Max Scherzer is off to a great start in Lakeland.
For much of the past five years, Justin Verlander has held the title of staff ace, and deservedly so. Verlander of course has an MVP and Cy Young trophy on his rather cluttered mantle. Toss in a couple of no-hitters, and you can understand why he has become a face of the franchise.
Yet, as the 2013 season approaches, the Tigers may be morphing into a staff that consists of co-aces.
Max Scherzer is taking that next step and is having quite a spring. On Friday, he faced 11 batters and struck out six in a start in Lakeland against the Mets. He allowed only two balls out of the infield.
Scherzer continues to improve as a big league starter and if the second half of 2012 was any indication, we may be in for a big season from the hard-throwing right hander. Scherzer established a career high in victories with 16 last season, but it was his performance after the all star break that opened eyes.
Scherzer was 8-2 in the second half last year with a 2.69 ERA. His strikeout to walk ratio was 4:1 as he cut through American League lineups with ease.
As the Tigers struggled to find traction in the final two months of the year, Scherzer was doing his part. Max posted a 2.07 ERA in August and September.
As Scherzer took his game to the next level, his secret to success was really very simple. "I think all of my pitches got better, " he said. "My slider, the curveball and especially my fastball command."
While his slider is one of the better breaking balls in he American League, Scherzer said he is working on adding another pitch to his arsenal this spring. "Around the middle of last season I tried to throw more of a curveball to help me against lefties," he said. "I'm working on that as well this spring."
Sherzer did not make his first start this spring until March 3rd. With the World Baseball Classic being played this spring, camp started earlier and there are more games on the schedule. Yet, Scherzer made it a point to wait an extra week to make his first start.
"We got down here a week early and I wanted to make sure I didn't increase my workload," he said. "We just lined it up like last year when I made my first start March 4th. It seemed to make sense to take the same approach as last year."
If that strategy provides similar results to last season, we're all for it.
Closer candidate Bruce Rondon
We knew there was a chance it could happen, and it has. Bruce Rondon has come out of the gates very slowly this spring and the overwhelming storyline for a team destined for a storybook season continues to center around the closer.
Bruce Rondon threw a side session under the scrutiny of Pitching Coach Jeff Jones and a slight tweak was made to his delivery. Nothing earth-shattering, but a change nonetheless. The hope is Rondon has enough time to get straightened out and claim the role of closer.
It is far to early to know if it will shake out that way, but one thing is for certain, predictably the skipper is already tiring of the question. Our job is to find out where the organization stands on the issue and report it to the fans, but if I'm Jim Leyland, I'm probably hoping the media will let this thing breath a bit.
Including today, the Tigers still have 24 more spring games to play, not to mention the opportunities minor league camp games will afford. It's just not possible at this point to get concrete answers.
"I never came into spring training thinking it's a slam dunk that Bruce Rondon would be the closer," Leyland said earlier today. "If he's not ready, the Detroit Tigers will be just fine."
Rondon's early struggles have opened the door to speculation as to what the Tigers will do to fill the position. Everything from trades, to converting Rick Porcello into a closer have been speculated.
The Porcello idea elicited a quick response. "Highly unlikely," Leyland said.
So, do the Tigers have any in-house solutions? If you watched our telecast on Monday, you saw a pretty impressive performance from Al Alburquerque. Why couldn't he do it?
Brayan Villarreal has the equipment as well. It's easy to look at dominant raw stuff and think that a guy has what it takes to close games, but Leyland warns of other factors. "You have consider how they will hold up," he said.
Alburquerque is coming off elbow surgery and Villarreal possesses a max effort delivery for a pitcher with a small frame and small hands. Caution has to be exercised in order to navigate them through the rigors of a major league season.
The other consideration is the mental aspect of the game. "I've got a lot of guys that have the stuff to do it, but do they have the mentality,?" Leyland said. "The 25th, 26th and 27th outs are different."
Rondon does not have a lot of experience to draw upon. He has pitched only eight innings above Double-A, but last season was named the Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He was 2-1 with a 1.53 ERA and 29 saves at three different levels.
"Look at his numbers last year, they were good," said Leyland. "But up here we have three tiers on the stadiums."
This situation will take care of itself. Whether through a trade, bullpen by committee or Rondon putting it together in the coming weeks. Whatever the outcome, there is no sense in trying to speculate every day on how this will play out.
Tiger hitting coach Lloyd talks about the Tigers offense in this spring training audio.
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Some notes today from the skipper's office prior to today's spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Brennan Boesch felt a little bit better and was going to hit on the field during batting practice today, but the Tigers decided against it because of the cold, windy weather in Lakeland..Boesch is still recovering from an oblique injury...Quintin Berry will possibly be back tomorrow as he looks to bounce back from some knee inflammation..Leyland has been impressed with Drew Smyly who is making a bid to join the rotation in the fifth spot. Leyland feels that Smyly's changeup is better this year and he looks more settled. Last season Smyly was trying to win a job, but this year he has a confidence about him.. "He knows how good the hitters are and that he can get them out," said Leyland. "He has a good feel for hitters for a young guy." As for the WBC, Leyland has not said much to the participants from the Tigers club. He did tell them to enjoy the experience, but also to be mindful of their work habits and continue to prepared for the start of the regular season.
Later tonight look for my podcast to be posted. I'll talk with Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon to get his thoughts on what can be expected from this year's Tigers offense.
Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
Justin Verlander made his second start of the spring today and looked sharp, pitching three perfect innings against the Mets in Port St. Lucie.
Verlander is coming off another dominating season in 2012 in which he won 17 games and led the league with 239 strikeouts. As the 2013 season progresses, more dominating numbers are expected, as is plenty of talk about his contract status.
When the Tigers signed Verlander to a five year deal prior to the 2010 season, they effectively bought him out of his first round of free agency. Imagine the contract Verlander would have commanded following the 2011 season in which he won the MVP and Cy Young Awards. Had Verlander not signed that initial five year deal, he would have been a free agent following that 2011 season. Can you say jackpot? Don't worry though, JV will be just fine.
The Tigers meanwhile are now in the midst of deciding how to proceed with one of the faces of their franchise. He is signed for the next two years, but guaranteeing that he remains a Tiger for the rest of his career will take a preemptive strike.
Based on the deal Felix Hernandez signed with the Mariners recently for $175 million, Verlander may reach the $200 million plateau. He is also probably going to ask for a deal that will last anywhere from five to eight years. Contracts that length for pitchers carry risk, and plenty of it.
Yet, if there was ever a pitcher that may mitigate some of that risk, it's Verlander. JV has made at least 30 starts in each of his first seven big league seasons. He has thrown over 200 innings in six of those campaigns and his preparation each season is second to none. The bottom line is, he is a workhorse.
While some may see the heavy workload to this point in his career as a negative, keep in mind that he made just 20 minor league starts before beginning his major league career. He doesn't carry the heavy workload history of Hernandez who threw over 300 innings in the minors.
If Verlander signs a 7-year deal, many wonder how much return a club would get on the investment from age 35 to 37. Generally pitchers that have won 15 or more games in that age category have been knuckleballers like Phil Niekro, R.A. Dickey and Charlie Hough. However, closer to Verlander's skill set, Roger Clemens won 20 games at age 35 and Nolan Ryan won 16 wins in his age 35 season.
The Tigers certainly don't want to lose one of the game's best players, but they will have to pony up to keep him. Verlander has said that he would like to remain a Tiger and the hometown fans hope to see him on the mound for many opening days to come.
Al Alburquerque provides depth to the bullpen.
Heading into spring camp this year, all eyes have been on potential closer Bruce Rondon. With the departure of Jose Valverde, Rondon has become the leading candidate to break camp as the Tigers closer. He has drawn the most attention.
Yet, the Tigers have another righthander in the bullpen that has impressive potential, and he's already done it at the big league level. He may be just as critical to the Tigers chances as any other member of the bullpen.
In 2011, Al Alburquerque burst on to the major league scene and dominated the competition. In 41 big league games, he posted a 1.87 ERA and 67 strikeouts. Then, a freak concussion injury during batting practice in August threw up a roadblock for the remainder of the season.
A healthy Alburquerque might have made a big difference in the 2011 post season as the Tigers fell to the Rangers in the ALCS.
Elbow surgery then derailed his 2012 season, limiting him to just 13 innings. Again, Alburquerque dominated with 18 strikeouts and allowed only six hits when he returned.
Keeping Alburquerque healthy may be one of the underlying keys to a prosperous 2013 for the Tigers. So, while Rondon's ability to make the leap as big league closer is vital to the Tigers chances, Alburquerque's potential provides another option if Rondon falters.
Alburquerque's ability to shut down an inning was impressive when healthy in 2011. His K/9IP ratio was nearly 14/9ip, third best in baseball that season.
While we have one eye on Rondon's progress this March, keep the other eye on Al Al's spring. It just might be as important.
The landmark water tower at Grafenwoehr.
I've always felt that we should do all we can to support our military both at home, and abroad. So, when FSD General Manager Greg Hammaren asked me if I would like to represent our region on a trip to Germany to bring "Spring Training to the Troops," I jumped at the opportunity.
This past week, I joined major leaguers Heath Bell and Luke Gregerson, along with Rollie Fingers, Tim Salmon, Bob Brenly, Wade Boggs, David Justice and other representatives on a trip to the U.S. Army Garrison in Grafenwoehr, Germany. The mission was to spend some time with our troops and bring baseball to them. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and the experience did not disappoint.
Despite some travel difficulties that forced us to arrive a bit late, we jumped right into the activities on Tuesday.
Day 1 featured a baseball clinic for kids of military families that live on the base. Learning the game from current and former Major League players was a dream come true for many of the kids. I'm sure being a military child can be difficult with all of the constant moving and having one or both parents deployed. The clinic provided a sense of stability for the moms and dads and their kids.
Upon my arrival, I watched and assisted as Heath Bell taught kids the finer points of pitching. When Bell had to leave for a few minutes to tape a PSA, I was asked to fill in.
I thought to myself, "I can teach these kids some announcing tricks, but showing them proper pitching mechanics?"
In any event, I defaulted to my youth baseball coaching days and rifled off every coaching cliche' I could remember. From finding your "balance point" to pointing your glove toward the target, I used them all. The results were not pretty. My first two campers struggled with their footwork and fired every single pitch to the back wall.
Fortunately, Bell finished his PSA and returned just in time to announce, "I don't know what you're teaching them 'Coach Mario', but step aside." I gladly did.
For the record, I did redeem myself with Gregerson's group. My first camper threw six straight strikes. Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones would have been proud.
At the conclusion of the clinic, we hustled back to our rooms to get ready for dinner with local military leaders, including Col James Saenz who reiterated how excited they were to host us and how thankful he was that we would travel as far as we did to spend some time with his troops.
As dinner began to wind down, we were given our marching orders for Day 2.
Fox representative Lindsay Amstutz told us to dress warm and meet in the lobby in the morning as we would be participating in a physical training workout with the troops.
"We meet in the lobby at 5:30 AM, she said. Dress warm, you'll be outdoors."
Cool. Wait, what? Did she utter the words "outdoors" and "5:30 AM" in the same sentence?
The next morning, I dragged my jet-lagged body out of a warm bed and stumbled downstairs where Boggs, Salmon, Brenly, Fingers and Justice were already waiting. Show offs.
After a five minute bus ride to the exercise area of the Garrison, it was time to fall in with a group of soldiers who looked like they were salivating at the thought of getting their hands on a load of out of shape civilians.
After being informed that we would participate in an exercise circuit program that would feature running, push-ups, stretching and various other calisthenics, I began to get the feeling that this would not end well. I don't know, maybe the fact that it was 20 degrees and snowing hard had something to do with that as well.
I was determined to show them what I was made of.
Unfortunately, I was made at goo. Forty push-ups in, and halfway through the circuit, I decided that there was only one way that I would survive, and that would be to cheat.
Typically I frown upon breaking the rules, but that doesn't matter when you are doing push-ups outdoors on ice and snow-covered cement at 5:30 in the morning. In Germany. With the U.S. Army. And Fox filming it.
From that point on, I slithered to the back line of the group out of the sergeant's view and only participated when the Fox cameras were on me. That way I looked like I could hang with the best military in the world and I could live to see the rest of the day. Fortunately the sergeant got a kick out of my charade and let me slide. I'm pretty sure he didn't want to see my heart stop either.
While some in our group did better than others, it gave me a vivid appreciation of how well trained our soldiers are. We ended the session by passing out t-shirts, caps and baseballs and the major leaguers signed a lot of autographs. The soldiers were great sports. They put up with us bungling through their training session and told us how happy they were to see us.
The remainder of Day 2 featured the big leaguers participating in a wiffle ball game between two separate units. I was also given the opportunity to interview Lt. General Donald Campbell before the game. I've had a chance to interview a lot of baseball's greatest players over the years, but interviewing an Army General was on a different level.
After the game, we were given an opportunity to experience some of the virtual training our troops engage in.
With a video screen in front of me, I was selected to be the gunner. I listened as our commander barked out orders over a headset. The exercise simulated being part of a convoy in enemy territory. The results were alarming. We ran into a tree and I took out only one insurgent, pretty much put our vehicle in peril the entire exercise. If only my son were there, he would have wiped out the enemy with his advance video game skills.
Again, it gave us a chance to experience the detailed training our troops receive before they do it for real.
Day 3 was just as packed as the first two. We made a stop at a transitional facility designed to help our injured troops assimilate back into society or return to active duty. A ride in an armored fighting vehicle called a Stryker and a visit to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment Reed Museum highlighted the day.
Throughout the trip I learned that every soldier has his or her story.
I met a young man from Texas who was constantly getting in trouble with the law and wanted to set a better example for his young brother, so he enlisted.
I spoke with a retired military father who didn't want his son to enlist because he didn't want his boy to see the things he saw in combat. His son enlisted anyway and now dad could not be more proud.
I met a young woman who loves the Tigers. She suffered back and eye injuries in combat and is now in a facility designed to transition her back into society. Having served her country, all she wants now is to get married, and start a family.
As the trip came to a close, it was difficult to leave the people we had become friends with the previous three days.
I think our entire group was thankful for the opportunity to get a glimpse of what military life overseas is like. Fox Sports can be proud of the initiative. Our troops constantly reminded us of how much they appreciated what we did for them.
The truth is, what they do for us is far more important.
The Tigers 2013 rotation is considered one of the best in the American League, if not all of baseball, and why not? Justin Verlander leads the way, and last season Max Scherzer showed signs that he is developing into a co-ace.
Dave Dombrowski also found a way to sign Anibal Sanchez and bring him back to Detroit after a strong stretch run and post-season in 2012.
The trio has garnered many of the headlines this off-season, especially during the club's recently completed caravan and TigerFest. Yet, the Tigers playoff runs each of the last two years may not have been possible without one of Dombrowski's most successful trades since taking over as President, CEO and GM in 2002.
The deal to bring Doug Fister to Detroit in 2011 was not greeted with much fanfare. In fact, no one predicted Fister would actually pitch better than Verlander the final month of 2011.
Fister is not a loud, look-at-me, type of personality. During the caravan, he seemed to blend into the background. Yet, his contributions to the last two playoff runs have been front and center.
Fister is 8-2 with a 1.73 ERA in the last two Septembers combined. When it mattered the most, he was as dominant as anyone down the stretch.
The last two seasons overall, only Verlander (2.52), Jared Weaver (2.59), Jeremy Hellickson (3.02) and David Price (3.04) have a lower ERA than Fister (3.12).
Examining the trade to this point, it appears the Tigers have gotten great value for the pieces they gave up. The Tigers parted with outfielder Casper Wells, pitchers Charlie Furbush and Chance Ruffin and third base prospect Francisco Martinez.
Here is a look at the production the Mariners received in return:
Casper Wells SEA 93 games (.228-10-36 .302 OBP)
Charlie Furbush SEA 48 games (5-2 2.72 0.95 WHIP)
Chance Ruffin TACOMA (AAA) 50 games (0-5 5.99 1.557 WHIP)
Francisco Martinez JACKSON (AA) 95 games (.227-2-23 .315 OBP)
Furbush has blossomed into one of the better left-handers in the American League, but overall the trade at this point is clearly tilted in the Tigers direction. When you factor in the importance of the games in which Fister has pitched, the trade has yielded far more than many Tigers fans anticipated.
Martinez still has plenty of upside and Ruffin is a former first round pick, so the jury is still out at this point, but for the time being, count this deal as one of Dombrowski's best. It looks even better when you consider Fister is only 28 and under team control through 2015
Interviewing Miguel Cabrera at TigerFest
The first signs of a new baseball season in Detroit begin to surface with the club's annual Caravan and TigerFest. The Caravan took place Thursday and Friday and included stops in the Metro Detroit area as well as Mid-Michigan and the West side of the state. Most stops usually produce a lot of laughs and some good insight as well from players, coaches and managers.
The funniest moments usually come during the fan question and answer portion of the programs. Here are my top moments from this year's Caravan.
Question for Manager Jim Leyland: "Skip would you consider coming over sometime for a beer?"
Leyland: "If we don't win, I'll come over for a lot of them."
Question for Max Scherzer: "Do you have any superstitions?"
Scherzer: I do, but I don't like talking about them. I'm superstitious about my superstitions. I can tell you that if I have a winning streak, I wear my shorts on backwards until I lose."
A little too much info there, Max.
Question for Torii Hunter : "Do you like to golf?"
Hunter: "I'm not that good. I'm more like Tiger Hood."
Phil Coke telling the story of when he struck out Miguel Cabrera.
Coke: "We were talking about hitting in the clubhouse one day and Miggy asked me if I ever faced him. I said that I did as a rookie.
"What I do, hit home run?"
"No Miggy, no home run."
"Double for sure."
"No Papi, no double either."
"You walk me like a sissy?"
"No, I didn't walk you."
"What I do then?"
"I struck you out on a back-foot slider."
"Ahhh, no wonder, I no remember my at bats against horse(bleep) pitchers."
Cabrera wondered why Alex Avila didn't work out with him this off-season in Miami like years past.
Avila: He won the MVP and Triple Crown last year, there's not a whole lot more I can teach him."
A little girl on her family meeting Phil Coke in spring training last March:
"We kind of had a weird experience with him."
Welcome to our world young lady!
The one thing that I have learned over the past five years is that the list of people that don't like Don Kelly is a very short one. In fact, I can't find anyone to put on the list.
Kelly is the definition of overachiever. He didn't play Division 1 college baseball, instead reaching All-American status at NAIA Point Park University in Pittsburgh.
Kelly has always been one of Jim Leyland's favorites. He can play multiple infield and outfield positions and provides the roster with the flexibility that all managers love.
He's not a star player, but has been involved in many of the Tigers biggest moments the past two years.
There is the solo homer he hit off Trevor Cahill of the A's in the 7th inning of the September 16th game in 2011, giving the Tigers an insurance run in a 3-1 division clinching win in Oakland.
There is the home run in a clinching Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS off Ivan Nova, helping the Tigers eliminate the Yankees.
The game-winning, bases loaded sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth inning last October, to send the Tigers to a 2-0 lead in the ALDS.
And, one of my favorite moments, the night Kelly donned the catcher's equipment and subbed for the injured Victor Martinez in a lopsided loss to the Giants. Kelly caught six innings that night, which was three days after he made his first appearance on the mound, pitching against the New York Mets.
So, by signing a minor-league deal with an invite to camp, Kelly potentially keeps alive his Tigers career.
Here is the complete list of non-roster invitees announced by the Tigers:
Trevor Bell, Shawn Hill, Michael Morrison, Jose Alvarez, Kenny Faulk, Ryan Robowski, Curt Casali, Brad Davis, James McCann, Argenis Diaz, Eugenio Suarez, Tyler Collins, Daniel Fields, Nick Castellanos, Don Kelly, Kevin Russo, Matt Tuiasosopo