WTNYMay 26, 2006
Tiger Bite
By Bryan Smith

For years, promises were heard and patience was preached. In time, Mike Illitch would be the type of owner that spends money. Over time, Dave Dombrowski would give the Detroit Tigers his patented Florida facelift.

For years, Tigers fans would have to watch the Indians build a dynasty, the Twins make something out of nothing, and the White Sox win a world championship. They were simply instructed to sit back and take it, their day of reckoning was promised to be right around the corner.

For now, these Detroit fans are starting to believe. Maybe Jim Leyland can still manage. Maybe Dambrowski can pull a rabbit from his hat twice. Maybe Illitch will eventually spend the necessary money. Their belief is seen by a recent upswing in attendance numbers - three straight 25,000 home games - that should only continue with three consecutive home series against the Indians, Yankees and Red Sox, respectively.

Personally, I do not believe. The White Sox are too good, too built to last. But this column is not about the south side, but about Motown, and the cautious optimism slowly protruding from it. While I'm far from convinced this is the season the Tigers snap their losing streak, I do see good things happening. Worth noting:

  • For all the contact problems that Curtis Granderson has, the kid can play. Only 10 times in 47 games has Granderson not struck out in a game; he's on pace to exceed 150 strikeouts, making a high batting average very difficult. However, Granderson makes up for his contact inabilities with good power, great defense and fantastic discipline. His ISO seems to be settling in the .210 range, his Rate2 in center stands at 113, and Granderson has 26 walks in just north of 200 plate appearances. Not every formula for success reads the same, but whichever one that Granderson is using, it's working.

  • Kudos is definitely in order for the Tigers having the guts to give Marcus Thames a good number of at-bats. Thames has been able to hit for years; few hitters in professional baseball have a more prolific track record against southpaws. However, high strikeout rates and mediocre defense has plagued Thames for years, even following a double-digit home run season in 2004. At this point, Thames offers little long-term value for the club, but the ability to make small findings of his stature speaks volumes to the aptitude of the front office.

  • The front office also obviously has good drafting skills, as Justin Verlander has hit an unbelievable stride of late. After not pitching great in his first 2 May appearances, Verlander's last 2 starts (granted against AAA offenses in MIN and KC) have built a 17 inning scoreless streak. Verlander is such a fun pitcher to watch, a player that keeps his velocity until the end of games, and also throws a nasty, nasty curve. Verlander was far from a sure thing in a draft that included the fantastic Rice trio, but years removed, he was probably the best pick of the top ten.

  • In the American League East, it appears that Jon Papelbon has decided his own future with a fantastic start in the closer's role. After notching his third win and lowering his ERA to 3.22 on Thursday, it's impossible not to wonder if Joel Zumaya has not done the same. Scouts always believed that Zumaya's future likely was in the bullpen, and this spring, Jim Leyland was smart enough to speed up his timetable. And while Zumaya is prone to the occasional home run -- the longball has been responsible for 3 of his 4 earned run outings -- his dominance in a short role is undeniable. The other route, which Tigers fans should be growing increasingly afraid of, is the Scott Williamson route. After winning 12 games in a dominant 1999 reliever season, the Reds relief-to-starter experiment in 2000 ended poorly, creating a health hazard. At this point, leaving Zumaya in the bullpen might be for the best.

  • Soon, it will be in the pen that Zumaya should have some pitching prospect company. While Kevin Whelan has seen control problems slow his progress in high-A, the Tigers seem to be growing arms at will these days. The next starter-turned-bullpen ace should come via Humberto Sanchez, who seems to be continuing upon his Arizona Fall League success. This season, the 6-6, 230 pound giant has allowed just 38 hits in 57.2 innings, while striking out 68. Sanchez may still have a career in starting left, but teamed with Zumaya, the Tigers could have bullpen dominance for a decade.

    So, as you can see, the newfound Detroit optimism exists for a reason, even if it currently stands a bit overabundant. In a group of players like Granderson, Verlander, Zumaya and others, as well as a good front office, the pieces are slowly fitting into place. And with a bit more patience, Tigers fans are really going to have a team to stand behind.

  • Comments

    I don't know. This article seems a little bit like hopping on the bandwagon and praising their approach after it's safe to do so. Blogs similar to this one with similar outlooks all pretty much viewed the Tigers' approach with contempt for a few reasons. They wasted Jeremy Bonderman's service clock. The Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Todd Jones, and Troy Percival signings were universally ridiculed. Kenny Rogers was a warm weather pitcher who could never survive the cold of Detroit and the AL Central, plus he was an aging hothead. Add to that mediocre starters like Nate Robertson, Mike Maroth, and Jeremy Bonderman who had yet to put together a "wow" season, and read a lot of pessimissm. And nobody was predicting Chris Shelton and Brandon Inge would have the kind of power they have.

    Was Justin Verlander ever the question mark people are making him out to be? Not as much as I remember it. Even when you go back and look at the 2004 MLB draft site the accolades are there.

    As for the accolades for the drafting, I believe (I am not certain) Greg Smith, the guy who drafted Zumaya and Verlander, was responsible for scores upon scores of awful, awful draft picks. Eric Munson, Jay Sborz, Kenny Baugh, Scott Moore, Kyle Sleeth, Eric Beattie, etc. I think he was fired after he signed Verlander and replaced by a guy from the Red Sox. So, the drafting acumen I am not yet sold on - does it really take a wizard to take Cameron Maybin when he falls to you impossibly low? I think not.

    And of course, there's Carlos Guillen. Time after time after time we've all been lectured about how Carlos Guillen can't hit. It doesn't matter that Guillen *does* hit. PECOTA says Carlos Guillen can't hit. What PECOTA says is more important than the numbers at the end of the year. It's all just a magical fluke, and if we wait 5 years eventually PECOTA may be right.

    It's nice to see the Tigers get acknowledged, but you can almost hear the grinding as blogs across the country change gears on the Tigers.

    I agree that Detroit doesn't have a history of draft success. However, give credit for developing Verlander. For example, in a 6/2/2004 article in BaseballProspectus.com's premium content, Boyd Nation commented on Verlander's rising college ERA and pitcher abuse points "if your local GM drafts him, think about moving." Maybe this is the payback for Baugh and Sleeth, but the Tigers drafted Verlander despite workload concerns and mechanical problems and were able to fix things (so far).

    I didn't really hear that side of the Verlander debate. For whatever reason most of what I read/heard at the time focused on Verlander's superior stuff over the other pitchers.

    I'm not taking anything away from the Tigers for developing Verlander, just pointing out that scouting director when Verlander was drafted was demoted for years of bad picks... the odds are if you draft high enough, enough years some of your first rounders have to pan out.

    Good point, Michael. I remember when Verlander was considered a bad, bad pick by many.

    I am a White Sox fan for sure but I like what's happening with the Tigers.

    I actually went to Comerica in August last year. The place was dead but I thought the park was real nice. I love the history of this great franchise and I am glad that they are good again.

    I want the race to ebe close - with the Sox winning ofcourse. But, this team has a lot of talent and I don't expect them to fade too much. They might win the wild card. I'm impressed.

    I hope this doesn't come off as mean-spirited...it's not intended that way.

    The tone of this column struck me as very peculiar. You begin by talking about how skeptical you are of the Tigers and about how you're not being taken in by their hot start...and then proceed to praise them for the rest of the article.

    This statement stuck out to me: "While I'm far from convinced this is the season the Tigers snap their losing streak, I do see good things happening."

    So you envision the Tigers finishing with a losing record? Or at least view it as fairly likely? At this point the Tigers would have to win at a .400 clip to finish below .500, which is significantly worse than they did in 2005. I suspect this may be either a misstatement or a misinterpretation...hopefully so.

    I'm somewhat skeptical...this roster surely doesn't look like the best one in baseball. The pitching has been better than it has any right to be (and it looks like Maroth could be seriously injured now). But they've clearly made a lot of progress, both for the short and long term.

    As for the Verlander pick, David Chadd picked Verlander, and Dombrowski gets credit for Chadd. The Verlander pick was a very unpopular one nationally. Verlander faced dicey competition in college and was far from dominant. BP and BA both liked Niemann a lot more, and Phil Humber was also more highly thought of. Whoops. Personally, I wanted to draft Chris Nelson. Good thing I'm not doing the drafting.

    The rest of the players are an odd patchwork sort of mix, and it doesn't seem like any kind of formula for building a team.

    Aside to APiNG: Verlander seemed to draw more and more skeptics the closer the draft came. Perhaps you read more of the early stuff on him...by the time the draft rolled around it was thought that he could've slipped into the double digits if Detroit didn't pick him IIRC.

    Just making the playoffs would be a nice snap to the string of Tigers losing seasons. And guess how many teams in the last decade have missed the playoffs with a winning percentage of at least .700 this late in the season? One. The 2002 Red Sox were over .700 for the last time on June 6th before tanking the rest of the way.

    I don't remember the exact statistic, but there was one for Chris Shelton that said, taking all the players who have x amount of home run in y number of games as Shelton did, none of them have hit fewer than 39 home runs. Shelton had 10 home runs in 92 ABs in April, 1 home run in 72 ABs in May. I'm skeptical he gets to 39 despite what the records say.

    I won't give the long version but I will say from someone who rode the bus down Fort Street to Tiger Stadium to get a 50 cent bleacher seat, hot dog and peanuts, to the year of the tiger in 68, the fade in 72 to the Amazing Oakland A's and the roar in 84, nobody knew where most of those guys came from or why they ended up in Detroit either. I am not saying that the Tigers are the team in 2006 to beat but it is a far cry from where they were and a quick turnaround from 100 losses per year expectations. I only hope that this turnaround is not the acceptable endpoint but a great beginning to a return to the post season playoffs for Detroit. Time always will tell but Ernie and Al are smiling again.