RSBS Special Correspondent and Wikipiebenga Creator, Mark “Pie” Piebenga reports:
As soon as Victor Martinez went down, I thought, “well, season’s over.”  But then the Tigers won the Fielder sweepstakes (at a cost that boggles the mind: apparently Little Caesar’s is a pretty lucrative organization. Everybody reading this please buy a five dollar Hot N Ready so they can pay the Prince. And here is my obligatory admission that the back end of that contract is going to be a total nightmare). A season that looked suddenly suspect just as suddenly became the most exciting spring I can remember.
If they can keep healthy, and get production anywhere close to last year from Delmon Young, Alex Avila, and Brennan Boesch’s first half, and get consistent quality from Messrs. Verlander, Fister, Scherzer, and Porcello (not to mention the newly Dotel-ified bullpen), it augers Another Very Interesting Year To Be A Tigers Fan.
There are still some big question marks. It’s looking like a platoon of Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago at second, which doesn’t do us a ton of favors at the plate. With the diminished defensive range and crInge worthy batting of the once-exceptional Brandon Inge, the Miguel Cabrera return-to-third experiment will be interesting and hopefully not embarrassing. Danny Worth and Don Kelly will probably spot start there as well. Finally, can Austin Jackson achieve leadoff effectiveness even approaching two years ago?
For the last seven years or so I’ve approached the start of the season with same kind of a nervous ambivalence. The most positive outlook I’ve had could be described as ‘cautious optimism,’ which I feel now. It’s a very strange feeling to see the Tigers as the projected favorite to win the A.L. Central (hell, until last year, we hadn’t done it since 1987. Didn’t even do it in ’84.) The Tigers have been good lately, but as a typically suspicious and superstitious fan, I’m always nervous. In ’06 they got in the playoffs as a wildcard. When they forced the 163rd game with the Twinkies in ’09, I never had the feeling that we were a legit contending team. Last year they didn’t really seem to have any implicit dominance until rifling off that twelve game winning streak in September. (My father and I credit ourselves for that, having seen live their last loss before the streak started at a blinding hot day game Sept 1st, when the Royals came to Detroit.)
Speaking of which, I am very nervous about the Kansas City Royals. They were rated the 11th best team in the league in the ESPN prospects power rankings (I don’t know if this is a remotely useful metric, but Buster Olney seems like a smart guy). At the game with my dad September First we were sitting along the third base line, and during a lull in the game Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas was shooting the bull with the umpire and throwing the ball around. He was basically standing in the coache’s box, well behind third and in foul territory, and dude scooped up lazy grounder that came his way. Barely breaking eye-contact with the ump, he made a throw off his back foot that looked casual as hell, but judging by the angry snap of the leather Eric Hosmer’s glove at first, it could’ve been shot from a rifle. The lineup is getting spooky over there.
It’s foolish to make predictions about what’s going to happen, and we’re still forty four days till opening. Naturally when things don’t go your way for a couple of decades, you begin to doubt that anything good is going to happen. But the Tigs lately have provided all one can demand of any team, and that’s meaningful baseball in August and September. It will be really interesting to see what this team does in the face of injuries, statistical regression, and the rigors of the season.
 I can be a little dramatic.
 Verlander’s remarkable season was well documented. While he was hardly under the radar, I think a brief digression on Alex Avila is in order here. He had a .389 OBP (10th highest in baseball), an .895 OPS (8th in the AL), and hit .295. All while catching 133 games, and ranking top five among AL catchers in most defensive categories (e.g., tied for 1st with 40 runners caught stealing). And one of my least/most favorite things was the sheer number of times he got hit by deflections. I know catchers get hit all the time, but honestly I can’t remember seeing anything like his 2011 season behind the plate. (for example, check out sparks flying off his mask, and him getting hit in the neck.)
RSBS Podcast regular and Second City performer, Mark “Pie” Piebenga shares with us his thoughts:
Brennan Boesch made his major league debut last season at the Ballpark at Arlington on April 23, 2010. On my sketchy MLB.TV feed I heard Rod Allen’s sing-song voiceover on a shot of him sticking his head out of the visitor dugout, for the first time examining an empty big league park in all it’s vastness, no doubt dumbstruck by the thought, “I’m going to be playing in this joint tonight.” That night Boesch went 2 for 4 with a double (albeit in a Tigers loss), a prescient harbinger for his strong season and 5th place in rookie of the year voting (which honestly I remembered as better than his .256/.320/.416, 14 HR, 67 RBI line). Early days though it may be, he’s putting up even better numbers offensively (.300/.359/.485, 10 HR, 38 RBI) and similarly adequate defensive ones (RF 1.91 in ’10, 2.00) this year.
This improvement was epitomized in his return to Arlington with the Tigers on June 6 this year, a game in which he went 5-5 with 2 HR and 5 RBI. Clearly the 97° degree weather made for a lively ball, belied by the 13-7 Tiger win. You can’t expect that kind of an outing every time from the young man, but there’s something so exciting about production out of young players.
Last Tuesday afternoon (6/21) Tiger Don Kelly knocked in his second home run of the year, off Matt Guerrier, at Chavez Ravine against the Dodgers. (Until this week Guerrier owned a sub-3.00 lifetime ERA against the Tigers, owing to seven years tendered with the Twinkies.) At 31, Kelly is five years older than Boesch, and lacks his pedigree (not to his body type – Kelly has a thin-necked way about him. And at what point can any of us say that the name “Don” has inspired much in the way of terror in the hearts of men? “Save us! The heathen hordes are approach the city gates, at the helm of their curs-ed onslaught is the much-feared chief and leader, Don! AHHHH! Flee for the caves!”).
Kelly’s season home run total is now two, a bit behind last year’s mark of nine (incidentally the number Ty Cobb hit in 1909). Don Kelly is my age, and it pains me to think that he has passed the years by which baseball players tend to have proved themselves. Can I equate any meaningful life lessons based on Don Kelly’s baseball career? It’s a lifetime, to this point, where four of the last five years have seen him make it to baseball’s biggest stage. Among minor league players he would be considered a flying success. He’s earned the major league minimum wage in four of the last five seasons. That’s many hundreds of thousands of dollars more than his minor league contemporaries will ever make.
But when you put him in the context of a rookie like Brennan Boesch, whose success this year and last year, while perhaps not wildly unbelievable, dwarfs kelly’s achievements. His thin neck and his name of Don combine to make me feel an amiability towards him, a sadness, and a certain feeling of doom.
Don Kelly hit .244 last year. That’s not great. This year he’s up to .260, which is sure as hell a lot better than Ryan Raburn (or Brandon Inge, who he recently covered for at 3B). Why am I so transfixed by this guy? Is it because he is achieving his dream, and yet is markedly below the figures who capture our imaginations, even in the fairly low-stratosphere Detroit Tigers?
My fascination with the poor bastard seems to come from the fact that I identify with him. I believe I could achieve nominally in a given field, and even surpass a number of my contemporaries. But deep down I feel that I hold a limited ceiling on my potential, that I am, within myself, capable of only so much achievement – good, but not great. Don Kelly is the mediocre but by all accounts successful prototype which I fear myself to be. And it is only human to know that sometimes you are going to have people surpass your accomplishment if you hang around long enough to get shown up. Kurt Vonnegut offers us this advice in Timequake: “If you do something long enough, even if you’re really good at it, eventually you’re going to come across someone who is going to cut you a new a**hole. What I tell young people is: stay home, stay home stay home.”
Eventually you’re going to find someone who’s going to be so much better at what you do, you’re going to “feel like something the cat dragged in,” to borrow another quip Vonnegut loves. Does this mean that we should perhaps not try at all? Of course not. Don Kelly has done nothing but try. He’s displayed a level of commitment that I in my personal life would very much aspire to, and to which I honestly must conclude I have come up short.
I dated a girl once whose parents never told her that she could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up. But she’s the only person who I’ve ever met like that. Everyone else I know had parents who said, “you can be anything you put your mind to.” I was raised in a best-of-all-possible-worlds-Candide-type home. Unfortunately, much like Candide, I have grown up to find that it’s not entirely true. I can be pretty good, but I don’t think I can be anything.
So here we are, back at Don Kelly. As I said, I feel an ambivalence for him, animosity at watching him flair in failure at so many pitches, and affection when he cranks a triple like he did the other week, or a long fly like he did the other day. Perhaps I can’t achieve even to the level he has. But I take some solace in that even if I can’t be the best, maybe I can still be pretty good. Hell, somebody’s got to back up Brandon Inge* when he’s got mono.
On an unrelated note, Jose Valverde’s homepage, un-updated from his days as an Astro, is a must-see. I mean, the URL is www.josevalverde47.com for chrissakes. Courtesy to my roommate Thomas on that one.
*My old roommate Ben insists that from a distance (ie., in most shots on TV), Inge’s forearm tattoos look like they say “Coca-Cola” (rather than the names of his sons, which is the truth). I would have to say I agree with him.
Hi Jeff. You are always saying mean things about the Tigers and making
fun of Allen. They seem to be doing pretty well with all these young
guys, though. Do you think you might have been wrong, even though you
always tell us not to hate you ‘cuz you’re right?
While I certainly detest the notion that my impervious and oft-uppity colleague, Mr. Allen Krause, and his infectious worldview have now tainted the minds of my dear family and friends back home in Quincy, IL, please remember that I have no problem telling you the truth:
The Tigers still suck.
Off to a good start…
Yet destined to fail.
Of course, I have been wrong once or twice in my life; but I still co-write a hit blog so I’m not sweatin’ it. And neither should you. It’s May. Sure, the Tigers are holding their own… for now. Austin Jackson, Scott Sizemore, Rick Porcello, Brennan Boesch… indeed, the future is bright in Detroit.
But not this year.
Sizemore just got sent down. Porcello is overrated. Austin Jackson is more Mark Reynolds than Ichiro Suzuki… and I haven’t even mentioned the impending doom of Dontrelle Willis (it will happen eventually). I just don’t think the Tigers have what it takes to play this well the entire season.
By August their youngsters will have petered out… the old timers (Damon) will be thinking about fishing in Cabo with Joe Mauer and that MLB The Show guy… and once again the murder rate in the Motor City will be the most talked about thing in Michigan.
Not the Tigers.
And for all you river-rat Q-towners, like Leslie above, who are considering siding with Mr. Krause and his lacking baseball acumen, just remember who buys the beers when he’s back home. Yeah. That’s what I thought.
So go ahead and hate me ‘cuz I spitz it straight. Just don’t hate me ‘cuz I’m right.
(Image courtesy of 9GAG)
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