Jacob Turner was set to start for Double-A Erie on Saturday at Akron against Drew Pomeranz in a matchup of two of baseball’s top pitching prospects. It was going to be a scout’s delight, especially if that scout happened to be with the Rockies, whose ace Ubaldo Jimenez has drawn interest from Detroit and Cleveland.
Sounds like quite a showcase, except that Turner won’t be starting for Erie on Saturday, according to a source. Drew Smyly, the highly-regarded Tigers draft pick from last year who had been promoted to start for Erie on Sunday, will start on Saturday instead. It would’ve been his day to pitch on normal rest if he had stayed at Class A Lakeland anyway.
As for Turner, his whereabouts are unknown. He isn’t in Akron with the SeaWolves, having left the team Friday, and Tigers officials weren’t answering questions about his status Friday night. SI.com’s Jon Heyman reported early Saturday morning that the Tigers are calling up Turner. But Duane Below, the Tigers’ scheduled starter for Saturday, was spotted in the Tigers clubhouse after Friday’s game, and he wasn’t seen packing his bags.
That leaves three possibilities:
- Turner could be on the verge of being traded. A report from Foxsports.com’s Ken Rosenthal stated the Tigers are now willing to deal Jacob Turner in a package for Jimenez. But a report later Friday from Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com suggested the Tigers were out of the running for Jimenez for now. Unless the Tigers get a top pitching target for longer than a two-month rental, it’s unlikely they would trade Turner, who’s expected to compete for a rotation spot next spring.
- Turner could indeed be on the verge of joining the Tigers. Detroit just happened to move him up in Erie’s rotation over the All-Star break so that his start conveniently fell on the same day as the Tigers’ fifth spot currently held by Below. Tigers officials still said at the time that he wasn’t a consideration, but sources suggested there was some serious thought on the matter. At the very least, he became an insurance option. He has better stuff than most pitchers available on the trade market, and the Tigers ended Friday with seemingly no clear path on their trade pursuits.
- Turner is away from the team for other reasons. As crazy as that sounds, it’s conceivable if a family issue popped up or he had other personal reasons.
The day the Tigers introduced newly-signed Brad Penny to local media on a conference call back in February, Penny went out of his way to praise Victor Martinez, with whom he had worked in Boston two years earlier:
“What I liked about Victor is he was never negative in any way,” Penny said. “If you’re struggling and he comes out to the mound and talks to you, it’s all positive. I mean, you can see he just knows you’re going to get out of it and do good. You can see it in his eyes. I mean, like I said before, what a great teammate. You guys are going to be really impressed with him as a person, not only as a player.”
On Thursday, after Penny gave up seven runs on nine hits over 3 1/3 innings, he was trying to defuse what became a very public disagreement between him and Martinez on the mound in the middle of his fourth and final inning.
“He hadn’t caught me in a while,” Penny said. “It had nothing to do with pitch selection or anything like that. With a runner on second, I like come set taking signs. That way, the hitter can’t look at second base and anything there. I’ve pitched my whole career that way and he didn’t want me to do it. I know there’s no other way for me. I guess it’s a habit. It’s natural. I’ve done it my whole career. It’s not that big of a deal. Me and Victor have been friends for a while now and that happens when you’re competing.
“It’s not that he wasn’t used to catching me. That had nothing to do with pitch selection or how I pitched today. It was totally the complete opposite of that. It was just when I was coming set taking signs.”
Martinez, for his part, wasn’t talking about it.
The calendar shows Penny has a point: Martinez hadn’t caught him since June 26 against Arizona. Alex Avila had caught Penny’s past four starts until Thursday. That said, pitchers and catchers have disagreements around baseball, and very few of them result in them yelling in each other’s direction.
There’s no sign of any escalating problem between Penny and Martinez, or Penny and anybody. But it seems entirely safe to read a frustrated Penny. If that back-and-forth didn’t show enough, Penny’s handing of the ball to Lloyd McClendon before he even reached the mound to make the pitching change two batters later probably did. He has taken a beating his last two starts, and Thursday’s loss saw him give up his second-highest total of extra-base hits this season. His ERA rose from 4.51 to 4.89.
Penny has had good and bad second-half numbers over the years, so there’s nothing consistent to read there. But his location issues over the last couple starts have been problematic. He had the time to work those out last start, and he eventually settled down to go seven innings. His problems in the fourth weren’t going to allow him that luxury this time. His frustration level Thursday was unlike anything he had shown all year.
No team chemistry problems have been obvious; in fact, Penny has been anything but isolated in the clubhouse. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how this incident plays out in his next few starts. The Tigers can’t catch Avila every game, and Martinez has caught Penny more than he has caught any other starter. If Martinez and Penny don’t work together for a while, he’ll have to catch Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello or the fifth starter, because Avila and Justin Verlander simply work together too well to break up.
The Tigers medical staff checked out Al Alburquerque this morning at Comerica Park, but no information was available as of game time. He was at the ballpark this morning, but disappeared into the training room area of the Tigers clubhouse. So at this point, we’re hoping for an update after the game.
Two interesting factors to consider:
- The immediate concern is how long, if at all, he’ll be out, and how long the Tigers can go without him before they have to consider calling up somebody. From a numbers and workload standpoint, the Tigers bullpen is fine. But take away Alburquerque even for a day or two, and as Wednesday showed, it leaves first-year pro Chance Ruffin as the only right-hander available before the eighth inning.
- If Alburquerque’s elbow has resurfaced as a concern, do the Tigers have to look into more relief help before Sunday’s non-waiver trade deadline? Even if it’s a short-term absence, the off and on issues make the elbow a longer-term concern. The Tigers popped up in rumors about Orioles reliever Koji Uehara the other day, and that was before this issue. Detroit wouldn’t necessarily need a setup man as insurance, but simply a middle reliever might end up being something to consider. That said, the Tigers have seen Phil Coke as an effective reliever against left- and right-handed hitters alike. The two options for right-handed help from the farm would be Ryan Perry and Lester Oliveros, but Detroit essentially said Ruffin was a better option than Oliveros when making Sunday’s move.
The Tigers remain on the lookout for a starting pitcher on the trade market, but they decided they couldn’t wait any longer to find some offense at third base. Detroit swung a deal Wednesday to add veteran infielder Wilson Betemit from Kansas City for prospects Antonio Cruz and Julio Rodriguez.
The move fills a void at the hot corner, where Brandon Inge’s struggles — first with mononucleosis, then with his bat and energy level since — had become a lingering issue. It also puts Brandon Inge’s future as the longest-tenured current Tiger into question.
“We like Betemit,” Dombrowski said. “We feel like he upgrades us at third base at this time. We’re in a position where, you know, we’ve scuffled offensively at that spot.”
Once a highly-touted infield prospect with the Braves, Betemit has found a fit as a corner infielder with some pop, bouncing around teams. His .297 averagewith 20 doubles, 13 home runs and 43 RBIs in 84 games last year with Kansas City helped him find a fit there.
That put the 29-year-old Betemit in a position to get a good share of playing time with the Royals at the start of this season. However, he was a placeholder for Royals third-base prospect Mike Moustakas. Once Kansas City called him up last month, Betemit was out of a role.
Betemit batted .281 (57-for-203) this year with 15 doubles, three homers and 27 RBIs. His .750 OPS is 139 points lower than last year, but higher than in any season since 2007.
By comparison, five different Tigers had combined at third base for a .186 average, a .500 OPS, two home runs, 27 RBIs and 79 strikeouts in 334 at-bats.
“He has swung the bat well the last couple years with Kansas City,” Dombrowski said. “He’s a very solid third baseman. He’s got a good arm over there, probably a little bit better left-handed hitter than right-handed hitter, but he is a switch-hitter and he’s got pop on both sides of the plate. He puts fear in us any time he comes to the plate, can drive in a run.
“He’s going to be hitting at the bottom of the lineup, so it’s a spot where all of a sudden you have a guy like that down below that can add, from an offensive perspective, we feel good about that.”
He’ll get a good share of at-bats to build on those numbers in Detroit.
Betemit is working on a one-year contract worth $1 million for the season.
Dombrowski hinted that they had been working on other options at third base. Those options dried up, though, and with Inge’s 0-for-4 game Wednesday dropping his average to .177 on the season, the Tigers made their move.
“It’s a tough situation,” Dombrowski said. “Brandon has done a lot for the organization. We would not have signed him this winter if we didn’t think he was going to come out and he was going to do very well for us, or do solidly. We never projected him to be a .300 hitter, but thought he’s come out and be a guy that could hit .230 or .240 with some home runs and play real good defense and maybe drive in runs. It hasn’t happened this year, and I think we’re at the point where playing him every day, we just don’t see it happening right now.”
The aforementioned contract was a two-year, $11.5 million deal signed last November, which plays a big role in any decision the Tigers make on Inge. Judging from Dombrowski’s remarks, it appears contracts played a role in the Tigers’ trade options as well.
“It’s just come to a point where it’s decision time in the sense that you get to July 31 and you may not be able to make a move,” Dombrowski said. “I was talking to a couple other clubs, but one primarily about a third baseman that isn’t going to go anywhere, so really your choices at third base are really limited if you’re going to do something. So we didn’t want to get caught where we were sitting there and you come to July 31 and all of a sudden you say, ‘Well, he’s still scuffling at this point, what do we do at this time?” It was the right time to make the move and Kansas City was willing to do it.”
Betemit is scheduled to join the team on Thursday in Minnesota, where the Tigers will open a four-game series against the Twins. Dombrowski said they’ll add Betemit to the active roster then. They have the room on the 40-man roster to fit him, but they’ll have to take somebody off the 25-man roster to create space.
Dombrowski also deferred questions about Inge’s future role on the team to Thursday.
It’s an off-day for the Tigers, who worked out tonight at Comerica Park, but it’s still a news day. It’s also a game day for Double-A Erie, where Jacob Turner has rejoined the club after pitching in the All-Star Futures Game Sunday at Phoenix and the Eastern League All-Star Game Wednesday in New Hampshire.
When Turner talked in Phoenix, he said his next start for Erie was slated for July 18, giving him some extra rest. That plan has changed in recent days. Turner will start for the SeaWolves tomorrow (Friday), despite pitching an inning in the Eastern League All-Star Game two days earlier.
Coincidentally, the Tigers have an open spot in their rotation five days later, the normal time between starts. But it’s difficult to see a pitching prospect being moved up two days in the rotation by a team with an open spot as a coincidence.
That doesn’t mean that Turner is the choice to start next Wednesday. Charlie Furbush started Thursday for Triple-A Toledo, and he remains a strong option to return to Detroit. Duane Below, who takes a 9-4 record and 3.06 ERA into his start for the Mud Hens on Friday, also appears to be an option. There’s also the trade route, though it would be difficult to line up somebody from another team’s rotation to come in and start on that short notice. There are no indications yet that the Tigers have set their plans for next Wednesday.
Even if Furbush starts next Wednesday, that doesn’t necessarily solve the issue beyond that. By moving up Turner, the Tigers put him in line with that fifth spot for the foreseeable future. If Furbush has another rough outing, the Tigers could take the chance and start Turner. But if the Tigers go to Turner, it isn’t likely to be for just a spot start. That’s where this juggling act gets tricky, and why the Tigers are taking their time on this. If Furbush starts and the Tigers later trade for a starter or opt for Turner, Furbush can go the bullpen. They won’t do that shuffle with Turner.
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 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.
Jim Leyland doesn’t argue very many calls, at least not as many as his personality would suggest. If he’s coming out of the dugout to talk with an umpire, he’s more likely looking for an explanation than a fight. He knows he isn’t going to change anybody’s mind, so what’s the point? He doesn’t believe in ejections as motivational tools for his team.
And then there are times like Monday.
There was Leyland, arms flailing, head bobbing as he shouted at Ed Rapuano. There was rookie outfielder Andy Dirks in the background of the camera shot, and it was hard to tell if he was looking on in shock or trying to keep a straight face.
Yes, I remember when Leyland took an argument into the seventh inning stretch and stopped for God Bless America before picking it up. I also remember Leyland last August at Yankee Stadium and hearing the famous line, “They’re going to the playoffs, I ain’t going anywhere.”
To me, Monday topped that. The theatrics are the difference. There was a split second when I half-expected Leyland to stomp on first base. Thankfully, he didn’t.
It wasn’t the call he was arguing, but the method in which the call was reached. And that actually contributed to the theatrics.
This is what Jim Leyland was talking about when he talked about Verlander meeting his potential for so many years, when he talked about how good he can be. He obviously wasn’t the only one.
Verlander has gone on tears during June before. He has said in the past that he believes he had better stuff in the start before his no-hitter in 2007, starting a stretch in which he won four straight starts with four runs on 16 hits allowed over 29 innings, and struck out 35.
This is something different. If not for a 24-pitch eighth inning, he would’ve had a chance at his third straight complete game and his third shutout of the year. He’s 6-0 with a 0.72 ERA over his last six starts, allowing just 26 hits and five walks over 49 2/3 innings with 51 strikeouts.
Stretch it out to 10 starts, beginning with the no-hitter at Toronto, and he’s 8-0 with a 1.56 ERA, 43 hits allowed over 80 2/3 innings, nine walks and 73 strikeouts.
He’s leaving hitters guessing whether they’re going to get a hard fastball or a curveball that he drops in the strike zone. And on Saturday, you can make the case that the curveball was the more dangerous pitch. He threw the curve for a higher percentage of strikes (19-for-25, 76 percent) than he did with the fastball (33-for-50, 66 percent), according to brooksbaseball.net and MLB.com Gameday.
He threw eight of nine sliders for strikes, and 16-for-25 changeups.
The run he’s on is better than any stretch Jack Morris had in 1984. It was better than Mark Fidrych’s eight wins in eights in 1976, though it’s hard to top an 11-inning complete game.
To get a stretch like this, you might have to go back to Mickey Lolich in 1972. From April 25 to May 21, he went 7-0 in seven starts with a 1.14 ERA, allowing 48 hits over 63 innings, with 15 walks and 48 walks. And even that might not compare.
A month ago, it would’ve been difficult to envision Jim Leyland turning to Al Alburquerque to protect a lead with the bases loaded. He can get a strikeout when he needs one, but the risk of backfire with a walk and no base open would just be too big the way he was pitching.
If Leyland had some alternatives, he might not be turning to him either. But with Joaquin Benoit pitching setup and Jose Valverde closing, and four left-handers in the bullpen, Alburquerque is the only right-hander available for the seventh inning or earlier.
“The point is,” Leyland said, “who do you bring in?”
For more reasons than one, Leyland has to watch his situations with Alburquerque. For better or for worse, Thursday was one. Alberquerque’s fly out from Adam Everett for the third out made it for the better.
It isn’t a situation where a strikeout is any better than an out put in play, but under the circumstances, Leyland felt Alburquerque had the best chance at an out there. He could’ve let Scherzer face Everett and put in a lefty against Sizemore, but he didn’t want to wait for that.
Alburquerque needed two sliders to get Everett. The first, he spotted for strike one. The second got a swing and a fly ball. He stayed on to pitch the seventh, albeit with a pair of 3-0 counts, and handed the lead to Benoit for the eighth.
It marked Alburquerque’s first string of pitching back-to-back days since the end of May, and his first string of three outings in four days in nearly a month. It’s a little unusual for an improving young reliever, but Leyland has to protect the arm right now.
“I got a little problem one week ago in my elbow,” Alburquerque said after Thursday’s game.
It was pain, Alburquerque said, when he threw his slider. That’s not necessarily unusual. But for someone whose slider unusually accounts for more than half of his pitches, obviously, that’s not good. But some rehab work with the medical staff, he said, has it feeling better.
It puts a little extra importance on the fastball, potentially to keep him from throwing too many sliders and putting too much more stress on the elbow. If he’s going to throw the fastball, he has to command it.
“Right now, I’m trying to come back with my fastball,” Alburquerque said. “I got sometimes scared to trust my slider. I tried to come back working with my two-seamer, too.”
Alburquerque hasn’t given up a run over his last 10 outings, covering nine innings in which he has struck out 16.
It’s an interesting factor for a bullpen that doesn’t have anyone else who can do quite what he can. At some point, the Tigers are going to add a right-handed reliever. Ideally, it would be Ryan Perry, if he can show he has fixed his early-season issues at Triple-A Toledo. If that doesn’t happen, though, it isn’t hard to envision right-handed middle relief on the Tigers’ priority list before the July 31 trade deadline.