Baseball season has finally ended. There were a lot of ups and downs for different teams. Many big players fizzled, while new stars made their marks. It was a season where anything could, and did, happen. So let’s take a couple moments to reflect on it all, and get ready for more baseball to come in 2012.
Maize_in_Spartyland: Major League Baseball had a lot of surprises this season – The Cardinals were left for dead and tying the World Series at three in a thrilling game six, and winning in game seven. Tampa Bay made the postseason after a historic collapse in Boston, leading to an overhaul of the front offense. What was the biggest surprise for you this season?
Zig-Zag: I think the biggest surprise to me was how some of the more prominent offseason acquisitions played out over the course of the year. A lot was made of Adam Dunn leaving the Washington Nationals and heading to the Chicago White Sox. Then he did absolutely nothing all year, to the point where he was eventually benched to preserve whatever speck of dignity he had left. Then there were Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, who both received sizeable contracts to come play in Detroit, and both turned out fantastically for the Tigers. Carl Crawford decided to head to Boston, and his numbers took a bit of a dive (even though he was playing against most of the same people, and three of the same teams he had just the year before). Cliff Lee decided not to return to Texas, bypassed New York, and went to Philadelphia as the Phillies had another record season. Jason Werth got a seven-year deal with the Nationals to replace Dunn…and did nothing. So many of the big signings just didn’t happen the way anyone thought they would (except Cliff Lee), and some of the smaller signings really paid off. I can’t wait to see who gets signed in the coming months.
M_i_S: St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa announced his retirement today, after spending 33 years managing in the majors. He is third in all time wins and won three World Series Titles, two with St. Louis, 2006 and this year, and one with Oakland, 1989, and also managed the Chicago White Sox. What do you think Mr. La Russa will do next and what are your thoughts of him, in light of the media’s comments following game five’s “phonegate”?
Z-Z: I think Fox Sports needs more announcers. If Tony is smart, he’ll take his years of experience and truckloads of money and live peacefully somewhere with his family. Perhaps he’ll stop doing whatever it was that he’s currently doing with his hair, and get a haircut. Of course, it’s tough to get out of something cold turkey that you’ve been a part of for 33 years. So it’s more likely that he’ll be involved somewhere. Probably as an announcer, or maybe he’ll be given a special job with no real significance by Bud Selig, like Joe Torre was. As a guy, I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him. Whatever that “phonegate” nonsense was, the media once again picked out the only thing remotely “scandalous” about the World Series, and ran with it. I’m sure if it hadn’t been for that, they probably would have done like eight pieces about Ron Washington, and how he manages to stay clean even when faced with so much pressure, and how he must come close to slipping. Or something like that. They try to be fair and balanced, but most journalists are nothing more than carrion feeders looking for whatever easy story they can sink their teeth into without any real work. Luckily, despite that scandal, La Russa still seems like a great guy. It’s always great when your career can end on a high note like that. So now is his time to enjoy things. Who will replace him? Who knows. I hear Terry Francona is out of a job.
M_i_S: A number of first basemen hit the free agent market, including Albert Pujols (.299, 99 RBI, and 37 HR) and Prince Fielder (.299, 120 RBI, and 38 HR). Pujols made $16 million this past season, Fielder made $15.5 million. Which player would you rather have as a manager? What are the chances these guys re-sign with their respective teams? Where do you think they will land?
Z-Z: If I have to choose one, I’d go with Pujols. He knows the game, he’s good at the game, and he would probably provide a lot of great leadership for up-and-coming players. Maybe it’s the media attention (or lack thereof), but Fielder has always come off as kind of a self-centered player. Yes, he’s good, but he’s always made out to be kind of a jerk. And if that’s in any way true, I wouldn’t want him being a role model for a whole team of players. There are enough egos in professional sports without adding a manager’s to the mix.
Where will each guy sign next years? Pujols could easily end up back in St. Louis, especially since his numbers were just barely down from his career numbers. Of course, his price tag is getting a little ridiculous. So I would imagine it’ll be another one year deal—MAYBE a two-year deal, since he was a vital part of getting the team a World Series championship. There are very few other teams that are willing to dish out the kind of money either guy would be asking for, let alone the kind of contracts they’d want. Pujols maybe be able to get a one-year deal out of some teams, but probably not much more than that. Fielder, on the other hand, might be able to swing a big, multi-year deal. He’s young, he’s good, and he can do a lot for any team he plays for. Of course, I don’t know of many teams in need of a first baseman. There was some talk about Fielder coming to Detroit, moving Cabrera to third base again. But that would be a ridiculous idea. You build a team around Cabrera, not hang him out to dry because someone who honestly isn’t as good as him is on the market. The only teams that seem like they’d pay that kind of money for him would be the Yankees or Red Sox or Phillies. But all three teams are set on first basemen, so who knows. Maybe that will leave his only real option as a two or three-year deal with the Brewers (possibly with an option on the year after the contract runs out).
M_i_S: The Twins declined their $12.5 million option on Joe Nathan (14 saves, 4.84 ERA, and 1.16 WHIP), making him a free agent. CC Sabathia is expected to opt out of his deal, he made $23 million last season, and is supposedly seeking six years and $150 million, roughly $25 million/season. Sabathia has a shot at 300 career wins and appears to be at the top of his game; Nathan, however, came back from surgery and was unable to return to his original form. Where do you think these guys land?
Z-Z: Since we already know that CC reworked his contract with the Yankees to get some ridiculous amount of money from them (serious, baseball and sumo wrestling are the only sports where a 300-pound man can be considered a star), that question is moot. Of course, if that hadn’t just happened, I probably would have assumed that was a rhetorical question anyway. There are so few teams who can/will throw that kind of money at these big names, and even fewer teams who can do it without basically sacrificing quality at 4-5 other positions on the field. On top of that, the Yankees have no starting rotation. Burnett looked old during the regular season, Nova is due for a sophomore slump (now that teams have actually gotten a chance to see him pitch for a full year), Freddy Garcia is past his prime, and the Joba Chamberlain starter experiment never took off. CC is all they have, and if the Yankees are going to compete in away games (where they don’t have the right field fence to help them pad their home run numbers) they’ll need Sabathia as the anchor for that rotation.
I don’t think Joe Nathan is done just yet. He put up a lot of good numbers in Minnesota as their closer, and this could have easily just been a recovery year for him. You never know how a guy is going to respond after surgery, or how long it’ll take him to fully recover. Just look at Magglio Ordonez this past season. He broke his ankle in 2010, could technically play to start the year, but was never close to completely healed (and by year’s end, his ankle was broken again, but he had started to get some of his old form back in the second half of the season). Maybe Nathan is done as a closer. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t make a fine set-up man. Perhaps the Tigers will pick him up as the seventh inning man in front of Benoit and Valverde. Even if it’s just for one year to test whether he’s still got it or not, Nathan will end up somewhere. And that’s not to say that the Twins won’t re-sign him. Just last season, the Tigers declined to pick up Jhonny Peralta’s option and then turned around to sign him to a two-year deal with a new option for 2013. You just never know, and the Twins could be hoping that Nathan will accept a year-long contract at reduced pay in order to test whether he’s truly back to his proper form. After all, the Twins still have a lot of money wrapped up in Mauer and Morneau, two guys who have played well below their potential in the last two seasons (granted, both have been injured a fair amount, but still).
M_i_S: Much was made about the fast food eating, beer drinking, and generally hapless Boston Red Sox, specifically John Lackey and Jon Lester. Lackey, Lester, Ortiz and others acknowledged this went on all season and even in the years they won the World Series. What do you make of these allegations? How could/would something like this impact team morale or is the media making a big deal out of nothing?
Z-Z: I suppose that if some of the prominent members of your team are admitting that these things went on, they stop being allegations, and start being facts, right? I mean, they’re professional athletes, so clearly the media will be extra attentive to their personal business. But you have to expect that misconduct, or lack of “professional” conduct, will come out eventually. You can’t expect 25-40 guys who come through any particular roster in any given season to keep that hush-hush. But it certainly does affect team morale. If you play for a team where you believe that not everyone—especially some of your more prominent members—is taking things seriously, then you either: a) resent them for being jerks; b) resent your manager/coach for not doing something about it; or c) jump on board with the behavior until eventually the whole team is dragged down. Of course, the Red Sox may be a little different. When Miguel Cabrera got his DUI during the previous offseason, the media blew up about it. But it was quickly forgotten into the season. Sure, some of that came because Cabrera put up another monster season. But a lot of it probably had to do with the fact that the media just doesn’t cover a team like the Tigers. They’re obsessed with the Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox. So yeah, when you have a slow news day and your boss only allows you to talk about three teams, you’re going to have to take something, no matter how small it may actually be, and run with it until you’ve got a full story. If it had been the O’s or the Royals or the Astros, no media outlet would have given it a second thought. They would have thought what they should have, which would be, “Well, they’re getting paid all that money and wasting their opportunity. So they have no one but themselves to blame when karma comes back to bite them in the ass.” And then they would have dropped it.
M_i_S: The Tigers were the favorites to win the AL Central, their first divisional title since 1987 and 13th postseason appearance. Detroit had a lot of guys elevate their game this year, Jose Valverde, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, and Alex Avila, to name a few. What are your expectations for the Tigers and the rest of the AL Central next year? What are your thoughts from this past season?
Z-Z: If I remember correctly, the Tigers were barely a favorite to win the division. The White Sox were going to be right there with them the entire way, and a lot of that was owed to Adam Dunn completing the offense. Of course, that didn’t pan out, and the rest of the offense (minus Paul Konerko) never quite showed up either. Which was definitely helpful. But it was a pleasant shock to see how many different Tigers just had amazing years. Verlander became the first pitcher since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 to really make a play for the MVP award. Valverde will enter 2012 with a perfect save record that stretches back to 2010. Martinez became just as productive a player for this team as Cabrera was. Cabrera won the AL Batting Title. Avila could finally breathe now that Gerald Laird wasn’t suffocating him. Jhonny Peralta revitalized his career. Benoit became a great acquisition. Delmon Young was revitalized when he came to Detroit. So many different Tigers stepped up this year, and the team wouldn’t have made it as far as they did without each and every one of them.
The AL Central will probably be the Tigers’ to lose again next year. If the White Sox think that getting rid of Ozzie will solve all their problems, then apparently someone forgot that Adam Dunn doesn’t know how to hit a baseball anymore. The Indians started strong this season, but they couldn’t keep it, and they’re not quite out of the rebuilding phase to be a real threat yet. The Royals are the Royals, and their minor league talent isn’t going to be ready to make a real impact. Plus, the minute anyone shows talent in KC, they get traded away for more inexperienced minor league players. That just leaves Minnesota, and that team is really broken right now. You can’t expect that so many different players will be injured again next season, but add to the mix the fact that Nathan could be gone for good, Young is with the Tigers, and Thome was traded to the Indians, and what you have left is a pretty broken team that may be in the midst of a fire sale to start the rebuilding process that could take another few years. So things should bode well for the Tigers in 2012.
M_i_S: Detroit exercised its option for 2012 for Jose Valverde, a $9 million deal. Justin Verlander is signed through 2014. Magglio Ordonez made $10 million this year, but is no longer under contract. Alex Avila made $425,000 this season. What do you expect the Tigers to do in the offseason? What would you like the Tigers to do?
Z-Z: Papa Grande is with the club next year. Verlander, Cabrera, and Martinez are with the club until at least 2014. Peralta is likely to have his option picked up after this coming season (assuming he plays even kind of well in 2012), leaving him with the team through 2013. Fister, Scherzer, and Porcello are still under team control (Fister until 2015). The team is going to be pretty much the same except for a couple of positions. The Tigers are expected to pick up a fifth starter (Brad Penny isn’t likely to get another year, and the Phil Coke experiment is on the back burner for the time being), and I think everyone is hoping it’ll be a lefty. They’ll definitely go after one more late-inning bullpen piece (considering how unreliable everyone not named Benoit, Coke, and Valverde became towards season’s end and into the playoffs). A guy looking for a chance to revitalize his career—like Joe Nathan—may be just the ticket to fulfill that role (worked for Rafael Soriano when he went from being Tampa’s closer to New York’s seventh inning man).
The biggest question marks come from second and third base. Brandon Inge is with the team for at least one more year (probably two, given his 2013 option and the fact that no matter what Dombrowski does he just can’t get rid of him), so if he can even kind of hit the ball, and barring any offseason third base acquisitions, he’ll be the starter there. Second base is still a rotating position, so they’ll likely need to find one of those too. Who they’ll pick up, if anyone, I don’t know. I’m not even sure who all is going to be available just yet. But I would guess that there will be those four pickups in the offseason if Dombrowski can swing the right deals.
M_i_S: Verlander has been the ace for the Tigers, without a doubt, posting a 24-5 record this season with a 2.40 ERA and a WHIP of 0.92. The backend of the bullpen was good too, Valverde was 49/49 in save situations with a 2.24 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP, and Joaquin Benoit had 29 holds with a 2.95 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. The rest of the Tigers starting rotation was good, but inconsistent at times, the same can be said of the bullpen. How can Dave Dombrowski go about improving the pitching staff next season?
Z-Z: Well, a fifth starter is a necessity. Doug Fister is going to provide a second consistent arm (I hope), and now that he’s not in Seattle he has a legitimate shot of getting twenty wins. Especially if he picks up where he left off when he came to Detroit. So having one ace, and a second guy who would be an ace on almost any other staff in the majors, you have a great top of your rotation. Even with inconsistencies, Scherzer and Porcello still came out of the season with fifteen and fourteen wins, respectively. Four pitchers with 15+ wins is a wonderful staff, and even Brad Penny would be fine to have as number five. But the lack of a lefty in the rotation does place the Tigers at a disadvantage, as teams like the Yankees (who have mostly left-handed and switch-hitting bats) can run the same lineup out in three consecutive games and have the same level of success in all three. At least with a possible lefty in the mix, managers have to think and get creative. That way managers other than Jim Leyland can look silly for a change when they run three different starting lineups out in three consecutive games. The other acquisition would be a veteran bullpen piece. Like I said before, knowing the Twins declined Nathan’s option, I wouldn’t mind seeing him in a Tiger uniform for a year. I know he appears to be on the downside now, but I remember Brandon Lyon was in a similar slide a couple years ago, before he got a change of scenery and revitalized his career. Plus, Nathan already knows the batters of the AL Central, and it’ll be an easy transition. Add that to the fact that Papa Grande cannot pitch in every possible save situation, and the fact that he is shaky at best in non-save situations, and having a guy like Nathan as basically a backup closer (on top of seventh inning set up), and that’s a pretty good combination. But, whatever they actually do, I expect to see a new starter in the rotation and a new bullpen piece. With any luck, Daniel Schlereth and Al Alburqurque will be starting the year in the minors.
M_i_S: The Tigers infield is set, at 1st base, at least. Carlos Guillen, you remember him, right? He made $13 million last season and is now a free agent. Wilson Betemit and Ramon Santiago are now free agents. Brandon Inge (expected to make $5.5 million in 2011 and 2012, with a $6 million club option in 2013 or a $500,000 buyout) Ryan Raburn, and Jhonny Peralta are returning. If you had to guess, what do you think the infield will look like on Opening Day? Who will the Tigers look at to fill some holes?
Z-Z: I do remember Carlos. I think. He’s that guy who made Jered Weaver throw a tantrum and ruin the mood JV’s almost second no-hitter this season, right? Yeah, he’s injured a lot. Going to bed is as much exertion as Carlos is capable of at this point. (Did you see when he hurt his ankle by being nowhere near the ball and not in any way involved in the play? Yeah…that happened.) Betemit won’t be back. Santiago has proven himself to be a reliable enough utility player that he will find a home somewhere. And he shouldn’t be too terribly expensive to put back on the payroll for the Tigers, either. But that doesn’t actually solve any of the Tigers’ problems in the infield.
The big problem that the Tigers have is that there is no one in the minor leagues that can play second or third base well. That’s another reason Santiago will likely be re-signed—the Tigers have absolutely no infield depth on their bench. I just can’t see Will Rhymes or Danny Worth becoming the answer at second or third. That being said, the rotating door at both positions this year was just a nightmare. Brandon Inge may have finally fallen out of favor with his loyal “fan base.” I don’t think Dave can wait around to see if Brandon’s bat ever gets back to its stellar career .235 average, so a third baseman will probably be in the cards. Either that or a second baseman. Honestly, I would like to see the Tigers pick up one of each that can become the everyday player there, but even one would be good enough for the time being. The rotating door at third with Inge and Kelly could work if the Tigers have a second baseman, and likewise the Santiago-Raburn combination at second could work with an everyday third baseman. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s more likely that it’s a second baseman that the Tigers pick up. Inge and Kelly proved themselves enough in 2011 that they can be a decent tag-team at the bottom of the lineup. (Or, you know, wherever Leyland decides to slot in Kelly on any given day. Clean up, maybe.) Let’s see, the Tigers start the regular season at home against the Red Sox. We’ll assume that it’s Lester pitching that day, so the infield will probably have Cabrera, Mr. X, Peralta, and Inge (Mr. X being whatever second baseman the Tigers pick up). If they instead go for a third baseman, then expect Inge to be out, Raburn to be in at second, and Mr. X to be at third.
M_i_S: Who’s your Tiger?
Z-Z: Miguel Cabrera. He may have made his mistakes off the field, but the man can play some serious baseball, has a lot of fun in the clubhouse, and certainly has had more good days than bad in life. Detroit owes him a debt of gratitude for helping to make this team one of the most feared in baseball.
M_i_S: How many days until Opening Day?
Z-Z: 156 days. April 5, 2012 is opening day for the Tigers. At Comerica Park for the first time in like 20 years. (Actually, it’s only been since 2008, but it seems like 20 years.) Good thing we don’t have to wait that long for baseball, though. I’m excited for the third World Baseball Classic coming our way. Maybe America or Venezuela can take the crown from Japan.
M_i_S: Can’t wait. Looking forward to it.
Zig-Zag’s articles will appear a little less frequently now that baseball has hit the offseason. He will cover the Hot Stove, major offseason moves, and the Tigers in the offseason before the 2012 season and Opening Day.