Buster Olney: Detroit Tigers

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.

When Tony Gwynn spoke up 

June, 17, 2014
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Tony GwynnAP Photo/Michael S. GreenTony Gwynn wasn't just outspoken as a player, he was as a doting father.
Memories of Tony Gwynn kept welling up Monday, as the reality of his death sunk in. He was one of the best hitters ever, yes -- he hit over .300 in his last 19 seasons, which is unfathomable -- and he was such a good person, as borne out by the overwhelming response to the news.

But there were a lot of sides to Gwynn. He was gregarious, yes, but he also had strong opinions and was unafraid in expressing them; he mentioned to me many times that he believed he had earned the right to speak his mind. And he did.

If only the rest of the industry had been as outspoken as Gwynn about the issues of performance-enhancing drugs. With just about everybody in the sport remaining quiet, Gwynn was talking about this in the mid-'90s. He went on the record with Bob Nightengale for a Los Angeles Times story -- in 1995:

From Bob’s story:
Said Padre all-star right fielder Tony Gwynn, "It's like the big secret we're not supposed to talk about, but believe me, we wonder just like the rest of people. I'm standing out there in the outfield when a guy comes up, and I'm thinking, 'Hey, I wonder if this guy is on steroids.'

"I think we all have our suspicions who's on the stuff, but unless someone comes out and admits to it, who'll ever know for sure?"

To repeat: That was 1995.

By then, Gwynn had won five batting titles and had finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting five times, and he had scored the winning run in the 1994 All-Star Game. Because he and Frank Thomas and a very small handful of people in the game spoke out, nobody can whitewash history and pretend that this problem sneaked up on the sport.

Gwynn would tell stories about going into the weight room of the early '90s Oakland Athletics -- the Athletics of Jose Canseco -- and being stunned by the charts detailing how much each player was lifting in his weight work.

In 2003, when I was working for the New York Times, Gwynn was blunt in what he saw as the high impact of amphetamines in baseball.

From that story:
"People might think there is a steroid problem in baseball, but it's nowhere near the other problem; the other, it's a rampant problem," said Tony Gwynn, the former San Diego Padres outfielder who estimated that 50 percent of position players regularly use amphetamines, commonly called greenies.

Even so, players appear to be much more tolerant about the use of amphetamines than of steroids, recent interviews with players and executives indicate. Gwynn said, "Guys feel like steroids are cheating and greenies aren't."

More, about a move among the White Sox's younger players to push for testing:
One White Sox player said some teammates felt nervous discussing their debate because union officials had implied that if the boycott went forward, the players association would ostracize them.

[Tom] Glavine denied that anyone had been threatened. "All I can tell you is the program we came up with that was inevitably enacted was a combination of everything -- a combination of guys wanting a lot, of guys not wanting anything -- trying to get somewhere in the middle," he said. "The program that we actually came up with was actually stronger than the initial proposals that were drawn up."

But Gwynn, when asked why players have not pushed the union harder for more aggressive drug testing, said: "They're scared to say something, they're scared to be looked upon by the union as something other than a conformist. No one wants to be in that position, it's a tough position to be in. I think players think, 'I know I'm clean and I want testing,' but as far as the group and going to the union guys for more testing, they're not going to do that.

"The young players aren't going to say something, because they're young and trying to get established, and the old guys are like, 'I just want my pension; I don't want to do anything messing with my pension.' The guys in the middle are like, 'Let somebody else worry about it.'"

And more from Gwynn:
Gwynn told a story to illustrate his sense of how desperate some players are to improve their performance. When San Diego was on the road during one of Gwynn's final seasons, he walked into a visitors clubhouse and found the floor littered with amphetamines.

"There were a bunch of pills lying all over the floor," he said. "There had been another team in there just before us, and evidently, they'd left these greenies behind. Our guys were like, 'Hey, wait, wait, don't throw those out.'"


Gwynn seemed to know everybody, and he treated everybody the same, whether it be a clubhouse attendant or a reporter or another player; he once mentioned to me that his father insisted his children be respectful to others, and Tony learned well.

Tyler Kepner mentioned this in his story about Gwynn:
I was a teenager when I first interviewed Gwynn, working for a small magazine I published from home. This was not Sports Illustrated or ESPN. He had no special reason to be nice. But every time the Padres came to town, Gwynn would greet me warmly.

He noticed things others would not. One time we spoke, I was wearing a Vanderbilt golf shirt. Gwynn noticed the logo and asked if I went there. When I said yes, he lit up. The Padres beat writer Buster Olney, of The San Diego Union-Tribune, also went there, Gwynn said excitedly. “You’ve got to meet him!” he said.

Pause for a moment to consider how rare this is. Few players would bother to notice a detail on a reporter’s shirt. Few would know which college the team’s beat writer had attended. Fewer still would then offer, with genuine enthusiasm, to play matchmaker.

But that was Gwynn. When our interview ended, he went back to the clubhouse, found Olney and brought him to the dugout to meet me. A few years later Olney was writing for The New York Times, and he recommended me for a job. Gwynn had set me on my career path.

Yep. This was Tony. Only Tony would do something like that.

Tony Gwynn #19 of the San Diego Padres
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesTony Gwynn was a great hitter, but also won five Gold Gloves on defense.

Because he was such a great hitter, I don't think he got as much credit as he might have for his baserunning -- he stole 56 bases in a season, and 319 in his career -- or for his defense. Standing flat-footed, Gwynn didn't have a particularly strong arm, but he perfected his use of his body in building momentum into his throws, especially as he chased down balls close to the right-field foul line. He was awarded a Gold Glove in five seasons in his career.

Ozzie Smith told Rick Hummel: Gwynn was just as proud of his defense.

When I covered the Padres, Gwynn’s son was around Jack Murphy Stadium a lot -- a quiet 10-year-old but always on the move, clambering around the clubhouse, playing around on the field. Years later, he reached the big leagues, and he was referred to as Tony Gwynn Jr.

But the first time I saw him in a clubhouse after he reached the big leagues, when he was with the Brewers, I apologized. I had to call him Anthony, I told him, because that's what his dad always called him.

More on Gwynn

• The Phillies hung Tony Gwynn Jr.'s jersey in their dugout Monday night.

• Tony Gwynn was a father figure to Stephen Strasburg, as Adam Kilgore writes.

• The Orioles' Adam Jones grew up in San Diego and was recruited by Gwynn for San Diego State.

Barry Bonds -- who had a close friendship with Gwynn -- learned the news about Gwynn from Nightengale, and was hurt.

• Paul Molitor remembered him as an innovator.

• The Mariners paid tribute to Gwynn Monday.

• Fans visited Gwynn’s statue.

Notables

• The Royals hammered Justin Verlander Monday night in the first game of a three-game series between the division rivals, and reduced Detroit's lead to a half-game.

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Victor MartinezOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesVictor Martinez's focus and consistency have been refined over 5,732 career plate appearances.
DETROIT -- Victor Martinez's walk from the on-deck circle to home plate is deliberate, a steady and unhurried amble. His walk-up music finishes, the pitcher, catcher and umpire wait, but Martinez will not be rushed. Ever. He gets in the box when he is ready, when he is prepared for the at-bat to begin. If the pitcher pushes the pace, Martinez will simply step out.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus says he has never been around a player with more focus on each pitch of each at-bat -- and this was not always the case. Martinez says that early in his career with the Indians, he grew to hate the feeling that he had given away an at-bat, that he had not been as prepared as he should have been.

As a catcher, he had a feel for how pitchers worked, for their pace, and he would watch Ichiro Suzuki prepare for each at-bat, stretching, bending, stepping out of the box for a practice swing.

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Anibal SanchezJesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAnibal Sanchez allowed 25 stolen bases in 26 attempts during the 2013 season.
BOSTON -- From the first day of spring training, the Detroit Tigers players say, Brad Ausmus talked about the running game.

But not only the running game of the Detroit baserunners, who were told to look for opportunities to take a base when they see it. Ausmus also wanted his pitchers to think more about the running game.

When pitchers threw their bullpen sessions in the spring, about a third of their work was done from the stretch, Alex Avila recalled. They simulated situations in which there was a runner at first, or first and third. They worked on varying their delivery times to the plate and on throwing to first base.

Last year, opposing teams ran aggressively against the Tigers. Detroit allowed 128 steals in 157 attempts, a staggering rate of 81.5 percent, which ranked 29th in the majors. Only two teams allowed more stolen bases.

This season, the Tigers have allowed 27 steals in 42 attempts, and their 35.7 percent rate of nabbing runners ranks fifth in the majors.

The pitchers have bought in to slowing down opposing runners, said Ausmus. That includes Anibal Sanchez, particularly, after he's had a lot of trouble with stolen bases in the past. Last year, Sanchez allowed 25 steals in 26 attempts.

This year, Sanchez's numbers aren't much better (six steals allowed in seven attempts), but Avila feels he’s throwing better, and has put in the work to improve. “Throwing out runners is a two-way street,” said Avila.

The Tigers added Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler during the offseason, and so it was inevitable that Detroit would run more and steal more bases. The Tigers’ baserunners generally have a green light to run, other than when they get a hold sign from the bench, and Torii Hunter believes the Detroit baserunners are assuming a natural aggressiveness.

Detroit leads the AL in steals with 36 -- one more than all of last season, when the Tigers finished last in MLB.

More on the Red Sox, Tigers

• The Boston Red Sox players have a strong sense of what it takes to win, after going from worst to first last season, and there is deep unhappiness with the team’s situational play right now. They feel like they should be taking advantage of those opportunities to move runners in close games, given the team’s dip in power production this season, and given Boston’s own strong pitching. The Red Sox currently rank 15th in runs, after leading the majors -- by far -- in 2013.

• The sands in the hourglass continue to slide away in the time remaining for the Red Sox to sign Jon Lester to a long-term extension. Clayton Kershaw set the very top of the market when he got a $215 million deal in the offseason, but the fairer comparables for Lester might be Cole Hamels, who got $144 million from the Philadelphia Phillies a few months before he was set to hit the market as a free agent, or Matt Cain, who got a five-year, $112.5 million extension in the spring before his free-agent fall.

The Red Sox offered Lester $70 million over four years earlier this year, and while Lester has mentioned that he’d like to stay in Boston, there is typically a time in the baseball calendar when it makes more sense for a prospective free agent to simply wait until he can hit the market.

If Boston intends to make a stronger offer to the 30-year-old Lester, who is off to the best start of his career, then it makes absolutely no sense to wait before presenting the upgraded proposal.

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Scherzer & Sandoval & LesterUSA TODAY SportsMax Scherzer and Jon Lester are off to great starts in "prove it" years, while Pablo Sandoval has scuffled.
In the April leading up to CC Sabathia’s free agency in 2008, his ERA after four starts was 13.50. Months later, he got the biggest contract ever for a pitcher -- $161 million -- after he had bounced back, and then been traded to Milwaukee and led the Brewers into the postseason.

All of that is a long way of saying that it’s still very early, and there is plenty of time for the members of the prospective free-agent class of 2015 to place themselves on the road to really big dollars.

But the sample size is growing.

A rating of the first part of the season for free agents, on a scale of 1 to 10:

Max Scherzer: 10

Nobody bet more on himself than Scherzer

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DodgersStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig serve as spark plugs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Hanley Ramirez attends the meetings that the Dodgers hold for the hitters at the outset of every series to go over scouting reports, but he does this to be respectful and polite of the process and not because he actually gleans information. He does not study video, either.

“None,” he said Saturday as he waited his turn in batting practice.

He does not care to know the identity of the opponent's starting pitcher, Ramirez said, until he is preparing for his first at-bat -- and even then, as he watches the pitcher throw to the first batters of the game, what Ramirez only wants to know is how hard the pitcher is throwing, and how much his fastball moves.

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To understand just how terrible the industry reviews are of the Detroit Tigers' deal with Miguel Cabrera, it's appropriate to draw on the examples from the movie industry.

The Cabrera deal, in the eyes of rival executives, is "Disaster Movie" bad.

The Cabrera deal, in the eyes of officials with other teams, is "Battlefield Earth" bad.
It's is "Heaven's Gate" bad. It is "Sahara" bad.

Folks from around the sport believe that Cabrera's deal is a guaranteed loser, and they do not understand what the Tigers could be thinking to sign on for this money pit that they know will have ripple effects on the entire industry.

"I just don't get it," one high-ranking NL executive said. "They lost their minds."

Said another: "It's an awful deal for the Tigers, and it's worse for baseball."

The criticism of the contract should not be confused with criticism of Cabrera, whose skills as a hitter are universally respected.

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The future is now for Tigers 

March, 22, 2014
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Brad Ausmus, Victor MartinezAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBrad Ausmus, right, has high expectations for the Tigers in his first year as manager.
The presumption within baseball is that the Detroit Tigers have been absorbing financial losses for years, owing to Mike Ilitch’s deep desire for a World Series title.

Consider the payrolls of clubs similar in market size and geography. The Cleveland Indians operate in a similar-sized market as the Tigers, and last year they had a payroll of just under $80 million. The Cincinnati Reds’ was just under $110 million. The Milwaukee Brewers' payroll was about $85 million. The Pittsburgh Pirates spent about $80 million.

The Tigers, on the other hand, had a payroll of about $150 million despite inhabiting a city that has had tremendous financial trouble. Ilitch, who is 84, has done everything he can to build a winner in Detroit, and the fans have certainly responded: The Tigers finished fifth in AL attendance in 2012 and third in 2013. Some rival executives, including owners, have marveled at Ilitch’s willingness to essentially dig into his own pockets, from his personal wealth, to try to win.

“God bless him, he wants to win,” said another owner. “I don’t think anybody in baseball wants to win more than he does, and he puts his money where his mouth is.”

But an often-asked question in baseball is: What will the next generations of Tigers ownership be like?

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jose Iglesias will be out for a long time because of his shin trouble, the Tigers now have a clear need at shortstop, and Stephen Drew would certainly fill that need. To borrow a Kevin Bacon line from "A Few Good Men," these are the facts, and they are undisputed.
[+] EnlargeStephen Drew
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesStephen Drew is represented by Scott Boras, who also represents the injured Jose Iglesias.

Drew and Iglesias are both represented by Scott Boras, who has had a good working relationship with Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ owner who relentlessly seeks a championship. Through the years Detroit has signed Boras clients like Magglio Ordonez and Prince Fielder. Again, these are the facts, and they are undisputed.

All of this suggests that Drew and the Tigers could be a match.

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Toughest lineup quandaries in MLB 

February, 1, 2014
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Xander BogaertsRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesBoth Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia could see time leading off for the Red Sox in 2014.
When Joe Torre managed, he jotted down lineups in his time away from the park, mulling over various possibilities, internally debating certain combinations.

In other words: He was like a lot of baseball fans and reporters, who like to think through different lineup quandaries, especially in the cold of winter.

Around baseball, there are interesting lineup quandaries.

For the defending champion Red Sox: Who hits leadoff?

Boston’s leadoff hitters ranked first in on-base percentage last season and third in runs scored, but the guy primarily responsible for that is gone. So now John Farrell has to decide who will replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the No. 1 spot in his batting order.

He’s got a few imperfect candidates such as Dustin Pedroia, who actually has done some of his worst work when he’s hit leadoff, or Jackie Bradley, who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or maybe Xander Bogaerts, who may ultimately be needed to hit in the middle of the Boston order.

But the Red Sox are likely to open the year with Bradley at or near the bottom of their lineup to help ease his transition into the big leagues.

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
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Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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Top 10 rotations in the majors 

December, 27, 2013
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Max Scherzer and Justin VerlanderMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesYou are in good shape when your rotation starts with these two Cy Young winners.
Mashiro Tanaka will represent a significant upgrade to the winning bidder, and as some executives said last week, the expectation is that he'll get a contract well over $100 million. Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez will also land someplace. David Price could be traded someplace soon.

With those big names still in limbo, we rank the top 10 rotations in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Rick Porcello could not have been more ill-suited for the Tigers over the last two seasons, because he needs the support of his defense and Detroit had little to offer. Now that the Tigers have upgraded at shortstop, with Jose Iglesias, and at third base (with Nick Castellanos taking over for Miguel Cabrera) and first (where Cabrera will be stationed), Porcello's ability to generate ground balls should be better exploited.

Remember, Porcello turns 25 years old on Friday and already has 149 starts in the big leagues; numerous evaluators believe he's headed for a strong season, at the back end of a rotation that includes the Cy Young Award winners from 2011 (Justin Verlander) and 2013 (Max Scherzer), as well as the highly underrated Anibal Sanchez.

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Many teams capable of a big move 

December, 15, 2013
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Shin-Soo ChooJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesShin-Soo Choo is one of the big names still available in free agency, and he has a number of potential suitors.
The Mariners have spent about $250 million this offseason, and the Yankees more than $300 million. Most of the best free agents have come off the board, and as general managers rushed out of the building with the dolphin on the top to catch flights out of Florida on Thursday, a lot of the winter work was done.

But some teams still have room for a big move before the offseason is over:

1. Texas Rangers: GM Jon Daniels says he does not expect any more major moves for the Rangers this winter. But Texas remains in an excellent position in its negotiations with Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz, because it appears the Rangers are one of the last teams -- maybe the last team -- prepared to spend big money on an outfielder.

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Cano's 3 likeliest non-Yankee suitors 

November, 27, 2013
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As the Robinson Cano stalemate continues, it's a good time to play the same game that folks in the Yankees' organization are playing.

It's called: If Not Us, Then Who?

Meaning: Who could possibly afford to sign Cano in the same sort of range that Albert Pujols got two winters ago, $240 million over 10 years? The Yankees offered around $160 million in May, the Cano camp asked for a record-setting deal of more than $300 million, and despite recent talks, a massive gap of about $100 million between the two sides probably still exists.

The Yankees ask: If Not Us, Then Who?

In order to go through this exercise, you must suspend any thoughts of team-building logic, because they really don't apply. It's been demonstrated time and again -- through the Yankees' A-Rod deal, through Pujols' contract, and others -- that giving a player in his prime a deal of eight or more years is probably not going to pay off.

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Here are the biggest winners of the Detroit Tigers-Texas Rangers blockbuster, and the biggest losers:

Winners

1. Detroit Tigers: General manager David Dombrowski described to reporters how quickly this deal came together in a little over 24 hours, and you can understand the scramble by Detroit to finish this. In the Tigers’ front office, there must have been a rush of adrenaline similar to what the Red Sox experienced when they were able to unload the contracts of Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When teams sign megadeals like the nine-year, $214 million contract that Prince Fielder got in January 2012, executives will privately tell you that their reasonable hope is for a few good years of elite production before the gradual decline begins and the final years of the deal turn ugly.

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