The Mariners get to face both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer this weekend, and have to do so without Felix Hernandez to counter. The Tigers currently lead the AL Central by 4.5 with a 30-20 record, but have lost seven of their last ten.
One of SB Nation's very best team blogs is Bless You Boys, where Rob Rogacki is an editor. He took the time to answer some questions for me, and I did the same for him. You can check out my responses over at BYB.
Scott: Where is the general vibe with Max Scherzer's impending free agency? If the Tigers do indeed re-sign him, what kind of contract do you except, and what would you be willing to give a pitcher who will be exiting his age 30 season?
Rob: I think that a lot of Tigers fans have resigned themselves to the idea that this is Max Scherzer's final year in Detroit. The Tigers offered him a six year contract extension last offseason that was nearly identical to the one Cole Hamels signed with the Phillies in 2012, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement. It seems that the team is determined to curtail any contract offer at six years, while Scherzer is obviously looking for a bit more long term security. If the Tigers do end up re-signing him, I think it will be because they caved and offered him seven years or more. On the open market, I would not be surprised to see a Scott Boras-led Scherzer get over $200 million. Even with his age and violent mechanics serving as warning signs, Scherzer is one of the best starters to hit free agency in years and will likely be paid as such.
Scott: Justin Verlander's average fastball velocity has taken another tumble this year, down another mph at 92.1. Batters are also chasing less pitches out of the zone than they have since 2008, now at just 28.2%. How concerned are you with these developments? Is Verlander still reaching back for velocity when he needs it, and how important is the heat to his overall success?
Rob: Verlander's fastball velocity is not a concern, but his fastball command (or lack thereof) is a big issue this year. He had core muscle repair surgery in January and has demonstrated a significant decline in performance as his pitch count rises, indicating that he may not be back to full strength. His walk rate is currently at its highest since 2008, and his strikeout rate is his lowest since 2006.
Going back to his velocity, I don't think it is a long term issue. He has consciously taken his foot off the gas in recent years, choosing to focus on command and sequencing instead of blowing hitters away. Even in his dominant 2011 and 2012 seasons, he would start a game in the 91-92 mile per hour range before reaching back for the high 90s later on. He still has that in his back pocket -- his fastball has touched 97.5 miles per hour in 2014 according to Fangraphs -- but an inability to find the zone at any speed is what is plaguing the Tigers' ace.
Scott: Miguel Cabrera recently signed the largest contract in baseball history. Is it a deal that you think needed to be done at the time it was done, or could the Tigers have waited to see if he declined in the years remaining on his previous deal? While Mariner fans have plenty of concern of their own about Robinson Cano, Cabrera's deal certainly raised a few eyebrows.
Rob: While he and Tigers fans have had a shaky relationship in the past -- though he may be completely unaware of this animosity -- Dave Cameron had a great take on the pros and cons of the Cabrera contract. Cameron illustrated that the Tigers abated any risk of Cabrera testing free agency by giving him a mega deal two years prior to free agency instead of waiting to see how the 2014 and 2015 seasons played out. He (Cameron) opined that not offering a contract at this point could be seen by Cabrera as a lack of faith from the Tigers organization, motivating him to look elsewhere to finish his career. From that standpoint, I think the Tigers made the right move to lock Cabrera up early and ask questions later. Yes, the deal is incredibly long, and yes, Cabrera will most certainly not be worth $30 million per year when he's 40 years old. The contract is going to look bad at some point. However, keeping a Hall of Fame talent like Cabrera in Detroit is something that had to be done, and the Tigers did well to get a deal in place before it turned into a distraction.
Scott: Ian Kinsler is off to a terrific start, and Prince Fielder has had a disastrous season, struggling mightily before his season-ending surgery. How does the recent news change your opinion of the deal overall?
Rob: If anything, I think a lot of Tigers fans are sad to see Fielder struggle as much as he has this year. The trade was a win for the Tigers from day one, as they wiggled out from under Fielder's massive contract and saved themselves $72 million. Even if Fielder went out and hit 50 home runs en route to a 2014 AL MVP, the trade was about gaining long-term flexibility. Instead of a "win-now" approach, the Tigers are trying to re-tool on the fly in order to win now and later. Kinsler has been a great fit with the Tigers under the new regime from day one -- he plays into Brad Ausmus' aggressive managing style perfectly -- and has even embraced the leadership role that the media seems to think that he shunned in Texas.
Scott: Speaking of Kinsler, he's walking at a career low rate and striking out at a career low as well. What changes have you seen to lead to this, and do you believe it's a conscious decision or something that will revert back to career norms?
I don't know if Kinsler has made the conscious decision to be more aggressive at the plate, but his early season performance suggests this. His low walk rate is accompanied by his highest swing percentage since 2009, and he is seeing a career low 3.43 pitches per plate appearance. Part of the reason for the high swing rate may be that he's seeing first-pitch strikes at a whopping 65.8% clip, by far the highest of his career. There are drawbacks to this free-swinging approach -- a career-high O-swing percentage could become troublesome at some point -- but it's hard to argue with the results right now.