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Talent versus experience

There are a lot of ways to measure how long this three-city, nine-game road trip has been. The weight of my suitcase is one. But here’s another: A week ago, on the first stop of this trip, there were two scouts from other American League teams who were following the Tigers, and suggested that if it was up them, they would put Brad Penny in Detroit’s postseason rotation over Rick Porcello. The reason they cited was experience, plus an abundance of left-handed hitters from a potential opponent.

With a week left in the regular season, it’s increasingly difficult to see it happening. His recent experience has been a challenge.

Five starts have passed since Penny outpitched David Price in Tampa Bay, paving the path for the Tigers to take three out of four from the Rays and establish themselves among the teams to watch in the league. It was a prime example how valuable Penny can be in a big situation. Since then, Penny has given up 31 runs, 23 earned, on 41 hits over 25 innings, bumping his ERA a half-run to 5.31 for the season.

He has had stretches where he has shown the ability to cover quality innings even when he hasn’t had his best stuff. That wasn’t the case Tuesday, when an aggressive Royals lineup never quite let him off the ropes.

Manager Jim Leyland said after the game that he gave Penny a shot against Eric Hosmer with two outs in the fourth inning in a situation when he might have otherwise gone to one of his lefty relievers.

“He could’ve come out of there at 4-0,” Leyland said, “but I wanted to put that little challenge out there for him. Normally, I would’ve brought in the lefty for Hosmer and Francoeur. Just find out.”

Hosmer went deep for a three-run homer and a 7-0 Royals lead.

Porcello hasn’t quite had the same stuff that helped him go 5-0 in July, but he has been a lot better than he was in August. He also pitched in a playoff atmosphere in 2009. He’s scheduled to start Friday against the Orioles with a streak of three straight quality starts going. Both Porcello and Penny have one more start left after that — Penny against the O’s on Sunday, Porcello possibly the season finale against the Indians next Wednesday. One would expect that by the latter, we’ll know the Tigers rotation and order for the Division Series.

The thing with Penny is that his use as a reliever is somewhat limited. He’s someone who has a lengthy warmup routine when he starts, and it would be difficult to give them that much time to warm up in a relief situation unless it’s a game coming out of a rain delay. That said, he has the level of experience nobody out there does.

Starting is Penny’s best shot at the postseason. Right now, he’s struggling to find that form that made him valuable in playoff-type matchups before. It’s not a situation to take lightly, because like many veterans, Penny weighed the market last winter for another shot at the postseason.

Dombrowski: Every GM gets criticism

So we learned Friday night how manager Jim Leyland attached a little personal satisfaction to the Tigers’ AL Central title, because of the criticism that he took and the speculation early on that he wouldn’t be back next season. Saturday morning was the first chance for team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski to talk since the Tigers clinched Friday night. He wouldn’t go that far.

To him, it comes with the territory. He seemed to take offense to how few pundits and experts had predicted this summer that the Tigers would take over this division, but he didn’t make much of his own situation. The flip side of that, though, is that he didn’t try to take too much credit for all the July trades that worked out in the Tigers’ favor and helped turn them from a contending club into a division champion.

“Do I feel vindicated? Do I feel this? Do I feel that? No,” Dombrowski said, “but I think it’s a situation where it just kind of speaks to how delicate a situation it can be, what a balancing act it is. And you have to make the moves that you think are the right ones. And if you don’t, I think the worst thing you can do [is nothing] — because I’ve seen general managers do this — where all of a sudden they won’t pull the trigger because when they pull the trigger everybody’s on top of them, and then they end up eventually losing their jobs.

“Everybody’s going to make a trade that doesn’t work. Everybody’s going to make a decision that doesn’t work, if you make enough of them, because it’s not a scientific formula. … I think you do all your homework beforehand, but if you’re afraid to pull the trigger, you’re going to be in trouble. You’re not going to be successful. That’s just the way it is. And if you think that every one of them’s going to work, you’re going to be wrong. And you also have to understand there’s criticism that’s attached.”

Dombrowski used 2008 as an example, from the Edgar Renteria trade from Atlanta to the Jacque Jones deal with the Cubs, among others.

“We had a bad year in 2008, and everybody in the world picked us to win,” Dombrowski said. “We didn’t have the Midas touch that year. We made some moves that didn’t work out, and I know I scratched my head that wintertime and looked at those inside and out on why those things happened the way they did and we had meetings on it and discussed it inside and out.”

A year later, he said, they had a better year and contended, and they tried to bolster their case at the trade deadline. They thought they had. So did everybody else.

“To this day, in 2009, when we acquired Jarrod Washburn, I cannot tell you how happy I was and everybody in the organization was, and I remember how everybody praised it to the hilt,” Dombrowski said. “And it didn’t work. That’s why it’s a humbling game sometimes.”

He looked over that deal, no doubt, just as he did with the trade that brought them Aubrey Huff from Baltimore. Washburn had a knee injury that didn’t allow him to pitch down the stretch, when they were struggling to hold on. Huff didn’t work out for performance.

In either case, Dombrowski said, they try to break down the deals and pinpoint what went wrong. Sometimes, he said, it isn’t anything.

“Whose fault is it? Is it yours, that you acquired the guy? Is it the scouts that recommended him? Is it the manager who writes him in the lineup? Is it the players around him? Is it the player’s fault? I’ve never really figured that one out,” Dombrowski said, “because when you make the move, it’s the time where it’s the move to make. And it’s not like you don’t do your homework.

“So it’s a humbling game, and I think as a general manager, when you’re in that position, you just have to make moves and you have to do them the best you possibly can.”

Dombrowski pointed to the Curtis Granderson three-team trade as a rare example of a trade that worked out for all teams involved. The Tigers have clinched a postseason spot. The Yankees and Diamondbacks aren’t far behind.

“And every one of the guys [in the deal] are key guys,” Dombrowski said. “And I’m glad that the guys we traded are doing well, that Curtis is doing well and of course Edwin Jackson brought [Daniel] Hudson in return [for Arizona in another trade]. But our guys have done very well for us, too, and have been integral parts of why we’ve won.”

So have the deals Dombrowski worked out this summer, from the Wilson Betemit deal with Kansas City to the Doug Fister acquisition at the Trade Deadline and the Delmon Young trade with Minnesota last month.

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Dombrowski said. “If you think that [they all work], as soon as you think that, you’re going to get smacked down. If somebody in the game thinks they’re better than someone else, boom, it ultimately hits them right between the eyes. And any success that I would have is attributed to the people in the organization — having good scouts, having good people around, having guys like Al Avila and John Westhoff and Scott Reid and David Chadd and Dan Lunetta and those groups and all our Major League scouts. Those are the ones that make us successful.”

Cabrera quietly watches his team celebrate

To get an idea what this division title means for Miguel Cabrera, it’s best to think back to two years ago.

When the Tigers lost the tiebreaker that year, Cabrera sat in the clubhouse, his back hunched over, and cried openly. He felt like he had cost the team the division, a feeling more rooted in emotion than in fact. It took a bevy of teammates to console him.

As the Tigers celebrated Friday night, spraying champagne around the plastic-wrapped front half of the visiting clubhouse at Oakland Coliseum, Cabrera sat away from the crowd on the opposite side, watching it all as he puffed on a cigar and drank from a bottle of water. He had a look of pure contentment. He didn’t partake in the champagne, obviously, but he wasn’t partying regardless. He was soaking it all in.

“I have four years right now in Detroit,” he said. “Finally, we win the division. We’re here for this, man, to win. You have to give a lot of thanks to our owner, to our general manager. They put a lot of great guys here together. We finally made it, man.”

Just hours earlier, manager Jim Leyland said Cabrera was playing these days with more energy than he’s had all year. Cabrera didn’t argue. It’s the chance at the playoffs, he said, that brought it out of him. He hadn’t been to the postseason since he was a 20-year-old rookie with the 2003 Marlins. He badly wanted to get back, and he played like it.

When Cabrera caught Brandon Inge’s throw across the infield to retire Jose Willingham for the game’s final out Friday night, everyone was waiting to see how Jose Valverde would celebrate a title. Cabrera quietly made a sign and pointed to the sky to thank god.

“I feel great, man. I feel great. I’m happy,” Cabrera said. “We’re here for the fans, for the owner, for the general manager, for our manager. It feels awesome. It feels awesome we come through for our owner. We have a long way to go right now. We have to just keep playing hard. We have to keep winning and try to be ready for the playoffs.”

He was one of several already thinking to the playoffs. Justin Verlander was another. But he was one of many whose sustained intensity in September helped the Tigers get to this piont, clinching so soon.

Still, once they got here, he let everyone else act crazy. He just sat back and watched.

“We have a long way to go,” he said. “We know we have a good team. We battled all year. We know we can win the division, and we did it. We always play hard. It feels awesome, man.”

For Leyland, AL Central crown is personal

While the Tigers made a champagne-soaked, cigar-smelling mess of the visiting clubhouse at Oakland Coliseum, Jim Leyland was tucked away in the manager’s office, enjoying a cigar he received from closer Jose Valverde. He had his hugs from players and coaches, and he got his share from champagne spray from Carlos Guillen, Phil Coke and others.

“There was a bunch of them that nailed me,” he said.

But there in his office, with the Tigers’ first division title since 1987 now official, Leyland got a little vindication, too. And he wasn’t shy talking about it.

He looked back in amazement at what they had done, not just over the last two weeks, but over the last 4 1/2 months. They were eight games behind the Indians on May 3, and they’re up 13 1/2 games now, a 21 1/2-game turn over the course of 121 games. They went from questions whether they were already out of the division race to becoming the first team to clinch a division title this year.

And Leyland went from a manager on the speculative hot seat to a potential AL Manager of the Year candidate.

“I’m an emotional guy. We all know that,” Leyland said. “I have a very special satisfaction, personally, for obvious reasons. Probably lot of people didn’t think I’d be managing the Tigers next year at the start of the season.”

Leyland managed this season in the final year of his contract without any guarantee of an extension coming. He and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski were under pressure to win now. When they got off to a sub-.500 start, the questions rose whether he would make it.

As mentioned, they’ve outplayed everyone else in the division by far since then, including the longest streak by a Tigers team since 1934. And several players credited Leyland’s drive with turning this into such a long streak.

“Skip’s been saying, ‘Keep your foot on the pedal, on the gas pedal and keep going at the end,” Brandon Inge said. “That’s honestly what everyone’s done. You’ve got to admire the focus that everyone’s had here coming down the stretch. Just watching Miggy, Peralta, Victor, all those guys. They just kept going and kept going and never let off. Even when you have a big lead sometimes, you tend to let up. They kept going. Those guys are unbelievable.”

So did Leyland. Friday was a chance for him to take pride in the fact that he’s still standing.

“I’ve been around a long time. I don’t think any one is more special than any other. But you always find a reason to make this one special,” Leyland said. “This one’s special for me for personal reasons.”

He was then asked whether he wanted to show something to the baseball world.

“I don’t think I want to show the baseball world,” Leyland said. “I’m just glad I’m managing the Tigers next year, when probably a lot of people thought I wouldn’t be here. It sounds kind of selfish, and maybe it is, but that’s why it’s personal.”

Answering question about postseason rosters

The question came up by chance today, but it’s been asked by readers for the last week or so: Will the Tigers make any roster moves before Sept. 1 to make sure guys are eligible for postseason rosters?

The answer is that they don’t have to. As long as the Tigers have players on the disabled list at season’s end — and with Joel Zumaya and Brad Thomas, they’ll have two — they can technically use those spots to add players to the postseason roster who weren’t up with the team on Aug. 31. In past years, they would’ve had to use a pitcher to replace a pitcher on the DL. They no longer have to do that.

Thus, for example, if the Tigers were to want Andy Dirks on the roster for the Division Series as an extra roster, they can still wait until Sept. 1 or later to call him up. They can use the rule and “replace” Zumaya with Dirks, and use Thomas’ spot on somebody else. As long as they’re in the organization before Sept. 1, they can be used as a replacement.

Breaking down the fielder’s choice

To Brandon Inge, second base was the only option on Elliot Johnson’s ground ball, as you might have heard already.

“It’s very cut-and-dry: A ball hit to the left of you, you go to second base,” Inge said. “A ball hit dead at you, if you have the time, you go step on third, or go across the infield. But a ball to your left, you go to second base. That’s a fact.”

To manager Jim Leyland, Inge had other options.

“I thought there was an out probably at first, or probably at third,” Leyland said. “But that’s part of the game.”

To Ramon Santiago, he had to cover the bag.

“No doubt about it, I have to cover,” Santiago said. “Bases loaded and nobody covering, [Rodriguez] got a big lead off first. I got there as quickly as I can. It was close, but I think he was out.”

Somewhere in that mix, a potential inning-ending ground ball ended up being a walkoff fielder’s choice. Where that happened is up for debate.

Inge made a quick decision based on where he was positioned and what he saw. Whether he saw where Santiago was positioned when making his throw wasn’t clear. He threw it to the base, but Santiago was behind it and trying to catch up. I didn’t see a replay where Santiago was positioned and when he broke for the bag, but he said it was his immediate thought.

Sean Rodriguez, who beat Santiago to the bag, seemed to lean towards the covering the base part of the play.

“Inge got rid of it pretty good,” Rodriguez said, “but Santiago didn’t get there early enough, because the ball beat me there but he didn’t. His foot didn’t beat me there. … When I went to slide, I knew he wasn’t there yet.”

Regardless, it looks bad for everybody, of course. Inge and Santiago are the defensive options in the platoons at their respective positions. It doesn’t mean either of them are bad defenders, but it didn’t look like good execution. If it was, the game probably continues.

What Inge’s return means for Tigers

Brandon Inge’s return from exile will come a little earlier than expected. Not only will the Tigers purchase his contract from Triple-A Toledo Saturday, they’ll put him in the starting lineup against Indians lefty starter David Huff Saturday night. From there, a very interesting mix at third base is going to unfold for the stretch run.

Jim Leyland made the announcement on the Inge move, and he explained it as this: The Tigers expect to see four or five left-handed starters between now and Sept. 1, when Inge was expected to come up. Inge has been pounding left-handed pitching while with the Mud Hens, 15-for-38 (.395) with three home runs and nine RBIs against lefties when you add in his rehab assignment in June. Yes, those are Triple-A lefties rather than David Price, whom the Tigers are scheduled to face next week. But they’re also signs of a comfort level.

Though Wilson Betemit’s a switch-hitter, his splits are much stronger against righties (.313) than lefties (.238, 34 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances). He also had been giving up starts to Don Kelly for defensive purposes.

Leyland floated the idea Wednesday. He followed through on Friday.

The move to send down Andy Dirks is more procedural than performance. The Tigers can option him out and bring him back Sept. 1 with no problem, and they should might be able to get him eligible for a postseason roster spot if they choose, in case of a player on the DL. And with the slate of lefties they have ahead of them, though Dirks has fared pretty well against southpaws, they’re not going to sit Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young or Magglio Ordonez to get Dirks a spot against them.

Tigers finish up draft dealings with 33 picks signed

The Tigers officially announced the Tyler Gibson signing Tuesday, along with 18th-round pick Brett Harrison of Green Valley (Nevada) High School. Those two deadline deals wrap up their draft with 33 out of 50 selections signed, including everyone in the top 20 rounds. For a team that didn’t have a first-round pick and took some chances on some high schoolers on the second day, that’s a pretty good haul.

Supposedly there was some hope that the Tigers might be able to add one more big signing with Mitch Mormann, a big right-handed college pitcher who sat out the spring after transferring from LSU to Wichita State. But considering he paid his way at WSU this past year to work with coaches there and get back on track with his career, it can’t be a complete shock that he’d stick around. He turned down a 17th-round pick from the Giants in 2008 and a 20th-round pick from the Indians a year later.

The highest Tigers pick to not sign this year is 21st-rounder Scott Squier, a lanky left-hander who will play college ball at the University of Hawaii.

Harrison was also slated to play at Hawaii, but opted to turn pro instead. He gives the Tigers another potential third-base prospect.

Checking the schedule with Justin Verlander

Once again, Justin Verlander will take the mound in Kansas City Saturday night, bringing his 7-2 career record and 1.62 ERA at Kauffman Stadium with him along with an extra day of rest. Manager Jim Leyland kept his rotation in line after last Monday’s off-day to give him a little breather.

The question now is whether Leyland will do it again next week. The schedule suggests he will not.

The Tigers have another off-day coming up Monday before their three-game Central showdown in Cleveland Tuesday through Thursday. If Leyland keeps his rotation in order, Verlander would miss that series and start next Friday in Baltimore. For reference, here’s a link to the Tigers’ August schedule.

That was weighing on Leyland’s mind a couple days ago. He was looking not just at next week, but for several weeks down the line, including another series against the Indians at Comerica Park in two weeks — also following an off-day.

“He’s getting an extra day this time,” Leyland said Tuesday. “Next time’s up in the air. If he gets an extra day the next time, he’ll miss Cleveland.”

If Verlander starts on four days’ rest for the next three turns, he would pitch in both of those Tigers-Indians series. If he gets the extra day and misses next week’s series in Cleveland, it’s almost impossible for him to face the Indians when they come to Detroit.

Makes sense, right? The main reason there would be a question is the schedule after that. Thanks to a Sept. 1 makeup game against the Royals, the Tigers have 20 games in 20 days from Aug. 18 to Sept. 7. If you’re going to rest him up before the stretch run, these next couple weeks are the time to do it. After Aug. 18, the Tigers have just two off-days on the rest of the regular-season schedule.

“I’m working real hard on my rotation right now to figure some things out,” Leyland said. “It could get pretty tricky, so I’m working real hard on that to make sure. We do the best we can, but obviously you don’t him missing some teams if you can help him. But we’d never do anything at the expense of his health.”

This is the time of year when Verlander wants to be his strongest, the time when Verlander’s training really makes a difference. He leads the majors in innings pitched and pitches thrown, but he has done that the last couple years.

I’m not saying Leyland will or won’t do it. I suspect Leyland’s leaning towards making sure he faces Cleveland, but I don’t know that. He brought up the issue himself, not me. But we’ll see.

The next question, albeit a smaller one, is how Leyland would shuffle his rotation if he did move up Verlander. The way the rotation order goes right now, Thursday’s series finale at Cleveland is Rick Porcello’s day to pitch. He was skipped a couple times early this season, but he wasn’t on a roll then like he is now. The Tigers could skip him again, or they can move him to Friday at Baltimore. If it’s the latter, they can give others an extra day, or another pitcher could get skipped.

Another Tigers trade? Maybe, but not big

Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski didn’t rule out another trade before Sunday afternoon’s non-waiver Trade Deadline. But judging from his remarks, if something does happen, it’s likely to be a smaller swap. The roster, for the most part, is set.

“I don’t know if we’ll do anything,” Dombrowski said Saturday afternoon after announcing the trade for Doug Fister and David Pauley.

“I mean, we continue to talk to people, see if there’s ways to make our club better. Again, you never tell what comes out of the blue at this point. Anything can come out of the blue. But our starting pitching, we feel this solidifies our starting rotation. We’re not going to make any moves with our positional players. The way our club settles is the way it is. I guess if there’s one spot that came out of the blue, it might be a bullpen situation, but if we finished here, we’d be happy.”

The Tigers reportedly remain in the mix for Colorado starter Ubaldo Jimenez, but it’s difficult to see them pulling off a deal unless the Rockies’ asking price drops dramatically. After reports Friday night suggested the Rockies wanted Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, Dombrowski said Saturday that any trade discussion involving their current starters is and has been a non-starter.

“We have never, ever contemplated trading anybody off our starting staff at this level,” Dombrowski said. “That never has been part of any conversations. Have we been asked for that? Yes. Have we ever contemplated or talked about that? No.

“And when you really stop and think about it, it would make no sense whatsoever, because you’re trying to plug a hole and you just created another hole.”

Conceivably, the Tigers could trade a starter and upgrade to another starter now that Fister is in the fold. But the core group of the Tigers rotation looks very much intact. When Dombrowski talked about his starting staff and where Turner fits in, he talked about them as a long-term group.

Ace Justin Verlander is under contract for three more seasons. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer don’t hit free agency until the same time. With that in mind, part of the appeal for the Tigers with Fister was that they can keep him for four more years after this before he can become a free agent.

“We’re very happy,” Dombrowski said. “All of a sudden, you look forward and we’re in a spot where you have Verlander and Scherzer and Porcello, who we can see now starting to dial it up like he’s capable, and Fister, who’s a very good pitcher. Four young guys, four guys for an extended period, and we still have Jacob Turner behind them.”

The most likely area for a last-second deal would be the bullpen, where Charlie Furbush’s trade to Seattle removes arguably the most versatile piece of Detroit’s relief corps. More than a long reliever, Furbush was finding his way into specialist situations at times after moving out of the rotation, given his high-strikeout arsenal.

Daniel Schlereth now appears likely to stick around along with Phil Coke, but the Tigers still have to help David Purcey rediscover his command given his recent spat of walks. They could also yet find a seventh-inning arm to complement Al Alburquerque, who remains unavailable while the team medical staff addresses inflammation around his right elbow.

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