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July 19, 2010

On the Beat

Areas of Concern

by John Perrotto

Jim Leyland admits he has never turned on a computer in his life and doesn't know Twitter from Twister. Thus, he isn't overly familiar with such predictive tools as PECOTA or Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds.

However, the veteran Tigers manager has spent a lifetime in baseball. Because of that, he feels he has a simple formula for his team to win the American League Central.

"We've put ourselves in a good position, but now we have to play better on the road, and play better within the division," Leyland said. "If we do those things, I like our chances."

Well, the Tigers haven't followed that formula in the first few days following the All-Star break. They were swept on the road by the Indians to fall into a second-place tie in the division with the Twins, 1 ½ games behind the White Sox. The Tigers also dropped to 16-29 away from home, and 16-21 against AL Central opponents.

Last season, the Tigers wound up losing the AL Central title to the Twins in a one-game tiebreaker, and have not been to the postseason since their surprise pennant-winning season of 2006, Leyland's first year in Detroit. It was a painful finish last year, as the Tigers held a seven-game lead in early September, and were up by three games with four to play.

However, they can make amends this season if they can get better in the areas that Leyland's formula addresses. He is able to explain the problems inside the division, but the road woes are a different story.

"There are a lot of good teams in our division," Leyland said. "The White Sox and Twins are quality teams and are going to be in until the end, and the Royals and Indians are dangerous, too. But it's hard to put a finger on the reasons for the road record. I've given it a lot of thought and I just can't figure it out. It's not something I dwell on, though. If you start harping on it with the players, it's going to just get into their heads. That being said, we're going to have to play better on the road. There's no two ways about it. We go to New York for four, Boston for three, Tampa Bay for four, and Texas for two in the second half. It's not going to be a day at the beach."

This didn't figure to be a season at the beach for the Tigers, as they went into last offseason looking at 2010 as a transitional year of going from a veteran club to having a younger roster. However, injuries and poor performances have forced the Tigers to tap into their farm system more this season than anticipated. The results have been good for the most part, with the exception of rookie second baseman Scott Sizemore needing to be sent back to Triple-A Toledo after struggling early in the year.

The Tigers have a large group of players 25 and under who are contributing. Corner outfielder Brennan Boesch (.331 TAv) and center fielder Austin Jackson (.282), both rookies, are mainstays in the lineup, and catcher Alex Avila (.235) and infielder Danny Worth (.247) are also seeing considerable playing time. Left-hander Andy Oliver (0.0 SNLVAR) and right-handers Rick Porcello (0.1) and Max Scherzer (1.2) are part of the rotation, and the bullpen includes youngsters Ryan Perry (0.171 WXRL) and Robbie Weinhardt (0.129) from the right side. Another young reliever, Joel Zumaya (1.062), was having a comeback season until he broke the tip of his right elbow last month, knocking him out for the year. The team also has high hopes for left-handed rookie reliever Daniel Schlereth, who was optioned to Triple-A Toledo on Saturday when a spot starter for Saturday's doubleheader was needed.

"What I like about the way our kids have played is that you never see these various publications that rate the farm systems ever rank our system very high," Leyland said. "But we've had a lot of guys come up and make contributions. It's says a lot of about our organization and it's something we can take pride in. The best part of all is that there are more good players on the way. I said this spring that I sent out more prospects than in any other spring training in my entire career and it's true."

The Tigers also had a stroke of good fortune when closer Jose Valverde and designated hitter Johnny Damon were still on the free-agent market late in the offseason, and owner Mike Ilitch gave president/general manager Dave Dombrowski permission to add to the payroll. Valverde has 2.738 WXRL, while Damon has a .290 TAv, and the two players rank among the top six on the ballclub in WARP. While Valverde has helped stabilized the pitching staff, the Tigers could still use one more quality starter and some set-up help in the bullpen, as they are ninth in the AL in runs allowed with an average of 4.54 per game. The offense is sixth with a 4.58 per-game average, and fifth in the league in True Average, with first baseman Miguel Cabrera leading the way with a .349 TAv.

Leyland sometimes wonders if there is anything Cabrera isn't capable of doing at 27, observing, "I really think he can win a triple crown. He won't beat out hits like Ichiro will, but he's a great pure hitter who makes solid contact every time up. He has a lot of elasticity to his swing, especially for a big guy, and that enables him to hit more balls harder to the opposite field than everybody I've ever seen. He means so much to this club and everyone knows how far we end up going is going to depend quite a bit as to how far he can take us."

---

Mark Cuban, the controversial owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, has tried in the past to buy the Pirates and Cubs without success. However, he has yet to get baseball out of his blood, and says he would like to join the group led by Pittsburgh sports entrepreneur Chuck Greenberg and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan that is trying to buy the Rangers from Tom Hicks in bankruptcy court. Cuban told KTCK-AM in Dallas of his interest, and expanded on it in an e-mail to the Dallas Morning News.

"Now that the bankruptcy judge has clarified some of the Hicks-related issues, I have been taking a closer look," Cuban wrote. "I think there is an opportunity to organize a bid for the team. Or if it's feasible, or possible—and I don't know for sure if it is or isn't—to work with Chuck and Nolan and their group. I'm not trying to push anyone off or out. I'm exploring. The economics have changed, which has gotten me interested. My lawyers are still going through everything, but the bigger point is that I now have an interest. As I learn more, I will have a better understanding about how aggressively I will pursue the interest and whether or not I will actually make a bid come the first week of August or whenever the court sets the date for bids."

Greenberg is unable to comment about the sale since it is in the courts. However, he and Cuban are not strangers, as they grew up together in adjacent suburbs in Pittsburgh's South Hills, Greenberg in Upper St. Clair, and Cuban in Mount Lebanon. Greenberg and Cuban also nearly joined forces in a similar situation in 1999 when the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins were sold out of bankruptcy. Greenberg advised Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, whose group ultimately bought the team. Cuban talked to Greenberg about joining Lemieux's group before ultimately deciding to concentrate on basketball.

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Kirk Gibson gave his team a brief speech before it started the second half of the season. The Diamondbacks interim manager's message was to the point.

"I expect them to come out and try to erase what happened in the first half," Gibson said. "We have to go out and have to play with urgency. We have to be determined not to duplicate what we did. I told them I was going to push them hard, and they were welcome to push back. I don't really care."

The Diamondbacks went 34-55 in the first half, and were 31-48 when manager A.J. Hinch was fired and Gibson was promoted from bench coach to interim manager. Gibson said he firmly believes the Diamondbacks are capable of playing better.

"The way we played it in the first half, I don't think anybody would say that is who we are," Gibson said. "At least we don't want to admit that is who we are. So we want to fight against that urge to get complacent and play the season out that way."

Gibson has had the Diamondbacks doing extra fundamentals work before almost each game he has managed. Among the areas covered during the workouts include baserunning, extra batting practice, infield and outfield work, bunt defense drills, and pitchers' fielding practice.

"We hope to change the culture," Gibson said. "There are things we need to work on. If the other team scores two, we have to score three. If they score seven, we have to score eight. We have to remain committed as a team to push through any situation we are given on any given night. As far as the style of play and my expectations, I share that with them. I push pretty hard on that. We'll try to execute better than we did the first half."

---

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Dodgers have backed off on the idea of possibly trading center fielder Matt Kemp, have interest in Indians right-handers Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook, and are considering calling up outfielder Trayvon Robinson from Double-A Jacksonville if left fielder Manny Ramirez goes back on the disabled list. … The Rangers have strong interest in Orioles infielder Ty Wigginton, and the Phillies have inquired about Orioles third baseman Miguel Tejada. … The Rockies have interest in Marlins infielder Jorge Cantu. … Add the White Sox to the list of teams interested in trading for Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly. … Padres GM Jed Hoyer says there is enough wiggle room in his tight budget to add both a pitcher and a hitter. … The Twins will primarily use infielder/outfielder Michael Cuddyer at first base while Justin Morneau is on the disabled list. … Former Indians manager Eric Wedge is expected to be a candidate for the same job with the Blue Jays, which will open when Cito Gaston retires at the end of the season.

---

Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton: "The only thing that concerns me is he always seems to have some kind of nagging injury. He's never going to be a guy who plays 155 games a year, and you wonder how much time the problems he used to have with drugs are going to eventually take off his career."

Diamondbacks second baseman Kelly Johnson: "He had a good first half but I'm not ready to anoint him a star in the making. That ballpark in Phoenix helps his hitting a lot."

White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko: "He's having one of his best years, and you can't underestimate what he means to that team. It's a crazy situation there all the time with the White Sox, and he is the calm in the middle of the storm at all times."

Pirates right fielder Lastings Milledge: "It's all starting to come together for him. He isn't going to turn out to be a superstar, but I really think this guy is going to be a good player."

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina: "He's shouldn't have been starting in the All-Star Game, but he is a better hitter than he showed in the first half. I'd bet things will even out and he'll have a really good second half."

Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez: "You can tell that bruised thumb is killing him, but he seems to have found a way to adjust. He's starting to drive the ball, which he hadn't been doing all season."

Rays right-hander James Shields: "His command just hasn't been there for a long time. He is not the kind of pitcher who is going to overpower you with stuff. He gets hitters out with location. He's making way too many mistakes and getting burned repeatedly."

---

Rangers (53-39) at Tigers (48-42), Monday-Wednesday June 19-21
Scott Feldman vs. Jeremy Bonderman, 7:05 p.m.; Tommy Hunter vs. Armando Galarraga, 7:05 p.m.; Colby Lewis vs. Max Scherzer, 7:05 p.m.

Angels (50-45) at Yankees (58-33), Tuesday-Wednesday June 20-21
Scott Kazmir vs. Phil Hughes, 7:05 p.m.; Joel Pineiro vs. Javier Vazquez, 1:05 p.m.

Padres (54-37) at Braves (54-38), Tuesday-Thursday June 20-22
Wade LeBlanc vs. Jair Jurrjens, 7:10 p.m.; Jon Garland vs. Tommy Hanson, 7:10 p.m.; Clayton Richard vs. Tim Hudson, 1:05 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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