Monday, March 18, 2013

Battles in Lakeland, as Spring Training Comes to a Close

      With 15 days until opening day the Tigers still have some issues to resolve and some positions to nail down.  The fifth starter spot with Rick Porcello battling against Drew Smyly, who will back up Andy Dirks in left field Quintin Berry or Jeff Kobernus and who will the closer be, Bruce Rondon or a closer by committee approach.  If the Tigers can solve these issues and everything else works out then 2013 should be a year the Tigers can make another run at their first title since 1984.
      The fifth starter spot is a key position and both Porcello and Smyly have made good cases for being named to that spot.  Porcello has not walked a batter this spring and has fanned 17, while Smyly is on a nine inning scoreless streak and has a ERA of 2.00.  With their play this spring both pitchers have made Jim Leyland's decision very hard.  Leyland has said he gives more weight to a players track record rather than stats from the spring, where they might not face a whole lineup of Major League talent.  Looking back at 2012 Porcello, who was the fifth starter, was 10-12 with an ERA of 4.59, walking 44 and striking out 107 in 176-1/3 innings of work.  Smyly, on the other hand, working out of the bullpen and starting, was 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA, walked 33 and fanned 94 in 99-1/3 innings.  If we break that down a little better to account for Porcello's larger number of innings it looks like this: Porcello has 5.6 innings per game, 1.4 walks per game, 3.5 strikeouts per game, .25 walks per inning and .61 strikeouts per inning.  Smyly has 4.3 innings per game, 1.4 walks per game, 4.1 strikeouts per game, .33 walks per inning and .95 K's per inning.  What do all these numbers mean?  It means, Smyly is more of a strikeout pitcher then Porcello but Porcello walks less batters per inning.  Of course this doesn't help much so looking even deeper, Porcello surrenders 1.28 hits per inning and .25 homers per game, while Smyly gives up .93 hits per inning and .50 homeruns per game.  factoring these stats in I think that Leyland will keep Porcello as the fifth starter but he will have a short leash and Smyly will be there to pick up the slack as well as any injuries that effect the rotation.  The rotation isn't the only area where the Tigers need to make some decisions.
      How will the Tigers fill the closer role?  Will they go with untested Bruce Rondon or a committee to close games?  Rondon started out very wild this spring but has come on lately even fanning three batters on eight pitches in one game.  Will his wildness be his undoing or will Leyland overlook it and write it off to nerves?  Rondon had never thrown a Major League pitch before his first spring training appearance and only had eight AAA innings last year. has named him the Tigers number two prospect but it would be out of character for Leyland to go with an untested player in such an important role, unless he's forced to by injury.  So if Rondon isn't the guy then who will close this year?  There are several pitchers that will combine to fill the role.  Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Darin Downs and Joaquin Benoit could all serve time in the closer role but I would expect the bulk of the work to fall on the shoulders of  Alburquerque and Coke.  Coke was the closer in the playoffs and did a great job, during the regular season he was the situational lefty but Downs or Duane Below could take over that role if Leyland wants to have Coke take the majority of the closer appearances.  Dotel has been a closer in the past and could do it again for Detroit but Leyland might not want to move him from his position as the seventh inning guy.  The same goes for Benoit as the eighth inning man.  Alburquerque showed some wildness last year and in his last appearence this spring gave up four runs on one hit and three walks in 2/3 of an inning.  If he can solve his control problems he can be a great closer but that remains to be seen.  So either Rondon will step up or Leyland will work hard every game to decide who will close.
      It appears Andy Dirks has won the starting left fielder position but the question remains who will back him up?  The two candidates are Quintin Berry, the surprise of last year, and Jeff Kobernus, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox for second baseman Justin Henry.  Both players have plus speed and decent gloves, the major difference is Berry's Major League experience.  Kobernus has never played a regular season big league inning and Berry played himself onto the roster last year.  In 2012 Berry hit .258 with two homeruns, 29 RBI's and 21 stolen bases.  In 290 minor league games, Kobernus hit .279 with nine homeruns 115 RBI's and 29 stolen bases.  I'm sure Leyland will go with Berry, the known quantity, but Kobernus will be in Toledo just waiting for Berry to have a bad start.
      If the Tigers can provide answers to these issues and everybody stays healthy, the Tigers can make a deep run in the playoffs and maybe even get back to the World Series, which would be their third trip in seven years.  The ultimate goal of all these moves is for Detroit to finally end their 29 year championship drought.  If there ever was a city that deserves a championship it is Detroit and I hope this is the year that will happen.           

Friday, March 15, 2013

Goodbye Brennan Boesch

      Springtime in Florida and Arizona is quite often bittersweet our favorite players in uniform in the sun playing ball.  Unfortunately, not everybody from last year is with the same team this year.  I’m sure Angel’s fans are sad to see Torii Hunter go and Detroit fans are happy to see him arrive but with that arrival has to come the departure of someone else and this year that someone is Brennan Boesch.  Boesch started off his Tigers career with a bang, in 2010 he hit a double off the wall on his first major league pitch.  He was MLB Rookie of the Month for May and June, Tigers Player of the Month for June, topped all AL rookies with 14 homeruns and 67 RBI’s and finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting.  In 2011 he hit .283 with 16 homeruns and 54 RBI’s before being sidelined with a torn ligament in his left hand.  In 2012 his numbers went way down and he finished the season with a .240 average and 12 homeruns and 54 RBI’s.  After the 2012 season the Tigers signed Torii Hunter making Boesch expendable, although Detroit signed Boesch anyway, to a one year deal worth $2.3 million. 
      There was lots of speculation, when Hunter was signed as to Boesch’s fate.  Hunter hit .313 with 16 homers and 92 RBI’s for the Angels in 2012 but had more strikeouts and half as many walks as Boesch.  The reasons given for the signing of Hunter was his defensive play.  The sabremetrics stats used to measure this are: runs saved, defensive replacement value and balls reached.  These stats say that Hunter is a much better defensive right fielder then Boesch and that put another nail in Boesch’s coffin.  The Tigers had been trying to work out a trade for Boesch all spring, but did not get any offers they thought were fair and weren’t prepared to give him away.  With Boesch’s poor performance in Lakeland this year, Detroit had the chance to send Boesch to AAA Toledo without having to clear waivers but in a testament to the depth of the Tigers minor league rosters, the decision was made to give him his outright release.  The decision was made on Thursday because that was the last day Boesch would have been able to be released without the Tigers being on the hook for the whole $2.3 million they had just signed him for.  As it stands Detroit will have to pay him $400,000 and any other Major League team would be able to pick him up without penalty.  I wish Brennan all the luck in the world, he was one of my favorite Tiger players of late, and I hope he catches on with another team, as long as it’s a National League team

Monday, March 11, 2013

NHL Realignment: A Wish Finally Answered.

      Finally, I’ve gotten the wish I have been hoping for, for years.  The NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA have agreed to a realignment of the Eastern and Western conferences.  The upshot of this is that the Red Wings will finally get out of the Western Conference.  I have long wondered why the Wings were stuck in the West, until the introduction of the Columbus Bluejackets; they were the only Western team in the Eastern time zone.  Travel was always a bear for the Wings, and hurt them over a whole season, now they won’t have those long west coast road trips.  The new alignment will look like this: The Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference will consist of the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Bluejackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.  The Central Division of the East will be: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.  The Midwest Division of the Western Conference will be: Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets.  The Pacific Division of the West will be: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes. 
      The schedule would be a little different, with teams from the seven team Western Conference divisions playing interconference foes three time teams per season and five of the six intradivision teams five times a season.  The sixth opponent within the division would be played four times.  In the Eastern divisions, teams would play intraconference opponents three times and intradivision opponents either four or five times per season on a rotating basis.  One new wrinkle to the postseason would be the introduction of a wild card. Under the new format, the top three teams in each of the four divisions will qualify for the postseason. The final four spots would go to the two teams in each conference with the next-best records. In theory, five teams from one division and just three from the other division in each respective conference could make the playoffs.  So what would this mean to the Red Wings?
      I think the most obvious benefit for the Wings would be the lack of west coast travel.  The travel has always been a bane to the Wings and I wonder how many more games they would win if they didn’t have to go out west all the time.  The majority of the games would be in the Eastern Time zone and even the flight from Detroit to Tampa would only be 2-1/2 hours.  Sure, they would still travel out west, but it would only be for one game each, not three or four games in the other three time zones.  The next best benefit for the Wings, or rather their fans, would be the fact that they would be playing Boston, Montreal and Toronto four or five times and the Rangers three times every season.  Yes, they will only play the Blackhawks twice a year, but I think that is a small price to pay to start playing the other Original Six teams they haven’t been playing in decades.  Just imagine an Eastern Conference Final between the Red Wings and the Rangers before a Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks or Detroit and Pittsburgh meeting in the playoffs every season!  How happy will Detroit fans be to see Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Lundqvist, Simon Gagne, Zdeno Chara, Jason Pominville, Michael Ryder, Guillaume Latendresse, Mike Komisarek and the rest of the Eastern players they never see?  What would the negatives of this change be?  The play in the Eastern Conference is more physical than in the West, which wouldn't favor the Wings, although maybe the Wings faster style of play will help them rather than hurt.  The built in excuse of excessive travel would be gone and the Wings would have to be more accountable for bad play.  Overall I think this is a long overdue change that will be a boon to the NHL, a league is desperate need of positive press.  It can only generate more fan interest and maybe bring fans back to a game they might have loved in the past.  This has made me excited for the start of the 2013/2014 NHL season, especially since it doesn't look like the Wings will be making any noise in the post season this year.