A Few Words On Joel Zumaya

I’ve been putting this post off for a few days, largely because I’ve been busy, but I want to discuss yet another season-ending injury suffered by Joel Zumaya. The particular reason I want to do this is a rather long story.

See, before 2006, the Tigers were pretty terrible. The young players their system produced came up and did nothing, the veterans faded away and left, and there was precious little excitement surrounding the team. I loved baseball at this point, but I willingly admit that there wasn’t really anyone on the Tigers worth getting one’s hopes up over, and I wasn’t particularly a huge fan of any particular player. The exception became Pudge Rodriguez in 2004, but that was largely based on his pedigree more than anything else.

And then 2006 happened, and with it came a new wave of young Tigers that actually looked like they wouldn’t be career fringe players. I was taken by Curtis Granderson and his combination of power and speed. I loved Justin Verlander, of course. But none of them were quite like Joel Zumaya in my eyes.

I didn’t know much about Zumaya before the season started aside from the fact that he threw hard, but I didn’t quite realize exactly how hard. But up he came, starting Opening Day, and he simply blew it past everyone. All I could think was something to the tune of “this is awesome!”

And for Zumaya and the Tigers, 2006 got progressively more awesome. I have a few vivid memories of this season – the July 20th game against the defending champion White Sox which was televised nationally on ESPN, a duel between Kenny Rogers and Jose Contreras that was won by Detroit on a Chris Shelton RBI double in the 7th directly following a vicious slide by Marcus Thames that broke up what would have been an inning-ending double play. Zumaya was on to hold that lead, walked a batter I don’t remember offhand, but then proceeded to blow away Jermaine Dye and eternal team nemesis Joe Crede, who stared down Zumaya as he walked off the mound pumping his fist. At that point, for the first time, it really felt like the Tigers meant business.

I remember August 7th, one of the few games I got the chance to attend that year. Francisco Liriano was pitching for the Twins, at that point a phenomenon. It was the first time I’d ever been to a game that really meant something, with a raucous crowd hanging on every pitch and a ballpark full of electricity. Zumaya was brought in to preserve a 4-3 lead in the 7th, and I went nuts – it was the first time I got to see him live, and he promptly got a line drive double play to strand the tying run at third and end the inning. Everyone went nuts. It just felt right. The Tigers proceeded to score four runs the next inning, Zumaya was sent back out in the 8th, and I distinctly remember him striking out Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer, at one point hitting 103 MPH on the ballpark radar gun. I was hopelessly captivated.

And of course I remember the second game of the AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium. With the season hanging in the balance and the Tigers clinging to a one run lead in hostile territory, Zumaya came in and blew through the heart of the Yankees order, punctuating it with a complete obliteration of Alex Rodriguez followed by another emphatic fist pump as the boos rained down. I will never forget it as long as I live.

Of course, it was never quite the same, and I admit that when he finally blew his elbow out – possibly for good – on the mound at Target Field in 2010, after it looked like he was finally healthy and pitching like he did in 2006, I was completely devastated – I didn’t sleep well that night. He was one of the first player t-shirts I owned, he remains the only Tigers jersey I own, and he is the only player I ever went out of my way to acquire an autographed baseball from. I forgave him for throwing those bunts away in the World Series despite the fact that I still hold a grudge against Fernando Rodney for largely the same reasons (I’m a terrible person, I know). Heck, I even forgave him for signing with the mortal enemy Minnesota Twins.

I wish I could say I’m surprised by the latest injury, but I’m not. But whether he tries to come back one more time or not, he will always have my support. I never thought that one year in sports could mean so much to me, but 2006 taught me otherwise, and Joel was an irreplaceable part of that experience which I will never, ever forget. I don’t know if this is going to be it for him or not, but either way, all I can do is thank him for an all-too-brief career that I will never forget.

Why Your Baseball Team Sucks, 2012 Edition

Spring training has arrived, and with it comes the barrage of features from your favorite beat writers about how good certain players look, how people coming off injury look 100%, how so-and-so looks to be in the best shape of his life, and how one of your younger players looks primed for a monster season.

If you’re an optimist, that’s all well and good. But frankly, 29 teams are going to fail this season, and 20 of them (or 22 of them, depending on whether or not Bud Selig can make up his mind) aren’t even going to get the chance to play in the postseason. So despite all the sunshine and rainbows that are shining upon your favorite team right now, something is inevitably going to go wrong for them at some point. So, amidst the barrage of “the ballclub looks great!” articles you’re sure to see in the coming weeks, including the ones where various Houston Astro players tell reporters that they feel as if they can contend if a few things break their way, I offer this pessimistic alternative: Why Your Baseball Team Sucks.

Granted, this is pretty much a collection of everything that could possibly go wrong, and these complete worst case scenarios will not happen for every team (plus, unexpected things will inevitably go right, too). But hey, it’s better to shatter illusions now, isn’t it?

If you remember this post from last year, expect something similar to that.

And so, without further ado, the second annual Why Your Baseball Team Sucks. Optimists are advised to read on at their own risk.

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30 Tigers in 30 Days – #30: Clete Thomas

2011: .250/.316/.401, 12 HR, 53 RBI (with Toledo)
Career: .253/.336/.391, 8 HR, 48 RBI

2012 Projections

ZiPS: .215/.279/.337, 8 HR, 37 RBI

Expected Role: Reserve outfielder/Toledo

We’re discussing Clete Thomas because Jim Leyland has frequently cited him as an outfield option, although I don’t think he has much of a shot at making the team. Thomas is still not that far removed from microfracture surgery, and while he got a fair amount of playing time on the major league club in 2009, the 2012 Tigers are deeper and better than that team. Assuming the Tigers take Delmon Young, Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch, and Andy Dirks north with them, there isn’t really a spot on the roster for Thomas. ZiPS is the only one to project him, and they don’t see him doing well at all. So while Leyland may be saying good things about Thomas, it’s really difficult to imagine him claiming a spot on the Opening Day roster barring injury or a staggeringly good spring.

30 Tigers in 30 Days – #29: Don Kelly

2011: 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0 BB, 0 K in 0.1 IP

2012 Projections: N/A

Expected Role: Late-inning fireman

While Don Kelly’s .000 BABIP likely will not sustain itself, his 3.03 FIP could be indicative of good things to come. Kelly’s obviously not going to throw as hard as Dotel and Benoit or Valverde – his fastball only averaged 84.5 MPH – but he offsets it by keeping hitters off balance by mixing in a 71 MPH curveball. The lack of a third pitch will keep him relegated to bullpen duty, but the track record is there for him to be successful in that role. The xFIP is a little uglier because the 100% fly ball rate didn’t yield any homers, but the curveball should induce a few more grounders in the future, negating that issue. It’s difficult to make any conclusions because of the small sample size, but I expect good things from Kelly going forward.

An added bonus for Kelly – he’s a very capable defender for a pitcher and fields his position well. Expect him to be a key contributor in the Tigers bullpen going forward, and a nice compliment to the flamethrowers the Tigers house in the back of their bullpen.

Next: Clete Thomas

30 Tigers in 30 Days – #28: Brennan Boesch

2011: .283/.341/.458, 16 HR, 54 RBI
Career: .269/.330/.436, 30 HR, 121 RBI

2012 Projections

Bill James: .279/.337/.469, 17 HR, 62 RBI
ZiPS: .269/.332/.438, 17 HR, 63 RBI
RotoChamp: .274/.337/.446, 17 HR, 61 RBI

Expected Role: Starting right fielder

I’m a big believer in Brennan Boesch (alliteration!) having a very good 2012 season. Not because he’s hitting in front of Cabrera and Fielder – there’s really no proof he’s going to get more fastballs or whatnot, so don’t pretend that’s a realistic notion – but he’s just a good hitter. His season was unfortunately cut short last year due to that thumb injury, but that’s healed now and Boesch has been entrusted with a starting role, replacing Magglio Ordonez for good in right field.

Boesch isn’t a great defender, but he won’t kill anybody out there, and seeing him hit above .280 wouldn’t be a surprise to me. Look for him to score a lot of runs this year, too – I think he’ll do plenty of getting on base in front of the big guns.

Next: Don Kelly

30 Tigers in 30 Days – #27: Alex Avila

2011: .295/.389/.506, 19 HR, 82 RBI
Career: .270/.362/.453, 31 HR, 127 RBI

2012 Projections

Bill James: .277/.376/.477, 19 HR, 76 RBI
ZiPS: .254/.348/.420, 14 HR, 66 RBI
RotoChamp: .265/.368/.458, 17 HR, 66 RBI

Expected Role: Starting catcher

The only question about Alex Avila’s incoming regression is how bad it will be. A .366 BABIP is not going to sustain itself, and I’d be very happy if the Bill James projection materializes. Avila has a nice swing, but he still strikes out a ton (among semi regulars and regulars, only Raburn, Inge, and Jackson had higher K% last year). Avila can still hit, but considering catcher isn’t supposed to be a majorly productive offensive position, .275 with 15-20 homers is still very good for the position – plus, Avila walks a lot as well.

Avila’s still a capable defender, of course, and now that he has a regular backup, they won’t have to run him into the ground like they did last season. I don’t think Avila will have another All-Star season, but he’s certainly capable of another decent offensive season and will remain steady at catcher.

Next: Brennan Boesch

30 Tigers in 30 Days – #26: Jose Valverde

2011: 2-4, 49 saves, 2.24 ERA, 34 BB, 69 K in 72.1 IP
Career: 23-27, 242 saves, 3.02 ERA, 221 BB, 602 K in 521.1 IP

2012 Projections

Bill James: 5-3, 42 saves, 3.04 ERA, 37 BB, 83 K in 77 IP
ZiPS: 3-2, 3.55 ERA, 29 BB, 56 K in 58.1 IP
RotoChamp: 3-3, 35 saves, 3.30 ERA, 28 BB, 59 K in 60 IP

Expected Role: Closer, designated dancer

How lucky was Jose Valverde in 2011? His BABIP was actually higher than in 2010, but still freakishly low at .247. Valverde has been able to maintain a pretty low BABIP throughout his career, but even for him .247 is a bit low. There will almost certainly be some regression on Valverde’s part this year, but there’s no reason to believe he won’t remain a very good closer. There’s no use citing his 3.55 FIP, because Valverde has outperformed his FIP in every year but one. It appears to be an ongoing thing.

Valverde’s strikeouts went down last year, which can probably be attributed to his increased reliance on a two-seam fastball instead of the splitter he became so well known for. His ground ball rate wasn’t as freakishly high as 2010, but he’s still getting a fair amount of grounders and keeping everything in the park. It’s worked for him. Don’t expect a repeat of 2011 by any means, but Valverde will remain reliable and will get the job done more often than not.

Next: Alex Avila

30 Tigers in 30 Days – #25: Danny Worth

2011: .270/.308/.324, 0 HR, 3 RBI
Career: .259/.298/.350, 2 HR, 8 RBI

2012 Projections

ZiPS: .231/.286/.328, 6 HR, 32 RBI
RotoChamp: .267/.307/.342, 1 HR, 13 RBI

Expected Role: Reserve infield/Toledo

Danny Worth is probably a longshot to make the team out of spring training barring injury, but don’t rule out seeing him at some point. He’s a capable defensive infielder who can play multiple positions, but isn’t much of a hitter (which is true of a lot of these utility infielder types, isn’t it?). Worth may well be the first man up if an infielder either totally sucks or falls due to injury, but otherwise, the Tigers’ positional group is pretty well set.

Next: Jose Valverde

30 Tigers in 30 Days – #24: Jacob Turner

2011/Career: 0-1, 8.53 ERA, 4 BB, 8 K in 12.2 IP

2012 Projections

ZiPS: 5-5, 4.82 ERA, 46 BB, 78 K in 134.1 IP
RotoChamp: 7-8, 4.56 ERA, 46 BB, 101 K in 140 IP

Expected Role: Fifth starter/Toledo

Is Jacob Turner the frontrunner for the fifth starter role? That depends on who you ask. Turner, of course, is the top prospect in the Tigers’ system. He showed flashes of promise in his three spot starts last year, but he wasn’t very effective holding runners, and as time went on, he wasn’t very effective period. People will want to see more strikeouts out of him, most likely, but the bottom line is he’s succeeded at every level of the minors he’s pitched at.

How would Turner fare this year? Hard to say. The projections give him decent numbers, certainly passable for a fifth starter, but he’s still 20 years old until May. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Tigers start him in AAA – he only has three career starts at Toledo, and they might want to make entirely sure he’s ready. On the other hand, the Tigers haven’t been shy about giving youngsters rotation spots out of spring training before. If Turner has a good spring, don’t be surprised if the club takes him north with them.

Next: Danny Worth

30 Tigers in 30 Days – #23: Brandon Inge

2011: .197/.265/.283, 3 HR, 23 RBI
Career: .235/.305/.388, 139 HR, 587 RBI

2012 Projections

Bill James: .226/.307/.373, 10 HR, 41 RBI
ZiPS: .222/.296/.357, 12 HR, 50 RBI
RotoChamp: .220/.297/.341, 9 HR, 45 RBI

Expected Role: Second base?

Ah, this one’s always fun to write.

First, I’m not necessarily doubting Brandon Inge’s ability to play second base. He might be able to play the position decently after six weeks of work during spring. Defense, however, has never been the primary reason people worry about Brandon Inge.

Inge, of course, hit below .200 last year, and the projections are not forecasting much of a recovery. The question becomes how much the Tigers value defense. If Inge is hitting .220 and not really going for double digit home runs, there’s no reason to play him ahead of Ramon Santiago when Santiago will be playing comparable defense and posting better OBP numbers, has more speed, and is a better bunter out of the 9 hole.

If Inge wants to play second base, it’s not just defense he has to worry about. Brandon Inge has to hit again. If he posts another .220/.290/.350ish season, there is no reason to keep playing him ahead of anyone. That’s basically all it boils down to.

Next: Jacob Turner

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