It seems hard to believe, but tonight starts the Rays' first series against the Tigers in 2015, and will feature two teams on the fringe of contention, a mere five days from the trade deadline. Nate Karns, Jake Odorizzi, and Chris Archer will face off against Anibal Sanchez, David Price, and Justin Verlander in turn.
To prepare for the series, and to get reacquainted with the Tigers, I exchanged questions with Bless You Boys's Rob Rogacki. Please enjoy.
DRB: Rumor has it that Detroit is considering being sellers. I was under the impression that so long as the owner is still alive, the Tigers will be going for it. Do the Tigers see themselves as contenders right now? Can this Rays series change that?
Rognacki: Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has long been known for withholding as much information as possible when it comes to trade rumors and other roster speculation. He is one of the rare executives in baseball that can create fire without a hint of smoke beforehand, and often comes out of nowhere with a deal that few people saw coming (David Price last year, for instance).
I didn't buy Bob Nightengale's report when it first came out, and with the Tigers just 4 games out of the AL wild card [tied with the Rays], I don't think Dombrowski or owner Mike Ilitch are willing to punt on 2015 just yet.
One thing I think the Tigers are taking into account when deciding whether to buy or sell is the overall health of the team in 2015. Justin Verlander missed the first two months of the season, and Victor Martinez spent a month on the disabled list. Now both are healthy, and the offense is clicking on all cylinders. With Verlander looking quite good in two of his past three starts, I could see the Tigers adding a couple of pitchers at the trade deadline and making a run for the wild card.
DRB: What's the rest of the injury situation in Detroit? How close is Cabrera to returning from his calf strain?
Rognacki: Miguel Cabrera was initially diagnosed with a Grade 3 calf strain, and word was he would be out of action for at least six weeks. This may still be the case, but Cabrera began taking ground balls and light swings over the weekend. I'm cautiously optimistic that he will return close to the six-week mark, but muscle strains can be notoriously slow to fully heal. Luckily, Cabrera isn't exactly relying on his blazing speed to be an effective player, so even a slightly hobbled Miggy would still be a huge boost down the stretch.
Incredibly, the Tigers offense has not missed a beat with Cabrera sidelined. They rank third in baseball in run scoring per game, and have scored 5.45 runs per game since a team meeting on June 21. Cabrera's replacements at first base have been awful - remember Marc Krauss? Yeah... - but the rest of the offense has stepped up in his absence.
DRB: I've also heard rumblings that Dave Dombrowski might have an interest in departing the Tigers. What's going on there?
Rognacki: Dave Dombrowski is in the final year of his contract, but the national media has conveniently ignored the fact that Dombrowski worked through an expiring contract in both 2006 and 2011 before renewing during the offseason. There were no whispers of trouble in those seasons, but that tends to happen when you win 95 games. With the team scuffling along near the .500 mark in 2015, more questions about Dombrowski's future are beginning to surface.
I don't know whether Dombrowski will remain in Detroit beyond 2015 - there are whispers that owner Mike Ilitch isn't happy with the team's performance this year - but I have a hard time seeing Dombrowski move to another franchise (Anaheim and Toronto are the ones frequently mentioned) if the Tigers want him back.
Ilitch rewards his own, as you can tell with the monstrous contracts weighing down the Tigers' payroll, and he won't be outbid for Dombrowski if he wants him back.
Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
DRB: What are your feelings on the David Price trade one year later? Has he been good to you?
Rognacki: Outside of certain newspaper columnists, I don't think there's anyone in Detroit that will say a bad word about David Price. His numbers speak for themselves, and he has almost single-handedly kept the Tigers in the playoff hunt. Detroit is 21-10 when he takes the mound, including a 15-5 record this season. The offense tends to disappear on days that he starts - the team has scored two runs in his past two starts, both Tigers losses - but even that hasn't stopped him from putting together yet another All-Star season.
The price for Price (heh) seemed steep at the time, but between Austin Jackson's decline and Drew Smyly's injury, it has turned into a big win for Dombrowski and the Tigers. They would not have won the division in 2014 without Price, and the same can be said if they make the playoffs in 2015.
DRB: How should I feel about David Price's recent twitter take down of Tigers beat writer Lynn Henning?
Rognacki: I have never had the good fortune of meeting Lynn Henning, but everyone that has offers nothing but effusive praise for the man. He's a talented writer, and while I don't agree with everything he writes about, he has a finger on the pulse of the Tigers like no other newspaper columnist in this town. I feel a little bad for that post, because he has been very helpful to us as a site, especially since we've become fully credentialed in the past year.
That said, Henning is quite the follow on Twitter. He is very opinionated (as you can see), and won't hesitate to call you on something if you reply to him. He often tweets about politics, which turns a lot of people off, and sticks his foot in his mouth with relative frequency. I am a bit surprised Henning tweeted something of that nature, though, especially when he knows how active Price is on Twitter.
DRB: Do the Tigers have a competent bullpen? Seems like it's been years...
Rognacki: The Tigers have a few usable bullpen pieces, which is probably the most positive thing anyone has been able to say about this unit in nearly a decade. Joakim Soria has been able to keep things together as the team's closer despite a climbing home run rate, while Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson are potentially the best long-relief tandem in baseball. Bruce Rondon has shown flashes of brilliance amid longer stretches of wildness, and Al Alburquerque is good for a batch of strikeouts and walks every once in a while.
That last paragraph makes things sound far better than they are, though, and there are two reasons for that.
First, each of the guys above (save for Wilson) has some sort of glaring weakness. For Soria, it's home runs. For Rondon and Alburquerque, it's command. For Hardy, it's right-handed batters.
Second, manager Brad Ausmus has a terrible knack for using his worst relievers in the highest leverage situations possible. Joba Chamberlain, Ian Krol, and Angel Nesbitt all have a higher leverage index than Wilson, who has a 1.88 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 52 2/3 innings.
Long story short: it's both poorly constructed and poorly used, and pretty unbearable to watch.
DRB: Something Rays fans might relate to is how there are a lot of angry voices on twitter whenever Brad Ausmus goes to his bullpen. For Tampa Bay, it has to do with an aggressive approach to protect young arms from going through major league line ups a third time through, and sometimes fans just want to see guys keep dealing. Does Ausmus have a similar approach? Is this a similar uproar?
Rognacki: If anything, Ausmus has done the exact opposite during his time in Detroit, often leaving his starters in the game a batter or two too long before going to his bullpen. You can understand why, given the awful numbers his pen has put up.
For the most part, Ausmus has been blessed with a veteran group of starters, many of whom can work beyond the 100-pitch barrier with ease. Ausmus has given Justin Verlander, David Price, and Anibal Sanchez plenty of rope to work with, for better or worse, but has paid for it on multiple occasions.
To his credit, Ausmus seems to be learning that Sanchez [Monday's starter] falls apart right around the 100-pitch barrier, though it's a bit disheartening that it took him 40-odd starts over the past two years to do so. Verlander [Wednesday's starter] is a different situation, especially as he works his way back from a triceps injury, but I haven't had any major complains with his usage this season.
Price [Tuesday's starter] could throw 130+ pitches in every start as far as I'm concerned, because even an exhausted Price is better than anyone coming out of their bullpen.
Many thanks to Rob for his time. I hope the Tigers lose, and that it's not David Price's fault.