February 2013

Verlander gets 13th at Pebble Beach Pro-Am

Justin Verlander will report to Spring Training with pretty good bragging rights about his golf game, having done more than holding his own in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He and PGA Tour pro Robert Garrigus teamed up for a 13th-place finish, five strokes off the lead and two strokes out of a top-10 finish.

After making the cut Saturday with a third-round 63, Verlander and Garrigus carried their momentum with a solid final round on the Pebble Beach course for a second straight day, threatening the top 10 before a bogey at the end cost them. They finished in a three-way tie for 13th at 26-under, tied with 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and businessman David Novak.

Verlander beat out Matt Cain, who didn’t make Saturday’s cut. Whether that gives Verlander top billing for baseballers at Pebble Beach this year depends on how folks consider Astros owner Jim Crane, who finished tied for third.

Verlander, whose competitiveness has been known to carry over to the golf course, seemed to have a good time with it this weekend, if his Twitter feed is any indication. He snapped off several pictures along the way, and talked about playing catch with his caddy on the fairway at hole #1 Saturday. That should be good news for pitching coach Jeff Jones, who had talked with Verlander about maintaining his throwing program while he was away this week.

No word yet on when Verlander joins the team in Lakeland. Though Monday is technically reporting day for Tigers pitchers and catchers, Verlander already reported, having worked out at the ballpark for several days before this past week.

Dombrowski notes: Rondon, Verlander, World Baseball Classic, roster, right-handed hitters

Dave Dombrowski was settling into his office at Joker Marchant Stadium on Sunday morning and taking text messages from his family asking what the weather is like in Lakeland. It was headed towards 80 degrees on a sunny day when he answered.

His temperature on his team was pretty similar. Asked what he wants to see out of the Tigers this spring, he said his main concern is health.

“If we stay healthy, I’ll take our chances,” he said.

He said that fully knowing the questions they have to answer this spring. Big picture, however, he likes where they’re at, barring any significant losses. He was in a good enough mood that he had a lengthy conversation with reporters who were waiting around for someone to talk to on a morning when there were very few players around.

He is not writing Bruce Rondon in pen as the Opening Day closer just yet, but in noting him as the leading candidate, he expressed confidence that Rondon can answer the questions he needs to take on this spring.

Some of them, like how Rondon will handle the pressure of a big-league save, will be tough to answer. How he’ll handle big league hitters will take some tweaking to set up, and Dombrowski left open the possibility that Rondon could pitch early in some games this spring to make sure he faces hitters from teams’ Major League starting lineups.

In terms of his stuff and his makeup, Dombrowski feels confident. He would’ve been in the big leagues last September, Dombrowski said, except they didn’t feel they needed a one-inning reliever at the time. That, obviously, was before Jose Valverde completely fell apart, though Valverde struggled down the stretch.

“Is there some risk? Sure, there’s always some risk,” Dombrowski said. “But when people say, ‘Aw, they’re crazy. They don’t know,’ it’s like, how many times have you seen him pitch? What do you know about him yourselves? Where do you get this information, other than tradition? But tradition would have led you to say the same things about all those other guys. But I understand it, because it really comes down to: Anytime you’re not established, question marks surround you. …

“Pick an established closer — a decent closer, not a top-of-the-line guy. Don’t you have some question marks about that guy coming into the season? I know I do, unless you have a dominant type of guy, and they’re hard to find. … Again, we’re not anointing him, but I think he’ll be fine.”

One reason Dombrowski cited, beyond the 102 mph fastball, is that he has other pitches he can use effectively. Another reason is his behavior from the minor leagues.

“I do know that we know his personality enough, even from the minor leagues, when he blew a save, he’d come back the next day and he was fine,” Dombrowski said. “We know that he likes the ball in the ninth inning, he’s not afraid to pitch inside — I mean, a lot of those things that are important. Now, is it different at the big leagues? Sure, it’s always different, but that’s the best you can do in developing games to try to replicate those situations in the minors. That’s what development is about. Again, you never know until a guy does it.”

Other notes from Dombrowski’s conversation:

  • No answer yet on whether Justin Verlander will pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Dombrowski downplayed concern about it to an extent, noting that pitch counts and workloads are so managed that it wouldn’t be much different than what he would be doing in his second or third start of the spring in a Tigers uniform. “With the limitations that they have, I’m not worried about him getting overworked,” Dombrowski said. “It would be very similar to what he would be doing at the same time here.”
  • When talking about the need for a right-handed hitter off the bench that can play the outfield, especially if Brennan Boesch makes the club, Dombrowski mentioned Danny Worth and Jeff Kobernus. “Jim [Leyland] usually will want a guy that’s a right-handed hitter like that,” Dombrowski said. “And who knows, the guy might not be in camp, but you have guys. Worth has played some outfield. Kobernus can play some outfield. Those are a couple guys that would be candidates to do that.” Worth has a game of experience in left field from Triple-A Toledo last year. Kobernus has none, but the Tigers took him in the Rule 5 Draft with the idea of outfield capability.
  • Dirks “is on the club,” as Dombrowski put it. In other words, if Boesch makes it, it won’t be at Dirks’ expense.
  • Add Dirks with other guys with spots on the team, and you’re talking about two open spots with a handful of candidates. “It’s really a situation where you have two other guys,” Dombrowski said, “so how do you mix and match them? You would think that Boesch, Berry, Worth, Kobernus, and I’m sure I’m missing somebody, but those are guys that would be candidates.”
  • Dombrowski reiterated that he does not envision Boesch being optioned to the minors unless there’s an unanticipated situation that requires a short-term move. “I don’t think there would be anything to gain by us sending him to Triple-A,” Dombrowski said. “He’s had enough time.”
  • Look for baserunning consultant Jeff Cox to spend about two or three weeks at camp working with Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks and others, mainly on basestealing. He’ll then make periodic visits during the season with the big club. He will not visit the minor-league teams.

Jeff Jones on managing pitcher workloads

Jeff Jones showed last year he could take the challenge of handling a pitching staff coming off a deep postseason run. Despite many Tigers starters pitching well past their career highs for innings in 2011, they stayed relatively healthy in 2012. The few injuries they had — Doug Fister’s oblique issues and Max Scherzer’s late-season shoulder problems — weren’t season-threatening, and only closer Jose Valverde had a really severe dropoff.

Now, he’s trying to do it again. And after back-to-back years with deep postseason runs, Jones isn’t taking the issue lightly.

“There’s always going to be concern after going to the postseason two years in a row,” Jones said Saturday. “We’ll do whatever we can to make sure that we don’t push them too hard, too early.

He looked at innings and workload numbers for the biggest increases, and he had discussions with manager Jim Leyland, whose Pirates staffs had three consecutive extended seasons when they ruled the NL East in the early 1990s.

The result: Several Tigers starters held off a bit on starting their throwing program, notably Justin Verlander. Others will use the longer camp this year thanks to the World Baseball Classic to build up their arms slowly.

“To me, it’s to our advantage this year,” Jones said of the longer camp, “because we have some guys that threw an awful lot of innings last year and the year before. So the extra five days, I think, will help us be able to go a little bit slower with some of them.”

Though Verlander fell shy last year of his 2011 total, even with the extra round, he didn’t fall short by much: 266 2/3 innings last year, 271 1/3 innings in 2011. Anibal Sanchez’s postseason meant he pitched about 20 more innings than his previous high, though he had come close to 200 innings in each of his previous two seasons. Scherzer fell a few innings short thanks to his shoulder issue, but racked up about 415 innings over the last two years.

Some pitching staffs handle it well, such as the Yankees in the late 1990s and into the 2000s. That was a more experienced pitching staff, and the rotation went through some tweaks over the years with free-agent additions. Other staffs went through some issues.

“Once you go through it and you play longer, you go the playoffs, I think it’s just experience that tells you when [you] need to start this year,” Jones said. “JV and I talked extensively about when he wanted to start, things like that.”

Jones made the point with Verlander that he made with others: Don’t feel like you’ll be behind schedule. With the extended spring slate, you won’t be.

Tigers, Scherzer agree on one-year contract

They came closer than ever to a hearing, but the Tigers have avoided arbitration for another year. They reached a one-year agreement with Max Scherzer on Monday to do so, just as arbitration hearings were beginning in Arizona.

The two sides agreed on a contract that will pay Scherzer $6,725,000, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. That’s the midway point between the Tigers’ submission of a $6.05 million salary and Scherzer’s submission of $7.4 million. No initial word on why the two sides agreed to the midpoint now.

Still no deal between Tigers, Scherzer

The Tigers’ perfect record of avoiding arbitration hearings under Dave Dombrowski’s watch is in serious jeopardy, more than at any other time since he took over GM duties in 2002. With no signs of a deal between the Tigers and Max Scherzer, the two sides are heading closer towards an arbitration panel to hear the matter.

The Tigers and Scherzer stood $1.35 million apart when they filed numbers two weeks ago. They continue to talk, but they still have a distance to gap, and they’re running out of time.

Three-person arbitration panels are scheduled to begin hearings next week in Arizona. A hearing date for Scherzer’s case has been set, but so far, the date has been kept private out of mutual interest. Arbitrators aren’t told ahead of time whose case they’ll be hearing on a given day, and giving a date for players would allow them to put the pieces together and start doing advance research if they so choose.

No Tiger has gone to an arbitration hearing since Dave Dombrowski replaced Randy Smith as general manager in 2002. They’ve come close a couple of times, notably when Justin Verlander became eligible for arbitration in 2009.The Tigers’ goal with arbitration cases under Dombrowski and baseball legal counsel John Westhoff has been to reach a deal with players before exchanging numbers, but that happened a couple weeks ago. They’ve exchanged numbers more often in recent years as their young players have gotten better, but they’ve usually settled those soon after the exchange once a middle ground was clearly established. Given that history, it would be a stretch to suggest the gap between Scherzer and the Tigers is small, though their gap in salaries submitted isn’t as big as what the Tigers faced with Verlander.

Part of the appeal in those cases is the knowledge that arbitration panels have to accept one of the two offers submitted. Unlike in hockey, a ruling can’t give a player a salary in the middle.

Thus, if the case goes to a hearing, Scherzer would either get $7.4 million or $6.05 million.

Scherzer made $3.75 million last year as a first-time arbitration eligible. A victory for him would just about double his salary. Unlike last offseason, his arbitration case will be judged on last season’s numbers alone.

Scherzer set career highs with 16 wins and 231 strikeouts last year, and was in a tight race with teammate Justin Verlander for the Major League lead in the latter category before shoulder soreness knocked Scherzer out of one start and scratched him from another. It also left him with 187 2/3 innings after back-to-back seasons with at least 195 innings.

Despite the shoulder questions, Scherzer made three starts in the postseason, striking out 26 batters over 18 1/3 innings on 12 hits and four walks.

Super-agent Scott Boras represents Scherzer, but Boras and the Tigers have a history of settling gaps with arbitration-eligible players; Boras’ tough negotiations are usually reserved for free agents. He usually encourages players against signing long-term deals avoiding arbitration, not short-term ones, so that they can still test the open market when they become eligible.

That said, Boras is known for keeping a binder’s worth of statistics on his clients, normally for free agents but also for arbitration’s sake.

Technically, the Tigers’ negotiation with Scherzer could actually stretch past a hearing. The two sides are allowed to seek a settlement all the way until an arbitration panel makes its decision. Once a team has to go to a hearing, though, the chances of compromise on a middle ground drop dramatically.