Buster Olney: Detroit Tigers

Miguel CabreraAP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Miguel Cabrera is reportedly in excellent shape, especially for a guy who had offseason ankle surgery.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- After sitting down with Karl Ravech and John Kruk on Tuesday, Miguel Cabrera downplayed the notion that his physical condition has changed, making fun of himself, joking how he looks without any clothes. He is a large person, and he will never stop being a large person.

But others in the Tigers' organization do see a change in him, after what was probably the greatest conditioning challenge of his career. Cabrera had complicated surgery on his right ankle after the 2014 season, which meant that he basically had to stay off his feet and was limited in his aerobic activity. Other athletes in similar situations have had difficulty keeping weight off, because they can't run or walk and they struggle to adjust entrenched eating habits.

Cabrera didn't get pudgy through a winter of activity; in fact, he looks stronger, as manager Brad Ausmus noted, having spent the winter working on his upper body because he couldn't do other types of exercise, and he is more defined in the middle part of his body, in his waist. He looks more fit than he has since his days with the Marlins.

There is a perception within the Tigers' camp that for Cabrera, the change in his conditioning was more than just killing time until he can get back on the field again. Cabrera is thinking more and more about the arc of his entire career in the choices he makes.

Cabrera turns 32 in April and is devoting himself to being a great player for years to come, at least while he can still control that.
Miguel CabreraAP Photo/Paul SancyaIt is unclear how the demands of a season will impact Miguel Cabrera's rehabilitation.
One of the greatest hitters of all time is coming back from serious ankle surgery and his team really doesn’t know how his recovery will go. And, at the same time, the best pure hitter of 2014 is also injured, and with only a couple of weeks before the start of spring training, his team has absolutely no idea what he’ll contribute in the summer ahead.

The fact that the Detroit Tigers employ both of these hitters as the bedrock of their lineup does not bode well for Detroit: Miguel Cabrera has continued his rehabilitation from surgery all winter and it seems like everything is going according to plan, but the relentless grind of baseball has not yet been seriously applied to his healing body. The guy who is supposed to hit behind Cabrera, Victor Martinez, hasn’t even been fixed yet, with his knee surgery scheduled for next week, and the Tigers won’t address the range of possibilities until after the procedure is completed.

It might be that Martinez will be OK and back in order relatively quickly. It’s also possible his absence is extended.

But a Tigers lineup without Cabrera and Martinez on any given day is like the Boston Red Sox of a decade ago playing without Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, or the New York Yankees of a half-century ago without Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

Even while playing hurt last season, Cabrera still managed to lead the AL with 52 doubles, hit 25 homers and drive in 109 runs with 191 hits.

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Winners and losers of the Scherzer deal 

January, 20, 2015
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When a big deal goes down the ripples always roll out in many directions, as seen in the Nationals' signing of Max Scherzer -- a deal with a multitude of winners and losers.

Let's take a look

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Tigers using faith as bullpen fix 

January, 10, 2015
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Joe Nathan and Brad AusmusTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesWill Joe Nathan continue to be Detroit's closer in 2015?
The definition of insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result -- a notion that the Detroit Tigers will put to the test in 2015.

The Tigers will have essentially the same cast of relievers as the group that crumbled last year, when Detroit ranked 27th in bullpen ERA, at 4.27. But no numbers fully reflect the agita generated by that group’s performance. Joe Nathan blew a save on April 2, kicking off a summer-long debate among Tigers fans about who should be the closer, an exercise highlighted by Nathan’s gesture of annoyance to fans who had booed him. Detroit's year of late-inning apprehension culminated with repeated failures by other relievers in the Tigers’ season-ending playoff series against Baltimore.

After that sort of frustration, more reactive organizations would’ve gone for a complete overhaul -- to change the conversation, at the very least, and to change the result. And it’s possible that an overhaul might have been the correct response.

But the Tigers are not reactive, as Jose Valverde can attest.

Rather than rebuilding the bullpen, Detroit has taken the long view -- that the circumstances that worked against the Tigers’ relievers last summer will inevitably turn around.

“If you look at it just from a numbers perspective,” manager Brad Ausmus said over the phone Friday, “they’re due to have a correction.”

There was a Murphy’s Law feel to the group last year.

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Winners and losers of the winter meetings 

December, 12, 2014
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SAN DIEGO -- In keeping with tradition, the Rule 5 draft was held on the final morning of baseball's winter meetings Thursday, and typically, executives pull roller bags into and out of that room, dying to get to the airport after four boring days of sitting around waiting for their phone to ring and picking through plates of stale room service nachos.

But that was not the feel this year. No, there were wry smiles all over the place as scouts and club officials chuckled over how this year's meetings turned into some kind of transaction stock car race. The Cubs and White Sox slammed against the news of each other; the Dodgers lapped the field in a Wednesday sprint that carried into Thursday morning; the Red Sox lost the Lester 500 but hit the checkered flag with three pitchers.

In the usual way, there were lots of winners and some losers -- the Giants, for example, who own October every other year but have gotten off to a slow start this winter, missing out on Pablo Sandoval and Lester. They want to make a deal sooner rather than later, assistant GM Bobby Evans says. But in light of the fact that these were not your typical winter meetings, we're going next level on the whole winners and losers thing

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Biggest remaining needs for contenders 

December, 7, 2014
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Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoThe Red Sox signed two big hitters this offseason. Now, they need to make a splash on the mound.
SAN DIEGO -- As the winter meetings kick off, here are the most significant needs for 12 teams that view themselves as top contenders in 2015:

1. Boston Red Sox: A starting pitcher

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are unique in this winter’s market in that they each have the ability to hit good pitching, and so it’s possible that Boston’s offense will rebound in a big way next season. But it really won’t matter unless Boston finds a way to make up for the departures of Jon Lester and John Lackey -- maybe even by re-signing Lester.

As of this morning, the Red Sox rotation looks like this, according to their website:

1. Clay Buchholz
2. Joe Kelly
3. Rubby De La Rosa
4. Allen Webster
5. Anthony Ranaudo

As a reminder, Boston’s ranking in ERA after the All-Star break, when it mostly competed without Lester and Lackey:

30. Minnesota Twins, 4.99
29. Colorado Rockies, 4.51
28. Chicago White Sox, 4.47
27. Boston Red Sox, 4.27

If not Lester, then the Red Sox need James Shields; if not Shields, they need Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister or one of the other high-end starters on the market.

As the Lester bidding nears a conclusion, John Henry flew to meet with Lester one-on-one, writes Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. The Red Sox should bolster their rotation by using trade chips rather than signing pitchers to long-term deals, writes Brian MacPherson.

Max Scherzer would also be available, writes Michael Silverman.

Here’s the problem with that for Boston:

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Lester deal will set other wheels in motion 

November, 30, 2014
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Jon LesterBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSome believe Jon Lester will fetch between $135 million and $150 million in his next contract.
Andrew Miller has a free-agent market all to himself, in a sense, as the only elite left-handed power reliever, and in the hours ahead he will choose his next team independent of anything else that happens with other players. There are a small handful of starting pitchers looking for one-year deals to rebuild value, like Brett Anderson. Theoretically, they could sign without being affected by other dominoes.

But many other pitchers -- including those who could be traded, like Oakland’s Jeff Samardzija -- may have to wait for Jon Lester to set the price. Almost everything in the pitching market seems to be on hold until Lester makes his choice among offers from the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants (and perhaps others). Once that happens, the price ceiling will be established. “Then everything else will fall in line after that,” said one agent.

Lester and Max Scherzer are regarded as the two best free-agent pitchers, but some club evaluators fully expect Scherzer’s contract talks to carry over for weeks, as agent Scott Boras works to make a big deal happen -- something significantly more than the six-year, $144 million deal that the Tigers offered to Scherzer in the spring. Boras’ negotiations often play out way past the winter meetings, and there is so little current buzz around Scherzer that some evaluators and agents theorize that one of two scenarios is developing with the former Cy Young Award winner:

1. He could be out on a limb, some evaluators believe, with his expected price undercut by the extraordinarily high volume of available pitching. “It’s not the best time to be looking for a big deal,” said one GM, noting the many pitching alternatives that can be found for less money.

2. He will be the target of a big, bold surprise strike by some team flush with cash, much in the way that the Washington Nationals jumped on Jayson Werth for $126 million in December 2010. Scherzer might be one among many options, but he is the best right-hander available right now with few strings attached, because he’s a free agent. (A team would have to surrender a top draft pick to sign him.) Sure, you can land Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann, but any interested team would have to trade a major package of prospects in return.

So Lester is viewed as the bottleneck of the moment, and once he goes, an array of trades and signings will follow

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10 crucial matchups in the ALCS, NLCS 

October, 8, 2014
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Jarrod Dyson and Caleb JosephGetty Images/USA Today SportsJarrod Dyson and his aggressive Royals are set to take on strong-armed catcher Caleb Joseph.
ST. LOUIS -- Ten key matchups in the AL and NL Championship Series that begin Friday and Saturday, respectively:

1. The Orioles vs. the Kansas City running game: This is like a steel-cage match within the main event. The Royals have run aggressively in the postseason, with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts, including seven in their wild-card game against Oakland. Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson are setting new standards for brazenness.

But the Orioles are excellent at controlling the running game, and with the layoff before the start of the ALCS on Friday, you can bet O's manager Buck Showalter and his staff are preparing for the Royals' roadrunners. They already have some great countermeasures in place, such as:

Chris Tillman: Nobody steals against him because he delivers his pitches to the plate so quickly. Opponents have tried to steal 13 times on him over the past two years and have been successful twice. To repeat, that's two steals in 13 attempts.

Caleb Joseph: The catcher has a great arm, and during the season he threw out 23 of 57 baserunners.

Wei-Yin Chen: He has allowed just nine steals (in 13 tries) over the past two years.

The Royals' best chances may come against the Baltimore bullpen, using Gore and Dyson. Teams try to run on Darren O'Day because of his unconventional delivery (10 steals in 15 attempts over the past two seasons), and there have been only six attempts over the past two years against Andrew Miller (with four steals).

No team stole more bases than the Royals did during the regular season, while only seven teams allowed fewer steals than Baltimore.

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My awards voting, playoff notes and more 

October, 6, 2014
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Victor Martinez and Russell MartinGetty ImagesFree agents-to-be Victor Martinez and Russell Martin should be in demand this offseason.
Lockers are being cleaned out these days, first in Oakland, then Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim. Goodbyes are being said, perhaps temporarily or maybe for longer than that.

Victor Martinez's season is over, and maybe his time with the Tigers is finished as well. Russell Martin got a standing ovation in the last inning of the wild-card game last week as the Pirates' season waned to a close, and the fans chanted his name, but nobody knows if he'll be back.

Both will be highly coveted this winter, and with multiple suitors, and while the Tigers and Pirates are expected to pursue their respective veterans, the bidding could be extraordinary.

Martinez is coming off a season in which he was arguably the best pure hitter in the majors, batting .335 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 70 walks and 42 strikeouts. Nobody had a greater ratio of walks to strikeouts, and it wasn't even close. Martinez will turn 36 in December and will be viewed as a DH-only player by some teams, at a time when the industry generally is veering away from full-time DHs.

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No perfect time to pull a starting pitcher 

October, 5, 2014
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Jordan ZimmermannPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesJordan Zimmermann was dominating the Giants, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth.
LOS ANGELES -- If there’s a common denominator in the first extraordinary week of the playoffs, it is this: There is no perfect time for a manager to pull his starting pitcher.

On one day, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was criticized for leaving Clayton Kershaw in the game too long, and the next day, he was questioned about perhaps pulling Zack Greinke too soon.

Ned Yost called for relief for James Shields after 88 pitches and would’ve never been forgiven by the Kansas City fan base if the Royals hadn’t come back to win their wild-card game against Oakland. On Saturday, Matt Williams may have unwittingly contributed to the list of longest games in history by removing Jordan Zimmermann after just 100 pitches and a stretch in which he retired 20 of 21 batters.

Generally, there are a few things are at play here

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Donaldson trade looming in A's overhaul 

October, 1, 2014
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Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIf a teardown of the A's happens, Josh Donaldson is likely to go.
PITTSBURGH -- When you hear Ralph Branca tell the story of Bobby Thomson’s historic home run, he offers a full appreciation of that moment, but the hurt is still there. Dennis Eckersley bears the same tone when speaking of Kirk Gibson’s home run, that small ache about a swing that changed lives.

This is what lies before the Oakland Athletics, whose wild-card game loss to the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night was a microcosm of their season -- the great start, the enormous lead right in the middle, the collapse, the late revival, and then a finish that will forever haunt them.

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Final-day decisions for playoff contenders 

September, 28, 2014
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Pittsburgh PiratesJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDespite a loss Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain alive for the NL Central crown.
This final day of the scheduled regular season should be something that Major League Baseball dreamed about, because even after seven weeks of spring training and 182 days of play, six teams -- 20 percent of the clubs -- don’t know where they will be Monday:

• With a St. Louis Cardinals loss and Pittsburgh Pirates win today, there would be a playoff game to decide the NL Central in St. Louis.

• With a Detroit Tigers loss and a Kansas City Royals win today, there would be a playoff in Detroit.

• With an Oakland Athletics loss and a Seattle Mariners win today, there would be a playoff game in Seattle.

The value of the second wild-card spot and the one-game wild-card game has fully manifested. The Tigers and Cardinals are desperately trying to avoid that one game play-in, and if they win today, they’ll get a few days off. The Pirates and Royals -- both long shots to win their respective divisions a week ago -- now have a real chance to avoid the one-game play-in game and are pushing to the finish line.

And the Mariners are somehow still alive, even after losing every game Sept. 20 through Sept. 24 and experiencing a near total collapse of their pitching. Somehow, Oakland still hasn’t clinched, despite needing just one more victory to avoid the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Athletics have a lot at stake, anyway, and are facing historical infamy.

But having to put everything on the line today will cost each of these teams, so even for those that succeed, the burden moving forward will be even greater

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10 days, 10 burning questions 

September, 19, 2014
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Jon Lester, Matt Shoemaker, and Norichika AokiAP ImagesA trio of key cast members for the production of the season's 10 final days.
KANSAS CITY -- Ten days left in the regular season. Ten burning questions.

1. Will Oakland pull out of its flat spin?

The Athletics have surrendered 15.5 games in the standings to the Angels in 39 days, which might otherwise seem impossible if you weren’t watching the Athletics play. Oakland faced a possible sweep Thursday, with Nick Martinez on the mound for the Rangers -- this is a pitcher who allowed 52 walks in 122 1/3 innings going in. After Texas scored four runs in the top of the first against Sonny Gray, the Athletics saw a total of 19 pitches in the first two innings against Martinez.

When stuff like this is happening

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The secret to Posey's hot streak 

September, 7, 2014
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Buster PoseyLeon Halip/Getty ImageGiants backstop Buster Posey homered off David Price Saturday, his 20th of the 2014 season.
DETROIT -- Tilted back in his chair in the visitors clubhouse at Comerica Park on Saturday morning, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy started to explain Buster Posey's recent hot streak by talking about his history as a great hitter, about a swing that has always been simple and effective.

But in the midst of that, Bochy veered and focused on a tangible change that Posey has made. Bochy said he might’ve gotten too passive in his plate appearances earlier this season, perhaps getting himself in a hole in the ball-strike count.

As if to demonstrate the point, Posey came to the plate against David Price, a pitcher who issues few walks and fills the strike zone with fastballs, and Posey jumped on a first pitch for his 20th homer of the year, the fifth run in San Francisco’s 5-4 victory on Saturday.

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David PriceAP Photo/Kathy WillensDavid Price is at the apex of his career, but may be switching uniforms before the end of 2014.
DETROIT -- David Price's focus is on doing the best he can for the Tampa Bay Rays, he said here Saturday. But every day, there are reminders that he could be in his last hours with Tampa Bay.

Players on other teams text him daily to ask whether he’s heard anything about an impending trade. Sometimes, they’ll be more direct, as Detroit reliever Joba Chamberlain was Saturday, in approaching Price on the field to chat about the constant rumors.

Price’s answer is consistent: He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t have a special pipeline into the trade talks the Rays have had. He starts against the Detroit Tigers on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET, ESPN and WatchESPN) believing that he is throwing the ball as well as he has at any point in his career, but not knowing whether this might be his last start for the Rays, or the first of another four months’ worth of starts for them.

The folks he works for -- most notably, GM Andrew Friedman -- probably don’t know the answer, either. The Rays have won nine of their past 11 games, and have crawled back to within 8.5 games of first place in the American League East. Close enough for hope, but far enough away for the Rays to strongly consider trading the former Cy Young winner.

Price’s situation probably gained some clarity with the trade of Jeff Samardzija, who was the other big-time starter available on the market. That deal firmly established an acceptable asking price for David Price.

A lot of folks in the industry believe that the Oakland Athletics paid heavily for Samardzija and Jason Hammel, surrendering superstar prospect Addison Russell as well as former No. 1 pick Billy McKinney. Friedman can now use that deal as a way to shape any proposals for Price, because while rival officials were well aware that Samardzija has thrown about 6,500 fewer pitches than Price, Price is still widely regarded as the better pitcher, having had his success in the AL East.

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