We start a 3-game series with the Tigers tonight. Detroit is sitting 4th in the AL Central, but are just 3.5 games back of the Indians, at 28-28.
They are 6th in the league in runs scored per game, at 4.62 (Jays are at 4.24). They rank 13th in runs allowed per game, at 4.70 (we are 2nd at 3.95)
I sent off some questions to Brandon Day of Bless You Boys. Here are his answers
I have to ask about our old friend Anthony Gose, how’s he doing? I’ll admit we are very much enjoying Devon Travis (now that he’s back off the DL), what do you think of the trade a year later?
Well, that trade hasn't worked out too well for the Tigers. They needed a CF last year, so the move was understandable, but Gose hasn't developed any further here, and in fact seems to have regressed at the plate. Defensively he didn't grade out very well last year either, though there's reason to believe that was largely a matter of positioning. It's a good thing new Tigers GM Al Avila traded for Cameron Maybin during the offseason. He's been spectacular since being called up on May 16. Meanwhile Gose was sent down to Triple-A Toledo to work on his approach at the plate, and so far he's done even worse down there. I expect we'll see him again, but right now this trade is not looking good at all on the Tigers end.
Speaking of old friends, can you give us updates on Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt, the guys you got for our rental of David Price (not that I’m complaining, I loved our playoff run)?
We're quite happy to have Boyd and Norris. Norris in particular became a fan favorite really quickly and put together a really nice run of starts for the Tigers late last season. You're probably aware that Norris was dealing with a cancerous thyroid tumor all last season and played anyway. The surgery went very well and Norris recovered fully. Unfortunately, he also injured his back setting a box jump record during spring training (yeah I'm serious), so he missed some time. He's gotten into a nice groove at Triple-A though, and we'll see him in the rotation before too long.
In the meantime, Matt Boyd has taken over a spot in the rotation from the beleaguered Anibal Sanchez and has acquitted himself pretty well so far. He still has a tendency to give up too many home runs, but has looked pretty solid in his two starts. If trouble bites him, Norris will get the call next. The Tigers pretty clearly expected Norris to start in the rotation this season anyway, so they'll take the first opportunity to give him the job.
Labourt continues to be exceedingly wild and just a project really, but of course everyone likes his stuff.
What do Tigers fans think of manager Brad Ausmus? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
It's been a rough go for Ausmus. Erroneous reports surfaced late last season that he was going to be fired. New GM Al Avila decided to stick with his guy, but pointedly didn't extend his contract either. So this year is sort of "sink or swim" time. When the Tigers endured a brutal 1-9 road trip in early May, the calls for Ausmus' head hit a nasty crescendo. Since then, things have stabilized, and most likely Ausmus will be here all season. His future beyond that is an open question.
Ausmus has been pretty roundly criticized for sticking too much with his traditional roles in the bullpen, and for having a knack for taking his starters out a batter too late. Both of those are legit issues, but Ausmus has shown some signs of growth now that he's finally got a halfway decent bullpen to work with. He's used his best relievers in high leverage situations more often, even using Justin Wilson and Francisco Rodriguez to get more than three outs at times. However, he still pushes his starters too far into games, even after they've started giving up a lot of hard contact. With Shane Greene added to the bullpen, there's really no excuse for him to push his backend starters any further than necessary going forward. Ausmus clearly has his players support, and I think that's probably been the main reason Avila has continued to roll with him.
Can you give us a quick scouting report of the starting pitchers the Jays are likely to see?
Michael Fulmer is a hard-throwing right-hander who takes on J.A. Happ on Monday. Fulmer was the key acquisition in the deadline deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets last season, and the Tigers top prospect coming into the season. He dealt with injuries early in his minor league career, but was finally healthy in 2015 and dominated Double-A on his way to the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year award. Most of us thought the Tigers would slow-play him this season, possibly bringing him up for the stretch run. Instead, he's taken the job and run with it.
Fulmer sits in the mid-90's with both fourseam and twoseam fastballs and isn't afraid to throw either in any part of the zone. You'll likely see some serious gas above the belt to the Blue Jays sluggers. Fulmer will touch 98 mph occasionally, and has a superb hard slider that is hell on right-handers. He'll also throw it like a cutter in on the hands of lefties. The big improvement this year has been in his changeup. He's shown a lot more confidence in the pitch in recent starts, and when it's on he's proven very tough to hit. He does has bouts of wildness at times, but he's shown an ability to sort his mechanics out pretty quickly in-game. So far he owns a fine 3.24 ERA through seven starts, and the peripherals back him up.
Your readers are familiar with Boyd, so I won't take too much time on him. Boyd struggled mightily with the long ball last year after the Tigers acquired him. In spring training he worked to limit his leg kick and tighten his delivery, though he seems to have reverted to the high leg kick since then. He had a tendency to leave his pitches up last season, and blamed that on fatigue. He worked hard to build his stamina in the offseason, and so far has thrown his secondary pitches more consistently than we saw last year. The jury is still out on him as a major league starter, but he was dominant in Triple-A, and his two starts in the majors have been pretty impressive.
Jordan Zimmermann was the Tigers big free agent signing of the offseason, and he's lived up to the billing so far. He posted a 0.55 ERA in April over 33 innings. Obviously that isn't going to continue. Still Zimmermann has impressed with his command and ability to keep hitters off balance. We've seen the usual excellent K-BB rate, maintained largely by a 1.76 BB/9 which is typical for him. He missed a little time with a minor groin strain recently, but made his last start and didn't look as though he'd missed a beat. He sits in the low-90's with pretty good movement and backs it with a really versatile hard slider that he'll use anywhere at anytime. You'll see a pretty good curveball here or there as a change of pace.
The bullpen seems to have been a perennial problem for the Tigers. How is it doing this year? How do they navigate through late innings? Do you have a lot of faith in the pen?
The bullpen is the ongoing curse of the Tigers, and it would take a long run of success for Tigers fans to give up our fear, superstition and ritual attempts to will them through the late innings of a game. In short, Tigers fans regress to a primitive, reptilian state of fear when the bullpen comes into the game. But that's changing.
Al Avila clearly made the bullpen a priority this offseason. He traded for Francisco Rodriguez, who leads the league in saves currently, and made another move to acquire left-hander Justin Wilson from the Yankees. His ERA isn't that pretty, but Wilson has generally been excellent and is handling much of the Tigers' high leverage work with a power fastball and no trouble facing hitters of either hand. The Tigers signed Mark Lowe to a two-year deal, but unfortunately, Lowe's velocity is way down and he's been a shadow of the guy you saw in Toronto last year.
The big news over the weekend was that the Tigers would move starter Shane Greene to the bullpen, where he's already recorded a pair of perfect innings. This was a move I whole-heartedly endorse and it gives the Tigers a legitimate late-game bullpen. Beyond that, the Tigers have a few decent options, but no one I want to see facing the Blue Jays lineup, particularly with a lead.
The Tigers signed Justin Upton to a 6 year, $137.75 million contract and he’s off to a slow start. Are you worried? Do you think he’ll give value for the contract in the long run?
Upton is notorious for these huge slumps, followed by months of elite production. It's unfortunate that the slumping version was Tigers fans' introduction to him. I'm not worried, but it's starting to get to that point. Upton has perked up in recent days, but until we see him sustain a hot streak it's hard to trust that he's coming around.
Long-term? In many ways the Tigers roster is currently constructed with a two-year window in mind, and that includes Upton's opt-out clause. I think the prevailing hope was that two years down the road, in perhaps a weak free agent market, Upton would test the waters. The deal seemed like overkill to many when owner Mike Ilitch decided to go for the slam dunk, but the Tigers needed a replacement for Cespedes in left, and at some point, Upton will provide that. Right now, with Upton struggling mightily, the length of the deal is a real concern. Hopefully, he continues producing at his career averages, despite the slumps, and walks away after the 2017 season.
The AL Central race is pretty tight, 4 teams within 3.5 games of the top (maybe we can safely declare the Twins our of the race). Whatdo you think of the Tigers chances to make the playoffs?
I still like the Tigers chances. The big concern this year was the health of Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez. While both have been healthy, they've gone opposite directions. Victor Martinez has turned the clock right back to 2014 and is mashing the baseball from both sides of the plate with his old authority. Sanchez has been healthy, but also terrible, leading to his demotion to the bullpen. Fortunately, thanks to former GM Dave Dombrowski's fine work at the trade deadline last season, the Tigers came into the year with as much young, major league ready pitching as any team in the game, and right now they're leaning on those guys to get to the trade deadline in contention. I'll put the Tigers lineup against just about anyone in the game, and Verlander and Zimmermann have proved a formidable 1-2 punch in leading the rotation.
Personally the Indians were the team I was most worried about, and I still believe they are the team the Tigers need to knock off to reclaim the A.L. Central division. The White Sox just don't have the offense to compete, despite Sale and Quintana, and I doubt the acquisition of James Shields is much help. The Royals? With Moustakas lost for the season, and Gordon out as well, you'd think they'd be struggling. But of course the Royals don't make a lot of sense, they just keep winning. Still, despite Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, that rotation just doesn't impress in the slightest. I think this comes down the Tigers and the Indians, with the deciding factor being how well Michael Fulmer and either Matt Boyd or Daniel Norris can solidify the backend of the Tigers' rotation. So far, so good.
Who is your favorite Tiger to watch?
We've obviously been very lucky over the past decade. The Tigers have had a lot of the best talent in the game on either side of the ball. Watching Miguel Cabrera hit, particularly from 2011 through 2013, was perhaps the most amazing thing I've ever seen in baseball. Even the majority of his outs seemed to be rockets. He's not quite that hitter now, but he's still a top ten offensive force in the game.
Still, it was Justin Verlander who heralded a new era of Tigers' baseball after the misery of the 90's and early 00's. In this era of short-lived careers and constant injuries to pitchers, it was ten years before Verlander finally hit the DL. He's been an incredible workhorse, and despite endless rumors of his demise, he returned in dominant form in the second half of 2015. Apart from two terrible starts in April, he's largely returned to that level of excellence, posting the highest strikeout rates we've seen from him since 2009.
The guy is a killer on the mound, and still possesses one of the elite swing-and-miss fastballs in the game. He's also developed a hard slider/cutter variant this season that seems to have added a further dimension to his repertoire. I love power pitchers, and there have been few in the game better than Justin Verlander. Eleven years into his major league career, he's still the man in the Tigers' rotation.