he’s obviously still got a lot left in his tank. His bat is still very quick and he’s off to a good start. He’s a huge upgrade in the #2 slot in the batting order, and he has some power left too, leading the team with 12 doubles. But, he also has an annoying way of making bonehead mistakes every once in a while. Call it “Chet Lemon Syndrome.” Remember how Chet used to make a few really goofy mistakes every few weeks? Like missing a cutoff man, misplaying a ball, or making a stupid baserunning mistake? Hunter has done all of those things already in less than two months in Detroit. By my count, Hunter, who has a room full of Gold Gloves for his outfield play, has made three really egregious miscues in the field. He cost the Tigers a run by missing a cutoff man earlier in April, repeated that in a game against the Rangers, and misplayed two balls in right field. He’s also been cut down on the base paths going from first to third at least once, when he really didn’t have a shot at being safe. I am high on Hunter, but I’d like to see fewer mistakes from the veteran.

Jimmy still likes to bunt… a lot
Even though he doesn’t have a team that is designed to play “small ball” and even though he has a lineup filled with batters who don’t even bunt well at all, Jim Leyland still puts the sacrifice bunt play on any chance he gets after the 6th inning in a tight game. Is it frustrating? No, it’s infuriating. The Tiger lineup is built to mash. The sacrifice bunt is actually a poor percentage play in almost any situation. It reduced a team’s chance of scoring a run, especially when used in the 9th inning when you are surrendering one of your three remaining outs in a game you trail. But Smoky has done this at least three times this year. Maybe you defend him because you believe he’s trying to keep his team out of the double play. But you’d be wrong to defend that move. It’s still silly, and it’s the type of thing that could cost the Tigers a critical game in October.

5 replies on “What we’ve learned about the Tigers so far this season

  • David Folk

    Leyland needs to go, I’m fed up with his favorite playing certain mediocre players, (Inge,Rayburn, Kelly etc.) I’m also fed up with him hanging on to substandard coaches too. Lloyd McLendon was a terrible major league hitter and he is supposed to tell the hitters what they are doing wrong in a slump??? Jeff Jones was the bullpen catcher when they made him the pitching coach and never played professional baseball. whats up with this?

  • George

    After the Texas series, its obvious the Tigers need some practice and pointers on fielding. Jhonny Peralta throwing to first instead of getting an easy double play, Tuiasosopo throwing over cutoff man twice and diving for a ball with no chance of catching it, wild throws in the infield by Sanchez, Fielder and Avila. The fielding in Texas was a disgrace for a major league team. Wasted was 3 HRs by Cabrera. Also, Leyland continuing to play Triple A players like Kelly, Santiago. One huge mistake was not signing Gerald Laird a much better catcher and hitter than Avila or Pena. I don’t believe the Tigers will be in the playoffs this year, much less the World Series.

  • Dan Holmes

    David – Couldn’t agree more about the “playing favorites” by Leyland. As for Jones – he pitched 5 years in the majors and wasn’t great, but he wasn’t terrible. He was an average relief pitcher. I don’t think he’s a bad coach. I have never placed much emphasis on a coach as an influence on the overall performance of a team. A manager has the control to make the lineup and use the bullpen, and the way Leyland does it, drives me crazy a lot of the time. Thanks for reading!

  • Dan Holmes

    George – You are spot on! The Tigers made THREE mental mistakes in the 7th inning of Sunday’s game against the Rangers. None were scored as errors, but they should have been. There’s no excuse for Peralta not throwing to second base. Those type of mistakes will cost you a game here and there, and they prove costly in the post-season.

    Thanks so much for reading our blog.

  • Kyle

    Jim Leyland is a top 5 manager in baseball. There is a place for Don Kelly on this team. He is a bench player and does what he is supposed to do. No team in baseball has 25 starters. You have your top 8 position players, then you have the Kellys and Santiagos. You don’t bring in an every day player and sit him on the bench.

    This article just regurgitated the same tired crap that old men sitting around a coffee shop say.

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