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Defense is a weakness for Tigers
I loved the Tigers, you loved the Tigers, we all loved the Tigers.
But the team has one major flaw, and rival scouts and executives were talking about it as far back as spring training.
True, the Tigers have performed below expectations offensively, ranking only seventh in the American League in runs per game.
That figures to change, and rival executives say that the Tigers’ front office is unfazed by the team’s sluggish performance thus far, and not contemplating trades.
The Tigers, at 23-24, are only one game behind their 47-game pace of a year ago, when they reached the American League Championship Series. One good month, and the team likely will control the AL Central again.
Still, that defense . . .
Entering the weekend, the Tigers had converted 71 percent of their groundballs into outs — the worst rate in the majors, according to Bloomberg Sports. The Yankees were next-to-last at 72.5 percent. The Blue Jays were first at 83.1 percent.
Opponents had a .326 batting average on balls in play against Porcello, a .403 BABIP against Scherzer. The AL average is .284.
Porcello, a groundball pitcher, figures to be affected more than Scherzer by poor infield defense long-term. The Tigers’ two best defenders, center fielder Austin Jackson and left fielder Andy Dirks, are outfielders. The team is below-average at every infield position.
The Tigers still have super-human right-hander Justin Verlander, and still figure to slug their way to the AL Central title. But they’ve put together a poor defensive club at a time when most teams are increasing their emphasis on that aspect of the game.
Tough way to win the World Series.
THE GREAT KONERKO
I asked Upton who it was.
“(Paul) Konerko,” Upton replied. “All he does is rake.”
But that’s nothing.
In Konerko’s last 10 games, he is 23-for-36 with five homers, four doubles and 14 RBIs — a tidy slash line of .639/.690/1.167.
RED SOX’S A. GONZALEZ: 'A BALLPLAYER'
How many $150 million players would shift between positions so willingly?
The Red Sox didn’t need to ask Gonzalez to play right field, enabling them — on occasion — to play him, Kevin Youkilis and Will Middlebrooks in the same lineup.
No, Gonzalez volunteered in spring training, telling manager Bobby Valentine that Terry Francona used him in right twice last season.
Gonzalez says he prefers playing first base, but is comfortable in right. It helps that both positions are on the same side of the field. Left field, Gonzalez says, would be a different story.
“If you hit me 10 balls in left, I’d miss 7 or 8,” Gonzalez says. “I always run the wrong way.”
One rival executive is unimpressed by the Red Sox’s experiment, saying the team is risking injury by playing Gonzalez in right. Valentine counters, “I think you get hurt more at first base than you do in right field.”
Valentine calls Gonzalez as “astute a baseball guy as you’ll ever find,” yet doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the idea of Gonzalez patrolling the big right field at Fenway Park — he removed Gonzalez for a defensive replacement in the sixth inning of a scoreless game Saturday.
In any case, Gonzalez’s teammates are impressed by his team-first approach.
“He’s a ballplayer,” outfielder Marlon Byrd says.
YOUR MOVE, PIRATES
“Offensively challenged” would be far too kind a description for the Pirates, who are last in the majors in scoring, averaging 2.98 runs per game. And no, the Buccos do not get bonus points for their weekend beatdown of the Cubs.
The Pirates sure know how to pick ’em, don’t they?
The team just designated outfielder Nate McLouth for assignment, and three other offseason “additions” — shortstop Clint Barmes, catcher Rod Barajas and infielder Casey McGehee — are all resounding busts.
Barmes, recommended by manager Clint Hurdle, has drawn two walks in 146 plate appearances, prompting one scout to ask, “How is that even possible?”
But so much for the bad news.
The Pirates’ pitching is almost as good as their hitting is bad. The team also has relievers to spare at Triple A. Hitters are difficult to find, much less acquire, but the Pirates are in position to grab at least one in a trade.
Righty Jeff Karstens, recovering from right shoulder inflammation, recently began a rehabilitation assignment. His return would give the Pirates an extra starter, enabling them to move righty Kevin Correia, who is 1-5 with a 4.30 ERA.
OK, Correia isn’t all that sexy.
But have you taken a look at that bullpen, which leads the NL in rotation ERA?
Closer Joel Hanrahan is 11-for-12 in save opportunities. Right-hander Juan Cruz has a 1.45 ERA in 18 2/3 innings. And — get ready for this — right-hander Jason Grilli owns the highest strikeout rate among NL relievers. Grilli is averaging 16.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Aroldis Chapman is next at 15.9.
Now, no one should advocate the Pirates trading righty Gerrit Cole or righty Jameson Taillon, their two top pitching prospects. But for a team desperate to improve — and end its streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons — pretty much everyone else should be in play.
“We are open to an impact trade if it is the right deal,” general manager Neal Huntington says, “not because we need offense.”
HOW 'BOUT THOSE 'STROS?
Starting pitching was perhaps the biggest reason for the team’s success — the Astros ranked only seventh in the NL in rotation ERA, but had 38 consecutive starts of five or more innings until their streak ended Saturday night.
Right-hander Bud Norris started that game against the Dodgers, turning in a rare clunker after going 4-0 with a 0.35 ERA in his previous four starts in May. General manager Jeff Luhnow says that Norris had been pitching more efficiently, lowering his walk rate and his number of pitches per inning.
I was one of many who expected the Astros to be terrible, figuring that their season would amount to a success only if they traded expensive pieces such as left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, first baseman Carlos Lee and closer Brett Myers.
Is it possible the Astros could be a buyer now?
“I do think so,” Luhnow said. “I don’t necessarily know if we’ll take on a whole bunch of salary. But we’ll look at every opportunity that comes our way, evaluate it in terms of short-term impact and medium and long-term impact.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility, if we feel like we’re lacking in a certain area, for us to make a move and give up something to get something if that can help us now.”
NO BELT IN BRANDON RIGHT NOW
The Giants seem to be figuring out the top of their order — right fielder Gregor Blanco has been a revelation leading off; ditto for center fielder Angel Pagan in the fifth spot. But the regression of first baseman Brandon Belt, 24, is one reason the team is still searching for answers from the sixth spot on down.
Belt is 2-for-20 and 6-for-41, and his rate of missed swings — 34 percent — would rank him among the league leaders if he had the qualifying number of at-bats. His contact rate inside the strike zone also would be among the league’s worst, according to Fangraphs.com.
Manager Bruce Bochy did not start Belt in any of the final three games of the Giants’ series against the Marlins, using Aubrey Huff twice and Brett Pill once. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval is about two weeks away from returning from his broken hamate bone. But think of where the Giants would be if Belt was hot.
CARDINALS’ MATHENY: NOT ABOUT TO CRACK
The Cardinals, depleted by injuries, had lost 11 of 16 games before defeating the Phillies on Sunday. Under Tony La Russa, the team often summoned a certain resolve when challenged. New manager Mike Matheny is not La Russa, but projects similar strength.
To Matheny, each day in the majors is a test.
“It is. It always has been,” says Matheny, who caught in the majors for 13 seasons. “Every day in this game for me is an opportunity to prove yourself.
“There’s a twisted part of a lot of us, quite a few guys in this clubhouse. You don’t want to see anybody go down. But when it happens, you can almost kind of feel your shoulders square up a little more, (where) you say, ‘All right, now watch.’
“I have a lot of faith in our guys, a lot of faith in our young players. We’re not afraid of getting out there. We’ve seen the team build some toughness from adversity.”
Time and again.
AROUND THE HORN
• Good thing for the Rangers that they couldn’t find a taker for right-hander Koji Uehara, whom they discussed in trades all offseason and during spring training.
Uehara, 37, is holding opponents to a .119 batting average and .402 OPS with 19 strikeouts and two walks in 17 1/3 innings.
The deal also was working out well for the Orioles — first baseman Chris Davis is batting .305 with an .852 OPS, and right-hander Tommy Hunter, despite a 5.07 ERA, is averaging more than six innings per start.
• Speaking of trades, what does it say about the Rockies that right-hander Jeremy Guthrie has gone backwards since joining them while righties Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom have played critical roles for the Orioles?
• Ichiro has hit better of late, but it’s not inconceivable that the Mariners will drop him in the lineup if he again starts to struggle.
Obviously, it would be more difficult for manager Eric Wedge to demote Ichiro than it was to bench a struggling veteran such as Chone Figgins.
On the other hand, Wedge already has dropped Ichiro out of the leadoff spot, Ichiro is in the last year of his contract and the Mariners are looking for offensive answers.
• The Marlins are 18-8 in May, and right-hander Josh Johnson is 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA in his last four starts. But Johnson hasn’t exactly been dominant in that stretch, averaging less than a strikeout per inning.
When Johnson is right, he throws perhaps the best slider of any right-hander in the majors. But, according to the PitchFx data at Fangraphs.com, he is throwing his slider less and his curveball more.
Johnson missed much of last season with a shoulder injury.
• Could White Sox lefty Jose Quintana prove to be one who got away from the Yankees?
Quintana, 23, was 10-2 with a 2.91 ERA last season for the Yankees’ High A Tampa affiliate. But when the Yankees declined to add him to their 40-man roster, the White Sox acted upon the recommendations of scouts Joe Siers and Daraka Shaheed and signed Quintana as a minor-league free agent.
So far, so good: Quintana, after opening the season at Double A, twice has pitched well against the Indians, a team that is vulnerable to left-handers. He will make his second start in place of injured lefty John Danks Wednesday at Tampa Bay.
• Any starting pitcher who can record consecutive outs looks good to the Twins, who are last in the majors with a 6.51 rotation ERA.
Still, let’s not get too excited over right-hander P.J. Walters and left-hander Scott Diamond just yet.
The two are a combined 8-for-8 in quality starts, but most in the industry consider Walters a fringe major-league pitcher while Diamond projects as a back-of-the-rotation type.
Not that the Twins are complaining — they’re so desperate for answers, they’re giving lefty Francisco Liriano another shot in the rotation, even though he had a 9.45 ERA in six starts.
• Astros third baseman Chris Johnson, batting .289 with a .768 OPS, is trying to chase fewer pitches, though his efforts have yet to produce a higher walk rate.
Luhnow, the Astros’ GM, says that Johnson also has worked to improve his defense, and calls him a “great surprise” overall.
“Every time I have doubts about him, he does something impressive for us,” Luhnow says.
The loss of Kearns created the need for a right-handed hitting outfielder, and Ruggiano is well-suited to replace him. He plays all three outfield positions, and was batting .325 with a .990 OPS for Triple A Oklahoma City.
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