Friday, July 13, 2007

Baseball doesn't get better than this

I’m not sure that I have ever seen a more action-packed first half of a MLB season. The shear amount of memorable moments is too lengthy to list. The milestones alone were remarkable in their abundance. Craig Biggio reached 3,000 hits and 1,000 extra-base hits. Roger Clemens reached 350 wins. Greg Maddux reached 340 wins (I am starting to think that there is an excellent chance that Maddux will finish his career with more wins than Clemens). Sammy Sosa got his 600th home run. Frank Thomas reached 500 home runs. Trevor Hoffman hit 500 saves. The second half will likely feature even more milestones like Tom Glavine's 300th win, Ken Griffey Jr’s 600th HR, A-Rod’s 500th HR, and Jim Thome’s 500th HR just to name a few. If the second half is anything like the first, then we’re in for an amazing finish to an already spectacular season.

There is an endless list of intriguing storylines for the Tigers as well entering the second half of the season. The AL Central should be a fight to the finish. The Tigers still have a shot at breaking the 1,000-run mark for the season. Mags is in the hunt for a batting title and an MVP. Curtis Granderson might break the single-season triples record and become the first player ever with 20 HRs, 20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 stolen bases in the same season. Verlander and Bondo could make a run for 20 wins. Sheffield is closing in on 500 home runs. With all that to look forward to, I am hoping—and ever-so-slightly expecting—that when the season is over the story of the second half will be how the Tigers evolved into a team for the ages.

The Peak is coming.

The fact that the Tigers were .5 games out of the best record in baseball at the All-Star break is remarkable. The Tigers featured one of the worst bullpens in the league. They had so many injuries that pitchers whom most people had never heard of (Tim Byrdak, Aquilino Lopez, Eulogio De La Cruz, Virgil Vasquez and Yorman Bazardo to name a few) found themselves pitching in crucial situations. Throw in the fact that the offense was dreadful in April and the starting rotation was without potentially its best pitcher (The Gambler) and the bullpen was without its best pitcher (Zoom-Zoom) and it’s amazing that this team is even in contention.

The Tigers haven’t even come close to playing their best baseball and that has resulted in a .600 winning percentage. The pieces necessary for this team to play its best baseball are slowly starting to come together. Rogers is back and pitching like it’s October of ’06. The offense has evolved into one of the most prolific offenses in MLB history. Zumaya will return in the second half to team with the newly acquired Jose Capellan to hopefully give the Tigers similar consistency to what they had last season. Chad Durbin should prove to be a godsend for the middle-innings. Zach Miner has a 1.65 ERA in 16.1 innings of work which looks like a typo but I’m pretty sure it isn’t. Everything that went wrong in the first half seems to be heading in the right direction.

The first question that comes to mind when I think about the Tigers in the second half is, where will the losses come from? Verlander and Bonderman should continue to pitch above the .666 winning percentage. I can’t see Kenny Rogers doing any worse than that considering the way he has been pitching. Andrew Miller is only going to get better which is scary considering his 3.35 ERA. Nate Robertson appears to be the weak link in the rotation and he might be the best 5th starter in the majors. I would even go as far as to say that the Tigers feature three #1's (Rogers, Verlander, and Bonderman), a #2 (Miller) and a #3 right now (Robertson). A staff that potent would be good enough to carry a team with a weak offense similar to what the Padres have accomplished in the NL. But the Tigers don’t have a weak offense. They have the best offense in baseball. So I’m wondering if it is even possible for this team not to run away with the division and the best record in baseball. Injuries could play an important role as always but this team is clearly equipped to handle injuries. If Mags or Sheff went down for an extended period of team, this team might just resemble last year’s squad which ended up in the World Series. Anytime one delves into theory it can result in putting expectations too high. When playing their best baseball, the Tigers should theoretically be the best team in baseball by a long shot. In practicality, even the best teams on paper barely win divisions on most occasions. Regardless of how this thing plays out, I don’t think there is a GM in baseball that wouldn’t trade places with the Tigers.

Help wanted for the bullpen?

I don’t necessarily think the Tigers need to make a trade at the deadline. I know it’s chic to hope the Tigers trade for some bullpen help. That certainly would not hurt things but I think that the bullpen sans Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney will be fine. Zumaya will be back. Capellan and McBride are serviceable. Bobby Seay has been pitching very well lately; he hasn’t given up a run since May 26th. Since Jim Leyland seems perfectly content with Jones and Rodney in the later roles, I don’t see the Tigers trading for help there. So, we’re really just talking about some extra middle-relief help unless Jones’ ERA climbs above 7.00. I am inclined to believe that players will emerge out of the current cast of characters to make for a good middle-innings bullpen. The Tigers had to part with one of their better pitching prospects (Chris Cody) to bring in an average reliever (Capellan). I’m guessing a big-name reliever will force the Tigers to part with one of their top five prospects. This is all speculation that will likely be answered on the field. If the bullpen turns it around before the deadline, you’ll likely see the Tigers stick with what they have and if it doesn’t, then let the Gagne/Otsuka rumors fly.

My preference would be for the Tigers to hold on to their prospects for the off-season to pursue a left-fielder, a first-baseman; or a shortstop if they start entertaining the idea of permanently moving Carlos Guillen to first. I hope the latter is at least something they’re considering. That move would accomplish the proverbial killing of two birds with one stone. It would increase productivity at first base and hopefully improve defense at shortstop. Guillen’s play at shortstop has been suspect at best over the last two years. He is a great player but he makes way too many blunders in the field. I understand that improving the offense is probably not one of the top priorities right now but it will be sooner than people think. First base is a run-producing position in MLB. The Tigers have a singles hitter—albeit a pretty good one—occupying that position right now. Sheffield, Mags, and Pudge are all getting older. The Tigers have one player in their starting lineup under the age of 30 (Granderson is 26). I don’t see Casey or Chris Shelton being the long-term answer at first so that issue will need to be addressed.

Finally, consistently good baseball.

I can’t think of a better season than what I witnessed in 2006. It will forever be the year that I think of first when I think of Tigers baseball. There is just no way to ever match that combination of unexpected dominance. However, it was always obvious that the Tigers were winning on a combination of grit and good fortune. That team was talented but the end-result was just so much better than what could have ever been expected. This season, the Tigers are winning by systematically destroying the opposition. It is indescribably enjoyable to turn on a Tigers game knowing that they are going to dominate the opposition on almost a nightly basis. Last season was more enjoyable in the “magical” sense. This season is more enjoyable from a talent perspective. I almost feel like I don’t deserve to watch a team this good. It feels wrong. But anytime I start feeling that way for too long, all I have to do is remind myself of the 90s and I don’t feel so undeserving anymore. It is so great to be able to enjoy a baseball team again. I didn’t care if the Tigers lost the World Series last year and I don’t care if they don’t win it this year. Seeing good baseball is all I ever asked for and now that I have it, I wouldn’t wish it away even for a World Series win.

Sheff for MVP?

There is no question in my mind that the most important off-season acquisition in baseball has been the addition of Gary Sheffield to the Tigers. His presence in an already stacked order means better pitches for everyone else in the lineup. Sheffield started off miserably posting a .191 batting average through May 1st. That alone has kept him from garnering attention as an MVP candidate. Magglio Ordonez and Alex Rodriguez have hit from day one making the AL MVP a two-horse race by most accounts. While I can’t question the caliber of seasons that Ordonez and Rodriguez are having, I think Sheffield has been the MVP of the American League. Since May 2 (58 games), Sheffield’s line is astonishing:

(Sheffield’s last 58 games)


I haven’t taken the time to compare that to the rest of the league but I would be shocked if there has been a hitter that has come close to putting up that kind of production since the beginning of May. I don’t expect Sheffield to garner much attention for the AL MVP in the same way he was left off of the AL All-Star team. The AL MVP is equal parts production and presentation. Not showing up in April probably cost Sheffield in the “presentation” department. Regardless, I can’t see how anyone has been more valuable to their team than Gary Sheffield.

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