2015 Detroit Tigers: It’s going to be a hard fall

Frank Lary

Pitcher Frank Lary was best known for beating the Yankees, but he won over other American League teams as well. Lary, nicknamed “The Yankee Killer,” beat them 28 times — 10 times more than any other opponent. And most of those were when the Yankees were winning pennants annually. Lary beat the Yankees seven times in eight games in 1958 (7-1, 1.86 ERA) and five times in 1956 (5-1, 2.89 ERA) — both years the Yankees won the World Series. The latter was Lary’s first of two 20-win seasons — he led the AL with 21 and innings pitched with 294. It was one of three times he led the AL in innings pitched; he led it four times in hit batsmen and three times in complete games. Lary won 23 games in 1961 with a 3.24 ERA, when he completed an AL-best 22 games. He was one of three pitches to receive Cy Young votes in ’61 (Whitey Ford won and Warren Spahn was second), was seventh in the MVP voting and won a Gold Glove. It was Lary’s third time receiving MVP votes, but his best finish; he was 17th in 1956 (21-13, 3.15 ERA) and 23rd in 1958 (16-15, 2.90 ERA, AL-bests with 19 complete games and 260.1 innings). But 1961 was Lary’s last good year. Hampered by injuries, Lary pitched four more seasons and won just 11 games for four teams. He never reached the postseason, though as a collegian he helped Alabama to the College World Series. Career numbers: 128-116, 3.49 ERA, 126 complete games, 21 shutouts, 2,162.1 innings, 2,123 hits, 1,099 strikeouts, 97 hit batsmen, 114 ERA+, .691 OPS against, 28-13 with a 3.32 ERA vs. the Yankees, 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA at Yankee Stadium, 29.2 WAR, 6 home runs and a .177 average as a hitter.

On deck: It doesn’t take long to go through the Tigers’ farm system, because there isn’t much of one to go through. That’s good for Austin Kubitza, 2013 fourth-round draft pick out of Rice, who was outstanding in the low-A Midwest League last year: 2.34 ERA, 131 innings, 98 hits, five home runs, 140 strikeouts. That may seem a long way from the majors, but a fast ascent is not without precedent. Buck Farmer started last year at the same spot and ended it in Detroit. Corey Knebel pitched there in 2013 and was in Detroit in 2014 before being traded. Neither had much success, and Kubitza might not so soon, either. But there aren’t many alternatives.

Trivia: Victor Martinez was walked 28 times intentionally last year (he walked only 42 times in all). Who holds the team record in intentional walks for a single season? Answer below.

What he said: Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer on what advice he would give to pending free-agent pitcher David Price: “You only get one shot at this, to sign a big deal. He’s going to be in a position to do it, whether he does it now or in the offseason. That’s his choice. But you have to do it right. That’s something you have to be comfortable with.” What he meant: “Don’t get hurt.”

Outlook: The Tigers have won four straight division titles and 90 games in three of the last four years. They won’t be winning too many more.

The Tigers are Austria-Hungary in 1914 or the Soviet Union in 1988 or Rome in the fifth century. Or in sporting terms, the Phillies in 2011, the Celtics in Russell’s last year, the Packers in Lombardi’s — only without all the championships.

There are fissures of age, injury and expensive contracts all across the Tigers’ empire, and they’re beginning to show. When the fall comes, as it did for the Phillies, it’s going to be sudden, like descending a staircase and missing a step. There’s a whoa coming when the realization hits.

The Tigers may not be there yet, but the signs aren’t good. Their two best hitters, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, arrived at spring training hurt. Their farm system was ranked last by ESPN.com’s Keith Law, by the distance of a Cabrera home run. Their highest-paid pitcher, Justin Verlander, had a 4.54 ERA last year and will make $28 million this year and for the next four; their best pitcher, David Price, may follow Scherzer into exile, given that the Tigers already have $74 million committed in 2016 to just three players.

They didn’t get to this point by being thrifty.

The Tigers have just about exhausted all their resources, and all they have to show for it is a thorough sweeping from the Giants in the 2012 Series. Ironically, the only Tiger team to get that far is the only one in the last four years not to win 90 games.

The Tigers are prepared for one last attempt, with an increased emphasis on defense. They traded Devon Travis, one of their few remaining prospects, for center fielder Anthony Gose, who is on his fourth organization at age 24. There’s a reason for it: Gose, like an NFL prospect at the combine, may impress with his speed in the 40, but seems unable to apply it usefully enough to be valuable. He’s fanned 170 times in 552 big-league at-bats and has just a .301 on-base percentage. Jose Iglesias returns at shortstop from shin injuries, and he hits like Gose without the speed.

The middle of the Tigers’ order can only do so much.

The Tigers’ rotation, if Verlander rebounds, could win a division; if injuries hit, it could lose one. Kyle Lobstein, who allowed 174 hits in 146 AAA innings (and we’re talking International League, not PCL), is the next starter up. The team is woefully thin — in the bullpen, where Joe Nathan was an inadequate closer last year; at catcher, where Alex Avila has been hurt and led the team with 150 strikeouts in 391 at-bats last year; and in the infield, where Andrew Romine or Hernan Perez are dueling to be the good-field, no-hit utility infielder.

The Tigers’ pursuit over the last few years has been admirable, dealing for Scherzer and Price and Jhonny Peralta, signing Martinez and Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter, dealing Fielder for Kinsler. When you’re as close and as good as the Tigers have been, you chase the prize.

But the chase is about over, even if the Tigers will probably be the last to know.

Trivia answer: Miguel Cabrera was walked 32 times intentionally in 2010, the most in a season by a Tiger (he walked 17 times intentionally in 2012 when he won the Triple Crown).

Team song: Johnny Cash: One Piece at a Time

This entry was posted in baseball, spring training capsule and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s