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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

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BayCityM

I would love to see the Tigs play the match ups at closer this year if Rondon can't find the zone. Closer mentality, blah. Three of the last four teams playing last season lost their closer, or even worse have their closer do what Papa Grande did.

Feb 14, 2013 06:06 AM
rating: 3
 
Chiefsnark

The Tigers are going to give Rondon a chance at first, despite never having pitched in the majors and having command problems. They had some interest in Joel Hanrahan, who also has command problems.

What puzzles me is why they haven't even consider Al Alburquerque. He also has a problem with location but because he gives up few hits his WHIP has been very good, better than Habrahan's, for one thing. Further, in more than fifty innings at the majors level he has yet to give up a homer.

So he profiles at least as good as anyone can expect from Rondon and has at least some MLB experience with a good track record. Yet no one has even been discussing him.

Feb 14, 2013 06:36 AM
rating: 7
 
BP staff member Mark Anderson
BP staff

Part of the issue -- in talking with some members of the organization -- is his durability. He's been injured a fair bit in his career, has rarely demonstrated an ability to pitch on back-to-back days, and when he has, this stuff wasn't as crisp. That's a viable concern with Alburquerque and at least one of the reasons his name isn't brough up more within the industry.

Feb 14, 2013 09:41 AM
 
John Carter

That's why a mix and match might be best. Pitch Albuquerque when he's rested. Go with Dotel, Benoit, or Coke when he aint. I'd like to see some evidence Rondon has Major League command before I'd even use him in a critical situation.

Feb 14, 2013 11:19 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Mark Anderson
BP staff

As someone that has scouted Rondon extensively, since his arrival in the US, I'm actually not that concerned about his command. With his fastball, and the movement on that fastball, he needs control; an area he has improved dramatically over the last two years. While he still has instances where he loses the strike zone, he has demonstrated the ability to adjust much more quickly and find the zone again. His control is reasonable at this point and I think he has enough of it to be successful.

Really, I understand why the Tigers are seemingly ready to hand him the keys to the 9th inning and let him run. I don't think he's nearly the risk he's being protrayed as right now.

Feb 14, 2013 12:27 PM
 
andrews

Yes he's coming back from serious surgery and is very much a novelty type pitcher, nasty stuff, fragile, erratic command....that fits best in a flexible middle relief role right now.

I'd guess they want to see a full season from Alburquerque and see what he produces then take it from there.

Feb 15, 2013 00:48 AM
rating: 1
 
cmaczkow

Completely agree. He came back from injury issues last year and at least seems like he should merit a passing mention in these discussions, but he never even gets that. Is there something about him that I am missing?

Feb 14, 2013 09:41 AM
rating: 1
 
cmaczkow

Doh - posted seconds too late! Thanks for the response!

Feb 14, 2013 09:42 AM
rating: 0
 
T. Kiefer

Why can't a "rough" comparable with Rondon be Kimbrel and Venters with the Braves in 2011? If Rondon has the mindset of a genuine closer, he can handle the pressure. If not, the Tigers will just make a trade at the July deadline. Valverde blew his first save in 2012, and lasted just fine in the regular season.

I agree with Chiefsnark about Alburquerque. And I WOULD NOT put Benoit in there--he gives up home runs. And that Scout's comment about Coke being too excitable? I thought closers were supposed to be a little off-kilter.

Feb 14, 2013 06:53 AM
rating: 2
 
BayCityM

That is the thing about "closer mentality", you get to go back and assign it in hindsight. If he pitches well then being "excitable" helps him. If he pitches poorly then it was because he was too "excitable".

Feb 14, 2013 09:24 AM
rating: 8
 
thegeneral13

"If not, the Tigers will just make a trade at the July deadline."

Agree with this 100%. I think the Tigers are preserving their optionality. They have enough of a talent gap vs. the rest of the divisionn that they can test out Rondon and use a closer by committee approach until they can find a trading partner for an upgrade if Rondon fails. If he succeeds, they can save resources to upgrade somewhere else or plug a hole caused by injury at the deadline.

Feb 14, 2013 11:29 AM
rating: 1
 
Dave Scott

The Indians and other teams have tried this before: collecting a group of well-worn pitchers in hope of finding five gems. The problem is recognizing which gem is real and which is pyrite! We all know that March stars often decline to becoming June's waiver claims. Francona has a chance to earn his salary and it will be fun to watch. This is where statistics help least -- finding the guy who suddenly finds the magic and defies all reasonable expectations.

Feb 14, 2013 07:22 AM
rating: 0
 
apbadogs

"According to BrooksBaseball.net, the average velocity of Hernandez’s four-seam fastball was 93.07 mph last season. It was 98.36 mph in his rookie season in 2007."
****
I don't know, I attribute this to King Felix learning how to pitch rather than anything injury/fatigue related.

Feb 14, 2013 07:48 AM
rating: 1
 
thegeneral13

One day that Justin Verlander guy will learn how to pitch.

Feb 14, 2013 11:36 AM
rating: 3
 
BarryR

As I recall, this was said of Dwight Gooden, .ca 1986. "learning to pitch" for a strikeout stud often equals "losing his stuff".
That said, Hernandez' K rate is increasing year-to-year, so I take the speed gun results and any inferences drawn from them with a shaker full of salt.
The odds are that somewhere during this contract, Felix will be injured. These odds would apply to pretty much every pitcher ever. I see no evidence that he is more or less likely to get injured than anyone.

Feb 14, 2013 11:58 AM
rating: 1
 
Deadheadbrewer

" . . . 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.

Classic old-school baseball thinking . . . and yet the Tigers won the division with a terrible closer.

Along those lines--you must need a good RBI guy in your four-hole; you just don't see many good teams whose cleanup hitter doesn't have big RBI totals.

Feb 14, 2013 08:18 AM
rating: 1
 
BayCityM

What is the range of WAR(P) for a closer anyways? At the most it is a swing of 5 wins. If the Tigers are within 5 games of anyone in that division a lot of other things have went seriously wrong.

Feb 15, 2013 06:50 AM
rating: 1
 
BayCityM

Using (F)WAR it was about ~2 win difference between Kimbrel and the closer with the 20th most saves (Jansen). Take out Kimbrel, and it is even less than that between a top 5 guy and a bottom 10 guy. Just really hard for me to think that the division comes down to the Tigers closer. I think they win enough to get in, and once they are in SSS can do anything.

Feb 15, 2013 18:50 PM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

Felix Hernandez had his rookie season in 2005, not 2007.

Feb 14, 2013 08:58 AM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

I wasn't trying to be picky in saying this. It was a nice piece. I just saw the line about 8 major league seasons, I saw the line about his rookie season being in 2007, and I was wondering what was up.

Feb 14, 2013 09:02 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Fixed.

Feb 15, 2013 01:05 AM
 
flyingdutchman

Boy, how do I get one of those scouting jobs?

Feb 14, 2013 10:10 AM
rating: 0
 
ofMontreal

So I just want to say that I don't quite understand everyone putting Torii Hunter in the 2 hole for Detroit. That's crazy hot stove talk. He's gonna be hitting 6th and that'll work. I doubt Detroit will miss 60 extra Torii ABs.

Feb 14, 2013 13:05 PM
rating: 0
 
andrews

I daresay ego's have to be stroked with that decision, i'm sure he expects to hit 2nd so will be given a shot at it, at least initially.
I agree i'd rather have Dirks hit there, i'm sure he won't replicate his 2012 numbers but he fits well there being left handed etc

Feb 15, 2013 00:43 AM
rating: 0
 
flyingdutchman

Everyone is putting him there because that's where the Tigers say they'll put him. If Jackson has a good season, Hunter could ground into 30 double plays.

Feb 14, 2013 15:19 PM
rating: 2
 
andrews

Although how many double plays will he hit into batting behind Cabrera/Fielder/Martinex?

Feb 15, 2013 00:52 AM
rating: 2
 
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