At one point I declared Ian from Sweaty Men Endeavors to be my superior in all things, and for one day at least, he will take over this blog.
With the Twins and Tigers starting a 3-game series today in Minnesta, I have asked Ian 5 questions I wanted to know about the Tigers, and he asked me 5 questions about the Twins (which you'll be able to see at his blog). So alas, here they are, helping you learn a little bit more about those MLB-leading Tigers.
Me: What's the single biggest reason for the Tigers surge from middle-of-the-pack to best team in baseball?
Ian: Pitching, pitching, pitching. Virtually every night, the Tigers get a quality start, so even when the lineup needs a few innings to put some runs on the board, they're still in the game. I think the starters also benefit from knowing they only have to go about six innings before the game is turned over to the bullpen, and those guys don't give up the lead very often. The whole staff is pretty relentless on the opposition. Just when those hitters think they might have Kenny Rogers figured out for their third trip to the plate, here comes Joel Zumaya firing rockets. The bullpen can give hitters a different look each time they're up. Considering how poor the pitching has been in Detroit over the years, it's really been amazing to watch.
Me: Should the Tigers make a big move and acquire a guy like Alfonso Soriano, Bobby Abreu, or Carlos Lee?
Ian: You know, I might be in the minority on this, but I lean toward the "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" mindset. It's not so much that I don't want to see the Tigers give up top pitching prospects, because that's one reason you build up that kind of commodity. And Dave Dombrowski's done a great job of keeping that pipeline fresh. The Tigers have just been playing so well that you almost can't imagine they could get better.
Yet there's also the side that says you have to go for it when you get the chance. Between the development of the younger players and the solid play from the veterans, everything's come together so well this season, and there's no guarantee it'll happen again. These windows don't stay open very long, so if the Tigers have a chance to make themselves a better team, one that contends for a championship, then they absolutely should do it. Even if it costs them a piece of the future. Abreu seems like he'd be the best fit with his left-handed bat, speed, defense, and on-base percentage. Yet Soriano - who's been the hot name, because you know Washington wants and needs to trade him - would be leading the team in virtually every offensive category if he were here.
Ultimately, I think the Tigers will make a move that looks underwhelming on paper - bringing in a Matt Stairs-John Mabry-David Dellucci type of player - but will fill an important role for the Tigers, giving them a left-handed bat that Leyland can shuffle among the corner outfield spots and first base.
Me: Todd Jones has struggled a bit this year, while younger guys like Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney have been more consistent? Who should the Tigers closer be?
Ian: I know Jones has taken a lot of flack from fans because it's never easy with him and he doesn't inspire a lot of confidence when he comes in for the ninth inning. But he's been very good lately, getting a lot of 1-2-3 innings, while lowering his ERA and WHIP numbers. Meanwhile, Rodney's been shaky and walking a lot of hitters. Many people think something's wrong with his mechanics. I think it was Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press who said Jones is simply best suited for the ninth inning because he relies on fooling hitters and getting them to make contact. If the bases are loaded with one out in the seventh, Jones won't come in and strike out the next two batters, which is what you need in that situation. That's what Zumaya does.
Sabermetricians have often said that managers shouldn't just save their best relievers for the ninth inning, because that's not always when they're needed most, and Jim Leyland is proving them right. As silly as this might sound, the Tigers would waste Zumaya if they only used him as the closer. He helps the team more in his current role, striking out batters in tough situations, or going two innings when needed. Some of Jones' saves might come after three fly balls caught on the warning track, but he somehow gets those last three outs.
Me: If the Tigers make the playoffs, who should get the ball in Game 1?
Ian: If the playoffs started next week, I'd make Justin Verlander the guy for Game 1. He's been the Tigers' best starting pitcher lately. His last six starts have been dominant. But there's a lot of concern about him eventually breaking down as he pitches more innings than he ever has before. Kenny Rogers might make the most sense, in terms of experience, but history says he's not very good in the second half of the season.
So that leaves Jeremy Bonderman. He's the best combination of experience and youth, with the kind of stuff that can mow down a lineup early in a game and set a tone for the rest of the series. And if he didn't work out, then you can bring in a veteran like Rogers to start in Game 2 and hopefully provide a steadying influence for the pitching staff. Jim Leyland has a lot of options to play with for a seven-game series. It's exciting to think about.
Me: Who's winning the AL Wildcard (be honest)?
Ian: At this point, it's hard to pick against the Twins. They looked dead in April and May, but very quietly (at least from Detroit's vantage point) began to make a run. And it was like people began tapping each other on the shoulders, saying "Hey, do you see what Minnesota is doing?" Then the Twins were like that horde you could see a few miles away on the horizon. What is that? Are they coming? We'd better get ready. But now, after sweeping Chicago, the day many of us anticipated has finally arrived. They're tied with the White Sox, right behind the Yankees in the wild-card standings, and to the Tigers fans that have been paying attention, the Twins look scary as hell - especially with that starting pitching.
Having said all that, however, I'm still going with the White Sox. I know they've been in a tailspin since the All-Star break, and their starting pitching - especially Buehrle and Garcia - looks messy right now. But to me, they've been the best team in the AL Central from the beginning. I still can't believe they're as far behind the Tigers as they are. I almost have to slap myself each time I look at the standings. And if Kenny Williams can make a big deal at the trade deadline - something he's been very good at in the past - I think they'll turn things around and get right back in this. Not that they're out of it, of course. It's more like they fell back into a race with the Twins and Yankees. And it's going to be fun to watch for the rest of this season.
Friday's game starts at 7:10 CDT.