I asked several of my favorite all-things-Detroit bloggers to talk about the Tigers. The only catch was, I wanted to get opinions of people from outside the Tigers blogosphere proper. I asked everyone the same three questions and answered them myself. Before we get to the questions, let me introduce my round table.
Big Al of The Wayne Fontes Experience needs little introduction. I always enjoy his insightful Tigers posts, but especially enjoyed when The Panic Button would make an appearance last season as everyone freaked out.
And finally, I asked Scott Warheit to chime in. Warheit formerly wrote columns for The Detroit News, writes a Tigers news roundup, The Cutoff Man, for MLive, and blogs about Detroit sports, entertainment, and whatever else he feels like at Quo Vadimus.
And of course, you already know me. Click to continue.
First question: Now that we’ve passed the quarter-way mark on the season, what are your expectations for the Tigers? How have they changed?
Matt: Before the season, I actually predicted a division crown and a World Series win. I was nervous about a World Series hangover out of the gate, though, so I’m happy to see that a quarter of the way through the Tigers are still within one good weekend of first place. Going forward, I think Detroit has the weapons to close the gap on the Indians, but it’ll be tough once the White Sox and Twins get in gear (and they always do).
Al: For a team coming off of a World Series appearance, my expectations were quite high going into the season. High as in making the playoffs. The Tigers were talented enough going into this season that winning the Central division, or at the very least, making the playoffs as the wild card,.was a reasonable expectation.
I was tempted to temper my expectations after their pitching staff was hit hard by the injury bug. Kenny Rogers was a huge loss, but Joel Zumaya as well? That is losing, arguably, your number 1 starter, and your most important reliever. To the Tigers credit, they have weathered the injury storm better than most MLB teams.
If you had told me in March that the Tigers would lose Kenny Rogers and Joel Zumaya for significant lengths of time, along with Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman missing starts, I would have thought that the Tigers would be a .500 team, at best. Despite the continued adversity, here we are on May 22, and the Tigers are in 2nd place with a 27-16 record, only half a game behind a very good Cleveland Indians team.
If anything, once you factor in the injuries, the Tigers are actually exceeding my expectations.
Scott: My expectations were that the Tigers were going to be fighting for first place in the Central and that’s exactly where they are, and even with the injuries, I don’t see that changing. With Bonderman returning this week, Rogers returning next month, and Zumaya after that (and Vince Wilson will be back in that time frame too) I continue to expect the Tigers to be battling with Cleveland for the AL Central lead.
Me: I expect the Tigers are going to be a playoff team still. I expected ahead of the season they were no fluke and could win the Central Division. Then Kenny Rogers got hurt, Joel Zumaya got hurt, the bullpen never got untracked. And yet, the team is near the top of the division, in the wildcard lead, and expects to get most of those players back in midsummer.
Second question: What or who has been the biggest surprise for you?
Scott: I think with Rogers and Zumaya and now Bonderman missing the time that they have, and the offense being so lousy the first month of the season, to have the record they do, and be only a game or so out of first place, is both surprising and a testament to how good of a team the Tigers are. With the injuries and poor play (not to mention the bullpen, see question 3) the Tigers should be a lot worse record-wise than they are, but their offense has really carried them, and the starting pitching has been strong too.
As for individual players, Bobby Seay and Chad Durbin would be the most surprising. Seay has done a great, great job filling in for Jamie Walker, and has been one of our most consistent relievers in an inconsistent bullpen. And even though after his first start I wanted to send Durbin back to AAA, he’s fought hard, and given the Tigers some solid innings, which defently has surprised me.
Matt: I knew the lineup would be good, but I didn’t plan on it being “most runs scored in the AL” good. Magglio Ordonez has been a legitimate MVP candidate and Curtis Granderson’s power is developing much, much faster than I anticipated. I don’t have a clue if either of those two can keep it up, but the good thing is they don’t have to: once they cool down, guys like Gary Sheffield and Ivan Rodriguez should be heating up (not to mention Brandon Inge or Craig Monroe).
So all together, it’s not just the fact the lineup is raking as a whole that has me giddy, it’s the fact that the lineup is raking as a whole and still has the potential to get much better . I’m still not used that.
(On a side note, I had my worries about Justin Verlander coming into the year, just because he’s a young arm and he threw a lot more innings all of last year than he did at any other point in his life. Needless to say, he’s bounced back nicely.)
Me: Definitely Magglio Ordonez. While there were some things of interest along the way — Placido’s high average, Justin Verlander picking up where he left off, the bullpen’s failure — Magglio putting together MVP numbers has been the most pleasant surprise. I don’t know if he can keep it up. Certainly that seems like a challenge. But he looks to be healthy enough to lead a very strong 3-4-5 with Gary Sheffield ahead of him and Carlos Guillen protecting him.
My secondary surprise? Chad Durbin is still in the rotation and looks like he’ll stay there.
Al: There have been 2 surprises in my mind. First, the return of Magglio Ordonez to elite status. I thought that we would never again see the Ordonez that helped carry the Chicago White Sox offense from 1999-2003. In his first 2 seasons with the Tigers, Ordonez was a slightly better version of Craig Monroe. It appeared that Ordonez’s catastrophic knee injury had taken too much away from him. But this season? Admittedly, it’s early, but if he continues at his current pace, we are talking about a legitimate MVP candidate. It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch Ordonez at the plate in 2007.
The other surprise has been the bullpen’s struggles. Bullpens are mercurial by nature, but no one expected what we’ve seen to this point. When Todd Jones is your pen’s steadiest pitcher, well, need I say more? The loss of pitching depth caused by Zumaya’s injury goes without saying. Fernando Rodney has been erratic, and that’s being generous. Joe Table looks washed up, Jason Grilli is what he is, a borderline major league pitcher, and Wil Ledezma has been, in my mind, hugely disappointing. The Tigers have gotten unexpected production from Bobby Seay and Tim Byrdak, but overall, the bullpen has gone from a strength in 2006, to a weakness in 2007.
Our final question is not really a question, but fill in the blank: For the Tigers to continue to be contenders, ____ must ____.
Scott: I hate to take the obvious route, but for the Tigers to continue to be contenders, the bullpen must improve. From long relief to set-up men, aside from Seay, Tim Byrdak, and Jones, the bullpen has been pretty awful. They’ve been able to survive with it so far, but as the season goes on, they are going to get burned there if they don’t turn it around.
Me: The bullpen must improve. The hitting is going to slow down some. We know it’s good, but that’s just so much to ask of it. The starting pitching is fine, though not perfect. But nothing can sap a team’s morale faster than a bullpen that can’t hold a lead, that blows leads, that doesn’t give the batters a chance to recapture the lead. I don’t want to be this year’s Indians. The bullpen must improve or GM Dave Dombrowski will have to mix in some new pitchers, from inside the organization or outside.
Matt: For the Tigers to continue to be contenders, Dave Dombrowski must get bullpen help. In my eyes, it’s not even a matter of so-and-so needing to improve, because I flat-out have no confidence in most of the current guys in there. Every time Fernando Rodney pitches, I lose a little bit of sanity. And seriously, I don’t think I have the stomach to watch Todd Jones pitch a game with the division on the line.
Needless to say, having Joel Zumaya make an absolute complete recovery is only one small part of the puzzle — they need at least one more impact arm on top of him. (When I dream, Jamie Walker talks to me in my sleep … but that may or may not be related.) I don’t know what guys are/will become available, but I hope Dombrowski is in the ear of any GM looking to unload a reliever.
Al: The Tigers must play Earl Weaver style baseball..
Let me explain. The powerful Orioles teams of the 60’s and 70’s were built with Earl Weaver’s philosophy in mind. They won with starting pitching, defense, and power. Notice a slight resemblance in style to a team that plays at Comerica Park?
Weaver’s idea of manufacturing runs was 2 singles and a 3 run home run. Sounds just like a typical Detroit rally. You can’t change a Tigers’ stripes, and the Tigers are totally out of their element when playing small ball. This is not a team that can manufacture runs easily. Even though their OBP has improved considerably (4th in the AL, I sure didn’t see that coming) when compared to 2006, they are still free swingers. So for the Tigers to win consistently, they need to hit for power, and lots of it. Up to this point, they have done just that. The Tigers currently lead the AL in 2B, RBI, runs and slugging, are 2nd in 3B, and 4th in HR’s.
You can cover for a multitude of sins when you hit home runs.
When you pair up Detroit’s powerful bats together with stellar (For the most part) starting pitching and defense, you have a team Earl Weaver would love to manage.