Thanks to Rob for getting in touch for another question and answer session, and for giving us some insight into the Tigers this season. The three-game series against Detroit in Minneapolis kicks off tonight at 7:10pm. Can the Twins ride their hot offense to another series win against the AL Central's best team?
1 - Joe Nathan has had a rough start to the season. Twins fans aren't unaccustomed to seeing shaky Nathan outings, but at this point in his career we're also not seeing his every appearance. Is it a small sample size thing, or is something amiss? Also, do you have a nickname for him? I think we called him Captain Twitchy.
Nathan went through a "dead arm" period at the start of the regular season, which he says happens to him every year. The numbers back it up, as April has historically been his worst month. He allowed five runs in his first four appearances with two blown saves, but has only allowed one run in his last four innings. His fastball command looks like the Nathan of old, even if his velocity isn't quite as high as what you saw during his prime. He doesn't have a nickname yet, but a few more 1-2-3 ninth innings and any potential nicknames might be related to one or more deities. The Tigers have had some successful closers in recent years, but a true shutdown guy like Nathan is a luxury we have not experienced in my lifetime.
2 - Speaking of former Twins, what are the expectations for Torii Hunter this season? How much of an impact does Detroit need him to make as you make a run for another division title?
This is not the Torii Hunter you are looking for. Since coming over from the Los Angeles Angels, Hunter has been decidedly below average defensively, even in a corner outfield position. Both the numbers and the eye test show that he has lost several steps, and he has become more prone to missing cutoff men and making poor throws than I ever remember when he was with the Twins. Offensively, he is still productive enough to more than offset his defensive deficiencies. He put up a 117 wRC+ last year and leads the team in home runs early on this season. Brad Ausmus has moved him around in the batting order a bit more this year, so it will be interesting to see if he maintains the .300+ batting average he has put up in each of the past two seasons. He doesn't need to be a 3-4 win player for the Tigers to win the division if others step up, but his bat makes the offense that much more dangerous when you have a Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the order.
3 - Staying with the Tiger position players - Detroit has a good, balanced offense with talented veterans. Are there any young guys Twins fans should be looking for this season?
The Tigers' young talent begins and ends with third baseman Nick Castellanos. Throughout his swift rise through the minor leagues, Castellanos was viewed as untouchable by the organization during numerous trade rumors. Fans are beginning to see why, as he has shown plenty of promise in April. He is only hitting .245 so far, but has driven the ball with authority to all fields while displaying some better-than-expected defense at third base. As he gets older (he's still only 22), he will develop more power and some of those long fly outs will turn into doubles and home runs. He has the potential to hit .300, but probably won't get there in his first full big league season. Still, it's easy to see why the Tigers were so hell bent on keeping him.
4 - As of this writing, no Detroit starting pitcher has an ERA over 3.60. Give fans around baseball one good reason why we all shouldn't hate the Tiger rotation? I mean, it's all out of jealousy, because honestly - what the hell - but that is a ridiculous collection of talent on one staff.
When the Tigers played a series in San Diego earlier this month, Justin Verlander collected his first career hit on a ground ball up the middle, snapping an 0-for-26 streak. Cameras immediately panned to the Tigers dugout, where the rest of the starting five were on the top step offering Verlander a standing ovation. They seem to feed off of one another, which is why you can get turns through the rotation where they all go six or seven innings with a run allowed. It is truly an embarrassment of riches, and makes this team insanely fun to watch on a daily basis.
5 - Phil Coke: fan favorite or train wreck waiting to happen?
Honestly, a little of both. Coke has been as volatile as ever in 2014, nearly blowing a pair of big leads with ninth inning meltdowns of epic proportions. To his credit, he has taken the full blame for his bad outings. After allowing a mammoth home run to Adam Dunn on Tuesday, Coke called the pitch an "incidental two-seamer." When asked to explain, Coke said "That was an incident in the outfield seats. Someone almost died." He is one of the more colorful characters on the team, and I think many fans are hoping he can turn things around.
6 - Dombrowski has had a really good record of trades over the last few years - what happened in the Doug Fister deal?
The Fister trade was a surprise, to say the least. Given Dombrowski's sterling reputation, Tigers fans were expecting a fourth player to be included in the deal, if not a package centered around someone like Anthony Rendon. The decision to trade Fister was not a surprise, as the organization really wanted to get Drew Smyly back into the rotation. As for the return? It seems like the Tigers are just really high on Robbie Ray. To his credit, Ray threw a three-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts against the Tigers' Double-A affiliate last season. Ian Krol has been decent out of the bullpen, though he allowed a grand slam in Wednesday night's loss to the White Sox. Steve Lombardozzi was the most puzzling part of the trade, especially after he was traded to the Orioles for Alex Gonzalez, who has since been released.
7 - What do you think the endgame is for Max Scherzer? Does he stay in Detroit after 2014?
I think 2014 is Scherzer's last season in Detroit, but truthfully it is anyone's guess. The Tigers have not been shy about locking up players long-term in recent years, offering mega contracts to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Even Anibal Sanchez got a bit more money than most people were expecting, and he has more than lived up to the billing so far. The Tigers offered Scherzer a fair deal, but were unwilling to go beyond a six year contract, which I think will be the difference this offseason. Rumor has it that Scherzer wants as much money as possible -- not exactly a secret when your agent is Scott Boras -- and someone will go seven or eight years in order to land his services. I don't know if that team will be the Tigers, though.
8 - If I come to Detroit for a visit, can we go urban exploring?
Well, depending on which end of 8 Mile Road we go to, you can either see where Eminem filmed his movie or the most boring area of suburbia I've ever seen! The city of Detroit gets a bad rap (a lot of which is deserved), but there is more to do than watch the Tigers and drive to Canada. Everyone has their own opinion on which place serves the best coney dogs, and the food is excellent in Mexican Village and Greektown as well (I like food, in case you haven't noticed). And if you can stomach one of the more depressing areas of the city, the Lions play their home games just across the street from Comerica Park.