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February 14, 2013

On the Beat

A Flaw to Declaw Detroit?

by John Perrotto

The Tigers say last year’s World Series is now officially behind them. With another spring training in Lakeland, Florida, signaling the start of a new season, they insist being swept the Giants last October is nothing more than history. Manager Jim Leyland can even look back on last year’s Fall Classic and have a sense of humor about it.

“I didn’t expect it to only last six hours and seven minutes,” Leyland said with a grin. “I thought it would last a little longer. In all seriousness, though, I don’t think there was one person in the world who thought the Giants were going to sweep that series, just like I don’t think there was one person in the world who thought we were going to sweep the Yankees in the ALCS. Sometimes, funny things happen in baseball. That’s just the way the game goes.”

Despite the sweep, the expectations surrounding the Tigers are even bigger this year after an offseason in which they retained right-hander Anibal Sanchez on a five-year, $80-million free agent contract and signed free agent Torii Hunter for two years and $26 million to bat second and play right field. Furthermore, designated hitter Victor Martinez returns to the lineup after missing last season following reconstructive knee surgery.

It seems, at least in February, there is no way the Tigers can lose this season. PECOTA projects them to win the American League Central by 10 games over the Indians, and the faithful in Detroit who have been waiting 29 years for a World Series championship believe this is the year. Don’t try telling that to Leyland, though; the veteran skipper dismisses the notion out of hand.

“I’ve been in the game a long time, and I know how this stuff works,” Leyland said. “I’ve seen a lot of teams be declared champions in February, then sit home in October. It happened to us in 2008. That spring, everybody wrote that our offense was so powerful that there was no way we weren’t going to score 1,000 runs. Well, guess what? We went home for the winter with our tail between our legs and a losing record. That’s why I think it’s ridiculous for people to be talking about us winning 100 games.”

The Tigers finished with a dismal 74-88 record five years ago. However, it seems almost impossible to think Detroit could repeat that disaster. PECOTA pegs them for a 90-72 record and that seems plausible with a batting order that has Austin Jackson, Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Martinez in the first five spots and a starting rotation fronted by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and followed by Doug Fister and Sanchez.

“You can’t help but like that lineup,” one AL Central front-office type said. “They’ve got a chance to pound teams into submission now that Victor Martinez is back. It’s a really deep lineup, but I’m not convinced they are a slam-dunk to go to the World Series or run away with the division. They have one potential fatal flaw that could hold them back.”

That fatal flaw could be the bullpen. The Tigers did not re-sign closer Jose Valverde after he had spectacular meltdowns against the Athletics in the ALDS then the Yankees in the ALCS last October. Instead of pursuing a free agent like Rafael Soriano, the Tigers put their faith in 22-year-old Bruce Rondon, whose fastball routinely reaches 100 mph. Rondon, though, has yet to appear in a major-league game and has pitched just 29 2/3 innings above Class A. If Rondon shows he is not yet ready for the big leagues during spring training, then the Tigers have veteran—if somewhat unappealing—closer options in left-hander Phil Coke and right-handers Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit.

“Rondon’s got a great arm, but what happens if you throw him out there on Opening Day, in his big-league debut, and he gives it up in the ninth inning and loses the game?” the AL FOT asked. “Can he handle the scrutiny that comes with blowing a save in his major-league debut, especially for a team with World Series aspirations? It’s a lot to ask of a young kid. I’m really surprised they didn’t make a move to protect themselves.”

Leyland won’t commit to Rondon being the Opening Day closer but does admit he would, ideally, like to see the 6-foot-3, 270-pounder seize the closer’s job.

“I’ve mixed and matched at closer, and teams have won that way, but I’m a big believer that you need a good closer because you don’t see many good teams that don’t have a good closer,” Leyland said. “I really believe Rondon has the talent and the personality to handle the job. He’s a very impressive kid, but we’ll find out.”

What is the Tigers’ backup plan if Rondon bombs this spring? Leyland said they would stay in-house for a closer and “play it by ear.” Coke wound up being thrust into the role during the postseason last year and did well, but a scout from a National League club that regularly covers Detriot believes Benoit or Dotel would be better options.

“I wouldn’t trust Coke in that role full-time because he has too much trouble with right-handers and he’s a little too excitable for my taste,” the scout said. “Benoit definitely has the stuff to do it, and Dotel is a veteran guy who has some experience closing. I’d feel comfortable with giving either one a shot. It all depends on what’s more important to you, stuff or experience.”

***

Right-hander Felix Hernandez received the largest contract ever given to a pitcher when he signed a seven-year, $175-million deal with the Mariners on Wednesday. The 26-year-old has already pitched 1,620 1/3 innings in eight major-league seasons, and an MRI taken of Hernandez’s elbow showed enough wear and tear that it gave the Mariners pause before they finalized the deal. One AL scout who covers the Mariners thinks going seven years on King Felix might backfire on Seattle.

“I preface this by saying every pitcher is an injury risk, and Felix is still a helluva pitcher,” the scout said. “But I’ve seen some signs that worry me. He doesn’t throw as hard as he used to, and he doesn’t get the movement on his fastball that he once had. His secondary pitches are still good, but they’ve also declined a little bit. Of course, I’d take 75 percent of King Felix over most of the pitchers in the major leagues, but I still see him trending downward for a pitcher at such a young age.”

According to BrooksBaseball.net, the average velocity of Hernandez’s four-seam fastball was 93.1 mph last season. It was 98.6 mph in 2007, the first season for which we have PITCHf/x data.

***

Almost lost amongst the fallout of the latest news concerning Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and performance-enhancing drugs is that shortstop Derek Jeter is attempting to come back from the broken left ankle he suffered in Game One of last year’s ALCS. Jeter says he is on schedule to be in the Opening Day lineup. No one doubts Jeter’s work ethic, but plenty of scouts who will be watching exhibition games on the Gulf Coast this spring are very interested to see how Jeter looks while playing at game speed, and many believe the injury could be the start of a quick downfall for the 38-year-old.

“As great as Derek Jeter has been, Father Time catches up to everyone, and a broken ankle is a tough injury to come back from, especially for an older player,” said a scout from an AL club. “He wasn’t running all that well and he didn’t have much range before he got hurt. I thought the Yankees took a big gamble by not acquiring another shortstop over the winter. They’ve really left themselves naked at that position if Derek is finished.”

Jeter’s primary backup is expected to be Eduardo Nunez. That doesn’t excite the scout.

“I like Nunez as a hitter, and he would give the Yankees more power and speed than Jeter, but he is a real liability in the field,” the scout said. “I know Jeter isn’t a very good defensive player anymore, but he at least makes the plays on the balls hit to him. Nunez doesn’t even do that.”

***

What a comedown it must be for Daisuke Matsuzaka. He was the most heralded Japanese player ever to come to the United States when he reported to the Red Sox’ spring training camp in 2007 as the $103 million man—Boston had paid a $51 million posting fee to Matsuzaka’s team in Nippon Professional Baseball, the Seibu Lions, then signed him to a six-year, $52-million contract. Last weekend, Matsuzaka signed a minor-league contact with the Indians that included an invitation to major-league spring training. The deal lacks a promise that he would make the Opening Day roster of a team short on starting pitching.

Matsuzaka pitched a combined 83 innings the last two seasons after undergoing, and recovering from, Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. In 45 2/3 innings last year, Dice-K had an 8.28 ERA, 5.89 FIP, and a 6.79 Fair Run Average. An AL scout who saw Matsuzaka last year doesn’t offer much hope of him ever becoming anything more than a fifth starter.

“He’s worth taking a shot on, but I wouldn’t bet much more than a nickel that he can make an impact,” an AL scout said. “The one thing I did see that I liked is that he had decent command, which usually takes a while to come back after Tommy John. Maybe he can reinvent himself as a control pitcher, a junkballer. Who knows?”

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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