June 2011

Oliveros reportedly to Detroit, Alburquerque to DL

As you may have heard by now, Lester Oliveros is apparently heading to the Tigers. The report originally came from Venezuelan media, and was followed by an update on Twitter, supposedly from his brother Rainer, congratulating him on his call-up. Finally, we have confirmation from John Wagner of the Toledo Blade from Fifth Third Field, where Oliveros’ locker is reportedly empty.

The first thought on this was that the Tigers were straightening out their bullpen now that Brayan Villarreal wasn’t needed as an emergency reliever. Then came the report from Wagner that Chance Ruffin is being promoted from Double-A Erie to take Oliveros’ spot. So either somebody is heading all the way down to Erie (unlikely, since Villarreal was in Toledo when he was called up to Detroit Wednesday), or somebody is headed off the active roster, either through the disabled list or the temporary inactive list.

The only known injury concern in the bullpen in recent weeks was Al Alburquerque and his previously sore elbow. As of Wednesday, however, it was supposedly no longer a concern, both Alburquerque and head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said. He was on a treatment program that worked well enough that he no longer needed it. Of course, that was before he threw 42 pitches Wednesday night, 21 of which were sliders. That’s actually less than his season average, a 3-to-2 ratio of sliders to fastballs.

UPDATE: FOXSports.com is reporting that Alburquerque is heading to the DL with right elbow inflammation.

Leyland makes final pitch for Avila

Tigers manager Jim Leyland has tried to stay out of the All-Star voting process. He thinks it comes down to a popularity contest and stuffing ballots. That said, he basically asked Tigers fans to do the same for his catcher.

“I’ve never really got into that, but I think it’s a no-brainer, and I hope that they do get behind him,” Leyland said. “It would be an absolute shame, in my opinion, if Alex Avila’s not on the All-Star team. That would be a shame. He deserves it, so I hope they stuff ballots, do whatever they want. I know I’m contradicting myself, but it would be a shame if he’s not on the team.”

Online balloting is the only way to vote now, and it ends tonight at 11:59 p.m. ET at MLB.com. The latest results as of Thursday afternoon suggest a late rally for Avila votes in recent hours, with close to 90 percent of votes over the last day going in his favor. If that holds, then it’s a question of how big the final-day vote is.

Coke to bullpen, Furbush to start Monday

The expected switch became official this morning: Phil Coke’s rotation stint is over. He’ll be back in the bullpen this weekend, and Charlie Furbush will be in the rotation starting Monday at Angel Stadium.

“It was not a tough decision,” manager Jim Leyland said. “It was a disappointing decision.”

It was one Leyland knew had to be made. He doesn’t know how Furbush will handle the assignment of being a starting pitcher in the middle of a pennant race, he admitted, but he knows it wasn’t working with Phil Coke.

The numbers from last night’s game recap tell the story. Add Wednesday’s damage to outings against the Diamondbacks and Rockies, and Coke has allowed 18 runs, 16 earned, on 22 hits over his last 13 2/3 innings. Though he tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings against Tampa Bay before this streak, he gave up 10 hits and six runs, four earned, in five innings to the Rangers before that.

While three American League pitchers have suffered more losses than Coke (1-8) this year, they’ve all won more recently. His lone victory came April 14, and his stretch of 12 winless starts is the longest by a Tigers starter since the Tigers’ 119-loss team of 2003. Adam Bernero went 0-10 over a 17-start stretch that began June 15, 2002 and ended May 31, 2003. Just days before that, Mike Maroth ended his own 12-start winless streak.

Thursday: Tigers vs Mets

1. Austin Jackson, cf
2. Don Kelly, 3b
3. Brennan Boesch, rf
4. Miguel Cabrera, 1b
5. Victor Martinez, dh
6. Andy Dirks, lf
7. Jhonny Peralta, ss
8. Alex Avila, c
9. Ramon Santiago, 2b
P: Justin Verlander

Villarreal up, Schlereth down

Before Wednesday’s game, Jim Leyland seemed ready to stick it out with Daniel Schlereth and try to get his command right. Then came Wednesday’s 16-9 loss to the Mets.

Now comes Brayan Villarreal because, simply put, the Tigers need a fresh body in their bullpen in case this red-hot Mets lineup somehow knocks out Justin Verlander early.

Villarreal was scheduled to start for Triple-A Toledo on Thursday, having made the transition to the Mud Hens rotation as soon as the Tigers optioned him out earlier this season. He is 0-5 with a 4.41 ERA for Toledo, but he has better learned about using his changeup, as he said a few weeks ago.

Unless the Tigers have an injury, Schlereth can’t come back to the big leagues for at least 10 days. The question now is whether the Tigers might use the opening to bring back Brad Thomas when he’s ready, or maybe shift Phil Coke back to the bullpen. Leyland said Wednesday the Tigers have pondered some possibilities with Coke, but they haven’t made any decision.

Thomas having elbow examined

Brad Thomas is back from his rehab stint for the time being,  but he isn’t back from the disabled list. For that matter, the Tigers aren’t sure if he’s actually healthy after two weeks of pitching at Triple-A Toledo.

After speculation about what the Tigers might do with the left-handed long reliever, they’ve sent him to a team doctor to have his elbow checked out. Thomas was scheduled to make a relief appearance for Triple-A Toledo Tuesday night, but felt some stiffness in his elbow when he warmed up in the bullpen, head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Wednesday afternoon.

Thomas was supposed to be re-evaluated after that Tuesday outing, according to what Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin told the Toledo Blade last weekend. Instead, he’s set to see team physician Dr. Stephen Lemos to see what, if anything, is going on with the elbow. At this point, Rand indicated they aren’t expecting anything major.

It was elbow inflammation that led him to the disabled list in mid-May.

“It’s precautionary and preventative,” Rand said.

By recalling him from his rehab assignment while he’s being examined, the Tigers stop the countdown towards decision time on whether to activate. Pitchers can stay on a rehab assignment for up to 30 days, and Thomas has been with the Mud Hens for about half that.

Wednesday: Tigers vs. Mets

Miguel Cabrera is 7-for-19 (.368) with two home runs off left-hander Chris Capuano, whose start prompts the usual lefty lineup from Detroit. The lone left-handed hitter in the lineup is Brennan Boesch.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Casper Wells, RF
  3. Magglio Ordonez, DH
  4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, C
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Brennan Boesch, LF
  8. Brandon Inge, 3B
  9. Ryan Raburn, 2B

P: Phil Coke

METS

  1. Jose Reyes, SS
  2. Justin Turner, 3B
  3. Carlos Beltran, RF
  4. Ronny Paulino, C
  5. Jason Bay, LF
  6. Angel Pagan, CF
  7. Jerry Scott Hairston, DH
  8. Daniel Murphy, 1B
  9. Ruben Tejada, 2B

P: Chris Capuano

What is going on with Rick Porcello?

Rick Porcello doesn’t have that look at last year when he talks about his struggles. A year ago, he looked exasperated, like his mind was spinning into overdrive trying to figure out why he wasn’t able to get the ground-ball outs that were so plentiful in 2009. Porcello believes he’s on the right track now, and he sounds mature about it.

That’s his look off the field. On the field, he’s taking a beating these last three starts.

To be fair, one of those three games was a debacle of singles at Dodger Stadium last Wednesday, when he looked like a hard-luck pitcher. Another was a Coors Field game for a sinkerball pitcher, and as Mike Hampton might attest, those don’t go well sometimes.

Tuesday was a different feel. If Willie Harris had gotten to second base on his fourth-inning shot off the right field fence, then Porcello would’ve given up the cycle in four batters and just five pitches. Their singles were not cheapies.

It was the kind of outing that, when coupled with the other two, creates concern on a ballclub and a task for a pitching coach.

“Obviously tonight, it was just one of those things,” Rick Knapp said after the game. “He felt like they were on him, and he tried. He used his other pitches. He used his slider. He used his curveball. I thought he threw a couple good curveballs tonight. But at the same time, if he doesn’t execute his best pitch consistently, that’s when he’s going to get hurt.”

The mix of pitches was there for Porcello on Tuesday. The finishing pitch with two strikes was not. Divide Porcello’s 47 strikes thrown by the 11 hits he allowed, and he had just over 4.25 strikes per hit. He also had just two swings and misses from Mets hitters. His 2-to-1 ratio of groundouts to flyouts was good, but that’s because the vast majority of the balls they hit in the air against him went for hits.

“Tonight he threw some bad pitches that they hit, and he threw some decent pitches that they hit,” Jim Leyland said. “It just wasn’t his night.”

When you hear about hitters doing damage on good pitches, and hitters barely missing any pitches, one of the first things to come to mind is whether a pitcher is tipping his pitches. It’s something pitchers and coaches don’t like to talk about much, and they weren’t saying a whole lot after the game Tuesday. But it’s safe to say they’re looking at it, looking for anything that might even give a hint.

When those numbers are coming against a pitcher like Porcello, who focuses on one very good pitch that can get outs even when hitters know it’s coming, then it can be a different question. Is he throwing his secondary pitches well enough to keep hitters honest? Is he executing the bread-and-butter pitch?

Statistically, Porcello had one of his better mixes going, with double-digit pitch totals in four different pitches. But his slider, which often complements his sinker, just wasn’t working, getting just seven strikes out of 15 pitches, and his changeup was marginally better.

Look at his strike zone plot on brooksbaseball.net, too, and though he had some pitches low, almost all of them were first-pitch balls, which led to second-pitch strikes higher up in the zone. The two swing-and-miss strikes he got were both on high pitches.

“I think it’s just a matter of pitch making,” Porcello said. “I think early on [this season, when he was on], I was down in the zone very consistently and lately, balls have been coming up. I’ve been paying the price for it. It just can’t go any further. I’ve got to squash it and make sure that everything I’m throwing is down in the zone and keeping guys off-balance with a good mix of pitches.

“I definitely felt like today and in previous bad outings, I think guys have been all over my fastball, especially left-handed hitters. That’s been kind of na ongoing thing for me that I’ve got to make sure I shut down lefties in the lineup. Almost all the lineups I’m going to face are stacked with left-handed hitters. That’s just an ongoing challenge.”

I asked Porcello what he saw as the difference, pitch-wise, between what he threw in Pittsburgh in May over eight scoreless innings and what he threw Tuesday night.

“I think there’s not a big difference between my stuff in Pittsburgh and now,” he said. “In fact, I think velocity-wise, it was the best my fastball has been all year. I felt like I had a pretty sharp slider again. It’s just a matter of throwing strikes and putting the pressure on them to (with) pitches.”

It might well have been that the Pirates simply didn’t hit him well, or that the Mets hit him particularly well. But unlike last year, he calls this a bump in the road.

I know the question will come up among fans whether Porcello needs to go to Toledo to work things out. At this point, I would say no. It wasn’t that long ago that he was pitching effectively, and it’s abundantly clear that the Tigers need to get him going here to have any shot at doing things in October. I don’t see any other clear candidate as a third starter right now. I don’t think Jacob Turner is ready for that yet, and I think Andy Oliver has his own set of circumstances. You have to be able to throw someone other than Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at a team, and when Porcello is right, he’s by far the best of the rest.

Tuesday: Tigers vs. Mets

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, cf
  2. Brennan Boesch, lf
  3. Magglio Ordonez, rf
  4. Miguel Cabrera, 1b
  5. Victor Martinez, dh
  6. Jhonny Peralta, ss
  7. Alex Avila, c
  8. Brandon Inge, 3b
  9. Ryan Raburn, 2b

P: Rick Porcello

METS

  1. Jose Reyes, SS
  2. Willie Harris, DH
  3. Carlos Beltran, RF
  4. David Murphy, 3B
  5. Angel Pagan, CF
  6. Jason Bay, LF
  7. Lucas Duda, 1B
  8. Justin Turner, 2B
  9. Josh Thole, C

P: R.A. Dickey

Tigers have decision to make with Brad Thomas

Tuesday marked the two-week point in Brad Thomas’ rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo. He has six appearances out of the Mud Hens bullpen, including three two-inning stints, and is expected to get his first crack at pitching back-to-back days on Tuesday. Yet there has been no talk about when Thomas might be activated from the disabled list and brought back into a Tigers bullpen that currently has three left-handers.

If you’re wondering at this point whether Thomas is headed back to the Tigers bullpen at all, you wouldn’t be the only one.

Speculation from those watching the Tigers has centered on Detroit potentially trying to find a landing spot for Thomas somewhere else, and easing their sudden lefty logjam. FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi cites a Major League source saying the Tigers “gauging trade interest” in Thomas and willing to move him. Even if they can’t deal him somewhere, they could still end up moving on without him.

It didn’t seem like a strong option when Thomas went on the disabled list a month ago with elbow inflammation, his elbow having locked up when he tried to warm up in the bullpen during a game. But high-strikeout starting prospect Charlie Furbush, who was called up to fill Thomas’ spot, has more than held his own, allowing six runs on 18 hits over 19 2/3 innings with 16 strikeouts. He has progressed from long relief and mop-up work to some late-inning lefty specialist situations. Add in veteran David Purcey and curveballer Daniel Schlereth, and the Tigers like their look from the left side right now, and manager Jim Leyland doesn’t want to go back to four lefty relievers.

Thomas got off to a rough start before his DL stint, allowing 11 earned runs on 17 hits over 11 innings. Left-handed hitters went 8-for-20 (.400) with three walks and three doubles against him, compared with 9-for-24 (.375) from right-handed batters. Thomas has said his elbow had been bothering him earlier, so it could have had an impact. By comparison, lefty hitters batted .252 (29-for-115) against Thomas last year, his first full season in the Majors. But he was more long reliever than LOOGY in 2010.

Pitchers can stay on rehab assignments for up to 30 days, so the Tigers conceivably could keep Thomas in Toledo for a couple more weeks and buy time to work out something. But Thomas is out of Minor League options, so they’d have to clear him through waivers and outright him if they wanted to keep him in Toledo beyond that. For now, Thomas was expected to pitch Tuesday for the Hens and be re-evaluated from there.

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