Scott Miller's Starting 9: Road to World Series Runs Through AL Central

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistFebruary 21, 2017

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Detroit Tigers players and coaches huddle together on the field for a meeting during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown complex on February 18, 2017 in Lakeland, Florida.  (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

LAKELAND, Fla. Central Park, Central Office, Central Champions...

1. Of Beer, Changing Stripes, Mr. I and Sunset Clauses

Three consecutive American League pennant winners, and four of the past five, have come from the rugged AL Central.

"We're hoping it's five out of six this year," Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus says. "And we're hoping this year, it's somebody different."

The Tigers started the division's sprint to October with their 2012 World Series appearance under Ausmus' predecessor, Jim Leyland. Before they get too old and gray, they're aiming to make one last bit of noise.

Yeah, they've heard a lot over the past year about how their window is closing. Given Victor Martinez's banged-up body, Miguel Cabrera's increasing age (33), consistent bullpen crashes and Jordan Zimmermann's lingering neck injury last year, everyone wants to measure how much it's closing.

Veteran backup catcher Alex Avila offers a flip-side argument.

"It's still open," he says: "This team missed the playoffs by a game last year [actually, the Tigers finished 2.5 games out of an AL wild-card slot]. It battled through quite a bit of health issues. A lot of times that comes down to luck. J.D. Martinez running into a wall and breaking his elbow."

Zimmermann, who signed a five-year, $110 million free-agent contract before the 2016 season, battled into late June before a pinched nerve and degenerative neck condition essentially cost him two-and-a-half months and wrecked his season. He made just four appearances after the All-Star break, and the Tigers lost all four. During the winter, after several examinations and tests, a doctor prescribed a nerve block that has Zimmermann feeling hopeful.

"I feel good and strong," Zimmermann tells B/R. "Everything, throwing-wise, is as planned. I don't feel anything in the neck and shoulder."

Through the end of last May, Zimmermann was 7-2 with a 2.52 ERA. When we talked last week in the Tigers' beautiful and spacious remodeled spring clubhouse, he called that stretch "about the best I've pitched in my career."

Then came the neck pain and the related shoulder discomfort.

"It was a really, really tough year, the toughest in my career," says Zimmerman, 30.

Says Ausmus: "He started out of the gate well, but when you have an injury, you can get through it for one day, maybe two, maybe a handful of games. But eventually, it wears on you. Eventually, you dread throwing the ball because you know the pain is going to be there."

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers looks on and smiles during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown complex on February 18, 2017 in Lakeland, Florida.  (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

Michael Fulmer's Rookie of the Year push became a bright spot, and Justin Verlander's comeback was so strong that he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting behind former teammate Rick Porcello.

But early in the offseason, general manager Al Avila suggested it was perhaps time to retool, hinting he would reduce payroll and look to infuse youth into the roster. The Tigers discussed trading second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Los Angeles Dodgers, according to B/R sources, but eventually stood pat.

While it may be a mild surprise the Tigers are starting spring training with essentially the same team they had last year (minus outfielder Cameron Maybin, whom they traded to the Los Angeles Angels), it isn't to everyone.

"As the winter developed, I got less and less surprised," Avila tells B/R. "I never said we were going to cut payroll just to cut payroll. I said if the opportunity to make a trade for younger players who could help us now and in the future and would make our payroll leaner, then yes, I would do it. But those kinds of trades just didn't develop once the basic agreement was agreed to.

"A lot of teams were doing what we wanted to do: get younger and keep their younger players. Guys like we have, proven major leaguers, didn't have the value we thought they would have. The players who had value were the young guys. Frankly, it wasn't a good market to play in. So we decided to stay the course.

"Mr. I [late owner Mike Ilitch, who passed away earlier this month] could have said to dump salary and go get A-ball players. That didn't happen, and that is a positive."

Avila stressed this Tigers team is not old, noting they have several "major league players in their prime" along with "a few older players and a few younger players."

It is an emotional time in Detroit as well, with the death of beloved owner Ilitch still fresh. Nobody knows yet in what direction his son Chris, 51, will steer the team.

So here Detroit goes this spring, the old band still together, hoping to add another track or two to its greatest hits. Zimmermann's health is the key, because these guys can rake and will score runs with anybody. Ausmus says he's keeping his fingers crossed. The other day, he practically sprinted over to Alex Avila to get a report after Zimmermann's bullpen session.

"He looked great," says Avila, the son of the GM. "All of his pitches were locating, and he had really good life on his fastball. I came out of it impressed."

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

So for another spring night, Ausmus could relax with a bottle of the present Zimmermann lugged all the way from his home in Wisconsin: a stash of New Glarus beer for the skipper. Ausmus' wife is from Milwaukee, and when Zimmermann signed with the Tigers, the manager mentioned to the Auburndale, Wisconsin, native how much he enjoyed New Glarus. Because the brew is not sold outside of Wisconsin, Zimmermann made a point to bring some to Ausmus last spring and again this spring.

Given that, you'd think Ausmus would quickly move to name Zimmermann as the Opening Day starter, wouldn't you?

"I think we've got a guy named Verlander," Zimmermann says, chuckling.

Verlander, Zimmermann, Fulmer...that's a pretty good start to chasing a Cleveland Indians club that many consider the best in the AL. The Tigers went 4-14 against the Indians in 2016.

"They had our number last year, period," closer Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez says. "This is a different year. We'll see what happens this year."

2. Hanley Channels the Spirit of Big Papi

FT. MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Hanley Ramirez #13 of the Boston Red Sox signs autographs during a team workout on February 20, 2017 at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida . (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

In Los Angeles, Hanley Ramirez once displayed a small sign above his Dodgers locker that read "Attitude Is a Choice, Pick a Good One."

Not that he always followed his own instructions.

Are things changing for the better in Boston?

Coming off a 30-homer season during which he shocked nearly everyone with solid play at first base, Ramirez this spring, at his request, moved into the locker vacated by the retired David Ortiz.

"I got the energy right here," Ramirez says, smiling wide, wiggling both outstretched hands in the direction of the locker.

Upon returning to Boston in 2015, Ramirez grew to practically idolize Ortiz. Upon arriving in camp this spring, he said he wants to step into the leadership void Ortiz's retirement created. Last September, when manager John Farrell instructed players to wear their favorite jerseys from other sports on a road trip, Ramirez opted for a Red Sox jersey with "Ortiz 34" on the back.

It's too early to tell whether Ramirez will consistently lead the Red Sox this summer, but one rival executive thinks it's a great idea for Boston to encourage him.

"When I coached, sometimes I'd make the assh--e the leader," the executive says. "It immediately gave him responsibility and made him aware of everybody else, and a lot of times it worked."

When Ramirez is engaged and positive, he has a magnetic personality. Add that to what he can do on the field when he's hot, and even at 33, count him as one of Boston's keys in 2017.

Of returning to Boston in '15 and teaming with Ortiz, Ramirez tells B/R, "I think that changed my whole career around, to be able to see what he was like in the clubhouse with everybody. The communication he had with everyone, how often he was a leader. He cared about others around him, and he cared for his teammates."

3. High Strikes and More Action

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

Commissioner Rob Manfred has looked at the numbers, and this is what he sees: In 2016, a record 30.8 percent of at-bats ended either in a strikeout, walk or a hit batter.

In other words: Nearly one-third of the time in today's game, the ball is not put in play.

That's a problem no matter which angle you view it from. Forget the age-old "time of game" question; if a game is four-plus hours but is action-packed with home runs, rallies and drama, nobody will go home talking about how long it took.

That's why Manfred is pushing to raise the strike zone from the bottom of the kneecap to just above, the "hollow" of the knee. It's only a couple of inches, but he views the move as a way to inject more action into the game.

The players' union has hit the pause button on the idea, and it may hit the mute button. As you would guess, the proposed change is eliciting many reactions.

"It's totally connected to their obsession with pace of game, and I get it," Twins manager Paul Molitor says. "Games started lengthening out again last year, lack of action. I don't think a lot of pitching coaches will be too excited about that prospect. It's just contrary to what pitchers have learned all their lives, to pitch down in the zone. Some of the old-school umpires might be a little slow to say that they're going to change at this point of their umpiring, too, so it could cause a lot of confusion. I can't say I'd be a big fan."

Nationals ace Max Scherzer, winner of last year's NL Cy Young Award, isn't overjoyed, either.

"The strike zone as a whole has been called larger based on the advanced data, and they're trying to regulate it back to where it's been in the past," he tells B/R. "Obviously they think raising the strike zone will help accomplish that goal. It's going to help and hurt pitchers. Some guys who pitch up in the zone, it helps. It punishes guys who do pitch down in the zone and try to sink the ball. Some pitchers are going to get hurt, some won't get hurt as bad.

"It's hard to really know what the unintended consequences of that would be. We can all speculate what we think it will be, but it's really hard to know what the actual outcome will actually be. Will we start seeing pitches at the knees called balls? It's forever been pitches at the knees are called strikes. I guess we're just trying to find which part of the knee is a strike."

To the lack of action in today's game, Scherzer fingers a variety of reasons.

"I also feel like we've seen home runs go up, and typically the consequences of swinging for the fences are that you're going to strike out more," he says. "And we've been in the Moneyball era where, hey, drawing a walk is a great thing. Those results, I feel like, that's the results of the analytics in the game. They're trying to score the most runs, and they've realized, all right, if you swing for the fences more often, strike out a few more times and try to draw a walk, that's probably what's going to score more runs. I don't think that's necessarily truly correlated to the strike zone."

The players' union is expected to quash the idea, at least for 2017. But stay tuned.

4. Ambassadors and Sales

Alan Diaz/Associated Press
  • It's crazy as usual around the Miami Marlins' camp, where the team is for sale amid owner Jeffrey Loria's candidacy to become the U.S. ambassador to France under President Donald Trump. Joshua Kushner, the younger brother of Jared Kushner, was leading a group that appeared on deck to purchase the team for around $1.6 billion. But Jared is Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, and the deal appeared too cozy in a quid pro quo, shady ethics kind of way. Consequently, the team's talks with the Kushner family are finished, according to Marlins president David Samson, but the club remains for sale.

  • The most important element of spring training involves new players adjusting to new teams and new teams learning their new players. So it is with Boston Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis building a relationship with new ace Chris Sale.

    "Obviously, I've seen him across the field, but I don't know him yet," Willis says. "He really brings a tremendous amount of intensity and desire to win. We had a really good conversation in December over the telephone, and I met him in person at our WinterFest. The communication to this point is pretty good."

5. Modern-Day Crash Davis

David Goldman/Associated Press

Meet Chris Gimenez, 34, who, like the character in Bull Durham, has a pretty good way with bringing along young pitchers.

In Cleveland last year, he helped coax fifth-year hurler Trevor Bauer to his best season. It reached the point where the Indians' training staff teased Gimenez by referring to Bauer as his "son."

Now in Minnesota, Gimenez has been working closely this spring with Jose Berrios, the Twins' prized right-handed pitching prospect who was roughed up in his first taste of the majors last year. Berrios, 22, went 3-7 with an 8.02 ERA in 14 major league starts last summer after going 46-25 with a 2.89 ERA as a minor leaguer.

The Twins, who fell to 59-103 last year after going 83-79 in 2015, need pitching badly. The development of Berrios, one of their first-round draft picks in 2012 (32nd overall), is vital.

"I'll tell you what, he's got an electric arm," Gimenez says. "He definitely has the stuff. Obviously, last year, that was a rough exposure to the big leagues. It can either bury you or you can use it to motivate you."

The Twins and Berrios have worked hard to fix a mechanical flaw: He didn't disguise his hand well enough last year during his delivery, and hitters could read when the changeup was coming by viewing his fingers on the ball. Predictably, they teed off on him.

"The quicker we can get him going in the right direction, the better it will be for the organization to get going quicker," Gimenez says.

The Twins have several things to fix, and Berrios, who projects as a top-shelf starter one day, is toward the top of that priority list.

6. Weekly Power Rankings

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

1. Bryce Harper vs. Noah Syndergaard: The New York Mets ace called Harper a nasty word on Instagram on New Year's Eve. Harper addressed it upon arriving at the Washington Nationals camp over the weekend, taking the high road and essentially saying the Nationals will see the Mets on the field. Was this Syndergaard's idea of making baseball fun again? Sign us up for this soon-to-be-overheated rivalry.

2. Dellin Betances: Loses arbitration battle to the New York Yankees after asking for a staggering $5 million, then is angered by club president Randy Levine's critical remarks and says it will be easier to leave now via free agency when he becomes eligible following the 2020 season. Hey, that's still four seasons down the road! But you can't say Betances doesn't have 20/20 vision.

3. Grouper: One of the greatest things about Florida spring training. Heck, one of the greatest things about Florida, period.

4. Ballpark of the Palm Beaches: New digs for the Nationals and Houston Astros this spring as they share a brand-new complex that, as of today, is still under construction (just the finishing touches). Let's just say this location beats Viera (the Nats' old home) and Kissimmee (the Astros' old home) combined.

5. Exhibition games: They start late this week, which means grab your programs so you can identify who No. 94 is.

7. Dexter Fowler Aces the Trolls

Feb 20, 2017; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler (25) poses during spring training media day at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN's Mark Saxon asked Dexter Fowler a question, so the new St. Louis Cardinals outfielder gave an answer.

The question involved his Iranian wife, Darya, and whether Trump's travel ban will dissuade them from visiting Darya's relatives in Iran. Iran is one of seven Muslim-majority countries that Trump attempted to restrict travel to and from until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked his executive order.

"It's huge," Fowler told Saxon. "Especially anytime you're unable to see family, it's unfortunate."

Predictably, because God forbid anyone have a rational discussion about these things anymore, Fowler was flooded with all sorts of social media reaction. Some of it was supportive, but much of it was ugly and nasty.

Talk about taking the high road. Fowler couldn't have handled it better with these three tweets:

"The question was asked with empathy toward my family," Fowler says. "How does it affect your family? Yeah, my wife is Iranian.

"People are going to be people. You've got to roll with it."

Fowler thinks a lot of the nasty reaction came from people simply reading headlines on the Internet without understanding the context ("Cardinals' Dexter Fowlerwhose wife is from Iranweighs in on Trump's travel ban" read the online headline on USA Today's site, for example).

Fowler says his sister-in-law, Sadaf, remains in Qatar after delaying her return from a business trip in order to avoid being detained. Dexter and Darya one day would like to take their young daughter to Iran so she can visit with her cousins and extended family.

"I'm always going to care for my family," he says. "And if a question is asked out of concern, I'm going to answer that question truthfully."

8. Chatter

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

* No, Red Sox owner John Henry says, he does not expect a David Ortiz comeback.

* Manfred is planning to attend World Baseball Classic games in South Korea and Japan before returning to the United States in March for the final two rounds, at Petco Park in San Diego and at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

* Astros manager A.J. Hinch on where outfielder Jake Marisnick fits in after he hit .209/.257/.588 with five homers and 21 RBI in 118 games last season: "He's an elite defender and an elite baserunner. There's a place on this team for him to be really good."

* Word from the Atlanta Braves' camp is outfielder Matt Kemp has lost nearly 30 pounds. He also moved to Texas during the winter to be near one of his mentors, retired outfielder Torii Hunter, during his offseason workouts.

* Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina on Fowler's arrival and Matt Carpenter moving across the diamond to first base from third: "Changes are good."

* Watching Red Sox coach Brian Butterfield run infield drills is like attending a clinic. He is one of the best.

* Great quip from former Marlins manager Jack McKeon, in uniform at Miami's camp as a special assistant, when a fan asked if it was OK to take his picture the other day: "I thought you'd never ask."

* The extreme makeover of the Minnesota Twins: Including players and staff, there are 34 people in camp who were not in Fort Myers last spring.

* Bend and hang: Prayers and good thoughts to Rick Stelmaszek, the former catcher and legendary longtime Twins coach, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December. Stelmaszek is the longest-tenured coach in Twins history, serving 32 consecutive seasons on the staff (1981-2012). Every time I watch a big league club stretch before batting practice, I can't help but recall the inimitable Stelly hollering words of encouragement to some of those old Twins teams as they stretched: "Bend and hang, boys, bend and hang!"

9. We've Heard of a Barn Raising, but This Is Ridiculous

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Alas, it is true: Kansas City Royals pitcher Brian Flynn, poor guy, is out for two months.

The reason?

A few days before camp opened, Flynn fell through the roof of his barn in Oklahoma and suffered a broken rib and three non-displaced fractures in his vertebrae.

"He was working on his barn and fell through the roof," Royals manager Ned Yost told reporters in Arizona, via the Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd. "So he took a pretty good tumble, knocked himself out."

9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week

Associated Press

This one goes out to Flynn...

"Well life on the farm is kind of laid back

"Ain't much an old country boy like me can't hack

"It's early to rise, early in the sack

"Thank God I'm a country boy

"Well a simple kind of life never did me no harm

"A raisin' me a family and workin' on the farm

"My days are all filled with an easy country charm

"Thank God I'm a country boy

"Well I got me a fine wife, I got me an ol' fiddle

"When the sun's comin' up I got cakes on the griddle

"Life ain't nothin' but a funny funny riddle

"Thank God I'm a country boy"

John Denver, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.