March 13th, 2013

Wednesday: How did we get here with Brennan Boesch???

Did it really all fall apart this quickly?

Brennan Boesch was being pushed for All-Star consideration three years ago. He was a back-to-back AL Rookie of the Month, and a midseason favorite for AL Rookie of the Year by a vote of his fellow Major League players.

“He never, ever looks scared,” Michael Cuddyer said at the time.

He was that combination of power hitter with discipline, so much that was he was in the middle of the AL batting race when he finally had enough plate appearances to qualify.

“It looks like he’s going to be a really great hitter. He already is,” Paul Konerko said amidst that summer of 2010. “We have to try to find a way to hold him down.”

Even with all the cautionary tales of one-year wonders over the years, Boesch looked like the kind of Major League hitter who got it. He wouldn’t keep hitting like he did over the first half of that 2010 season, of course, but he was on his way to being a formidable hitter.

What the heck happened?

First came the skid down the stretch in 2010, when injuries to Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez left Boesch exposed as the guy hitting behind Miguel Cabrera. Rays manager Joe Maddon walked Cabrera intentionally in three straight games to face Boesch and got away with it.

Then came the impossible standards to meet in 2011, and the roller coaster season of his that kept you wondering if he could be that guy again. He hit .319 in the opening month, .186 in May, .380 with six home runs in June, .267 in July, then .208 in August before a season-ending hand injury derailed him.

Whether it was the effect of his damage to his hand or not, he hasn’t been the same since then. Just as important, between the emergence of Andy Dirks, the trade for Delmon Young, the arrival of Avisail Garcia and signing of Torii Hunter, his role hasn’t been the same, either.

His chances of making the team weren’t all that great, no matter what he did, and they relied in part on guys like Dirks struggling. Instead, an oblique strain for Boesch all but ended his chance to compete for the left-field job.

You can chart it and have it make sense, and yet it’s stunning how this all disintegrated so quickly.

Boesch batted .342 with 12 home runs and 49 RBIs in the first half of 2010. Then he hit .306 with 12 home runs and 44 RBIS in 2011. In no other half-season has he hit even .245, and he has just 18 home runs in those other stretches combined.

It’s entirely possible Boesch finds his stroke again, if he is really is healthy. He could hit a ton of home runs in new Yankee Stadium, or he could have the ultimate low-pressure situation to get his game going again in Houston. It won’t be the same as Detroit, though.

Tigers unconditionally release Boesch

Three years after Brennan Boesch surged into the Tigers outfield mix with an incredible half-season in Detroit, his departure was just as sudden. The Tigers unconditionally released Boesch on Wednesday, parting ways with 2 1/2 weeks to go in Spring Training.

It was already clear to team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski that Boesch wasn’t going to win a job in left field, and they weren’t going to be able to work out a trade.

“As we’ve gone through this, Andy Dirks we feel has won the job to be our left fielder,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “And in Brennan’s case, we were really looking more for a right-handed hitting outfielder out there [to mix] in left field.”

By releasing him now, the Tigers will owe him one-sixth of his $2.3 million salary, or $383,333. Had they waited until the end of camp, they would’ve owed him one-fourth of his salary, or $575,000.

Boesch’s future with the team had been in question ever since the Tigers signed Torii Hunter in November. Detroit tendered the arbitration-eligible Boesch a contract during the offseason with the idea of letting him compete with Andy Dirks for the job in left field or trading him.

The chance of beating out Dirks was always a long shot, but it became longer once Boesch missed the first couple weeks of camp with an oblique strain. He returned last week and went 3-for-16 with a double and four strikeouts in seven Grapefruit League games.

The trade route, meanwhile, did not prove promising.

“I have tried to trade his contract at various times here throughout the spring, even leading into Spring Training, thinking that a change of scenery would be best for him,” Dombrowski said. “[We] have not been successful in doing that, have had numerous clubs talk to me about him, but I think you’ve reached the point where a lot of people talk about the salary aspect of it. Unless they really think he’s going to step in and be their guy, they haven’t been prepared to do anything in the trade market.”

Dombrowski said that “half a dozen clubs” had asked about Boesch, but no one stepped forward with serious interest.

Now, assuming no team claims his full contract on release waivers, Boesch will become a free agent. Any team can sign him for the Major League minimum, with the Tigers on the hook for their end.

By releasing him now, the Tigers also free up playing time in the outfield down the stretch this spring for regulars who need the work as well as viable candidates to make the club.

Boesch will turn 27 years old in April. He batted .259 with 42 home runs and 175 RBIs in 380 games over the last few years. His numbers last season were his lowest in most of the major categories, from a .240 batting average to a .659 OPS with 12 homers and 54 RBIs.

Tuesday postscript: Could Tigers’ bullpen debate impact starter debate?

Drew Smyly (AP)

Drew Smyly (AP)

It’s not often that Jim Leyland cites statistics in his pregame media session. It’s not that he’s anti-stats, but he’s not heavily reliant on them on his decisions, so it doesn’t come up a whole lot. It came up Tuesday when I asked him if the Tigers would be looking at their matchups over the season’s first week and take those into consideration when they have to decide at the end of the spring how they’ll go with their bullpen.

They know the matchups with other teams, and they know the pitching depth that other teams had last year.

“I know the six-starter thing will play out fine,” Leyland said. “I’m not really worried about that.”

That was during his pregame talk. After Drew Smyly turned in a performance that was better than the numbers suggested, Leyland sounded much the same message.

“It’s a good situation to have,” Leyland said. “We have six capable starters. If things play out normal, you usually use about 10 during the regular season. It’s nice to have six definites.”

He had an average behind the numbers, as a look at baseball-reference.com later confirmed. There were 304 pitchers used for at least one start in the Major Leagues last year. Divide that by 30 teams, and your average is just barely over 10 per team.

If you only consider pitchers who made more than one start, the total only drops slightly to 279, an average of 9.3 per team.

In other words, as mentioned on the site today, bullpen depth is important. I referenced those same stats there. Since there’s a little more room here, check out the breakdown by team. The first number of the total number of starters used. The second number is the number of pitchers used for multiple starts, if there’s a difference:

  • AL East: Blue Jays 12, O’s 12, Red Sox 9, Yankees 8(7), Rays 8(7)
  • AL Central: Royals 13(12), Twins 12, White Sox 12(9), Indians 10, Tigers 10(9)
  • AL West: Rangers 11(10), A’s 10, Angels 8(7), Mariners 7
  • NL East: Mets 13(12), Braves 10(9), Marlins 10(8), Phillies 9(7), Nationals 8(7)
  • NL Central: Cubs 12(11), Brewers 11(10), Astros 11(10), Pirates 10, Cardinals 8(7), Reds 6(5)
  • NL West: Padres 15(13), Rockies 14, Diamondbacks 9, Dodgers 9, Giants 7(5)

A couple points here:

  1. Different teams have different reasons for using the number of starters they used. The Blue Jays were devastated by injuries, but the Orioles were using a revolving door at times last season trying to find who could be effective. The Dodgers had nine, but they traded for two of them around the deadline, and they traded one of them away. The Tigers had a mix of injuries and trades. The Reds and Giants not only had very healthy rotations, they also had very good ones.
  2. You can look through the standings and see teams that made the playoffs with a high number of starters used, including the O’s, Rangers, A’s, Tigers and Braves in double digits. But while the numbers show how many different starters were used, they don’t show how well those extra starters performed, or what the teams’ records were when they had to go to eighth, ninth or 10th starters. The Tigers, obviously, got way more contributions out of their top five than they did out of Jacob Turner, Casey Crosby and Duane Below. But there’s also a case to be made that they might not have even gotten to the playoffs without Anibal Sanchez down the stretch. So while the numbers reinforce the point that teams need to have options at starter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that teams need six very good starters. In the Tigers’ case, though, you can make the argument.

Breaking down teams’ records when they had guys starting who did not begin the year in the rotation, of course, is a whole other project.

Rick Porcello (AP)

Rick Porcello (AP)

There’s a whole different depth issue to be made in the bullpen when you consider the closer by committee concept, which Leyland says is a possibility. The more relievers that are part of a committee, the less certainty in the roles behind the closer. If Joaquin Benoit has to be reserved on some days for a potential closing chance if a certain part of the Twins order comes up, that takes him out of consideration for the eighth inning. If Phil Coke is being held back for a potential ninth-inning matchup with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau on Opening Day, then he isn’t available for another lefty-lefty matchup in the seventh.

It’s very difficult to see the Tigers going with a closer by committee and not taking at least a second left-hander. They could go with only Phil Coke and justify it by arguing that Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have the kind of arsenal that gets right- and left-handed hitters out, and they’d have a point, but there are situations where you want a left-handed batter seeing a left-handed pitcher.

The more potential matchup guys you have in the bullpen, as well, the less room you have for a long reliever. Drew Smyly, of course, could fill both roles. He essentially did that last fall.

GM Dave Dombrowski was quoted in the Detroit News last week saying both Smyly and Porcello “will be quality Major League starters this year, and both deserve to start.” But at some point, the depth of a bullpen that doesn’t have one set closer might make the case for Smyly to be used in the bullpen.

There’s a trade-off there, though, because it would be a case for keeping both Porcello and Smyly without having Smyly stretched out as a starter. If the primary reason for keeping both is to have insurance, one can make the case that it’s better to keep Smyly at Triple-A Toledo. If the primary reason is to have the best 12 pitchers possible on the staff, it’s tough to send Smyly to the Mud Hens.

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