Today we start a three game series about the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers. The Tigers are 31-22 (roughly the same winning percentage that our Jays have at 34-24). It should be an interesting series.
I sent off some questions for to Rob Rogacki of Bless You Boys, SB Nation's Detroit Tigers blog.
With Jose Iglesias out, who’s playing short? How is he doing?
Without Iglesias in the lineup, the shortstop position has been a problem for the Tigers all season long. Alex Gonzalez -- yes, the same one you saw in 2010 -- was awful, save for a pair of RBI in a walk-off win on Opening Day. He only lasted nine games before getting released. Andrew Romine and Danny Worth have been entrenched in a platoon ever since. Worth's 0.0 WAR is the best total among the three, and the Tigers rank dead last in baseball with -0.9 WAR from the shortstop position this season. The lack of production from the position has fans clamoring for prospect Eugenio Suarez, who is mashing in Triple-A right now. He is nowhere near as talented as the glut of shortstops on any given top 100 prospect list, but even a below average bat would be a major upgrade for the Tigers.
Victor Martinez is off to a great start, what’s he doing different? Can he keep this up all season?
Martinez's hot start is a continuation of his scalding second half in 2013, when he hit .361/.413/.500 after the All-Star break. He has been even better this season, with a .985 OPS through 53 games. His high average is no surprise, but the power is unexpected. He only hit 12 home runs in 2011 and 14 in 2013, but already has 13 bombs this season. Add in the fact that he has only struck out 13 times all year, and you see how tough of an out he has been. He probably won't maintain a 1:1 homer-to-strikeout ratio all season long, but otherwise should be a safe bet to continue producing in the middle of the order.
Joe Nathan isn’t doing as well, what’s happening with him? Is he in any danger of losing the closer job? Who sets up for him?
Nathan has definitely been one of the biggest disappointments on the Tigers' roster this season, but I think it is still too early to regret the signing. He went through a "dead arm" period in early April, but seemed to have that resolved when he converted 10 consecutive saves with a 0.69 ERA from April 12 to May 16. However, the success was short-lived. He blew a save in Cleveland five days later, and allowed four runs in a pair of outings against the Oakland A's last week, including his fourth blown save of the year on May 28th.
As inconsistent as Nathan has been, I doubt the Tigers will turn to Joba Chamberlain in the ninth inning unless things get much worse. This is mainly because of Nathan's previous track record, though. Joba has been lights out in a setup role, with a 2.70 ERA and 1.61 FIP in 23 1/3 innings this year. If anything, Joel Hanrahan may get a crack at the job, provided he is effective when he returns from Tommy John surgery. He still has yet to see any game action in the minors, and probably won't be ready for at least another month.
What’s Brad Ausmus like as a manager? Is there much of a difference between him and Jim Leyland?
Ausmus is not the sabermetric guru that many would expect given his age, but he has brought a very aggressive brand of baseball to Detroit. Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler are much faster than their predecessors, and have been given the green light to run wild on the basepaths. Even players like Andrew Romine and J.D. Martinez have gotten into the act. Overall, the Tigers have already stolen more bases this season (40) than they did in all of 2013 (35).
In terms of personality, Ausmus and Leyland could not be further apart. Ausmus, a Dartmouth grad, is every bit as professional and well-spoken as you would expect. He is fairly reserved, but had no problem letting loose when Miguel Cabrera was ejected in the middle of an at-bat (again) last month. Leyland, on the other hand, was personable and down-to-earth. Press conferences were frequently conducted between bites of potato salad in his office, and he rarely kept his emotions to himself. It's a bit early to tell with Ausmus, but he seems to have the same knack for managing a clubhouse that Leyland did. The Tigers are a loose bunch, and did not seem phased by last month's 1-7 skid.
Can we have a quick scouting report on the starting pitchers we’ll see?
Anibal Sanchez has been the team's best starter lately, as he was the only one to not fall into the weird slump that the rest of the rotation had a couple weeks ago. He was on the disabled list for the first half of May due to a blister on his finger, but has only allowed four runs in three starts since his return. He was excellent in his last outing, holding the Oakland A's to one run in 8 1/3 innings. When he is on, he is able to spot his fastball early in the count to set up his secondary pitches, notably his excellent changeup. He is holding lefties to a .466 OPS this year.
Rick Porcello got off to a hot start, winning seven of his first eight starts with a 2.91 ERA. He was rocked by the Texas Rangers in his next outing, allowing eight runs on 12 hits in 5 1/3 innings. This has been the norm for Porcello since the start of 2013; six or seven good starts get wiped out by a brutal effort, masking the caliber of pitcher he truly is. He could either hold an offense to one run in seven innings or give up six runs in an instant. Luckily for Tigers fans, the good outings have become more frequent lately.
Justin Verlander got off to a great start in April, but his peripheral numbers indicated that regression was on its way. That regression hit Verlander hard in May, as he allowed 19 runs (16 earned) in three consecutive starts in the middle of the month. He had core muscle repair surgery in January, and still seems to be working his way back into shape. His last start was better, but a Robinson Cano-less Mariners' lineup is nowhere near as threatening as the outfit he will face on Thursday.
I really wish we had traded for Ian Kinsler, how is he doing? Is he good defensively?
Kinsler has been everything Tigers fans dreamed of when the team plucked him from Texas last winter. He is hitting a robust .304/.332/.442 at the top of the lineup and seems to have adjusted well now that he is playing in a hitter-neutral home park. Rumors of declining speed seem to be exaggerated as well, as he is 6 of 9 in stolen base attempts this year. He is also taking an extra base on 45% of opportunities, the highest rate of his career. He has been better than expected defensively as well, and is a big part of why the Tigers are one of the most-improved defensive outfits in baseball this season. It's too early to trust advanced defensive metrics, but across the board they suggest that last season's decline was a bit of a fluke.
Alex Avila is one of my favorite catchers, but he’s not hitting this year, what’s happening with him?
Avila has gone through spurts of ineffectiveness this season, but has actually improved his numbers from 2013. He struck out in 23 of 60 plate appearances in April, but had a respectable .751 OPS in May. He will never be a .300 hitter, but he has excellent plate discipline, and had a .359 on-base percentage before going 1-for-17 during the team's recent west coast trip. Defensively, Avila has finally been aided by his pitching staff in limiting the opposing team's running game. He has thrown out 43% of base stealers this season, the highest rate of his career. A bit more power would be nice -- he has not slugged above .400 since his breakout 2011 season -- but it's hard to complain about a 101 wRC+ from one of the best game-callers in baseball.
Who is your favorite Tiger to watch?
I'd be lying if I said anyone other than Miguel Cabrera. It's easy to take a hitter of his caliber for granted, but the things he does on a near-nightly basis are simply astounding. He demonstrates power to all fields, and has a flair for the dramatic. I was at Camden Yards when he hit a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning against the Orioles, a moment that almost seemed inevitable when the team was able to get to his turn in the lineup with two outs. His contract will be another story in a few years, but for now there is no player I would rather have on my team.