clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


It was the darnest thing. I've been away at Club Fed, just lounging around, working on selling off some of my MS Paint art, basically not thinking about Levale Speigner's WHIP, and Ian from Bless You Boys tracked me down. Ian runs a heckuva blog, and Detroit's an interesting team, and I've seen people compare the Nats to the Tigers (and not just in the prospective "historically bad" sense), so I immediately thought Ian had a capital idea: exchange five questions and answers.

Ian beat me to it, as it were, and my responses to his questions can be found here.

And, in turn, here are Ian's answers to my questions below. His responses are very thoughtful, and it's interesting to piece together how Detroit got from there to here. Come to think of it, given tonight's debacle, I sure wouldn't mind if the Nats hurried up progressively from here to there!

* * * *

1. The Tigers have come a long way, baby -- from 119 losses in '03 to a World Series three years later. How did this happen? Was it the result of long-range planning or massive amounts of serendipity?

I'm glad you asked this because I've been thinking about it quite a bit. The short answer is "both," but I think it's more of the latter. That's not to say Dave Dombrowski shouldn't get credit for having a plan, especially in regards to building a pitching staff. For instance, Jeremy Bonderman was a "player to be named later" in the Jeff Weaver trade back in 2002, but Dave Dombrowski had designs on him eventually developing into an ace. Joel Zumaya was drafted the same year. Justin Verlander was drafted in 2004.

But luck and good fortune have also been major factors in the Tigers' resurgence. Carlos Guillen, arguably their most important everyday player, came to Detroit only after two things happened: 1) Guillen was originally going to be traded to Cleveland, but Omar Vizquel failed a physical, which voided the deal. 2) Rich Aurilia, who the Tigers hoped would play shortstop for them, opted to sign with Seattle, thus making Guillen expendable and available in a trade. There have also been a few free agents who chose to sign with other teams, which turned out to be fortunate for Detroit. Carl Pavano is one example. Steve Finley is another.

However, the Tigers have also benefited from acting decisively to fill holes on the roster. When Dombrowski saw a lack of veteran presence for a young team, he convinced Pudge Rodriguez (albeit with a lot of cash) to come to Detroit and provide some leadership - especially to a young pitching staff. The Tigers needed a closer, so Ugueth Urbina was signed. Then he traded for Kyle Farnsworth. He signed Troy Percival. Finally, Todd Jones was brought in. Once it became apparent that Omar Infante couldn't be an everyday second baseman, he traded Urbina for Placido Polanco. When the starting rotation needed a mentor, someone to shepherd the younger pitchers along, he signed Kenny Rogers. And last October, just weeks after losing the World Series largely because their lineup had no pop, he traded for exactly the type of slugger (and patient hitter) the batting order needed.

One more important thing the Tigers did this off-season was begin to lock up their young talent to long-term contracts. Brandon Inge was given a four-year deal and avoided arbitration. So did Jeremy Bonderman. Even a player like Carlos Guillen, whose injury history should call any long-term agreement into question, has become so important (and at a key position) that the Tigers had to keep him around. So he was signed to a four-year extension, as well.

2. For a decade or so, it seemed like the Tigers were viewed as "small-market" cousins with the Royals and, depending on the years, the Twins, Indians, and even White Sox in the AL Central. Setting aside the sometimes ridiculous "big market/small market" distinctions, there didn't really seem to be much juice for the Tigers. Attendance was near the bottom of the league in the final years of Tiger Stadium, and it only briefly hit the mid-point of the AL in the first season of Comerica. But now the team is winning, attendance is in the top-five, and the Tigers are jumping in to grab hot properties like Andrew Miller and Rick Porcello. Do you envision the Tigers being players in the long-term?

Last year was eye-opening for the city of Detroit and the Tigers organization. I think everyone underestimated just how voracious the appetite was for a good baseball team. We'd heard people talk about how big baseball used to be in Detroit, and how it was a sleeping bear just ready to be poked awake. But the Tigers have completely taken over this town. The sports culture has completely changed, with winning teams like the Pistons and Red Wings moving down the totem pole. You see it in the newspaper and TV coverage, as well. Even during NBA and NHL playoff time, the Tigers got much more attention than they would have in past years. They're the team Detroit sports fans really care about right now. And even if they stumble a bit over the next couple of seasons, there's enough young talent for fans to follow for years to come.

On the ownership side, I think Mike Ilitch was hesitant to sink a lot of money before 2004 into player payroll for a couple of reasons. 1) He was heavily in debt for Comerica Park. And until Ilitch could get out from under that, most revenues were going to be steered in that direction. 2) He didn't trust his general manager, Randy Smith. Smith was a slick salesman who made plenty of trades to give the appearance he was making things happen, and drafted players who showed promise, but none of his moves ultimately translated into success on the field. And until Ilitch got results, he wasn't going to invest more money into the payroll. When it became clear that Smith was just making stuff up as he was going along and didn't have a real plan, Ilitch brought in someone who knew how to run a baseball team. Once he saw that Dave Dombrowski actually had a plan to build a team, and produced some results in player development, Ilitch felt comfortable shelling out money for free agents. And now that he's seen how the fans have responded, he doesn't want that to end.

3. Which pitcher has the better future going forward: Bonderman or Verlander?

You know, if you'd asked me this question a week ago, I might have said Bonderman because he was tabbed as the staff ace before the season and has thrived in that role. But I think I'd forgotten just how good Verlander can be, which sounds ludicrous, given that he was the AL Rookie of the Year last season. Part of that might be because Bonderman seemed more able to put up noticeable strikeout numbers and could go eight or nine innings if needed. Verlander, meanwhile, often pitches to contact and tires out after six or seven innings. But he's also not as far along in his development, either. He's only in his second full year, while Bonderman has had four seasons in the majors.

"Upside" might be one of the most over-used words in sports these days, but it applies here. The ceiling for Verlander is higher. He's still trying to figure out how good he can be, still building arm strength and stamina, still developing his repertoire of pitches. Bonderman is almost a fully formed product now, other than learning to develop another secondary pitch with the change-up. He's making the transition from prospect to veteran.

Ultimately, I think Verlander has shown he's the more talented pitcher and a year or two from now will be considered the staff ace. He's the guy who other teams won't want to face, who can shut down an opposing lineup, who fans will come out to see.

4. Last season, it seemed like Detroit's bullpen was close to unbeatable. I thought it telling that the team's closer, the guy in the glory role, was maybe its fourth- or fifth-best member. Guys like Zumaya and Rodney were studs. Now . . . well, not so much, it seems. Will the bullpen be the primary focus of improvement around the trade deadline? If the Tigers were to look at a guy like Chad Cordero, what could they realistically offer?

The bullpen will be Priority A1 for the Tigers at the trade deadline. The concern is already at Threat Level Orange. First base is another position they might want to address, though Sean Casey's been hitting pretty well lately (power numbers notwithstanding). But the Tigers aren't losing games because of their play at first base. The bullpen isn't only costing them games that they won last year, but - as we saw last night - it's also turning decisive margins into nail-biting outcomes. Even eight-run leads aren't safe right now, and that becomes draining for a team. It's a huge issue, and if the Tigers don't take care of it, they can probably kiss a playoff spot goodbye.

The problem is that every other team in the majors is looking for middle relief help, too. So it's going to be a brutally competitive market up until the deadline. A lot of fans want the Tigers to get Eric Gagne, Brad Lidge, or Chad Cordero, but then names like Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller are mentioned, and those same people say, "No way!" And I agree with that. There are some prospects that should be untouchable, especially if you're talking about getting a three-month rental in return. But the Tigers have some other highly regarded pitching talent that will probably have to go if it means getting some bullpen help (and keeping it away from division rivals like Cleveland).

What could the Tigers offer Washington in exchange for Cordero? Well, we know Jim Bowden wanted Maybin last year in a package for Soriano, which turned out to be a deal-breaker. I don't know if Bowden can reasonably expect that in return this time around, but he surely has to ask. And the answer from Dave Dombrowski would probably still be no. But if Bowden wants starting pitching prospects, the Tigers have plenty to offer. And if the Nationals are still looking for answers in their outfield, the Tigers might have a prospect or veteran (Craig Monroe? Marcus Thames?) that could help them out.

5. To close, a fun one. ("Fun" depending on your point of view, I suppose.) Which happens first: Pudge draws his tenth walk of the year, or Sean Casey's slugging average reaches .400?

Oooh, that's a good one. This past weekend, it looked like Casey might be able to give his slugging average a boost in Philadelphia, but just couldn't manage enough extra base hits (let alone his first home run of the season). You would think Casey could rack up plenty of doubles in Comerica Park's huge outfield gaps, yet he doesn't really have the speed to make that turn at first and occasionally stretch out a longer hit. That also presumes that Casey would have the power to generate some extra base hits, and he just doesn't seem to anymore.

Yet Pudge goes up to the plate and is just straight hackin'. He rarely works the count to three balls in an at-bat, and often seems to be down 0-1 or 1-2. I think the only time he draws a walk is if a pitcher can't find the strike zone.

This is going to be a long, protracted slog of a battle. And there might be times when it looks like neither batter will be able to reach this arbitrary goal we've now established for them. But I think it will come down to opportunities. Pudge isn't coming out of the lineup except when he gets his one day a week off. Casey might sit against a tough left-hander, or if he slumps, Marcus Thames will spot him at first base. And there's also the possibility that he won't play at all if the Tigers feel the need to upgrade at that position. So I'm going to (reluctantly) give the nod to Pudge. It might take until September, however.

* * * *

A quick addendum: Notwithstanding Casey's limp bat thus far, Ian predicted the Mayor would homer in the top of the third of the middle game of this series.