4/27-4/29 Series Preview: Detroit Tigers

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Less than eight months ago, it was this same Tigers team that knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs with a win in Game Five of the ALDS. Well, not this same exact Tigers team, they have added and subtracted some players since then. Revenge on the menu regardless.

What Have They Done Lately?

The big bad Tigers have lost their last four games and six of their last seven. They actually just got swept by the Mariners at home, and were outscored 21-9 during the three games. That’s legit embarrassing. Detroit is now 10-9 with a -7 run differential, the fourth worst in the AL.

Offense

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

With the addition of Prince Fielder, this fearsome juggernaut offense is … off to a pretty sketchy start. The Tigers have an 88 wRC+ as a team, which ranks 20th in baseball. Their 79 runs scored and 4.16 runs per game both rank 15th among the 30 clubs. It’s kinda hard to believe given the hype, but then again lineups run more than two deep.

While Fielder (120 wRC+) and Miguel Cabrera (140 wRC+) remain incredibly dangerous despite relatively slow starts, the supporting cast has left a lot to be desired in the early going. Austin Jackson (134 wRC+) tore the cover off the ball for about a week before falling into a tailspin, though catcher Alex Avila (125 wRC+) has managed to build on his breakout 2011 seasons. Those four guys are carrying the offense by themselves because no other player with even 30 plate appearances has been remotely close to average.

Jhonny Peralta (63 wRC+) and Brennan Boesch (46 wRC+) have done nothing, ditto the second base platoon of Ramon Santiago (35 wRC+) and Ryan Raburn (9 wRC+). Andy Dirks (116 wRC+) has performed well in very limited action, though Don Kelly (71 wRC+) has not. The Tigers released Brandon Inge (-4 wRC+) yesterday, replacing him with Quad-A masher Brad Eldred (13 HR and 293 wRC+ in Triple-A). The 31-year-old right-handed hitter is expected to DH against left-handers initially, though I suppose we could see him thrown right into full-time duty since he’s been hitting and Detroit has received the third worst production from the DH spot (85 wRC+) this year.

The Tigers are unlikely to have the services of Delmon Young tonight and maybe through the weekend after he was arrested following a drunken brawl last night. He faces a hate crime-related charge, which is serious stuff. Young did some damage against the Yankees in the postseason but was off to a slow start this year, producing a 74 wRC+ in 74 plate appearances. His absence could make life a little easier for the Yankees, though the Cabrera and Fielder duo is a scary as it gets.

Pitching Matchups

Friday: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Justin Verlander
You’re not going to find a more dominant pitcher in baseball than Verlander right now. The reigning AL Cy Young and MVP Award winner has started this season almost exactly the same way he ended last season, with lots of strikeouts (8.90 K/9 and 26.1 K%), few walks (2.30 BB/9 and 6.7 BB%), and a fair number of ground balls (41.6%). Verlander is a machine, sitting in the mid-90s with the four and two-seamer before ratcheting it up into the high-90s and triple digits in the later innings. His upper-70s curve is arguably the best in the business, and his mid-80s changeup makes his fastball seem even harder than it really is. Jim Leyland will run his ace into the ground, so working the count against Verlander is futile. The guy is going to throw eight innings and 130 pitches regardless, so the Yankees have to take a cut if they get something decent to hit. No point in waiting around.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Saturday: RHP Freddy Garcia vs. LHP Drew Smyly
The big question for Detroit coming into the season was the back of their rotation, though Smyly has strung together three pretty good starts — including one against the Rays and one against the Rangerss — to begin his big league career. The 22-year-old southpaw has a history of missing bats in the minors and has shown the same skill in the show (8.44 K/9 and 22.1 K%), but he can be a little jittery with the walks (3.38 BB/9 and 8.8 BB%). Smyly relies very heavily on his low-90s four-seamer, mid-80s cutter, and low-80s slider, though he’ll mix in one or two changeups a game. The whole “OMG a lefty they haven’t seen before!” logic applies here, but I’m far more concerned about Garcia’s performance in this game than Smyly’s.

Sunday: LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP Max Scherzer
It seems like every time the Yankees face Scherzer, they either light him up or he completely shuts them down. It doesn’t feel like there’s much of a middle ground. The right-hander is off to the best start of his career; you just wouldn’t know it by looking at his bloated 8.48 ERA. He’s still trying to work off a seven-run, 2.2 IP showing from earlier this month. Scherzer is missing bats (10.53 K/9 and 24.2 K%) and limiting walks (2.75 BB/9 and 6.3 BB%), though he remains fly ball heavy (35.5% grounders). A true three-pitch guy, he’ll sit in the mid-90s with his fastball and back it up with a mid-80s to righties and a mid-80s changeup to lefties. He’s traditionally had a harder time with batters of the opposite hand, however.

Hate. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Bullpen Status
I doubt we’ll see much of Detroit’s bullpen tonight with Verlander on the bump, but their core bullpen arms are rested. Jose Valverde (3.59 FIP but the same number of walks as strikeouts) hasn’t appeared in a game since Sunday, though his two primary setup men — Joaquin Benoit (2.42 FIP) and Octavio Dotel (1.75 FIP) — threw 21 and 14 pitches yesterday after not pitching since Sunday, respectively. Southpaw and former Yankee Phil Coke (1.98 FIP) threw two whole pitches yesterday following a two-inning, 24-pitch outing on Tuesday.

Second lefty Duane Below (1.40 FIP) was supposed to start the season as the Tigers’ fifth starter, but apparently they stuck him in the bullpen at some point and just left him there. He threw two innings and 25 pitches on Wednesday and is more of a long man than a specialist. The recently recalled Luke Putkonen gives them a multi-inning mop-up guy. The right-hander has yet to make his big league debut and was actually a rotation-mate of Adam Warren‘s at UNC once upon a time. Pretty much the only reliever that might qualify as unavailable tonight is righty Collin Balester (5.21 FIP), who threw two innings and 32 pitches on Tuesday before throwing two innings and 27 pitches on Wednesday. Overall, the Tigers rank 12th in baseball with a 3.52 bullpen FIP.

Outside of David Phelps, who probably needs another day or two to recover from his 53-pitch outing on Wednesday, the Yankees’ bullpen is fresh following yesterday’s off day. For the latest and greatest on the Tigers, we recommend Bless You Boys and Tiger Tales.

Mailbag: Oswalt, Liriano, 2014, Jeter

Got five questions this week but only four answers because I lumped two of them together. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Steve asks: With the news that Michael Pineda is gone for the season and the way Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia are performing, can Roy Oswalt be an option for the rotation?

Sure, I definitely think he’s option. You have to be careful not to fall in love with the name though, because Oswalt is not the guy he used to be with the Astros. He has two degenerative discs in his back and has openly talked about retirement, plus he’s expressed a preference to play close to his Mississippi home. Oswalt has never pitched in the DH league full-time and has always been a guy that relied more on limiting walks (2.09 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%) and getting ground balls (47.3%) thank missing bats (7.35 K/9 and 19.8 K%).

I think Andy Pettitte‘s return has set the market price for Oswalt, a quality older pitcher voluntarily spending time away from the game. If the Yankees could get him on a low-risk minor league deal that pays him $2-3M if he makes the team, by all means do it. Heck, I’m sure he and Pettitte are pals after their time in Houston together, maybe that gives him more of a reason to join the Yankees. I just can’t see guaranteeing the guy anything without getting him in camp and having him throw to batters in the minors, proving that he still has something to offer.

Potter asks: If the Twins were willing to do it, would the Yankees think about a Francisco Liriano for Hughes trade? They both seemed to be going down the same path with their respective ball clubs and maybe a change of scenery would help. It can’t be much worse then what’s happening now.

Liriano’s been very bad this year — 22 runs and 39 baserunners in 16.1 IP with more walks (13) than strikeouts (12) — and the Twins took advantage of yesterday’s off-day to skip his turn in the rotation. I have zero confidence that Hughes can be an effective starter but I do think he can be a pretty good reliever because he is still able to blow his fastball by hitters in hitter’s counts. I have no faith in Liriano’s ability to be competent in any role, plus his salary is substantially higher ($5.5M vs. $3.2M). I’ll keep the “maybe he won’t suck as a reliever” guy rather than trade him for the “he’s awful at everything he does on a baseball field” guy. It’s been too long since Liriano was effective.

Grant asks: With Hughes pitching so far below expectations, Pineda out with an uncertain future, and Garcia, Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda all likely gone after 2012, what do you think the odds are the front office abandons the austerity plan and goes after Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels? As they get as close as they are to free agency, you have to think they’ll at least test it. Is it possibly contingent on Manny Banuelos‘ development?

Tyler asks: In your perfectly ideal situation, what do you picture as the Yankees roster these next few years to get under the luxury tax? Along the same lines, which prospects do you think are most important to develop in big leaguers to fit the 2014 and beyond Yankees?

(Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

I don’t expect the 2014 payroll plans to change after Pineda’s injury but I would not be surprised if they still pursued Hamels*. There’s a lot of money coming off the books both this offseason and next, and he is by far the best hope to add an elite hurler to the rotation. The Dodgers will definitely provide some stiff competition, but it’s doable. The problem is that the Yankees would have to skimp elsewhere, particularly in at least one corner outfield spot, the bullpen, and basically the remaining three-fifths of the rotation.

Unless you’re talking about a true cornerstone player, someone like Troy Tulowitzki or Evan Longoria or Matt Kemp, one injury should not throw a team completely off the rails. Especially an injury to a one-in-five starting pitcher and especially not the Yankees. Guys like Banuelos, David Phelps, Jose Campos, and Adam Warren are that much more important following Pineda’s injury because they are going to have to contribute something as starters, relievers, or trade bait. Same deal with Mason Williams and Tyler Austin as outfielders. The 2014 plan was going to take some creativity even before Pineda’s injury, now it’s just that much more difficult.

* Forget about Greinke, they’ve already declared him unfit to pitch in our fine city.

Alan asks: I just wanted to know your opinions on what you think realistic expectations are for Derek Jeter‘s numbers for the rest of the year. I admit, before the season started, I said I would be happy if he hit .280 this year. Now, do you guys think he could actually hit .310 this year? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but can he really approach his 2009 numbers at the ripe old age of 38? Thanks!

Well, I know for sure that he will not maintain his .420/.442/.642 batting line all season. Derek’s good, but he ain’t that good. I was thinking the same thing before the season, that a .280 average a .350-ish OBP would be fantastic. Now? He looks so good and is driving the ball so well that you can’t help but be optimistic. It’s not like he’s beating out infield singles and just slapping some ground balls through holes, the Cap’n is flat out raking. Line drives all over the field.

Jeter hit .334/.406/.465 in 634 at-bats back in 2009. He’s at 81 at-bats now, so to finish the season with a .334 average, he’ll still have to hit .322 the rest of the season. A .465 SLG would require a .439 SLG the rest of the way. I have a hard time expecting anyone to hit .320+ over any prolonged period of time, but can Jeter hit .300/.360/.430-ish from here on out? I definitely think that’s possible. Without questions, Derek’s resurgence as been the most exciting development over the last 12 months or so.

A shifting future for the Yanks’ radio broadcast

On Monday morning, New York City’s long-running R&B station Kiss FM will lose its music. Shortly after midnight, the station will flip from music to sports talk radio as ESPN is moving its operations from 1050 on the AM dial to 98.7 FM. It’s a big move for New York City radio as sports now invade FM, and it’s a move that could impact the future of the New York Yankees’ radio broadcasts as well.

Currently, the Yanks are wrapping up an extended radio stay on WCBS AM 880. Their long-term deal expired after the 2011 season, but with an ESPN move rumored since early last year, the club opted to re-up for one more season with CBS before setting off a radio bidding war. In doing so, the club allowed ESPN to find a radio home that would boost its signal and provide a more inviting home for the Yanks’ radio broadcasts.

With this weekend’s looming format change, then, the pieces are in place for a fight over the rights to the Yanks’ broadcasts, but it’s currently unclear what that deal will resemble. Currently, according to Phil Mushnick, CBS pays $14 million to broadcast the Yanks and $7 million for the rights to the Mets on WFAN. Supposedly, the media company loses money on the Yanks’ broadcasts, but that doesn’t mean WCBS isn’t interested. In fact, with the Mets’ deal expiring after 2013, CBS could retain the Yanks but move them to 660 AM a year later.

Of course, ESPN may have something to say about that as well. According to numerous reports, ESPN is spending big bucks on the move to FM in order to attract some baseball. With a better signal, they’re in a position to make an enticing offer for a New York team. While these behind-the-scene machinations are all well and good for clubs looking to line their pockets with broadcast dollars, what does it mean for those of us listening at home?

For starters, if the Yanks were to move to FM, their extended radio network becomes a lot more important locally. Take a look at the vast WCBS signal coverage map and compare that with 98.7 FM’s map. While the FM signal will be crisper — the better to hear John Sterling — its reach is not nearly as expansive as WCBS’. (For what its worth, night-time coverage for AM 1050, ESPN Radio’s current home, is limited.) So while New York City residents and those who live nearby will be able to better hear Yankee games, the folks a little farther away will have to find a local affiliate. As an AM landing home, WFAN, with its vast signal coverage area, would be ideal.

The bigger question though concerns two of the most controversial members of the Yankee family. Would the club retain John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman, not-so-affectionately dubbed Ma and Pa Pinstripe by the New York City tabloids? If it were up to those same tabloid writers, the two broadcasters would be replaced tomorrow. Phil Mushnick of The Post has held a vendetta against the liberties Sterling takes with his play-by-play duties. Recently, Mushnick slammed Sterling for botching a call in the bottom of the 9th of a one-run game. Yesterday, he claimed a new radio deal could spell the end of Sterling and Waldman. “It’s highly unlikely,” he wrote, “that ESPN, if it lands the Yankees — especially attached to a big price tag — would be bound to retain the team’s current longtime broadcast duo of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman.”

In The Daily News, Bob Raissman has pushed a similar argument, but I don’t agree. For better or worse, Sterling is a part of the Yankees’ image right now. He’s been with the club since 1989 and serves as an M.C. on TV and at Yankee-related events. The club will likely require its next rights partner to retain Sterling. Waldman’s job is less secure, and last year, Moshe ran down a list of possible replacements. Still, I’d be more surprised if the duo weren’t together next year on a new station than if they are.

So the wheels are turning indeed. It doesn’t sound as though the Yanks are inclined to start their own radio network, but their rights will be in play. I’ve heard the games on FM up in New England, and the sound is certainly clearer than that traditional AM broadcast. To win the games though with a more limited signal, ESPN Radio will have to pay heavily. With the Yanks, though, money talks, and they won’t say no if the dollars are right.

Austin’s power not enough in Charleston loss

Bryan Mitchell headlined today’s Minor League Update after last night’s gem. The article if free, you don’t need a subscription, so head on over and check it out.

In other news, Rob Lyerly is heading to North Carolina to get a second opinion on his injured shoulder and may need surgery, which sounds awfully familiar after this week. He was hitting .176/.263/.529 in 19 PA for Double-A Trenton before getting hurt. Graham Stoneburner threw a simulated game today; he’s been on the shelf with a groin strain.

Triple-A Empire State (6-4 loss to Lehigh Valley)
CF Colin Curtis: 0-4, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
C Frankie Cervelli: 1-4, 1 HBP — got hit by a pitch in the fit, but walked away fine
RF Dewayne Wise: 3-5, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 K — gotta think he gets the call if Brett Gardner doesn’t come back soon
1B Steve Pearce: 2-4, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 SB — he’s more than replaced Jorge Vazquez’s production
DH Jack Cust: 1-5, 2 K
3B Brandon Laird: 1-5, 1 R, 1 K
LF Kevin Russo: 3-5, 2 R, 2 2B, 1 RBI, 1 K — had been in a 4-for-24 rut (.167)
SS Ramiro Pena: 1-4, 1 K, 1 E (fielding)
2B Doug Bernier: 1-3
RHP Ramon Ortiz: 5.2 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 HB, 7/3 GB/FB — 61 of 90 pitches were strikes (67.8%)
LHP Mike O’Connor: 1.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2/1 GB/FB — just 12 of 23 pitches were strikes (52.2%)
SwP Pat Venditte: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HB, 1/0 GB/FB — 17 of 26 pitches were strikes (65.4%) … threw from the left side exclusively again
RHP Jason Bulger: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1/2 GB/FB — 12 of 19 pitches were strikes (63.2%)

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Thursday Night Open Thread

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

The Yankees got beat pretty good the last two nights, both on and off the field, so today’s scheduled off day came at a good time. The team and the fans can both kinda step back and just take a breath for a moment, collect themselves them come out ready for the weekend. I dread most off days, but this one is very well-timed as far as I’m concerned.

Here’s your open thread for the night. Both the Rangers (7pm ET on MSG and NBCSN) and Devils (8:30pm ET on MSG+ and NHLN) are playing Game Seven of their first round playoff matchups, so that’s kind of a big deal. MLB Network will air a game later tonight, plus the NFL Draft (8pm ET on ESPN) is taking place as well. Hooray for that. Talk about whatever you like here, go nuts.

The Three-Four Trouble Spots

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Despite scoring just three runs in their last 21 offensive innings, the Yankees still lead baseball with a 126 wRC+ and are second in runs per game at 5.56. Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson have been the club’s two best hitters so far in this young season, but their two least productive lineup spots have been three and four. If you happen to be new to baseball, that’s traditionally where teams stash their best hitters.

The Yankees’ number three hitters have produced a .300/.341/.438 batting line in 85 plate appearances, which is actually 4% worse than league average despite that shiny batting average. Power and on-base ability matters. The cleanup men have hit a much uglier .206/.341/.368 in 82 plate appearances, a whopping 17% worse than league average. Every other lineup spot has been at least 2% better than average, most substantially more than that. It’s like this giant hole of non-production right smack in the middle of the order.

Other than a one-game cameo by Mark Teixeira, the three and four spots of the lineup have belonged to Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez this season. They’ve been flipping back and forth based on the opposing starter and Joe Girardi‘s whim, but it’s been those two since day one. Cano’s struggles — .264/.337/.413 — are frustrating but unexpected, plus he has gone 12-for-40 with five doubles and homer in his last ten games (.300/.378/.500). I’m very confident that he’ll continue to right the ship.

A-Rod has managed to stay healthy so far this year (knock on wood) but the performance hasn’t been there: .221/.329/.382 in 79 plate appearances. He’s been streaky in the early going — six bad games followed by seven awesome games followed by four bad games — but that’s expected this time of year. Day-to-day consistency is baseball’s greatest myth, it just doesn’t exist. I think A-Rod will hit better as a the season progresses though he’ll never be the guy he used to be, but the real problem as that two of the team’s least productive players are currently hitting right behind their two most productive players. It’s not a coincidence that Jeter has been on-base more times than anyone other than Matt Kemp but is only ninth in runs scored.

We know that batting order doesn’t made a huge difference over the course of the 162-game season, but in one individual game it could have a huge impact. I think the best solution might be to move Alex up in the order, not down. Bat him second behind Jeter, who is on base all the time these days and forces the pitcher to work from the stretch. Keep Cano in the three-hole and bat Curtis Granderson cleanup. It might help kick start A-Rod’s bat a little bit and if not, no big deal. They can always change things up in the future. Patience is a wonderful thing in baseball, but sometimes it’s okay to jump the gun a bit and make changes earlier than expected. Rearranging the lineup furniture at this point is perfectly fine and worth trying.