THE X-FACTOR

By:  Holly Horning

Well, the Hot Stove season was a yawner, but we can’t say the same thing about spring training, can we? First, it’s who will end up playing CF – quickly followed by JD’s injury further complicating the outfield strategy.

Combine that with the unexpected. Sanchez came back from the dead. Then Boyd exceeded all expectations with his evolution and now, Norris got shelled and has a “dead arm.” We suddenly have a situation where 3 pitchers have defied the expected odds. As such, the starting rotation has now turned into a horse race where it will probably go down to the wire and involve a photo finish.

If Norris doesn’t rebound in his next – and last – start, he just may be the odd man out. But even if he does, this race is not as “slam dunk” as many believe. Because Anibal Sanchez has the clear advantage in winning that last rotation spot.

The team may not say it just quite yet, but let’s not forget that baseball is a business and money factors into every decision, along with the rules about player options and the preference for veterans. And any decision about Sanchez will not only involve Ausmus, but Avila as well. And if we’re talking moving all that money into the bullpen, it will probably have to be flown by Chris Ilitch, too.

The reasons for what to do with each of these three goes well beyond the simplistic thought that performance dictates everything. Let’s review why we shouldn’t be surprised if and when Anibal is added to the rotation:

1. Salary – Teams pay through the nose for starters, not relievers. Sanchez is owed a minimum of $22 million and the Tigers would be loath to have that amount of money idling in the bullpen. Boyd and Norris are making league minimum.

2. Boyd and Norris both have options left which means much greater flexibility in how and where they are used.

3. No question about it – Sanchez has been lights out since tweaking his delivery. He had a no-hitter going into the 7th inning of his last game. No one else has pitched that well for so long this spring.

4. Ausmus mentioned that the rookies need to learn how to go deeper into games, which is a product of their inexperience. Given that the bullpen is still unreliable (and currently ranked at #26 this spring), the better strategy would be to put someone in there who can eat more innings.

5. Would the Tigers prefer to have a rotation with 3 veterans or 2? A starting pitching staff with the majority of them experienced or a majority of them with minimal MLB experience?

6. It’s not like anyone who gets sent down to AAA won’t be back. Last year, the Tigers had 9 different starting pitchers and rumor has it that a regular bus route from Toledo to Detroit was added for this reason.

7. Sanchez has what no one else does. Miguel Cabrera is on his side.

So why is #7 important? It’s because there is a track record of Miggy having input into what happens on the team. And it’s because he and Sanchez are best friends. Just go to their feeds on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and see how much time they spend with each other when they aren’t at the ballpark. They also live near each other in the off-season. And played for the same team before both coming to the Tigers.

Gone are the days when the manager ruled the team. He was given carte blanche to do what he wanted and was paid more than the players. But not today as only 4 managers make $3 million or more per year with most around the $1 million mark.

Managers are getting into trouble – some even being fired – because they happen to tick off the franchise faces. The guys who carry the team on their backs and make a ton of money. It serves no one well when your star player is unhappy. Managers like Bobby Valentine and Matt Williams got released because the players who matter didn’t like their ways. Who are owners going to back? The guy making $32 million on a long-term contract or the manager making 1/32nd of that?

Managers now speak of the careful line they have to tread as they seek to influence the players. Not that Ausmus would even call out a player, but the Tigers would obviously consider both Miggy’s and JV’s opinions before finalizing the rotation. Even though this is a baseball team, there are always politics at play.

They called Miggy before signing Prince Fielder to run the trade past him in advance of making the official offer – and he graciously moved to third base so it could happen. Mr. I called Cabrera to get his input on how the players liked Brad back in 2015. He was also consulted about the big trade-offs that same year before they happened.

So it sounds logical that he would support his best friend, a fellow Venezuelan who also happens to be from the same hometown, in his quest to make the starting rotation. And we may also suspect that another Venezuelan, Victor Martinez, has also weighed in. Afterall, when politics came into play before the WBC, and Omar Vizquel was “fired” as manager, it was Miggy and VMart who stepped into the fray and demanded Omar be reinstated. And he was.

Something else to consider is that 9 of the 40-man roster all hail from Venezuela. There is a bond between those of the same country so certainly the Tigers consider the cliques that form within the clubhouse.

And finally, there is the advantage that being a veteran with an established track record offers. Teams are much more likely to select the guy who has established friendships and work history with other similar players. Even more if this is the guy whom the top players want. The ones with minimal MLB experience don’t yet have these relationships.

Is it fair? Maybe not. Money, experience and top performers who throw their support behind specific candidates all play crucial decision-making roles in every industry. Baseball is no different from any other industry out there.


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11 thoughts on “THE X-FACTOR

  1. I’ve read two reports saying Sanchez is going to the pen. The stories were based on remarks made by “a person with knowledge of the situation”. This move hasn’t been confirmed because there hasn’t been an official announcement from the Tigers. I guess we all have to stay tuned.

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  2. Very well put and explains what really happens behind the scenes and why managers often make decisions to us fans that are not understandable.

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  3. Could the Tigers move Sanchez and Iglesias in a package now for a piece that would really benefit the team overall?

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  4. Regarding the outfield situation mentioned in your second sentence.. what about Alex Presley? He is never mentioned although he is hitting (.452) with power this spring. What’s a guy gotta do to make the roster? I realize the situation with Moya and Collins being out of options, but why is Mahtook even in the conversation?

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  5. “…the cliques that form within the clubhouse.” I always try to sit where I can look into the Tiger dugout when I see a game live. In the Leyland days, I was always impressed how the white, black, and Latin players would be sitting and talking together. I’ve seen a lot less of this in the past couple of years.

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  6. I read this morning’s report about Sanchez’s move to the ‘pen. It’s a small sample size, but he was pretty darn effective in the post-season a few years back in that role (necessitated by an earlier injury). Plus, from a development stage, the Tigers probably couldn’t move Boyd to the pen w/ Sanchez starting, but I am curious as to what others think.

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    • I realize he Sanchez will be an expensive reliever, but I believe he should go where he is best for the team. At least as a reliever B.A. won’t leave him in until he implodes.

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  7. In the old days before huge contract’s and the politics involved most often the most effective long reliever and spot starter fit the Sanchez profile. Great the tigers go back to a tried and tested formula. Just look at the player histories in the baseball encyclopedia.

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