Section 313, Seat No. 8: ESPN’s Buster Olney talks Tigers with DSN

Section 313

 seat no. 8


Welcome to Section 313, seat no. 8; I’m glad you’re here.

This week I had the pleasure of talking to Buster Olney of ESPN in preparation for the Sunday Night matchup with the Texas Rangers. Coming into the series with the Rangers the Tigers won two of three from the Orioles, a huge series win going into the weekend. Last night, however, they dropped game one 5-3 to the Rangers.

So far, through 40 games, it has been like watching a ping-pong match with our boys in the Old English D. They win, they lose — wash, rinse, repeat. Which led me to think, even before being given the opportunity to talk to Mr. Olney, what is the identity of this Tigers team?

What exactly do we have here?

Apr 12, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias (right) and pitcher Justin Verlander (left) celebrate after the game against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. Detroit won 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot that could be said about the identity of the ballclub. Some may begin to describe it as old and past their window of opportunity, others may say they are primed for a run, and yet, still, some will say that the rebuild should have happened after 2013. So the question becomes, what do we really have here in Detroit with these Tigers?

First and foremost, we must understand a few things. First, forty games can give us a good indication of where we stand. Secondly, however, we have struggled to run a starting lineup out for nearly the entire season. One of the first questions that I asked Mr. Olney was this exact thing. From a national perspective what is the identity of this Tigers team? This was his response,

“Look, and it’s interesting because I think that same question could be applied to just about every team in the division…the Twins are probably playing a little bit over their heads, but are they better than what we all expected? They are probably trying to figure that out themselves. The Indians are definitely not playing to capability…but they have had major injuries…

…I think with the Tigers, and I was talking to Brad Ausmus about this the other day, they have just have had so many issues, and injuries, and slow starts; they’ve been sorting through the bullpen stuff, it feels like they are still a work in progress. I can’t define it for you.  I do think when you look at the talent of the team, relative to what other teams have, it’s a Wild Card contender, it’s a team that is going to finish closer to 90 wins than 81 wins. I think just going through the bullpen issue they did, and resolving it for now, I think is going to help a lot. But they have to get Miguel Cabrera back and hope that J.D. Martinez continues to play well.” 

It’s interesting to hear, from the national reporter’s perspective, exactly what we have been feeling around the Motor City. We have a great team and a great lineup — on paper. But games are not won, nor are they lost, on paper. Dealing with what we have dealt with over the first forty games, to be sitting at 20-20, and only a game-and-a-half out of first place in the division is not too bad.

If the Tigers can continue to stay afloat, keeping their heads above water and within striking distance of the top of the division, this “work in progress team”, can very much contend come August.

And if they want to be contenders, they are going to rely on the strength of this team: the pitching staff.

Yes, we’re talking about pitching again —

It feels like every time we’ve met here in Section 313, we’ve discussed pitching. At least over the last few weeks, this has been true. Three weeks ago we talked specifically about the starters and then last week we talked about what to do with two veterans that have been struggling.

Currently, the Tigers pitching staff boasts the 11th highest ERA in the Bigs (4.52), according to Fangraphs. Add the bullpen in there and it’s the fourth worst (5.25). Yet, when you look at the Tigers rotation on paper it should be better than what it has been. To say they have been inconsistent at best is somewhat putting it mildly. But yet, this team will only be as good as our starting pitching, and this has proved true over the first forty games.

With names like Verlander, Fulmer, Norris, Zimmermann, and Boyd we, as a fanbase, must trust that they’ll come around. Justin Verlander has had a couple shaky outings, but let’s be honest, he’s JV — a legacy player that most likely will finish his career in Detroit, according to Mr. Olney. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd are young enough that there is little concern that they’ll figure things out, each of them showing flashes of brilliance already this season. The biggest question mark is Jordan Zimmermann.

In the winter of 2015, the Tigers signed Zimmerman to a 5-year contract, worth $110 million. It was a signing that was slightly puzzling and apparently I wasn’t the only one to think so. According to Olney, “I can tell you this when they signed Jordan Zimmermann to the deal that they signed him to, there were folks with other organizations that were surprised by that deal. They thought they overpaid him, they had concerns whether or not he would hold up physically…” He went on to say, “let’s face it, in year two of that deal, if the Tigers could do it all over again as of today, would they? Absolutely not. So there is concern.”

So the question becomes, like we’ve been asking for Anibal Sanchez and Francisco Rodriguez lately, what do we do with him? I began to wonder if Jordan Zimmermann was just a hole in the Tigers rotation, that every five days would essentially mean a loss because he just hasn’t been able to figure it out. He was better yesterday against the Orioles, and Buster brought up this point, “What are you going to do?” He likened it to the Matt Cain situation in San Francisco and CC Sabathia in New York. “You keep giving him the ball…you just hope that something kicks in. I think if you’re the Tigers you hope Jordan goes out and makes adjustments and that he gets better because you don’t really have any other choice given the money that they owe him.”

So for now, every fifth day that he’s healthy, Jordan Zimmermann will stay in the rotation. I’m never going to root against a guy, especially when he’s wearing my team’s logo, so here’s to hoping Jordan continues down the road he set on Thursday, going six innings with six strikeouts against a very good Baltimore Orioles team.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers
Sep 12, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Daniel Norris (44) walks off the field against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

What was interesting to note through the whole topic of our pitching staff was this little anecdote that Buster relayed to me. The two names that everyone around the league thinks our season hinges on are Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd.  “I talked with folks of other teams and they were basically telling me that by the end of the year that a lot of the Tigers fate would be determined by [Matt] Boyd and Daniel Norris,” Olney said. “They felt like those two guys were going to represent the crossroads as to whether or not the Tigers would make the playoffs.”

Cutting the fat —

Naturally given my audience, I had to ask about Anibal Sanchez and Francisco Rodriguez. Last week I wrote that it was time for the Tigers to just “cut the dead weight” and move on. Of course, that’s easy for me to say sitting behind a keyboard and not shelling out multiples of millions of dollars to guys that seem to be underperforming.

Each of these guys has not been all that effective this year. As of Friday, Francisco Rodriguez was tied for second in all the Major Leagues in losses (5)– as a reliever, halfway through the month of May. That’s not exactly what you’re looking for from a back-end of the bullpen kind of guy.

Sanchez has been equally as ineffective, bolstering a 10.13 ERA in 18.2 innings pitched. He has surrendered nine home runs in those 18.2 innings, which gives him 39 home runs surrendered over the last two years. Before last year, from 2013-2015, as a Tiger Sanchez had only surrendered a total of 42 home runs. Something has been off for Sanchy since last season and so I asked Buster about whether or not it was time to part ways with Anibal. He said,

“With Sanchez, it just comes down to the comfort level of the front office and the ownership to eat money. And believe me, I’ve covered a lot of teams through the years where privately the coaches will go, ‘Wow, we think this guy’s a lost cause,’ and the manager might go, ‘this guy’s a lost cause,’ and there’s not a lot of hope there, but the General Manager is the one who has to go to the owner and say, “hey, we have to eat millions and millions of dollars,’ in that case. And you can understand, why that’s a hard thing to do; and on top of that, we’ve seen, as I’ve mentioned, guys make adjustments, and even in Spring Training, there were some things he was doing, where suddenly he seemed to figure some things out. But my guess is, at some point, it is going to happen.”

Rodriguez, on the other hand, is “a different case,” Olney said. “I know this, that the Tigers believe that there are some adjustments he can make that will help his command and put him back in a position where he can come back…they also believe that the bullpen is better off with him at the back-end and with the Wilsons in the set up role, and they’re hoping that KRod pitches himself back into that situation this year.”

Sep 30, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann (34) and relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez (57) celebrate a victory against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. The Tigers defeated the Braves 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Buster reminded me of something that, even though I love Justin Wilson in the closer’s role, made a lot of sense.


There’s a ballplayer you may remember, who is currently the second all-time leader in saves. His name is Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman recorded 601 saves in his career, for the Padres and Brewers. According to Fangraphs, Hoffman’s average speed for his fastball was 85.9 MPH. Not exactly what you’d expect from the second best closer of all-time. “Closers are viewed in baseball kind of like kickers and golfers, as putters….that they can go hot and cold,” Olney said, “with one small adjustment suddenly things can change dramatically.” But there was one other connection that Buster made. Who was with Hoffman working all those years when he was dealing with a mid-80s fastball and still racking up enough saves to sit at number two all-time? The answer: Brad Ausmus.

If Frankie can figure it out, he will get put back into the closer’s role. There is no doubt in my mind, especially now after talking with Olney. So, like Zimmermann, maybe instead of rooting against the guy and expecting failure, we start to look at the glass as half full and hope for the best. Fingers crossed.

J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton —

I don’t know if Tigers fans truly realize what is coming down the pipeline in the 2017 offseason, but the Tigers very easily could be without their two corner outfielders, and their five and six spot hitters, come next spring. J.D. Martinez will be a free agent after the season and Justin Upton can opt out of his contract at season’s end. Now, personally, Buster and I agree that Upton isn’t opting out because of the “saturation of corner outfield slugger types on the market.” Upton’s deal (6 years/$132.75 million) has an opt-out clause after this season.

Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Justin Upton (8) bats against the Atlanta Braves in the fifth inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

However, there’s “no chance Justin opts out…” according to Mr. Olney. For the market being as saturated as Olney talks, Justin’s deal is too good for him to relinquish. What’s even more interesting to note from Olney is that the Tigers have made Upton “imminently available” to the rest of the league, and have had zero takers. Kind of proving the point that he’ll stay in the Old English D and make good money. Which, given his performance through forty games (.250/.368/.500, 8 HR, 20 RBI) is alright with me.

The real concern, for me at least, is losing J.D. Martinez at the end of the season (or before if a trade happens). Olney said that the Martinez situation will give “some insight into the leadership of Chris Ilitch.” His age and ability are what will distinguish him in this free-agent market. It is for those reasons that I think the Tigers should open their wallet to him, learning from the Max Scherzer situation, making J.D. be the piece that you rebuild around. However, that all may be well-wishing because Buster Olney asked and answered, “Do I think that they will pay him for 2018? No, I don’t.” So to that, I say, enjoy J.D. while we have him.

Overall, we’re forty games into this season and sit at 20-20, with a couple huge games against the AL West Texas Rangers. Will the pitching be better? Let’s hope so. Will we eventually see KRod in the closer’s situation? Most likely. And, for that identity that we’ve been searching for all season, well that’s still a work in progress.

I would like to express my most sincere thanks to Buster Olney for taking the time to talk baseball and the Detroit Tigers with me — it was an honor and a privilege, sir.

Always ladies and gentlemen, thanks for visiting Section 313. Have a great rest of your day and weekend, and as always, Go Tigers!