Scott Miller's Starting 9: Star-Studded Tigers Face Reality of Missing Playoffs

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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Star-Studded Tigers Face Reality of Missing Playoffs
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1. Tigers, Tigers, not burning so bright

Just when Motown was grooving on David Price, CLANK! Detroit’s assembly line of victories and good fortune suddenly came screeching to a halt.

Not that the past 48 hours have been a Tabby Nightmare, but it’s as if that giant statue of Joe Louis’ fist downtown suddenly clocked the Tigers in the chops. The Kansas City Royals, winners of eight in a row and 16 of 19, seized first place Monday night. Really? Are you kidding?

Fraid not.

The Tigers suffered terrible twin blows with the losses of starter Anibal Sanchez (strained pectoral muscle) and reliever Joakim Soria (strained muscle in left side). Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Justin Verlander walked off in Pittsburgh Monday night with a sore shoulder after just one inning.

Both Sanchez and Soria could miss a month, which could present a crown-jewel sized problem in Detroit given the hard-charging Royals. And that’s even before Verlander has been fully diagnosed. He is scheduled for an MRI exam Tuesday in Detroit.

Add to that a 19-inning loss to Toronto on Sunday that shredded the pitching staff, and it’s high-alert-status time in Detroit. The Tigers desperately needed help from Verlander on Monday after that to give their bullpen a blow. Instead, he turned in the shortest start of his career.

Is it really pawsable—er, plausible—that the Tigers’ run of AL Central titles could come to an end? And, right now they're only one game ahead of the Mariners for the second AL wild-card slot. Yikes!

There is a lot of hardball left to play before leaping to conclusions, but there is no question it’s all hands on deck now for manager Brad Ausmus’ team. And while the Tigers scuffle, the Royals brightened themselves up quite a bit by acquiring slugger Josh Willingham from the Twins on Monday.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Willingham is expected to serve mostly as Kansas City’s designated hitter now that Billy Butler is playing first base in the absence of Eric Hosmer (fractured right hand). Hosmer likely will not return until next month.

"Veteran guy, good bat, good guy in the clubhouse," Colorado first baseman Justin Morneau, Willingham’s former teammate in Minnesota, says of Kansas City’s new find.

As for the Tigers after the past few days, their pitching at the moment is more scrambled than the eggs at your favorite breakfast joint. Lefty Robbie Ray will start Tuesday in Pittsburgh in place of Rick Porcello, whose scheduled start was scratched when he was called on for two-plus innings of emergency relief Sunday.

Ray originally was scheduled to start Wednesday. Now Buck Farmer, who sounds like either a rock singer or cartoon character, will start Wednesday. Max Scherzer goes Thursday, Porcello Friday, Price Saturday and it’s all TBD after that.

"I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous," Verlander told reporters Monday night. "I’ve never been through this before."

Compounding matters is a sluggish lineup that, since the All-Star break into this week, ranked tied for 15th in the majors in batting average (.250), 20th in on-base percentage (.306) and 22nd in slugging percentage (.363). Through the first eight games of Detroit’s current nine-game trip, Miguel Cabrera was hitting .219 (7-for-32) with no homers.

Yes, it’s an endurance test now for the Tigers, whose six-hour, 37-minute game in Toronto on Sunday was their second-longest since 1914, according to baseball-reference.com, trailing only a 22-inning game at Yankee Stadium on June 24, 1962, that lasted seven hours.

The Tigers schedule over the final seven weeks ranks as the second-toughest in the American League behind the Orioles, measured by games against opponents whose record is above .500.

At this rate, you can circle two September series included in that: the Royals in Detroit Sept. 8-10, and the Tigers in Kansas City Sept. 19-21.

 

2. Will Javier Baez, the Cubs and World Series belong in same sentence one day?

Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Opening week of the season. Press box dining room at Angel Stadium. Dinner at a table with five or six scouts, most of whom covered Cactus League spring training.

Simple question: "What was the most impressive thing you saw this spring?"

Immediately, the words barely out of my mouth, two of the scouts gave the exact same answer: Javier Baez.

On and on they went. His bat. His presence. His ceiling.

To hear them talk, this guy will be ticketed for the Hall of Fame by the time he’s through.

Then came his debut last Tuesday, when he belted a 12th-inning, game-winning home run in Colorado.

It was only the fourth time in history that a player smashed a go-ahead or game-winning homer in extra innings in his major league debut: The Marlins’ Miguel Cabrera did it in 2003, the Twins’ Kent Hrbek in 1981 and the Angels’ Billy Parker in 1971.

Not to put too fine a point on the hype, but you’ll notice two of those three, Cabrera and Hrbek, wound up as centerpieces for World Series-winning teams (Cabrera’s Marlins in 2003, Hrbek’s Twins in 1987 and 1991).

Whether or not Baez can help bring a World Series title to Wrigley Field for the first time ever—and to the Cubs for the first time since 1908—remains an awfully tall order. But it is easy to see why, during a discussion on Chicago’s WGN radio recently, hosts Glen Kozlowski and Andy Masur told me that Cubs fans this summer have been paying closer attention to what’s happening in Triple-A Iowa than in Wrigley Field.

And they were speaking lucidly enough that I don’t think their tongues were in cheek even a little bit.

Reduce the buzz around the Iowa Cubs even by half when factoring in excessive hype, and it’s still not difficult to see great things happening in this organization by 2016.

We’ve seen a touch of Arismendy Alcantara already, who was moved from second base to center field last week to make room for Baez. Meantime, third baseman Kris Bryant and right fielder Jorge Soler continue raking at Iowa. And shortstop Addison Russell (obtained from Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel deal), starting pitcher C.J. Edwards (obtained from the Rangers in last summer’s Matt Garza trade) and center fielder Albert Almora are on deck at Double-A Tennessee.

Alcantara was rated as the 100th-best prospect in the game entering 2014 by Baseball America. The other six all ranked among the top 41 prospects: Baez fifth, Bryant eighth, Russell 14th, Edwards 28th, Almora 36th and Soler 41st. For more on them, check out Mike Rosenbaum’s piece here

Add them to Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, and the biggest question that pops up is what kind of pitching will they be playing behind? With the debuts of Baez and Alcantara, and with the rest of the pipeline starting to flow, you could see the wheels turning when the Cubs acquired Jacob Turner, 23, a former first-round pick (9th overall to Tigers in 2009) from the Marlins.

Not that Turner, who was 4-7 with a 5.97 ERA in 20 games (12 starts) for the Marlins, is the answer. But clearly, it is time for the Cubs to begin searching in earnest for starting pitchers who could be part of the answer.

Baez, through his first six games, is hitting .273 (9-for-33) with three homers and six RBI.

It’s enough to dream on, especially on a sunny afternoon, this summer in Wrigley Field.

 

3. Now taking the baton from Bud Selig…

Ricardo Arduengo/Associated Press

Circle Thursday as perhaps one of the most historic days in major league history: It is then, on the final day of this week’s owners meetings in Baltimore, that Bud Selig’s successor is expected to be named.

Owners are scheduled to vote Thursday, and assuming one of the candidates receives a minimum of 23 votes (of the 30 club owners), then the game’s first commissioner not named Selig in 22 years officially will be on deck.

The three finalists, first reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today:

Rob Manfred, who has spent the past 15 years as executive vice-president of labor relations and quarterbacked, from the owner’s side, the past three labor agreements.

Tim Brosnan, a 23-year veteran of the commissioner’s office who has been involved in the business of baseball outside of the lines: every major broadcasting, licensing and sponsorship issue for the past several years, as well as being instrumental in working toward globalizing the game.

Tom Werner, a Red Sox owner for the past 12 years who previously owned, disastrously, the Padres.

Manfred widely has been viewed as Selig’s personal choice to succeed him and the odds-on favorite.

Meantime, given the way Werner systematically dismantled the early 1990s Padres and was the guy who brought Roseanne Barr in for the infamous screeching and crotch-grabbing rendition of the national anthem, it will be an outrage if he squeezes into the post.

 

4. The skinny on the Padres’ new GM

It is a bold, calculated risk, and good for the Padres.

A.J. Preller, 37, does not exactly have a household name. But San Diego’s new general manager has fingerprints all over the Texas Rangers’ farm system, particularly in the fertile, international pipeline the club has established into Latin America.

What the Padres wanted was a point man in the baseball operations department with cred in both evaluating talent and in international scouting. Preller, who comes with a reputation as one of the most maniacal, hardest-working men in the game, brings that.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

He is not cut from the same GM-to-be cloth as so many of the game’s other young executives. More at home in Bermuda shorts and a floppy hat in the hot Dominican Republic sun than in the coats and ties of the front office, Preller helped land, among others, Jurickson Profar, Leonys Martin and Rougned Odor for the Rangers. He helped bring Yu Darvish over from Japan.

For a San Diego team with a farm system just getting back up to speed, and an organization that has seen zero production from its Dominican academy, Preller should be just what the doctor ordered.

"I want Padres fans to understand that it's not going to be smooth sailing from Day 1," Preller said at last Wednesday’s introductory press conference. "But I can promise you we're going to have the hungriest, hard-working group of employees in the game. I feel pretty confident that once we get going in that direction, we're going to be doing some pretty special things here."

 

5. The re-arming of the Mets

Jacob deGrom’s sore shoulder is only the latest reminder that you never know how things will turn out. With any dose of good luck at all, the Mets will find that it is just a minor scare, especially after losing Matt Harvey to Tommy John surgery.

Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

But there are enough good things happening here that a scout offered this, unsolicited, the other day: "Watch the Mets. They’re going to be really good in two years. That young pitching is legit."

Harvey, deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee…you can see it coming.

 

6. Late night, big boom

Most shocking part of the Angels’ epic 5-4 win over the Red Sox Saturday night and into the wee hours Sunday?

Not that the game went 19 innings.

Not that it took six hours and 31 minutes to play (second-longest game in Angels history in terms of time, longest for the Red Sox since 2001).

Not that it finished at 12:39 a.m. Sunday.

No, the most shocking part was that when Albert Pujols won it with a replay-reviewed homer that bounced off the top of the right-center field fence in the 19th, it was Pujols’ first walk-off homer since joining the Angels.

It came in his 367th game in Anaheim. In St. Louis, Pujols belted 10 walk-off homers in 11 seasons.

 

7. Derek Jeter and Sabermetrics

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

While the sabermetrics crowd has been among Derek Jeter’s loudest critics during his well-decorated career, he is returning the favor before he retires.

While passing Honus Wagner for sixth place on baseball’s all-time hits list—he now trails only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker—Jeter told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post that he’s always tried to be an all-around player, and that something has been lost in today’s game:

I’ve always tried to do everything on the field to help the team try to win. In all different ways, offensively, defensively, moving runners up to score a run. That’s how you win games. You can take all these formulas and stuff and throw it out the window.

When Kernan suggested to Jeter that the approach is getting lost in today’s game, Jeter fired another broadside: "It’s been lost since they started coming up with all these formulas."

 

8. Forget counting sheep, count pitches instead

The Angels and Red Sox played 19 innings Saturday, the Tigers and Blue Jays duplicated that feat Sunday.

According to statistics guru Bill Chuck of Billy-Ball (per GammonsDaily.com), in Toronto the Jays and Tigers used eight pitchers apiece, and the 16 combined to throw 629 total pitches. In Anaheim, the Sox and Angels used nine pitchers each, and the 18 combined to throw 558 total pitches.

The Tigers (325), Jays (304) and Angels (286) now rank Nos. 1, 2 and 3 for most pitches thrown in a game this season, with the Rockies (282 in a 16-inning game July 29 against the Cubs) fourth and the Indians (278 in a 14-inning game against the Diamondbacks on June 24) fifth.

 

9. Love is in the air, but a Tigers cap is not

There are some things in the baseball world that you absolutely, positively should not miss. This is one of them: The Yankees allegedly barred Kate Upton from wearing a Tigers cap last week in Yankee Stadium. As she put it, she’s literally sleeping with the enemy, Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, and the Yankees didn’t appreciate it. But don’t take it from me, take it from the lovely Kate herself.

 

9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week

Ah, Kate. Ah, Justin…

She wrote a long letter

On a short piece of paper

— Traveling Wilburys, Margarita

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here.

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