June 2013

Rondon staying in Toledo for now, and other Tigers bullpen questions answered

Bruce Rondon didn’t have the easiest of ninth innings, giving up a two-run homer, but he finished out another Mud Hens win, this one an 8-5 victory that did not count as a save situation. The two runs only raised his ERA on the year to 1.63. He has a chance to be a Triple-A All-Star, if not a Futures Game return participant, and he remains the guy the Tigers see as the long-term answer to their closer role.

They just don’t see him filling that role right now, even with all the upheaval in the Tigers bullpen. The evaluations are strong, but the opportunity apparently is not, though that might not be a unanimous opinion.

“Rondon has thrown the ball very well for us,” Tigers president/GM Dave Dombrowski said. “He continues to improve. He continues to work on some of the things that he needs to work on, his breaking stuff, his command of his fastball, his quickness to the plate.

“Some people [in the organization] think he’s ready to come here and pitch right now and do a good job for us. However, it’s a situation here where with the way our starters have pitched and go deep into games, if [Al] Alburquerque’s going to pitch more the eighth inning — and a lot of people think Rondon’s mindset is ninth-inning closer yet at this time — we figure that if you bring him here, I’m not sure that he’ll work on a regular basis yet. And we still think it’s more advantageous for him today to keep working at Triple-A and keep developing with the situation we have here, and we’ll see how this goes. It wouldn’t surprise me at some point this year if he’s ready to help us, and he really has grown by leaps and bounds. I think very highly of him.”

I’m not sure whether any developments up here would change that. An injury might, but with the trade deadline a month away, another funk from another reliever might simply lead the Tigers to the trade market for somebody.

Considering how highly the Tigers thought of Rondon going into Spring Training, then you can make the case that a full year of development is a surprise. If the Tigers could’ve known going into camp that Rondon would be learning at Triple-A Toledo at this point in the season, it would be interesting to know if that would have changed anything with their approach.

As it is, at least Joaquin Benoit appears set to get a real shot to see if he can close for an extended stretch, even if it comes with limitations.

“Benoit, we like a lot. He’s closed games,” Dombrowski said. “I think the difference between Benoit compared to some other closers is — and Jim’s very good at working with him on this — he’s not a guy that’s going to get the ball four days in a row. That’s just not how he is. But he’s got some other guys he can use at that time.”

That question, that point about pitching him consecutive games, might explain why the Tigers have not named him the closer in the past. Considering Detroit has only one off-day left before the All-Star break, it’ll certainly have an impact.

“A manager, ideally, you’d like to give the ball here to a person in the eighth inning three days in a row, the ninth inning three days in a row. That’s the ideal circumstances,” Dombrowski said. “Doesn’t mean that they can’t do it other ways, but we don’t really have a club that’s built that way with our bullpen right now, because Benoit’s not a three-days-in-a-row guy. Smyly’s really not a three-days-in-a-row guy. But we are deeper into the game than most clubs are with their starting pitching. So it’s a little bit different way of handling it. He’ll do it. He does a great job handling it. We have the ability to do so. Some guys need to step up.”

The quote that drew some reaction online this afternoon, the quote about being comfortable with the bullpen as it stands, is a catch-22. Dombrowski has never been one to map out his plan in public when it comes to the midseason trade market, so he isn’t going to say something otherwise. He also isn’t going to rule out a bullpen mix before it has had a chance, though he might have made an early decision on Valverde when they called him up back in April.

“We’re comfortable with this group right now,” Dombrowski said. “I can’t speak for August. I’m not a fortune-teller. As it is, we’re comfortable with this group as we stand now. But you never know what happens with anything. I never know what happens with any position on this team. That’s why I watch us play day in and day out. But we like this group. We think it has a chance to win for us.”

In other words, this is a wait-and-see situation for Dombrowski. He has just under six weeks before the July 31 trade deadline. By that point, the line between contenders and pretenders around baseball should be a little bit clearer. So should the bullpen.

Friday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Red Sox

The plan for the Tigers was to have Matt Tuiasosopo facing Jon Lester tonight. A bad swing in the cage and a left intercostal strain later, he’s on the disabled list, and Avisail Garcia is back up the big club yet again.

Garcia, predictably, is in the lineup. Not so predictably, he’s playing center field. Austin Jackson has left leg soreness, around the same area where he pulled his hamstring and landed on the DL earlier this season. Thus, Garcia will start in center, and Andy Dirks gets the start in left.

TIGERS (career numbers off Lester)

  1. Omar Infante, 2B
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (10-for-23, HR, 2 walks, 3 K’s)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (8-for-14, 4 walks)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (3-for-9, walk, 2 K’s)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (5-for-9, HR, walk)
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS (7-for-24, 2 HR, 5 walks, 7 K’s)
  7. Avisail Garcia, CF
  8. Andy Dirks, LF
  9. Brayan Pena, C (4-for-11, K)

P: Doug Fister

RED SOX (career numbers against Fister)

  1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF (1-for-3, 2 walks)
  2. Shane Victorino, RF
  3. Dustin Pedroia, 2B (1-for-7, walk)
  4. David Ortiz, DH (5-for-16, walk, 5 K’s)
  5. Mike Napoli, 1B (1-for-11, K)
  6. Daniel Nava, LF (3-for-8, walk, K)
  7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C (4-for-6, HR)
  8. Stephen Drew, SS (0-for-4, K)
  9. Jose Iglesias, 3B

P: Jon Lester

Aug. 11 game at Yankees set for 1:05 start

If you were planning on spending a summer weekend in New York for the Tigers-Yankees series in August, you can set your plans on Sunday. The series finale at Yankee Stadium is now set as a 1:05 p.m. ET game. It had been listed as TBA for a game time, presumably as an option for a Sunday night game.

This is good news for the Tigers, whose trip to Yankee Stadium is the middle stop on a three-city, 10-game road trip with no off-days. They’ll fly to Chicago from there for a three-game series against the White Sox, so the day game means no late-night flight (weather permitting).

The Tigers currently have no Sunday night games scheduled the rest of the way. We’ll see if that lasts.

Game 71: When shoring up ninth inning puts eighth into flux

On the day Tigers manager Jim Leyland formally changed closers, he ended up with a very good example why his bullpen concerns go well beyond that.

By the time Jhonny Peralta’s walkoff two-run homer landed in the bullpen beyond the left-field fence, Leyland had a good example why he isn’t the only manager going through bullpen issues.

“You saw what happened to Coke is the same thing actually that happened to them,” Leyland said. “One-run lead and they walked the leadoff guy in the ninth. That was a backbreaker for them.”

It might well lead the Red Sox to the same closer change the Tigers made earlier Thursday. Leyland, meanwhile, will be trying to find the mix to fill his other relief spots after changing closers himself.

He can move Joaquin Benoit from eighth-inning setup work to closer, and he did. In so doing, however, he has to fill the eighth inning where he once had one of the league’s best setup men to hold a game. That led to the dreaded combination of Phil Coke facing right-handed hitters.

As rough as that has been, Leyland was willing to take the chance for the matchups to the other guys.

Leyland had the matchups he wanted. Phil Coke had held Jacoby Ellsbury to 1-for-9 for his career, and David Ortiz to 1-for-15. Once Ellsbury struck out on three pitches to end the seventh, the Ortiz numbers gave him reason to think he could get Coke through the eighth as well. The key was going to be switch-hitting Shane Victorino and right-handed hitter Dustin Pedroia.

“Everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, why didn’t you bring in Smyly first,’” Leyland said. “I’ll tell you exactly why, because the two guys we were concerned about: Ellsbury, who he struck out on three pitches, and Ortiz were a total of 2-for-24 against him. So that’s why we brought in Phil Coke, and he walked two guys. That’s a no-no. He didn’t have a good outing. Pretty simple.

“Those two guys were 2-for-24 off of him. David Ortiz was 1-for-15. So that’s why he faced him. He didn’t do very good, had a tough outing, because he walked guys. If he gets those two guys out, he probably gets Ortiz out. But he walked them, and that’s a no-no.”

By contrast, Ortiz was 2-for-3 off Smyly, a small sample size but enough of a reason that Leyland felt he could get through a game without having to use him. Or at the very least, he could save Smyly for extra innings if it got to that point.

“You have to understand something: If you have two or three, four guys that you guys are asking about all the time, and you don’t want to use them, that’s not good,” Leyland said. “They have to be used. They have to pitch. Phil Coke, he had a bad night. I’m not mad at him. But if Phil Coke and some of these guys aren’t good for us, we’re in trouble. I mean, they have to pitch.

“You can’t pitch two guys every night. That’s as simple as it is. So if you’re not going to pitch him when you’ve got two guys that are 2-for-24 off of him, I don’t know when you’re going to use him.”

Instead, he ended up having to use Smyly for two innings and 39 pitches, which almost surely rules him out of action until Sunday, which brings them back to the same point Leyland had here: Other guys need to get outs.

“Is Drew Smyly going to be available for two days? No, he’s not going to be, most likely,” Leyland said. “So Coke better be able to do something. Downs better be able to do something. That’s as simple as it is. You can’t pitch the same guys every night, particularly when they throw 30 pitches. So the fact of the matter is, other guys are going to have to do something as well. And Smyly’s done a good job. I’m not upset with anybody, but I mean, put these things together a little bit.”

That’s what Leyland now has to do. The dominance of the Tigers rotation has allowed him to put it off for the most part, but the issue of bullpen depth is coming to a breaking point as badly as the closer situation is.

Tuiasosopo scratched with mild intercostal strain

Matt Tuiasosopo was scheduled to get a rare start against a right-hander tonight, based on John Lackey’s success against left-handed hitters. Now, the Tigers have to hope they haven’t lost Tuiasosopo for a while after scratching him from the lineup with what was called a mild intercostal strain.

The injury hadn’t come up previously. It’s the same injury that sidelined Andy Dirks, ironically, for part of Spring Training. Dirks will bat in Tuiasosopo’s spot tonight, batting seventh.

The Tigers will face lefty Jon Lester on Friday, so if Tuiasosopo can’t go, Dirks would probably start in his place again.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Andy Dirks, LF
  8. Omar Infante, 2B
  9. Brayan Pena, C

 

 

Leyland will look to close with Benoit (updated)

Before the Tigers called up Jose Valverde at the end of April, manager Jim Leyland didn’t have a set closer. However, he had Joaquin Benoit as his preferred option when he’s available.

Fast forward seven weeks, and Leyland sounds very much like he’s back to that setup.

“I’m not naming anybody closer,” Leyland said. “I’m just saying if Benoit was available right now, I would try to close with him.”

Benoit is available tonight, so if the Tigers have a lead in the ninth inning, look for Benoit. How he gets the lead to the ninth without Benoit in the eighth is another story, but he’ll deal with it.

“I’m not naming a full-time closer,” he said.

Essentially, it was the manager’s announcement of a shift that began taking shape last weekend, when Joaquin Benoit recorded the final four outs of last Sunday’s win at Minnesota. Leyland made it clear he won’t set up Benoit for four-out saves, but he had already been hinting last week that he was beginning to handle ninth-inning matchups situationally.

Benoit and his changeup, just as in April, give Leyland his best balance against right- and left-handed hitters. Left-handed hitters are 8-for-42 (.190) against him, while right-handed batters are 13-for-64 (.203).

“It’s a tough situation for the bullpen, not knowing who is going to close,” Benoit said. “Somehow [Leyland] will figure it out and we’ll get it done.”

What that leaves for Valverde is now a major question. If he isn’t closing full-time, it’s difficult to envision how the Tigers will use him. If he sticks around, it has to be with the possibility of closing again in mind.

Valverde was not in the closer mix Thursday, but that’s all Leyland would say about his role.

“What I’ll do is I’ll pitch him when I see fit, and try to do that intelligently,” Leyland said. “I don’t know exactly how it’ll work out, because I don’t know how the games are going to go.”

Valverde, for his part, was defiant about his struggles. Chris Davis’ home run Wednesday was Valverde’s sixth in 20 appearances this year; he hadn’t given up more than five in a full season since 2008.

“You have to give credit to the hitter, too,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do. Oh, when I’m pitching good all the time, when I have a save every single day, I’m the best guy? No. You have to give credit for all the players on the other team.”

Asked if he thinks he can regain his closer role, Valverde answered, “Why not? Have you seen all my numbers, what I have? I have [almost] 300 saves. It’s not easy to do that. You have to see all my numbers, what I do in the past.

“Everybody thinks I was doing bad last year. I had 35 saves in 40 chances. Is it bad? No.”

There are no indications a roster move with Valverde is imminent, but Valverde’s contract could force a decision. He has a $500,000 bonus that he reaches with his 25th game finished, then $500,000 for every five games finished after that. Wednesday’s ninth inning, though it wasn’t a save situation, was nonetheless his 18th game finished this year.

Thursday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Red Sox

A day after Jim Leyland said he might consider giving Matt Tuiasosopo some starts against right-handers, he’s in the lineup against Red Sox righty John Lackey. Considering Lackey is giving up a .316 average to right-handed hitters compared with .203 to lefties, the matchup makes total sense, not just Tuiasosopo over the slumping Andy Dirks.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio

TIGERS (career numbers off Lackey)

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (11-for-49, 2 HR, 3 walks, 10 K’s)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (3-for-9, HR, walk, K)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (2-for-3)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (10-for-23, 4 walks, 3 K’s)
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS (11-for-28, 7 K’s)
  7. Matt Tuiasosopo, LF (0-for-3, K)
  8. Omar Infante, 2B (2-for-9, 6 K’s)
  9. Brayan Pena, C (2-for-3)

P: Jose Alvarez

RED SOX

  1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
  2. Shane Victorino, RF
  3. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
  4. David Ortiz, DH
  5. Mike Napoli, 1B
  6. Jonny Gomes, LF
  7. Ryan Lavarnway, C
  8. Will Middlebrooks, 3B
  9. Jose Iglesias, SS

P: John Lackey

Game 70: When even mop-up innings go wrong for Valverde

Jose Valverde’s track record in non-save situations is well-known, not just this season but his entire Tigers tenure. One expects a little edge to be missing from a high-intensity closer when he doesn’t have a save to wrap up.

Even so, Wednesday wasn’t good. It was a 9-3 deficit when he came in, but it was 13-3 after just 10 Valverde pitches, including a few hanging splitters.

“These are always situations I’ve found over the years that when they’re not really big situations or intense situations, sometimes closers don’t perform very well,” Leyland said. “I don’t think that was all of it. I think it was probably some of it, but certainly not all of it.

“I don’t want to sit here and look like I’m making excuses because I’m not in any way, shape or form. Things have to be a little bit better.”

Excuses or none, Leyland didn’t simply brush off this performance. He hadn’t pitched since Friday’s series opener in Minnesota, so whether he’s still the closer or not, he needed to get some work five days later. Whatever the score, he was going to get the work. They wanted to see better than that.

“It was an opportunity where we felt like he needed to pitch today, no matter what, Leyland said. “So we put him out there, and I think he threw one good split and a bunch of them that weren’t too good. That was obviously not a very good outing for him.

“You give him a little bit of a reprieve because there’s not much adrenaline probably in that situation, but he definitely needed to pitch. It didn’t work out too good for him today.”

In many ways, it was a no-win situation for Valverde, and a tough spot for Leyland to insert him. If he retired the O’s in order, it was a meaningless inning in a rout. If he didn’t, it was going to be another example of his struggles.

What happened was another level of struggles. After back-to-back foul balls from Manny Machado, three consecutive Valverde pitches went for base hits — a splitter grounded to left for a Machado, a 95 mph fastball for a Nick Markakis liner to left, and a 94 mph fastball that Adam Jones pummeled deep into the gap in right-center.

After Valverde missed with back-to-back fastballs, he threw three consecutive splitters to Chris Davis. He missed the first and took the second. He couldn’t miss the third.

“Split right into my barrel,” Davis said.

Davis’ evaluation might have been the most relevant of all.

“The first one he threw me was one of the better ones I’ve seen from him,” Davis said of Valverde’s splitter, “and the one away was good location. The last one was a good pitch. It just caught too much of the plate.”

Pitching coach Jeff Jones continues to work with Valverde on the splitter, trying to close his delivery and raise his arm angle so that his grip actually gets it to split instead of sit there like a hanging changeup. Like Davis, Jones saw the split from a couple pitches. He did not see it from the home-run ball.

It was the sixth home run Valverde has given up this year. He hadn’t given up many in a full season since 2008, when Houston’s homer-friendly Minute Maid Park was his home.

Five of those homers have come off the splitter. He gave up just three last year when he was throwing fastballs almost all the time.

“He does appear to be pushing it just a little bit,” Leyland said. “I can’t really explain it.”

Valverde allowed one more single but retired the side to finish out the game, including a called third strike on a splitter to Travis Ishiakawa. He gave up four runs on five hits.

He had a smattering of boos as he came into the game, and he was showered with them as he walked off. For someone who had one of the ultimate seasons for a closer just two years ago, it wasn’t pretty.

Leyland, who has stood up for Valverde, didn’t completely dismiss it this time.

“You don’t like to see that happen to anybody, particularly a veteran like Jose,” Leyland said. “But we all go through those moments where we have to take our shots. You don’t like it, but you understand it. That’s been going on in this business for a long time, and certainly I’m not campaigning for anybody not to express their feelings however they want to express them.”

When Leyland was on WXYT Wednesday morning, he said he wasn’t ready to cut ties with Valverde yet, that he still deserved an opportunity to show whether he can get his stuff back. When asked if he’s any closer to a decision on Valverde, Leyland didn’t sound like any move was imminent, but didn’t dismiss the notion that he’s being evaluated.

Wednesday’s outing, as rough as it was, nonetheless counts as a game finished, his 18th on the season. His contract incentives kick in at 25, with $500,000 each at the 25th, 30th, 35th, 40th, 45th and 50th game finished.

“First, I don’t make that decision,” Leyland said on an evaluation. “That would be a decision that Dave [Dombrowski] and myself and the coaches would make, but I’m not going to panic after coming into the game at 9-3 or whatever it was. I think we just wait and see. I don’t think that’s something that we need to talk about today.”

It will undoubtedly be talked about within the Tigers offices soon.

Wednesday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Orioles

Chris Tillman is about 10 points tougher against left-handed hitters than right-handed ones, so Jim Leyland took today as a spot to start Bryan Holaday behind the plate. The expectation was that Leyland would do it Thursday with Jose Alvarez pitching or Friday with Jon Lester starting for Boston, but thought the day game after a night game was a better opportunity. He also gave Torii Hunter a day off, inserting Don Kelly in right field. Kelly is 1-for-7 against Tillman, though the hit was a home run.

Cabrera’s history off Tillman, and the fact that no one else on this team has hit this guy, made it an easy pick for Beat the Streak. It actually had been a few days since a Cabrera pick. A hit from him today would get my streak to a season high of … well, five. So it goes. Other picks can be found here.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio

TIGERS (career numbers off Tillman)

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (1-for-6, 2 K’s)
  2. Andy Dirks, LF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (3-for-7, HR, walk, 2 K’s)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (1-for-3)
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS (1-for-10, HR, 2 K’s)
  7. Don Kelly, RF (1-for-7, HR, walk)
  8. Omar Infante, 2B
  9. Bryan Holaday, C

P: Rick Porcello

ORIOLES (career numbers off Porcello)

  1. Nate McLouth, LF (0-for-6, K)
  2. Manny Machado, 3B (1-for-4, walk)
  3. Nick Markakis, RF (7-for-16, HR, 2 walks, K)
  4. Adam Jones, CF (3-for-15, 6 K’s)
  5. Chris Davis, DH (3-for-9, 2 HR, 3 K’s)
  6. J.J. Hardy, SS (5-for-12, 3 K’s)
  7. Travis Ishikawa, 1B
  8. John Ryan Flaherty, 2B (1-for-2)
  9. Taylor Teagarden, C

P: Chris Tillman

Game 69: Another look at Verlander’s pitching

No, Justin Verlander’s fastball doesn’t look like it’s there yet.

Yes, his command resembles his younger form, even during part of the winning streak he had going.

And yes, 3.72 is a high ERA for him.

But here’s the thing: Even when he works through things, Justin Verlander is still a darn good pitcher.

How good? Well, if you go by Fangraphs’ calculations, he entered Tuesday night with the seventh-highest Wins Above Replacement among Major League pitchers. At 3.0 WAR, he had the same number as Yu Darvish, slightly above Clay Buchholz (2.9), and just barely under teammates Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer (3.1).

And if you go by Fielding Independent Pitching, he entered Tuesday tied for fifth in the Majors, trailing Sanchez but better than Scherzer, Darvish, Chris Sale and others.

Call it mediocrity if you want, but Verlander’s mediocrity is another pitcher’s greatness. He looked fairly bad in back-to-back losses in May, and the offensive support he received means he probably cost them those games. But he had two losses in April in which the Tigers were shut out.

“It’s been a battle so far,” Verlander said. “Obviously, you have that stretch of three or four starts where it was pretty frustrating. You know, I guess I’m always trying to get better, and I feel like I’ve made adjustments to get to that point.

“I feel like I’ve been getting better, better, and better. That’s not necessarily going to work towards a perfect game, but you’re not going to get better every time. There’s ups and downs, peaks and valleys, tonight was just one of those nights where two long balls hurt me. You know who knows what happens if I’m able to execute those pitches a little bit better. I’m not saying that I regressed, it’s just one of those games. This is Major League Baseball, you’re not going to be perfect every time.”

His fastball command has been a roller coaster. When he was struggling a month ago he went from a low of barely 50 percent strikes with his fastball up to 60 percent. When he seemed like he was right again, that percentage climbed to 70 percent.

On Tuesday, he threw 24 of his 39 fastballs for strikes, or about 61.5 percent, according to MLB.com Gameday and brooksbaseball.net.

He paid for one bad fastball with Adam Jones’ three-run homer. He paid for it more with four walks, three of them to Nick Markakis. He also paid for it in a pitch count that went from a 15-pitch first inning to a 15-pitch second, then a 30-pitch third.

“The one inning, it almost got up to the point where I looked up and I said, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough one for the manager,’” Jim Leyland said. “Because he’s possibly got 60 pitches after three innings. As a manager, that’s not a good feeling.”

The mantra for Leyland was fastball command. As many different pitches as Verlander can throw in any count, he still has to command the basic fastball.

“His repertoire is what it is, but normally a successful evening for your pitching starts with commanding your fastball,” Leyland said. “When you don’t have that, that takes away some other stuff, because you’re not getting other stuff behind in the count. There’s really not a sophisticated answer. He just didn’t command the fastball.”

He hit 97-98 mph on his fastball several times, but it was early. He didn’t build with velocity so much as he spiked it, and that’s usually not a good sign with him.

Was he getting squeezed on the strike zone? It looked like it at times, and Verlander had to keep his composure. Still, those aren’t using downfalls for him.

“I felt I threw about 10 to 15 pitches tonight that were pretty doggone close to being perfect, just off,” Verlander said. “I think that goes to show you how fine of a line it is at this level between having a good start and not.”

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