Ian Casselberry of Bless You Boys, SBNation's Detroit Tigers blog, reached out and suggested a two-way five question Q&A. I happily obliged. Please read our answers here. See below for his answers to our questions.
1. Do you like this year's team more or less than last year's squad?
I certainly expect more from this year's team. As wonderful as the resurgence has been, the Tigers had opportunities to win the AL Central and the World Series, but did neither. And I think that's given them a bit of an edge this season. But I like this year's team more because I think they're much more balanced. Last year, the Tigers had some stretches in which they couldn't score runs. That's not as much of a problem this year. The batting order is much more fearsome with the addition of Gary Sheffield and the revitalization of Magglio Ordonez. And the starting pitching has arguably gotten better with the continued development of Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman, in addition to some new blood with Andrew Miller.
2. Magglio Ordonez's performance this season has truly been amazing. While he's always been a solid to very good player, is there anything tangible you can ascribe his improvement to?
He's been healthy this season, and I think everyone may have underestimated just how much his knee troubles hindered him before - especially when batting. But he's played like a man reborn with full use of his left leg. He's getting to balls in the outfield that he gave up on last year. And at the plate, he can now drive the ball all over the field. I don't know how much Magglio hit the ball to right field when he was fully healthy with the White Sox, but I don't remember him going to the opposite field so much in his two previous seasons in Detroit. But it's a huge difference in his game now. His batting average has skyrocketed, and he's become a doubles machine.
3. How comfortable are you with the team's bullpen situation? How much does the team miss Joel Zumaya?
Not comfortable at all. Whatever the complete opposite of comfortable is, I'm that, along with the rest of Tigers fandom. Their bullpen is a total mess right now, and is virtually the only reason for each of their losses recently. If the Tigers can't score eight runs or more, or their starter can't go nine innings, winning a game has become a crapshoot. Jason Grilli and Wilfredo Ledezma are inconsistent at best, and exploding gas cans at their worst. But even when Detroit can get to its late-inning relief, Fernando Rodney hasn't been anywhere near as dependable as he was last year. Depending on who you talk to, he's fighting injuries or dealing with bad mechanics, but he's not locating his fastball well so hitters can either sit on his change-up or wait for a fastball right down the middle.
So the Tigers miss Zumaya badly. There's no bridge between the starting pitcher and Todd Jones (who, believe it or not, is one of Detroit's few reliable relievers right now). It's become pretty clear that Dave Dombrowski will have to make a trade to shore up the bullpen. They're losing too many games that they won last year, and it will likely cost them the division or wild card if a move isn't made. Zumaya looks like his recovery is going according to plan, but I don't think anyone can say for certain how he'll be able to throw once that finger heals.
4. The Tigers seem to be succeeding this year more on the strength of their hitting than their pitching, which was excellent last season. Are pitchers underperforming, are there injuries, did guys pitch over their heads last season, all/none of the above?
It's almost all of the above. I'm not sure anyone pitched over their heads last season, though Nate Robertson and Jason Grilli currently look like excellent examples of that. But Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander have pitched better than they did last season, and still have plenty of room for development. And Mike Maroth has essentially provided the same performance that he did last year. Kenny Rogers was injured at the end of Spring Training, but Chad Durbin has come in and pitched better than anyone expected him to. He will probably be demoted to the bullpen once Rogers returns, but that's because of a numbers game. That could clear up, however, if one of the starters ends up being traded to help the bullpen, which has definitely been weakened by injuries to Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney.
5. Former and greatly missed Phillie Placido Polanco continues to thrive in Detroit. How important is he to the team's success? What exactly does he contribute to the team? What are his greatest assets?
First of all, I think you're seeing just how highly Polanco is valued among Detroit fans (and maybe the rest of the country) by the surge in his All-Star votes. He finally overtook Robinson Cano for the lead this week, and I think that margin will continue to grow. Both he and the Tigers will receive some well due recognition if he wins the starting position at second base for the American League.
But I think Polanco is extremely important to the batting order's success. He provides something of a second leadoff hitter who will take some pitches and work the count, and he gets everything started by moving runners along the bases or driving them in. Whatever is necessary in a given situation, Polanco will do it. Even if he goes hitless (which is rare), he'll likely have done something to help the team generate a run. There's really not another hitter in the Tigers' lineup who displays that kind of versatility with his bat and selflessness in his approach. The Tigers and their fans are endlessly grateful to Ed Wade for making that deal.