Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nothing But Praise For The Red Wings

With a 3-0 lead in their series over Colorado, there are a number of things that standout about the Red Wings:
- They can’t say Chris Osgood is just the benefactor of playing with a great team in front of him. He’s made several key and timely saves and has outplayed Jose Theodore by a wide margin in this series.
- Johan Franzen is a budding star. He closed the regular strongly and has been even better during the playoffs. Come on - eight goals in nine games. That’s the stuff of a potential Conn Smythe Trophy winner. The Mule has extraordinary hands.
- Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were outstanding Tuesday. Those two, along with Nicklas Lidstrom, give the Red Wings three of the Top 10 players in the NHL.
- Mike Babcock has had the golden touch as coach. He switched to Osgood at just the right time during the Nashville series, his decision to play Darren McCarty over Aaron Downey was the right one and he has made the proper moves in terms of adjusting his game-night lineup.
- Niklas Kronwall is on the verge of becoming a great player. He has been the Red Wings most-underrated player during the playoffs.
- Don’t discount Dallas because the Red Wings have owned the Stars in the past. They are clearly better built for the playoffs this spring, and Mary Turco is a much better playoff performer than he used to be.

Random Thoughts

- It is hardly a coincidence the Tigers have started playing much better baseball since Curtis Granderson returned to the lineup. Looks like he is going to be returning to Yankee Stadium later in the season - for the All Star Game. Amazing how he keeps getting better. That injury didn’t throw him off a bit.

- What a find Clay Rapada has been. Every time the Tigers have turned to the guy, he has come through. That was a huge out he got Tuesday night.

- Hey, how come nobody is calling sports talk radio lately begging the Pistons to trade Tayshaun Prince? He has been the Pistons’ one constant during their series against the 76ers.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Starting Theodore Plays Into Red Wings Hands

The Red Wings have dominated their series with the Colorado Avalanche. The danger comes in the notion it is already over.
While the rivalry lacks the zip it used to, Denver can be quite a difficult place to play.
There is one factor obviously on the Red Wings’ side in this series, though. It is Colorado coach Joel Quenneville’s decision to start Jose Theodore in goal for Game 3.
Theodore has been awful in this series, allowing soft goals early in both games, Letting the Red Wings to take over from the start. He has been pulled both times, and Colorado backup Peter Budaj has played much better.
The Red Wings need to take advantage of this strategic blunder and put the Avs away in Game 3. A loss Tuesday and it’s a series again. A victory by the Red Wings, and it will, indeed, be over.

Random Thoughts

- There comes a point where father time catches up with even the greatest athletes. Is that happening with the Tigers’ Kenny Rogers and Gary Sheffield, both great players? Rogers, 43, is 1-3 with a 7.66 ERA. Sheffield, 39, is hitting .159 with just one home run and three RBI in 63 at bats. Both are coming off injury-plagued season. In Sheffield’s case, he has had shoulder and finger injuries this season already, after missing large chunks of the previous two seasons with injuries.
Sheffield and Rogers obviously have earned more time to work out their problems, but how much? A season can slip away fast.

- I thought Kevin Smith was a really good pick by the Lions during the third round. He is a solid running back, who picks up the difficult yards. He is not a home run hitter, but not many backs break long runs in the NFL anyway. He’ll help the Lions move the chains. That’s the most important thing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Is The Tigers Resurgence Real Or A Mirage?

The panic button has been set aside for the Tigers. Pounding the Texas Rangers has renewed their season. They definitely aren’t out of any sort of contention. They obviously have new life. They have survived the 2-10 start.
But has the Tigers’ resurgence been because they are playing that much better, or because the Rangers are just a bad team?
I think there are elements of both there. First of all, the Tigers did split in Toronto. The win Monday was particularly meaningful. Secondly, they beat Minnesota two straight home games before that road trip. They have actually played reasonably well overall since their dismal start, especially at Comerica Park
The bullpen has been beyond a pleasant surprise. Clay Rapada, Aquilino Lopez and Denny Bautista are no names that have come though. The thunder everybody expected from the Tigers’ zillion dollar lineup has been displayed. Having Curtis Granderson back speaks volumes for his value.
The fly in the ointment, though, is starting pitching. Other than rookie Armando Galarraga, it has been poor. If that doesn’t change, the Tigers are going to have trouble remaining in contention.
Problem is, they are locked in with these starters. There aren’t other options. There is a lot of money invested in the starting five, so much so that you’re not going to see anything like one of them moving to the bullpen, where they all would be an ill fit anyway. If anybody goes to the bullpen, it will be Galarraga.
The key is Dontrelle Willis. When healthy, he will likely be given some time on rehab assignment in the minors to test his knee and - more importantly - work out his control issues.
A good litmus test for the Tigers comes this weekend against the Angels. If they win this series, it would be more significant proof of the Tigers improvement than beating up on the Rangers.

Random Thoughts

- I thought the atmosphere at Joe Louis Arena Thursday night for Game 1 of the Red Wings series with Colorado was the most electrifying I have seen there since prior to the lockout. Seems like fans are trusting the Red Wings again.

- If there is a danger in this series, it is Colorado goalie Peter Budaj. He was tested severely by the Wings, stopping all 20 shots he faced in relief of Jose Theodore, who was awful before being pulled for ineffectiveness and illness. The last thing the Wings need to see is some average goalie getting hot against them in a playoff series, although he does seem to be their modus operandi, doesn’t it.

- The Lions goal in the draft should be to just be solid. Make good, sound fundamental choices. None of this thinking outside the box stuff. They have four picks in the first three rounds and need to find good football players with all of them. No wide receivers. No quarterbacks. A linebacker - definitely. An offensive lineman - definitely. A running back - definitely. More defensive help - obviously.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gullien-Cabrera Switch Does Seem Logical

It was a surprise when Jim Leyland announced after the Tigers victory over Texas Tuesday night that he was shifting Carlos Guillen from first base to third, and replacing him with Miguel Cabrera, who had been the Tigers’ third baseman.
There is, however, solid logic behind the move. Guillen is a much better infielder than Cabrera. He does tend to be error-prone (his biggest issue is transferring the ball from his glove to throwing hand smoothly), but he has better range and is just a better defender than Cabrera, who has an inconsistent arm. Conversely, when he has played first, Cabrera has been just fine. Seems like he has outgrown other positions and first is his ultimate destination. Certainly, he has the offensive production of a front line first baseman. Also, Guillen, for reasons I don’t understand, was awkward and clearly out of place at first this season. So much so, it seemed like he was an injury about to happen there. It was strange, because when Guillen played first base in the past, he performed well.
Like all moves, this one is subject to change. I like it, though, and think it is worth trying. It should tighten up the left side of the infield because there were range issues there - and it allows the Tigers to get all their best bats in the lineup. It also frees Brandon Inge to be used in a number of different of ways - including at third if Guillen is the DH.

Random Thoughts

- Couldn’t ask for a better matchup in the second round than the Red Wings and Avalanche. This is a series the Red Wings should win. The wild card is Colorado goalie Jose Theodore. He has put his troubles into the past and is playing great hockey again. Can Chris Osgood match him?

- The thought of the Lions trading up to get Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan doesn’t make sense to me. First of all, what about Drew Stanton? Don’t they have to find out what they have there? Secondly, is Matt Ryan really that good? For some reason, he kind of reminds me of Joey Harrington. He is a solid college QB with a chance to succeed in the pros, but I don’t see any overwhelming skills.

- I was disappointed the Flyers beat Washington in Game 7 for one reason and one reason only - no more Alexander Ovechkin. With all due respect to Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin is the most exciting player to hit in the NHL in a long, long time.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Red Wings Victory Best Yet This Spring

The Red Wings played well Sunday in Nashville. It was their best playoff-type effort this spring, and the most encouraging performance they have put forth so far to indicate they might make a strong run for the Stanley Cup title.
Consistency is the key. Their play was much more persistent Sunday. Although I am still not sure Chris Osgood is the ultimate answer in goal, he has been very solid so far. And he has been tested, particularly by David Legwand, a number of times, on Sunday.
I think, too, it is encouraging from the Red Wings standpoint that all their lines are contributing. Jiri Hudler has played particularly well. He has great puck skills which often seemed negated by a lack of size and strength, but his performance in the playoffs thus far has been a pleasant surprise. They need Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to score more, though.
If I’m the Wings, I’m hoping San Jose wins this next series. The Flames are built better for the playoffs than the Avalanche. Also, it would be nice to see the Wings-Avs rivalry renewed.

Random Thoughts

- You know the Tigers’ pitching is struggling when five runs allowed is considered a stellar performance.

- The Pistons loss Sunday was disappointing, but won’t be fatal. I expect them to rout the 76ers Wednesday.

- For the alleged "best backcourt in the NBA," Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton sure didn’t perform like it Sunday. They were the biggest reason the Pistons lost.

- 76ers point guard Andre Miller is fun to watch. What a terrific player in a subtle, yet remarkably, effective way.

- People often underestimate the Spurs because they underestimate Tim Duncan.

- The Tigers sure could use Jair Jurrjens about now, couldn’t they?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What's Up With Justin Verlander?

The numbers say a lot about Justin Verlander's struggles. No wins. An ERA over 7.00. But it's not just the results that are alarming. It's the way he throwing the ball. Once of baseball's few 100 mph pitchers, he is lacking zip on his fastball.
And what that does is put in motion a chain reaction. There is less separation between his fastball and changeup in terms of velocity, therefore making his changeup less effective. It also has the same bearing on his breaking ball. The other factor is, he seems to lack an "outpitch" to get him out of trouble. It was his changeup or 100 mph - when his velocity was up.
There are a couple things Tiger fans should be hoping for here. One is that there is nothing wrong with him physically. Verlander, obviously, is as key to the Tigers' success as anybody on their roster. And secondly, that he isn't spooked by the prospect of being their ace. He needs to develop the same type of will and aura Jack Morris had, where he seemed to get the job done in crucial starts - even when he didn't have his best "stuff."

Random Thoughts

- It was amazing how quickly the blame was put on Dominik Hasek when the Red Wings lost just one playoff game Monday night.
He had played well in Game 1 and Game 2 against Nashville. The Red Wings would not have won those games without Hasek's stellar play. He made several tricky saves.
He was all right in Game 3 despite the loss, but what happened in Game 4 Wednesday was unacceptable. It was a soft goal he allowed to Nashville's Greg DeVries that took away all the momentum the Red Wings had developed.
It was a killer. The Red Wings lost the game and are in a precarious spot in an opening round playoff series again because of it. And it was the cardinal sin of goaltending in the playoffs.
A team like Nashville is able to go into a defensive shell after taking a lead like that. Doesn't matter if the Red Wings are carrying the play and bombarding the net with shots. Nashville's Dan Ellis, you see, was up to the task in net. Hasek wasn't. And this is the first time Ellis has played in the playoffs.
Chris Osgood is the obvious choice to start in goal for the Red Wings in Game 5 Friday. He played well in relief of Hasek, but it was too late.

- I have heard buzz about the Lions schedule being difficult, but honestly I don’t see it as daunting. They should get off to a good start. They will be facing Atlanta and San Francisco within the first three weeks on the road, but neither one of those teams is very good. The home game in-between is the Packers, but they will be adjusting to life without Brett Favre, and the Lions have had some success against the Packers at home down through the years. Other than a road trip to Indianapolis, their non-division road schedule is kind (Houston is the other road trip). I think the biggest issue is whether the Lions have improved in relation to other NFC North teams. I have to think the Bears and Vikings will be better than last season, although it’s not like either has solved their quarterbacking woes.
This is a better schedule for the Lions than they had last season. If they make a couple decent moves on the draft day, and play sound fundamental football, it is (and please don’t start laughing at me) not out of the realm of possibility they can make the playoffs.

- Dallas has put Anaheim on the brink of elimination. The road is being paved nicely throughout the playoffs for the Red Wings. But it is up to them to not blow it during this opening round against the Predators.

- Did you know: Chris Osgood has lost his last five playoff series dating back to 2000. His playoff record since is 10-20.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Rant Is Fine, But Leyland Should Look In Mirror

Jim Leyland’s blowup following the Tigers’ 11-0 loss to the White Sox Sunday was both understandable and predictable.
His team has been awful. Leyland’s patience has been tested to the breaking point, but I honestly don’t think it is going to provide an impetus to the Tigers improving their play.
And it doesn’t - in any way, shape or form - mask the fact the Tigers simply weren’t prepared for the start of the season. For that, Leyland is culpable.
This is a team that looks like it expected to just show up and win games. Fundamentally, they have been awful. How can so many veteran players make so many mistakes? Perhaps they should have been reminded of a few things the last weeks of spring training.
Injuries haven’t helped, but in truth, Brandon Inge has done well in place of Curtis Granderson. Anybody they put in there isn’t going to be worse than Dontrelle Willis. He was pitching awful when he got hurt.
It’s the stars - from Miguel Cabrera to Magglio Ordonez to Gary Sheffield to Carlos Guillen to Justin Verlander - who haven’t been performing.
Tiger hitters give away too many at-bats by swinging at bad pitches and not working the count. They try to pull too many outside pitches, instead of going the other way, which has resulted in a rash of double play balls.
The pitchers haven’t help the situation. With the exception of Jeremy Bonderman in Boston and the bullpen Friday night in Chicago, when the going has gotten tough, Tiger pitchers have competed poorly.
Intellectually, you can slough this off as "being early." There is little doubt the season is not over by any stretch. But the Tigers start has been alarming nonetheless, and it will take more than the manager yelling at his players to turn it around.
It will take urgency on the field by his ballplayers. Based on what we’ve seen so far from this high-priced, evidently too comfortable team, I am not holding my breath for that to happen any time soon.

Random Thoughts

- Considering all the anticipation regarding Francisco Cruceta’s arrival, does anybody realize his career ERA is above 10? You’d think the Tigers were waiting for Mariano Rivera or something.

- The more I see of Rodney Stuckey, the more I like. Seems like a great draft pick by Joe Dumars. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stuckey is a major factor during the playoffs.

- Just a gut feeling, but closer it gets to the NFL Draft, the more I get the feeling the Lions will take a linebacker in the opening round.

Friday, April 11, 2008

I thought the Tigers’ loss Thursday night at Boston summed up their season so far. They did have a 2-0 lead. Nate Robertson gave it right back. They did rally a bit during the late innings, but the bullpen was woefully ineffective. They have scored more runs, but Gary Sheffield hit into an untimely double play.
Problems abound for this club. In the long term, obviously pitching is the major concern. But they are just playing poor fundamental and losing baseball.
I have seen poor starts turn into big seasons before. The Yankees were 11-19 - and won 95 games in 2005. The Tigers were 11-19 in 1987 - and won 98 games. The Blues Jays were 12-24 in 1989 - and won the division with 89 victories. One key for the Tigers is to at least be within reasonable distance of .500 at the 40-game mark. They have no chance at 10-30, or something ridiculous like that. The other is to not fall too far behind the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Angels, Mariners and, maybe, the White Sox. It has helped that most of those probable contenders are .500 or below.
After roughly 40 teams, teams are more open to making moves. There is more of an idea of what is in the minor leagues. Dave Dombrowski might be able to do some tweaking with his roster then. But the Tigers have to start playing better now so it will matter.

Random Thoughts

- I keep getting phone calls on my radio show about signing Barry Bonds. I wouldn’t do it based on the media circus it would cause, the fact he isn’t a team player and had just 66 RBI last season. The risk isn’t worth it, in my opinion. He’s just a shadow of the player he used to be, but his sour personality will go on forever.

- Anaheim getting routed Thursday was actually kind of funny. I mean, the pundits, particularly in Canada, love the Ducks. Too much so. They seem to be just another example of how difficult it is to repeat in the NHL these days.

- Of the lower seeds, I see Calgary being the most dangerous. Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Inginla, Dion Phaneuf - that team has some great front line talent and decent depth.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Leyland In A Precarious Situation

Tiger fans seem are wondering when the other shoe is going to drop - and Jim Leyland starts ripping into his team.
It sure worked in 2006, didn’t it? Why won’t he do it now?
I think the main reason is he doesn’t want to present the feeling he is panicking. A leader needs to stay cool in these situations, exuding more of an air of confidence than the message a blow up sends.
The problem comes with what seems like, for reasons I don’t fully understand, a complacent team. I know the old baseball adage about a team that isn’t hitting doesn’t look like it is trying. But the Tigers have taken this to the extreme. They are not only not hitting well, they are giving away at bats away and playing sloppy baseball in the field, and while running the bases.
Leyland is in a precarious situation,. So many of his players have long-term contracts that they are secure - regardless whether he comes down hard on them.
The best thing he can do is speak individually to players on a daily basis (his strength) and appeal to their professionalism (this is a team of proven players, who have had team success before, either in Detroit or elsewhere, and shown they care in the past). Then, like the rest of us, all he can do is hang on during what has been incredibly bumpy ride.

Random Thoughts

- It’s interesting how so many hockey pundits - especially those in Canada - think so little of the Red Wings. I have a feeling the Wings will surprise them this postseason by reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.

- I really enjoyed the Pistons celebrating their history this season. But John Salley on the all-time team? That seemed odd.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Were Tiger Trades Monumental Mistakes?

When the Tigers were done with their off season trades, most of us in this town - myself included - were praiseworthy of the Tigers’ organization. There was a window of opportunity there. They were going for it. And on paper, the Tigers looked like one of the best - if not the very best - teams in baseball.
But perhaps, like the Tigers themselves, we were all sold a bill of goods. The Tigers’ 0-6 start is stunning. Not only are they losing games, but they look like a bumbling sandlot team while doing so.
The bullpen isn’t good. Injuries to Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney have been devastating. Yet, the rest of the team has been just as bad - or worse.
The Tigers have hit into so many weak ground-ball double plays that it is maddening. They look slow and fumble-handed defensively. Carlos Guillen’s performance Sunday was embarrassing, and there is a noticeable lack of range on the left side of the infield.
As of now, the Tigers are a compilation of big names, not a team.
Dontrelle Willis can’t throw strikes. Sometimes pitchers never come out of that funk once they fall into it. Miguel Cabrera will hit, but when? It doesn’t matter if it is too late. And he sure doesn’t contribute much otherwise. Edgar Renteria looks like a ball player past his prime.
I didn’t like the Renteria trade initially, but thought it was a good move after general manager Dave Dombrowski made the trade with the Marlins. But when you look at the three players the Tigers got in those trades, and then compare them to the eight young players they gave up, it seems like those trades might have been monumental mistakes that might cost the Tigers for eons. Especially when the Tigers’ sky-high payroll is considered.
So it is limited proof - just six games. But it is disconcerting nonetheless.

Random Thoughts

- This NCAA tournament has been a dud so far. Only one of the games from the Sweet 16 on has been all that exciting, Kansas edging Cinderella Davidson at Ford Field. Hopefully the championship game will make up for it.

- I think the ideal running back for the Lions in this draft, if they go beyond the first round without taking one, is Matt Forte from Tulane. He is downhill a runner, who presses the hole quickly and makes good cutback moves once he gets a little space. He is solid and very productive.

- If there is a bright side for the Tigers, they are only three games behind the Yankees, and two and half games behind the Indians and Red Sox. And there is obviously plenty of time to makeup ground. The bad part, 12 of the Tigers next 14 games are on the road.

Friday, April 04, 2008

This Is Why You Want Great Pitching First

It’s just a fact about baseball that hitting comes and goes as if almost on a whim. Even the best lineups have slumps. Long ones, too.
That is why the ideal situation is to have great pitching first, rather than be so reliant on hitting. Pitching is much more of a constant than hitting. And it leads to consistency.
Look at the Tigers in 2006. Their pitching was the best in baseball. And even when the hitters slumped late in the season, or were spotty during the postseason, pitching still carried the Tigers through the rough spots.
Well, their pitching isn’t what it was. They matched the Royals - a marginal hitting team - for awhile during the last couple games of that series, but not in the end. The Tigers pitching wasn’t good enough to steal a game in that series as Detroit’s hitters slumped.
The Tigers’ lineup is still formidable. They will score runs. But early season losses can snowball and be difficult to makeup later. The sooner the Tigers nip this in the bud, the better.
Having said that, there are some concerns about certain spots in the lineup. Jacque Jones hasn’t looked good. Neither has Pudge. Has the end of the line hit for Gary Sheffield? He seems to get hurt a lot. But Curtis Granderson will be back, and the rest of the lineup will eventually score runs and have impressive seasons statistically. But it can’t be too late. The last thing the Tigers need is to get behind the 8-ball early in the season. The American League is too formidable.

Random Thoughts

- With all due respect to the many emerging great players in the NHL, Alexander Ovechkin is the one that is over-the-top brilliant. Every shift he takes on the ice is exciting. And to score 65 goals in a season during this era is a remarkable accomplishment. The NHL needs the Capitals in the playoffs. Ovechkin sure belongs there.

- I know, know. I keep selling Memphis short, and Derrick Rose is an incredible player, but I still see a North Carolina-UCLA final. It would be fitting. Those are clearly the two best teams in the country, as far as I’m concerned.

- The best thing about the start of this baseball season: No Barry Bonds.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Did Dombrowski Do Enough During Off Season?

Look, I see the Tigers having a good season. I see the Tigers being competitive. I don’t see any way the Tigers are going to fall totally flat on their collective face during 2008. And I am fully aware it was just one game.
But opening day, on the heels of a spring training that was more than little disconcerting because of injuries, didn’t play out too well for the Tigers.
They had a 3-0 lead late against Kansas City, which remains one of the bottom feeders in the American League, and they lost the game.
I understood what Dave Dombrowski was saying during the off season about the bullpen. That you find your best middle relievers often in oddest spots, that it’s not really a position you trade for, or sign premier free agents to fill.
But did he do enough to bolster the bullpen? I believe that is a fair question, one that begs to be asked.
The Tigers had a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning, and when Justin Verlander tired, their best option was...Jason Grilli.
That’s the one thought I can’t get out of my mind. He is OK as a long reliever, but not in that role. Until that changes, I don’t see the Tigers being as good as had been anticipated. You know, of championship caliber.
Teams don’t trade the first month or so of the season. It’s when they find out what they have - both at the major leagues and in the higher minor leagues - and then start making adjustments.
The key for the Tigers will be surviving this first month with that bullpen. It can’t be a disaster. Then the next key is Dombrowski doing something to help the bullpen because right now it is clearly not good enough.

Random Thoughts

- No, I didn’t think it was a very good Tigers debut for either Edgar Renteria or Jacque Jones. Seems like Renteria’s range at SS wasn’t very good.

- Even though he lost the game, I thought Denny Bautista was a bright spot. He seemed poised and threw very hard.

- Pudge just doesn’t seem to be much of threat at the plate anymore.

- Even on a team of stars, Carlos Guillen seems to be the Tigers MVP. He is a really good clutch hitter.

- I wouldn’t have bunted Brandon Inge after Clete Thomas’ double I don’t like giving up an out there. There is no excuse, however, for Renteria not putting the ball in play in that situation and driving Thomas home.