2013 Tigers: Why they better win now

Gates Brown

Gates Brown played most of his career before the designated hitter, which meant he didn’t get to hit much. He was the extra outfielder on a team, in its heyday, with Al Kaline, Jim Northrup, Willie Horton and Mickey Stanley, which meant he mostly pinch hit. Brown had 465 at-bats in 1964 and hit .272 with 15 home runs and 11 steals, but he never again topped 300 at-bats until after the DH was adopted in 1973. Brown had just 92 at-bats in the Tigers’ world championship season of 1968 — the Year of the Pitcher — and he hit .370 with six homers, 15 extra-base hits and a 1.127 OPS. He hit .338 in 1971 with 11 homers in just 195 at-bats. Brown got his push into baseball at the Ohio State Reformatory where he served time for burglary in the late 1950s, according to the Mansfield, Ohio News-Journal. Brown spent his entire 13-year career with the Tigers. He holds AL records, according to baseballalmanac.com, for most pinch-hitting at-bats (414), pinch-hits (107) and pinch-home runs (16). But he is also well remembered, according to the The Sporting News, for one pinch-hit in particular. Brown wasn’t playing on Aug. 7, 1968, and when watching the game, he did like the fans did: he brought two hot dogs from the clubhouse to eat on the bench. He hid them in his jersey from manager Mayo Smith, who unkowingly, called on Brown to pinch-hit. “I’ll be damned if I didn’t smack one in the gap and I had to slide into second — head first no less,” Brown said. “But when I stood up I had mustard and ketchup and smashed hot dogs and buns all over me. The fielders took one look at me, turned their backs and damnned near busted a gut laughing.” Smith fined Brown $100, and when he asked him what he was doing eating on the bench, Brown answered the only way he knew how — honestly. “I said, ‘I was hungry.’ ” Brown retired in 1975 with a .257 career average, 84 home runs, .750 OPS and 10.0 WAR despite averaging just 174 at-bats per season.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Tigers tried to give the closer’s job to 22-year-old Venezuelan Bruce Rondon, and Rondon gave it back with his 5.84 spring ERA. If Sparky Anderson was still managing the Tigers, he’d be comparing Rondon to Mariano Rivera. Current manager Jim Leyland sent Rondon to Toledo, and even Anderson couldn’t make that sound good. That’s how you wind up with Phil Coke blowing games in the first week of the season, and have to grovel before Jose Valverde. Rondon will be up soon — he’s fanned 127 in his last 93 minor-league innings, and last year he saved 29 games with a 1.53 ERA over three levels. A little more control by Rondon — he’s walked 112 in 197 innings — would help Leyland keep his.

What is this man doing here? There’s no Brandon Inge to kick around anymore, which brings us to Don Kelly. No matter how hard the Tigers try to get rid of Kelly, they can’t. No matter how far the Tigers throw the stick into the woods, Kelly brings it back. The Tigers have twice allowed Kelly to become a free agent, and twice brought him back. Kelly is the typical utility player whose versatility disguises his inefficiency. He hit nine home runs in 2010 and seven in 2011, but just one last year, and he has a career .629 OPS. His career WAR is 1.5 over parts of five seasons, but 2.1 of that comes from his nine-homer 2010. You can do the math from there.

What he said: Leyland on his bullpen by committe: “It’ll be a second-guesser’s delight, a second-guesser’s heaven” What he meant: “And a manager’s hell if I have to close with Phil Coke.”

Outlook: The Tigers keep progressing toward, without reaching, their goal. After four straight postseason misses from 2007-2010, the Tigers have advanced to the ALCS in 2011 and the World Series in 2012, without winning either.

This year they may not have the Yankees, against whom the Tigers are 7-2 in the last two postseasons, to help them do as well.

Too bad. Because it’s getting close to this Tigers foundation’s last good swing at a World Series. Every year they get older, whether by a lineup filled out by free-agent acquisitions from Prince Fielder to Victor Martinez to this year’s addition, 36-year-old Torii Hunter, or a rotation two-fifths staffed by summer trades (Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez).

The farm system is ranked 30th by John Sickels at minorleagueball.com, in part because the Tigers haven’t had a first-round pick since 2010, and haven’t had one impact the big team since Rick Porcello in 2007 (and Porcello not always positively).

Last year’s team wasn’t nearly as good in the regular season as it was in the postseason: the Tigers’ 88 wins might have won the AL Central, but it wouldn’t have come any closer to six games out in any other division, and their plus 56 run differential was seventh in the AL (16 runs behind the second-place White Sox), and 12th in MLB.

The Tigers can be a hard team to champion. And we haven’t gotten to the bullpen.

Still, the Tigers should win the AL Central this year. They add Victor Martinez to Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson’s gains seem secure (an .856 OPS in 2012, or 45 points better than Curtis Granderson, the centerfielder he was traded for, despite the latter’s 43 home runs) and catcher Alex Avila figures to make back some of the 159 points in OPS he dropped from 2011.

Now the bullpen. Yes, Phil Coke closing games is a bad idea, despite last year’s ALCS. So, last year we thought, was putting Miguel Cabrera at third base and neither Cabrera nor Tigers’ ERAs were seriously hurt by the move.

The Tigers didn’t have a great bullpen last year — Valverde was benched and gave up nine runs in 2.2 postseason innings — and they still reached the World Series. Their bullpen isn’t any worse without him. And though the Tigers don’t have a closer, they do have setup relievers: Joaquin Benoit had a great 2010 and is hitless in his first 3.1 innings in 2013; Al Albuquerque dominated in 2011; lefty Darin Downs is hitless in his first 4.1 innings with seven strikeouts; Octavio Dotel is 39 but fanned 62 in 58 innings at age 38; Drew Smyly, 23, started 18 games last year and was a second-round pick. And they’ve re-signed Valverde to a minor-league contract. A little humility wouldn’t hurt Papa Grande.

Bullpens by committee are like a lot of committee meetings. Often, nothing gets done. But a bullpen by committee isn’t worse than a bad closer and is often temporary. The Tigers have almost six months to solve the problem.

Team song: Albert King: Cadillac Assembly Line

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