The Ace returns


PictureJustin Verlander has returned to form.
If you didn’t know any better, you would think it was 2007 all over again.

Justin Verlander was on the mound featuring an upper 90’s fastball and a mix of crisp breaking balls.

It was the ninth inning and scoreboard showed a zero under the hit column for the opponent.  But unlike 2007 against the Milwaukee Brewers, Verlander would fall short in his bid for a no-hitter on August 26th against the Angels.

Still, the similarities were eerie.  While Verlander couldn’t finish off the no-no, he appears to be back.
Verlander became just the third active pitcher to throw four 1-hit shutouts in his career, joining teammate Anibal Sanchez and Matt Cain.

More importantly it appears the Tigers have their ace back.  With potentially five years remaining on his contract, that might be the best news of all.  In his last 6 starts, Verlander has an ERA of 1.27 and a WHIP of 0.87.

As Al Avila scours the off-season free agent listings, his job became a little easier in constructing a new rotation.   Verlander's resurgence has lessened the need to find an ace.  With uncertainties surrounding Anibal Sanchez and Shane Greene, having one key rotation piece in place is critical.  

This season, I am producing one minute features about the Tigers that will air on more than 30 radio stations around the state of Michigan.  The feature is called Mario's Minute and can also be found here.

                                                                         J.D.'s Magical Ride
No one could have predated what J.D. Martinez has accomplished this year.  Not even the Tigers.

After his release from the Astros in March, the Tigers jumped on Martinez, taking a flyer on a kid with raw power, but just average numbers at best.  That raw power has been supplemented by a healthy dose of confidence
and the results have been eye-popping.

What they got was not only raw power, but a clutch performer that has saved the Tigers season.

Martinez has given the Tigers a powerful bat in the critical 5-spot in the lineup, right behind Victor Martinez.  No other #5 hitter has hit more homers or driven in more runs than J.D. in the A.L

He has also been clutch.  J.D. has more RBI’s in the 7th inning or later than any other player in the A.L.  

With a knack for late dramatic home runs, he has placed himself firmly into the plans for 2015.

This season, I am producing one minute features about the Tigers that will air on more than 30 radio stations around the state of Michigan.  The feature is called Mario's Minute and can also be found here.

                                                                                   Martin shakes up lineup
Billy Martin was known for his fiery personality as Tigers manager in the 1970’s .  He was also known for his lack of patience when things weren’t going well.

In 1972, Martin was frustrated with his team’s lack of offense, so he decided to try one of his more interesting maneuvers.  

Martin decided to pick the batting order out of a hat in the first game of a double header. Slugger Norm Cash’s name was picked first and he would bat leadoff.  Meanwhile Eddie Brinkman, who hit .203 that year, would bat cleanup. Not ideal

Yet, Cash would end up with two hits and Brinkman doubled in a run. 

Incredibly the stunt worked as the Tigers won 3-2.  In the second game of the doubleheader, Martin went back to his regular lineup.  The Tigers lost 9-2.  Go figure.

This season, I am producing one minute features about the Tigers that will air on more than 30 radio stations around the state of Michigan.  The feature is called Mario's Minute and can also be found here.

                                                               New Age Defense
In the good old days, playing a hitter to pull meant sliding over a step or two to the pull field.  

These days, video and statistical analysis has thoroughly changed the way some big league teams align their defense.  This season, you can include the Tigers into that group.

When the Tigers hired Matt Martin as defensive coordinator, It signaled a change in philosophy for the Tigers defensively.  

These days you’ll see everything from three defenders to one side of the bag, to the third baseman running across the diamond to play in short right field.

Martin admits that you may get burned in the short term every now and then, but long term, the numbers indicate that you steal some outs but by being creative with positioning.

So, don’t be surprised if the Tigers employ some no so conventional alignments this season.

This season, I am producing one minute features about the Tigers that will air on more than 30 radio stations around the state of Michigan.  The feature is called Mario's Minute and can also be found here.

                                                                       Joba Chamberlain
When Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain was growing up in Lincoln Nebraska, he was involved in several sports as a youth.  He would soon find that his true love would be baseball.

As kids, people can have a profound effect on us and for Chamberlain that person was one of his teammates, Nate Raun.

Chamberlain and Raun became very close friends.  Two years later, Chamberlain would learn to live for the moment, when his friend Nate died of brain cancer.

Nate Raun wore number eight.  From that day forward, Chamberlain decided he would pay tribute to his buddy’s number.

Since he is a pitcher, he must wear a double-digit number.  Joba wore 62 with the Yankees.  Six plus two equals eight.

When Joba signed with the Tigers in the off season he selected 44.  And the tribute to Nate Raun continues.

Andy Dirks met the media this morning and talked about his pending surgery to repair a disc in his back.  It is a surgery that Brad Ausmus had several years back, and he provided some advice for Dirks.

"Right now it seems like a long, dark tunnel," Ausmus said.  "The first few weeks will be hard because you can't do anything, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

For his part, Dirks seemed upbeat in the clubhouse.  "The good news is that it's fixable and I should be back in a couple of months," he said.

Good news for shortstop Jose Iglesias.  Iglesias is suffering from shin splints an he ran for the first time yesterday.  

"A specialist watched him run yesterday and made some adjustments to his orthotics," Ausmus said.  "It seemed to relieve some of the pressure, it was a good sign yesterday."

Casey Crosby has been sidelined with elbow soreness, and Ausmus said he will face live hitters tomorrow for the first time.

Ausmus also revealed that his three college choices  as a kid were Dartmouth, Princeton and Harvard.  He was accepted to all three.  He eventually chose Dartmouth.

I'm sure we can all relate.
The Tigers host the Pirates at Joker Marchant Stadium today after beating the Cardinals 8-5 yesterday in Lakeland.

Nick Castellanos hit the Tigers first home run of spring camp, a solo shot to left.  Castellanos, who turns 22 today was a topic of conversation in manager Brad Ausmus' pre game media session.  Castellanos has shown that his strength is to stay up the middle and the other way, but yesterday's homer showed plenty of pop to the pull field.

"On the home run, he just reacted," Ausmus said.  "We want to make sure he stays with his strengths and continues to go the other way."

Phil Coke struggled out of the pen, allowing 3 runs on six hits in his inning of work, but Ausmus cautioned that he is more apt to lend credence to past performance than early spring outings.

Jose Iglesias continues to be hobbled by shin splints.  Some of it may have to do with the way Iglesias runs.  

"You can't really start messing with the way a guy runs," Ausmus said.  "We may try some orthotics to help minimize the stress."

The Tigers are trying to eliminate the pain at this point while making sure the injury does not reoccur.  

Justin Verlander remains on course to make his first spring start on Thursday against the Phillies in Lakeland.  If he progresses as expected he would make five spring starts and would likely be ready for opening day if Ausmus chooses to start him in the opener.

Rick Porcello will start today for the TIgers.  Also scheduled to pitch are Ian Krol, Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon, and Joba Chamberlain.  It will be Porcello's second spring start after allowing one run in two innings and striking out thee in his first start last Thursday vs. Atlanta.


Spring Intrigue


Spring training is just days away and the 2014 version of the Tigers will start the new season with the same level of expectation that has surrounded the club every year since Jim Leyland took command in 2006.

While Leyland has moved on,  Brad Ausmus takes over a loaded roster and the Tigers fully expect to win the Central  Division once again.  While the club is deep in talent,  it is a different mix this season and several intriguing questions surround the club as spring camp looms.

The Bullpen
Gone is Joaquin Benoit who performed admirably in the closer's role as the Tigers struggled in the early going to find someone to close out games.  The 9th inning this season is on lockdown.  Off season acquisition Joe Nathan brings his 341 career saves to Detroit, giving Ausmus the comfort of knowing he won't have to mix and match with the game on the line.  Beyond Nathan however, the pen has some questions.  One of last year's top bullpen performers is now in the rotation.  Drew Smyly takes his talents to the starting side and that gives the Tigers one more spot to fill.  The Tigers are hoping that newcomers Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol can solidify a couple of those areas this spring and hopefully Bruce Rondon and his electric arm will remain healthy all year.  Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque hope for bounce-back seasons, but clearly the bullpen will be a topic of interest all spring.

The Rotation's Health
The Tigers of 2013 boasted one of the game's best rotations.  They also had the good fortune of boasting one of the healthiest rotations as well.  The Tigers used just six different starting pitchers all year.  Jose Alvarez was the only pitcher not named Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Fister or Porcello to make a start last season.  Three starters pitched over 200 innings.  With the off season deal sending Doug Fister to the Nationals, Smyly will slide into his spot and the Tigers will need to take the training wheels off Rick Porcello.  Many times over the last four years Porcello was willing and able to pitch deeper into games, but extreme caution was exercised.  The 25 year-old right hander will almost assuredly be allowed to stick around longer in his starts this year.  What remains to be seen is how healthy the starting five can stay this season, especially with a lack of starting depth in the minor leagues.

The Leadoff Hitter
For the last four years Austin Jackson has maned the leadoff spot in the Tigers lineup and served as the catalyst to a potent starting nine.  Yet, Jackson was never really considered a prototypical lead off hitter, he was just the best option the club had.  Now with Ian Kinsler aboard, Ausmus has a couple of options for that spot in the lineup.  I would expect Jackson to hit lower in the lineup this season, but one of the more intriguing parts of spring camp may be watching how the Tigers sort out the top two hitters ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.  Also, if Kinsler does indeed take over as the primary leadoff man, where does Jackson land in the lineup?


Wally's New World


PictureNew Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner.
When Jim Leyland stepped down as Tigers manager following the 2014 season, it didn't take long for Dave Dombrowski to zero in on his replacement.  Former Tiger and 18-year major league vet Brad Ausmus was hired to lead the team.

While Ausmus had plenty of playing experience on his side, he had never managed.   Ausmus retained Gene Lamont as bench coach to help smooth the transition.  The other spots on the coaching staff were filled with Dave Clark, Darnell Coles, Jeff Jones and Omar Vizquel.  All more than qualified and more than capable.

Ausmus however still needed a hitting coach.  Former hitting coach Lloyd McClendon had departed to manage the Mariners and one night while sitting in his home in San Diego, Ausmus was thinking out loud, running through potential candidates.

Enter his wife Liz.  "How about Wally Joyner?" Liz said.

"Yeah, how about Wally Joyner?" Ausmus said.

And there you have it.  The Tigers had a new hitting coach.  Joyner's credentials of course run much deeper that the manager's wife's endorsement.  Joyner played 16 seasons in the big leagues, hitting over 200 home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .289.  

He is a former All Star and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1986.  If it wasn't for Jose Canseco's PED enhance season, Joyner would have won the award.

Joyner was slated to enter the 2014 season as the Phillies assistant hitting coach, but thanks in part to Liz Ausmus, he will have the lead job in Detroit.

He might want to send Liz some flowers.


His time is now


PictureTigers top prospect Nick Castellanos.
The Tigers trade of Prince Fielder this off season was more than just a deal to give the Tigers payroll flexibility for the foreseeable future, it also had a ripple effect on other areas of the lineup.

With Fielder in Texas, the Tigers not only saved more than $75 million in payroll, but the move allowed Miguel Cabrera to move back to first base, a position that should be less taxing physically on the game's best hitter.

The deal also opened the door for the Tigers top prospect to get his first extended major league opportunity.  Nick Castellanos has shown that he is ready to get his big league career started.  Castellanos was the Futures Game MVP two seasons ago and last year his numbers jumped at Toledo where he hit 18 homers and knocked in a career best 76 runs.

Yet, it may be a position change that has the biggest effect on the young star.  With Fielder gone and Cabrera back at first base,  Castellanos slides to third after learning the finer points of outfield play the last two years.  The rookie makes no bones about his thoughts about learning to play left field.

"I hated it," he said.  "In the outfield there is too much time to think about why I swung at that slider in the dirt in my last at bat."  

Castellanos did what he had to do to get to the big leagues by making the switch to the outfield in 2012, but his move back to third clearly makes him more comfortable on the field.  The addition of Omar Vizquel to the major league coaching staff will also provide Castellanos with a future Hall of Fame mentor to lean on.

While the Tigers have cultivated plenty of pitching prospects the past decade, Castellanos represents the best position player coming out of the system in a long while.  

He also has ties to the Motor City which makes him motivated to make Tigers fans proud.  His mother's family is from Detroit.  His grandfather is a retired Detroit firefighter.  Making good on this opportunity is important to Castellanos.  

Yet, it is a calm outer demeanor that makes him intriguing.  One would think the pressure of delivering on his enormous potential would be sizable, but Castellanos has a calmness about him that almost assures success.

"To be honest, it's not really pressure," he said.  "At the end of the day, it's just baseball."

The Tigers lineup also gives Castellanos an opportunity to just blend in.   Weapons like Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson should go a long way to help diffuse any pressure.