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October 18, 2012

On the Beat

Making the Tigers Roar

by John Perrotto

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Most general managers say that starting pitching remains the most difficult commodity to acquire. That would be hard to tell, though, by what Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has done the past two seasons.

The Tigers were thin on starting pitching each of the past two Julys. Last year, Dombrowski acquired right-hander Doug Fister from the Mariners. This year, Detroit picked up right-hander Anibal Sanchez from Miami. The Tigers went on to win the American League Central and reached the American League Championship Series each season thanks, in part, to the acquisitions’ performances.

"It's not just the fact that both of them have done a great job for us," Tigers super-utility player Don Kelly said. "It's the lift that making a trade for a quality starting pitcher provided to our entire clubhouse. You work hard every day from the first day of spring training in the middle of the February in order to put yourself in position to try to win your division, go to the playoffs, and hopefully win it all. When you get into late July, everyone is a little tired because you've been at it for five months. It just gives everyone a boost when you see management is putting forth the same kind of effort and is willing to do everything it can to make the roster as strong as possible."

Fister provided 1.5 WARP in 70 1/3 innings for the Tigers last season and 2.1 WARP in 161 1/3 innings this year. Sanchez didn't make quite the impact this season that Fister did last year, but he did add 0.8 WARP in 74 1/3 innings. Both hurlers have been invaluable in the ALCS against the Yankees; Fister pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings while getting a no-decision in Game One, and Sanchez won Game Two with seven shutout innings of three-hit ball.

"That's exactly why we got those guys," Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson said. "You can make a case that we wouldn't have made it this far without them. They both really beefed up our pitching staff."

Tigers manager Jim Leyland was certainly happy to get the extra rotation help. "Good starting pitching always makes you a smarter manager," Leyland said. And with Fister and Sanchez falling in behind ace Justin Verlander and emerging ace Max Scherzer, it makes for an outstanding rotation.

"The one thing I always appreciate about Dave, he is not afraid to make a change for better, for worse," Leyland said of Dombrowski. "I give him credit for that. He has no fear when it comes to making a trade, but I think where it all starts—and certainly I don't want to slight Dave, because he is the one that makes them—is your scouting director and your farm director, guys that have done a good job not only signing players but developing players in the minor leagues. Those are the things that give the access to go ahead and trade for something at the major-league level. I think it is a combination of our scouts, our farm system, and the great job of Dave not being afraid to make a deal or give up a prospect. It is a ground-floor thing that works its way up to the top."

The Tigers gave up right-hander Jacob Turner and catcher Rob Brantley in the Sanchez trade, and both immediately became fixtures for the Marlins during the final two months of the season. Outfielder Casper Wells and left-hander reliever Charlie Furbush are playing roles for the Mariners, who also obtained third baseman Francisco Martinez and right-hander Chance Ruffin.

"It hurts to give up talented young players like that, and there's no doubt in my mind that all of them could go on to have long and productive major-league careers," Dombrowski said. "If you're going to get a guy like a Sanchez or a guy like a Fister, then you're going to have to give something up. You're not going to acquire a good big-league starting pitcher for nothing. It's just not going to happen."

The Tigers were willing to sacrifice good prospects because they have an urgency to win. Owner Mike Ilitch is 81 years old, and the pizza magnate has yet to fulfill his dream of winning a World Series to go along with the two Stanley Cups he has won as owner of the NHL's Red Wings. Leyland likes to joke that the Tigers are able to sustain a high payroll on an annual basis because "people are eating a lot of Little Caesars," but Ilitch is willing to run the Tigers at a deficit in order to bring a World Series trophy to Detroit for the first time since 1984.

"Ownership here is really what turned things around," Leyland said. "(Ilitch) went out and got some stars—Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, signing Justin Verlander long-term. It is a combination of a lot of things that make this organization pretty good, and it starts with ownership."

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A few minutes with Yankees general manger Brian Cashman

On if he believes third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who was set to be benched for the third time in the postseason Wednesday for Game Four of the ALCS, can regain his old form: "This is a mental game. It is a physical game. And it's a challenge. There's always a challenge. I mean, I was in this ballpark (Comerica Park) last year, and everybody in our neighborhood bet against A.J. Burnett, who had consistently underperformed in recent outings. No one believed he could step up and get the job done and pitch in a tough environment.

“We were in an elimination game against the Tigers last year (in the American League Division Series), and A.J. pitched us back to New York. Every time you have the ball in your hand or the bat in your hand, you can change the story. So opportunities will continue to be provided, and some guys might have to wait longer for them to occur than others, but we have an opportunity. We have an opportunity to try to change this story and the ones we have written for ourselves. And I know our guys are hungry to try to do that, because no one wants to deal with the negatives—they want to create the positives. But it is all performance-driven."

On why the Yankees haven't allowed Rodriguez an opportunity to try to break out of his slump: "This isn't just a short-term decision. It's a short-term decision based on the strikeouts that have occurred against the right-handed pitching during the playoffs. But if you look at his splits versus right-handed pitching and left-handed pitching for the season, it's not a short-term sample. He has struggled with right-handed pitching this year altogether. It's 600 OPS, somewhere in the 600s OPS against right-handed pitching for the season. He's 900 and change OPS against left-handed pitching. So there's a radical split there, for whatever reason. And it's obviously gotten worse here in the postseason, for some reason, with the strikeouts. So we're just making an adjustment as we move along. And we're not afraid to make calls. We're hoping we're going to make the right ones. But, hey, you are in a position to make decisions, and you have to make tough ones. I don't think we are afraid to make tough ones. We'd rather be in a position where you can run it all out there and it is nice and easy and it is going to work at all times, but that's not the nature of the beast of baseball."

On if he feels the Yankees need to consider how they build their offense in light of their post-season struggles this year: "I believe in the philosophy I was taught by Gene Michael. We are still executing the Gene Michael playbook, which is predominantly left-handed hitters that take walks. They are selective. They're typically big, hairy monsters—as I describe them—that hit the ball over the fence, hit doubles, single. What you are seeing right now is not a reflection of that. These guys are better than this. And we've seen it. It is just a very poor short sample.

“We have a lot of guys that got cold at the wrong time and it looks bad, but this is not a reflection of who they are. But it externally is a reflection of what we are living with right now, and so we're trying to do everything we can to get it going. But, no, this doesn't shatter my beliefs in what I have been taught and what I have learned from some of the best in the business, because I know it works. I have lived through it. I have rings to show it. I have rings I've benefitted from."

On if he will look to acquire a veteran shortstop in the offseason as insurance since Derek Jeter will be recovering from a broken left ankle: "I haven't looked at that at this stage. We do have Eduardo Nunez. We have Jayson Nix. So it's not something we have focused on, and I wouldn't think that that's something I would gravitate to."

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Scouts' views

Athletics closer Grant Balfour: "He has always been inconsistent, but I like the way he took the bull by the horns for that club down the stretch. I think his problem sometimes is confidence. I don't think he understands how good he is."

Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran: "For me, he was the best free-agent signing of the offseason. Even though he struggled in the second half with injuries, he gave them as much as Albert Pujols gave the Angels at a fraction of the cost."

Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano: "I wouldn't worry about his struggles in the postseason signaling a decline. He was as good as I've ever seen him late in the regular season. He just fell into a slump like everyone else on that club."

Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth: "I'll be curious to see what kind of offers he'll get in free agency. He played great in the playoffs and the end of the season, but he also hadn't had a good year since 2008. I'd say buyer beware, but I'd also take a shot on him if the price is right."

Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos: "He got lost in the shuffle this season because he got hurt, but he's a quality player, and the Nationals are going to have a really good situation at catcher next year with both him and Kurt Suzuki. That's outstanding depth at a position that's hard to fill."

Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs: "You look at him and you see superstar potential with his power and speed. That being said, I don't know how much longer the Reds can live with him hitting .213. At some point, you've got to put the bat on the ball."

Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander: "He's become a pitcher now instead of just a guy with overpowering stuff. He struck out just three guys (in the ALCS Game Three win over) the Yankees, but he was in control the whole time. He didn't mow everyone down, but he got a lot of them to mishit the ball."

Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong: "He is one of the greatest reclamation projects of all time. He was a total washout his first time around in the big leagues, but he went to Japan, figured out to pitch, and now he's a valuable member of that rotation. You've got to give the guy credit for perseverance, because I think everyone left him for dead years ago."

---

In this week's Must Read, the great Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch uses the players’ words to take an in-depth and revealing look at the Cardinals' amazing comeback win over the Nationals in Game Five of the National League Division Series.

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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