Inside Pitch: Tigers try to buck history
Granderson's injury may be one reason for Detroit's slow start
Back in 2002, when he was starting his third season as Detroit's manager, Phil Garner was dismissed after the Tigers lost their first six games of the season.
Jim Leyland is having a similarly unenjoyable start to his third year at the Tigers helm (1-7 entering play Thursday) but unlike Garner, don't expect Leyland to get the heave-ho.
These Tigers, a consensus preseason pick to reach the playoffs, still have more than enough time to turn things around, even if history is now clearly stacked against them:
No team has started a season 0-7 and made the playoffs.
Only two teams (the 1974 Pirates and '95 Reds) started a season 0-6 and reached the playoffs.
The Tigers have scored fewer runs (22) and had fewer extra-base hits (19) than all but one team -- the Giants have scored just 20 runs and have 18 extra-base hits. They've recorded just 65 hits and their slugging percentage (.356) surpasses that of just two clubs, the Dodgers (.350) and the Giants (.315).
The team ERA (4.68) is 12th in the American League and ranks 24th among the 30 Major League teams. Detroit has been outscored, 46-22.
How could this be happening to a team picked by a lot of people to win it all this year?
"We can keep talking about how good we are," Detroit pitcher Kenny Rogers said on Tuesday. "But right now, we're the worst team in baseball."
But they're certainly not this bad. So why the rough start?
"They've run into some very hot teams -- [Royals, White Sox and now Red Sox], and their pitching has been awful," said one veteran scout. "That's a bad combination for any team [to overcome], no matter how good they are."
Another agreed, but added another factor.
"If I had to pick one, I'd say they miss [injured leadoff man Curtis] Granderson," one scout said. "He's the guy [who] makes that lineup go. [Brandon] Inge has done a nice job, but I think they really miss what Granderson gives them at the top of the order, and with him out, it affects the whole lineup and their defense."
The Tigers haven't had a lot of baserunners, which has meant fewer times pitching from the stretch by opposing pitchers and fewer opportunities to distract hurlers. With the sluggers' bats silent, the offense hasn't been able to manufacture runs without Granderson.
The Tigers have stolen just two bases to tie for 24th with the Nationals, Rangers and Braves. Only the Red Sox (1), White Sox (1) and Yankees (0) have fewer stolen bases.
"We're not a running team anyway," Leyland said. "Granderson is the one guy we have [who is a stolen-base threat], but that's not the way we play."
True, but it can come in handy when your sluggers aren't belting long balls.
Whatever the cause, the Tigers need to turn things around in a hurry because the remainder of the April schedule is brutal.
After one more game in Boston, the Tigers will face the White Sox, Twins, Indians, Blue Jays, Rangers, Angels and Yankees before the calendar turns to May.
Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker gave shortstop/second baseman Jeff Keppinger a start at first base on Monday against Philadelphia left-hander Cole Hamels. Keppinger had played the position only five times previously at the Major League level.
Keppinger entered the season a career .316 hitter in 128 games over parts of four seasons, and despite continually demonstrating his ability to hit, he hasn't yet been able to secure a starting job.
Keppinger, who will turn 28 on April 21, is with his fourth organization after previous stints with the Pirates, Mets and Royals. He has been starting at shortstop since Alex Gonzalez went on the disabled list.
"He hits, has more power than you'd think and he doesn't strike out a lot," one scout said. "Plus, he's a right-handed hitter. I think [the Reds] will have to find a spot for him."
The Reds have several left-handed-hitting regulars, including left fielder Adam Dunn, right fielder Ken Griffey Jr., center fielder Corey Patterson, catcher Paul Bako and the first-base tandem of Scott Hatteberg and Joey Votto.
Keppinger's versatility makes him an attractive plug-in, but it will be interesting to see what the Reds do when Gonzalez returns. Keppinger isn't as strong defensively as Gonzalez, and yet through Wednesday's game, Keppinger was either first or no worse than second on the team in batting (.382), hits (13), on-base percentage (.436), homers (2), total bases (22) and RBIs (7).
Another infielder getting his first start at first base was Arizona's Chris Burke, who was at first for the Diamondbacks game against the Reds on Thursday.
D-backs manager Bob Melvin has been trying to get more at-bats for Burke, a second baseman, but with Orlando Hudson blocking him at that position, Burke is doing what he did in Houston the last couple of years: spot start here and there and pinch-hit.
Baltimore's bullpen has allowed just two earned runs in 24 1/3 innings. That's a 0.74 ERA, which is the best mark by any of MLB's 30 bullpens, slightly ahead of Kansas City's (0.86).
Orioles relievers have struck out 19 and walked five. George Sherrill has converted all four save opportunities. Dennis Sarfate, Matt Albers, Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford and Rule 5 Draft pick Randor Bierd have yet to allow a run, though. All but Bierd (two) have made at least three appearances.
"It's the best bullpen in the league, in my eyes," said Sarfate, who came to Baltimore along with Albers, outfielder Luke Scott, third baseman Mike Costanzo and left-hander Troy Patton from Houston in the trade that sent shortstop Miguel Tejada to the Astros. "It's fun to sit out there knowing we have a chance to win every game."
Opposing hitters and scouts have both noticed a more aggressive approach from St. Louis right-hander Adam Wainwright this year. Wainwright doesn't disagree with that theory, and he added consistent mechanics are important to his game.
"When pitchers are most effective, everything coming out of their hand looks like it's going to be a strike," Wainwright said. "Mechanics have got to be something that comes naturally on the mound."
An AL scout predicts that the Indians will try Rafael Betancourt at closer at some point this season, and said so before Cleveland closer Joe Borowski gave up a walk-off grand slam to Torii Hunter on Monday night.
Betancourt hasn't exactly been lights-out in the early going after his first four appearances, and Borowski (0-1 with a 19.29 ERA through Wednesday), saved 45 games last year, and he has converted two of three opportunities so far this season.
"[Borowski] was much better at home [4-3, 20 saves, 4.31 ERA] last year than he was on the road [0-2, 25 saves, 5.77], and he wasn't as sharp the last two months," the scout said. "He's going to blow [a save opportunity] now and then, but if Betancourt is ready and he looks like he's close, I think they'd be a better team with him [closing]."
Other teams were already keeping an eye on Pittsburgh's Xavier Nady on the assumption that the Pirates will deal the outfielder before the July 31 trade deadline, and after Nady's impressive opening week earned him Player of the Week honors, it was easy to see why Nady figures to remain a top target this summer.
The Pirates have more depth in the outfield than other areas, and Nady and Jason Bay are the most attractive veteran outfielders on the roster. The Pirates would likely want prospects for either player.
Don't be surprised if Jon Lieber ends up in the Cubs' rotation at some point. Lieber's a winner whose repertoire is tailor-made for Wrigley Field.
Remember last year, Lieber started the season in the Philadelphia bullpen, but after the Phillies got off to a slow start, manager Charlie Manuel moved the right-hander into the rotation and Lieber went 2-2 with a 2.50 ERA in six starts, including four quality starts, as the Phillies turned things around.
A National League scout who watched dueling Cy Young Award winners on Sunday at Turner Field -- New York's Johan Santana and Atlanta's John Smoltz -- said it was hard to tell which one recently signed the six-year, $137.5 million contract.
Both were outstanding, though Smoltz outpitched Santana for the victory.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.