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.


Omar Vizquel


PictureOmar Vizquel
When you spend 24 years in the big leagues as a player and you win 11 Gold Gloves and pile up over 2800 hits, you tend to ooze street cred.  

For Omar Vizquel, 2014 will provide him with his first real stepping stone to a future managing gig. Meanwhile, spending time with him during the Tigers Caravan and TigerFest provided me with a real glimpse of his value to the 2014 Tigers.

The 46 year-old Vizquel looks like he could easily still play the game at its highest level. While his body is still equipped to withstand the rigors of a big league season, his mind is not.

Vizquel talked about his transition to coaching during TigerFest after a marvelous playing career ended with Toronto in 2012.  

"Physically I can still play at this level," he said.  "My mind was just not ready to be a part-time player."

So, Vizquel has started the clock on a likely Hall of Fame induction in five years.  In the interim, he has his eyes set on an eventual career as a big league manager.  After serving as a minor league instructor with the Angels last season, Vizquel was hired as the first base coach and infield instructor at the big league level for the Tigers.

"My goal is to be a big league manager," Vizquel said.  "Being a coach at the major league level is the first step."

The Vizquel hire also gives the Tigers a top notch mentor for two of the more talented young infielders in the big leagues.  He will have an opportunity to guide shortstop Jose Iglesias and newcomer Nick Castellanos at third base.

Iglesias is the Tigers flashy shortstop acquired from the Red Sox last season and his talent seems endless.  Yet, the mentor-mentee relationship that Vizquel and Iglesias share was on display last weekend. During an interview with both at TigerFest, I asked Vizquel about the importance of the shortstop's relationship with the second baseman.  Before he would answer the question, Vizquel looked to Iglesias and said, "I want to hear how Jose answers that."

So it's clear that Vizquel will push Iglesias to become a better player both physically and mentally.  He'll have the same effect on Castellanos as well.

The Tigers have added a valuable piece to the coaching staff, and spending a weekend with Vizquel provided a sneak peek to the energy and expertise he will provide the organization.

Max Scherzer heads a list of six Tigers that filed for free agency on Tuesday.  The Tigers right hander turned in the finest season of his big league career last year, winning a league high 21 games and pacing the A.L. with a WHIP of 0.970.

Scherzer is expected to double his salary in 2014.  He is in his 3rd arbitration-eligible season and potentially becomes a free agent following the 2014 season.

Friday is the deadline for players and their teams to exchange arbitration figures.  Also filing for the Tigers were pitchers Rick Porcello and Al Alburquerque, outfielders Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks, and catcher Alex Avila.

Other big names around baseball filed as well, including Clayton Kershaw, Chris Davis, David Price, Pedro Alvarez and Aroldis Chapman.

Justin Verlander's offseason routine took a U-turn in December when he suffered a core muscle injury while working out.  Today, Verlander had surgery to repair the injury.  The rehab will take six weeks which, will push Verlander's availability to the third week of February.  

The Tigers first full squad workout is scheduled for February the 18th, while pitchers and catchers report on the 14th.

While the Tigers are hopeful he will be ready to participate around the 20th of February (six weeks), he will be further examined at that time to evaluate his progress. 

On the surface, that timetable would give Verlander plenty of time to get ready for the start of the 2014 season, but Verlander's off season program was accelerated in previous seasons to fight against slow starts in the month of April.  It remains to be seen how this injury, and the subsequent rehab, will affect Verlander's availability and effectiveness during the season's first month.

Verlander won 13 games last season, his lowest victory total since 2008.  He did however pitch his best baseball down the stretch, posting a 2.27 ERA in six September starts.  In the post season he allowed just one run in 23 innings with 31 strikeouts.

PictureJoke Marchant Stadium
The Tigers today announce that 16 players have been invited to major league camp in Lakeland, Florida.  The 2014 season is just around the corner and pitchers and catchers will report February 14th.  The first full squad workout will take place four days later on February 18th.

The following is the list of players invited to camp:

Righthanded pitchers: Jhan Marinez, Luis Marte, Eduardo Sanchez, Drew VerHagen 

Lefthanded pitchers: Duane Below, Blaine Hardy, Robbie Ray 

Catchers: Craig Albernaz, Luis Exposito, James McCann, John Murrian 
Infielders: Devon Travis, Danny Worth 

Outfielders: Ezequiel Carrera, Tyler Collins, Trevor Crowe 

Crowe and Carrera both have major league time with the Cleveland Indians.  Crowe is a .240 career hitter while Carrera hit .251 in parts of Three seasons with the Tribe.

Travis turned in an outstanding season in 2013, hitting .351 with 16 homers and 76 RBI's in at Lakeland and West Michigan.

Collins meanwhile showed good power numbers at Erie, with 21 homers and 79 RBI's.

Fox Sports Detroit will televise four games this spring, March 10th (Cardinals), 13th (Marlins), 23rd (Marlins) and 27th (Atlanta).

In what was probably one of the worst kept secrets of the off season, Max Scherzer was officially announced as the Cy Young Award winner in the American League on Wednesday.

There was very little intrigue in the vote, as Scherzer garnered 28 of the 30 first place votes.  It was a magical season for Scherzer who did not lose his first game until July 13th against the Texas Rangers, and by that point, he had a 13-0 record and established himself as the leading candidate to win the award.  

Scherzer would finish the season with 21 wins, but some were not impressed with the victory total based on his elevated run support throughout the season.  Yet, if winning 21 games was easy, everyone would do it.

Scherzer posted plenty of solid secondary numbers this season as well.  His WHIP of 0.97 was tops among A.L. starters and was the only one below 1.00.  Scherzer also posted a WAR of 6.2 (Fangraphs formula), the best among league starters. His season should be defined by more that just the 21 wins.

Scherzer was quick to share the victory with his teammates and his pitching coach.

“I obviously had a great year,” he said. “But the reason why so many of those wins are attached to me is because of all my teammates. This is an award celebrated with them, as well. They played the great defense, they provided all the run support, and they helped me get to this point.”

Jeff Jones also deserves a lot of the credit in getting Scherzer to the point where repeating his delivery became second nature.

Jones refined Scherzer's curveball as well, and it became more than just a show me pitch.  He also has a terrific ability to identify what makes each individual on his staff tick.

Last June, Scherzer brought a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the 7th against the Rays at Tropicana Field. With two out and nobody on, Wil Myers singled to right field.  Luke Scott followed with a double to right and the Tigers lead was just one run.  Jones made the slow walk out to the mound to check in with his starter.  The Tigers pitching coach typically delivers a calm, calculated message.  Not this time.

He barked at Scherzer, "Do you have this (bleeping) guy?"

Scherzer snorted, "I've got this (bleeping) guy."

"Then let's go!"

End of conversation.

Scherzer then retired Jose Lobaton on a ground ball to first to end the rally and the Tigers would go on to record a big win over the Rays.

Jones knows that each member of his pitching staff has a different personality, but his experience has taught him which approach is best with each of those personalities.  In other words, what works with Scherzer may not work with Justin Verlander.

The Tigers recently announced that Jones would be a part of new manager Brad Ausmus' staff in 2014.  It's a move that will be welcomed by Scherzer and every other starter on the Tigers staff.


Jeff Jones returns


On Sunday when Brad Ausmus was announced as the Tigers new manager in a news conference at Comerica Park, he revealed that Gene Lamont would be retained as the club's bench coach.

Lamont will provide Ausmus with a veteran presence on the bench to help guide him through the transition from an off-filed position to life on the bench.

Today, it was announced the Jeff Jones will also remain with the club as the pithing coach.  On Sunday, Ausmus was non committal when questioned about the pitching coach position, but in the end, Jones was the best possible choice for the Tigers.

It is easy to look at the Tigers staff and make the assumption that it is simply a push button group.  Loaded with Cy Young talent throughout, the Tigers rotation posted some some very impressive numbers in 2013.  The starters led the league in wins, ERA, quality starts and strikeouts.

Beyond the numbers though, Jones has a tremendous knack for handling each personality on his staff.  As he told me last season, it takes time to learn how to challenge or massage each member of the staff.  He has learned who he can challenge and who needs a pat on the back.  It is a learning process that takes time.  Time that Jones has already put in.  Turning the staff over to another voice would have started the process all over again.

Bringing Jones back allows him to build on the equity he has established with the staff.  Players respect him and his return will provide a steadying influence on a club that has a new voice at the top.


A new start


The Tigers introduced Brad Ausmus on Sunday.
For the last eights seasons, Tigers fans have been treated to four playoff appearances, three straight ALCS berths and two trips to the World Series.

For the last eight seasons, Jim Leyland was the manager.

While the core of Tigers roster should remain mostly the same next season, the feel of the clubhouse could be quite different.

Brad Ausmus was introduced as the new manager of the Tigers on Sunday, and while he doesn't bring much, if any, real managing experience with him, he does provided a new vision to an established clubhouse.

He also provides a resume that includes 18 seasons of playing experience which should provide an instant credibility.

"I understand the locker room dynamic," he said on Sunday.  "I understand the modern day player's makeup." 

Ausmus can make such a claim because he has played in the big leagues as recently as 2010.  While the Tigers clubhouse features a variety of personalities, it is also a team that is established with veteran core players.  The fact that Ausmus should able to closely relate to his clubhouse should assist in the transition.

One other way to mitigate his lack of managing experience is by retaining Gene Lamont as his bench coach. Lamont will provide Ausmus with a link to the current club and more importantly provide a former manager's point of view on the bench when the game inevitably speeds up.

The Tigers have committed at least the next three years to Ausmus with an option for a fourth year, but with the resources available here in Detroit, the hope is that the talent level will help smooth the transition for a long successful run.

Ausmus realizes the advantage a first-year manager enjoys with the ball club he will inherit.  

"I'm well aware that you don't generally get dropped into an situation like I will be this coming season with a team like the Detroit Tigers have."

In other words, Ausmus is fully aware that the club he will skipper is far more talented than most clubs a first-year manager inherits.  He does however possess the one skill that all successful managers have, and that is the ability to communicate with players.  Over the years I have learned that toxic club houses are usually the result of a lack of communication.

"It's important to be honest with guys," he said.  "If you're not, you can loose the clubhouse quickly."

So, was Ausmus the top candidate all along?  Not necessarily.  

"It really became quite clear for me, for us, that he would do an outstanding job for us," General Manager Dombrowski said. "It was probably not where I started, but it's where we ended, and I feel very good about that."

Ausmus is a great example of how a job can be won during the interview process. "Frankly, when we interviewed, we were taken aback at how impressive he was," Dombrowski said.

The Tigers have their new leader and a club that remains a favorite to reach the World Series in 2014.  Hopefully Sunday was the start of a long and prosperous relationship.


Post season blues


This was supposed to be the season the Tigers were built to win it all.  

The sting of a four game sweep at the hands of the Giants in the 2012 World Series served as a backdrop for an off season in which the Tigers re-tooled their offense with the addition of Torii Hunter and the return of Victor Martinez from a knee injury.

It was an offense that would finish first in the American League in average and second in runs scored.  The Tigers also boasted a pitching staff that had the ability to shut down the best of offenses.  The Tigers ERA of 3.61 was third best in the A.L. and they racked up a record 1428 strikeouts.

For most of the season, the Tigers were the favorite to win the World Series.  The club overcame incredible expectations to win 93 games in the regular season.

After dispatching the Athletics in a rugged five game series in the ALDS, the Tigers faced the Red Sox for the A.L. Pennant.

What the Tigers staff did in the post season this year was remarkable.  The Tigers struck out an amazing 130 batters in 11 post season games.  The starting pitching good enough to get the Tigers to another World Series.  In fact, at times it looked like the starters may never give up a run. The club posted the second lowest ERA and opponents batting average against among all playoff teams.  Only the Cardinals were better in both categories.

Yet, in the end the offense failed them once again.  The same offense that led the league in hitting.  While the bullpen deserves its share of the blame, the Tigers couldn't get the job done with the bats in too many critical situations.

Jim Leyland would use a familiar phrase all too often this year during his press gatherings when his offense fell into a slumber.

"We have to hit fellas, it's as simple as that," he would say.

As it turns out, the post season proved that the defense, the bullpen and base running also needed a boost. 

In my opinion though, the Tigers simply need more ways to score.  They are a team built on power and that formula garnered them 93 regular season wins this year.  Yet, when that power goes into a slump, the Tigers are left with few ways to score runs.  We saw it in the World Series last year and we saw it in the post season again this year.

Going forward, the core will remain the same.  Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez are three of the best hitters in the American League.  Their games won't change.  There is not a whole lot of speed there.  While Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter did a marvelous job of setting the table for the middle of the order, neither is a base stealer.

It's evident though that the Tigers have to find a way to become more versatile offensively.  There are not too many spots in the lineup where speed can be injected. 

It will be interesting to see how the offense will be affected when the new manager puts his fingerprints on the club.


Defining Moments


What happened Tuesday night at Comerica Park is what the post season is all about.  Defining moment after defining moment, and in the end, the Tigers picked themselves up off the floor and forced a Game 5 with an 8-6 win over the Oakland A's.

For a good portion of the day, it looked as if the sputtering Tigers offense would leave its fans wondering if the off season was knocking on the door.  A's right hander Dan Straily no-hit the Tigers for the first four innings, retiring 11 of the first 12 batters he faced.

Down 3-0 in the bottom of the 5th, it would take a bloop single from one of the strongest guys on the field to jump start the offense.  Prince Fielder's looper to left was followed by a Victor Martinez single and Jhonny Peralta slammed a three run shot to left to tie the game.  Suddenly the crowd was alive.

The reason for Peralta's return to the Tigers lineup the last two games is pretty clear.  He can hit.  Jim Leyland rolled the dice, hoping that Peralta's bat would compensate for his outfield defense.   Although he was suspended for 50 games for violating major league baseball's drug program, The Tigers were willing to bring him back after serving his penance.  Today, Tigers fans are happy they did.

Peralta's homer was the first of may defining moments on Tuesday.

With your back against the wall, you throw the book out the window.  Leyland did just that when he brought in Max Scherzer in the seventh, despite Drew Smyly's availability, and two lefties leading off the 7th inning.  Scherzer would give up a run, but after the Tigers reclaimed the lead, Scherzer came back out for the 8th inning.

What followed will be remembered for a long time.  A walk, a double and an intentional walk loaded the bases with nobody out.  Scherzer fell behind Josh Reddick 3-1 and it looked like the Tigers were on the brink.  Scherzer would strike out Reddick, and after fanning Stephen Vogt and getting pinch hitter Alberto Callaspo to line out to center, Comerica erupted again.

Scherzer stomped to the dugout and nearly dislocated five shoulders while high-fiving teammates on the bench.

So it's off to Oakland for a game 5 on Thursday night.  It's not exactly how the Tigers expected the series to go, especially after Scherzer's dominating start in Game 1.  Yet every year the post season teaches us that nothing ever goes as expected.