Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Tigers acquire Cabrera, Willis

By Zeke Jennings

With all the focus on the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, as usual, the Detroit Tigers stole the show at the Baseball Winter Meetings on Tuesday.

The Tigers acquired a pair of All-star caliber players in Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins.

Detroit gave up a pretty penny to do so in elite prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, back-up catcher Mike Rabelo, and three other minor-leaguers, including Euglio De La Cruz, who has the stuff to be a potential set-up man or possibly even a closer at the major-league level.

Tiger fans will view this trade with mixed emotions.

The cost

Maybin's reputation as a can't-miss, five-tool future star has reached almost-unrealistic proportions among Tiger fans.

He slid to tenth in the 2005 amateur draft because of potential signability, when the Tigers snatched up the high school star.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski reportedly said he wouldn't have traded Maybin straight up for Alfonso Soriano when the latter was on the trade block at the 2006 trade deadline.

Maybin has drawn comparisons ranging from Ken Griffey Jr. to Andre Dawson to Joe Carter, but his star may have lost a little bit of luster late last season.

In mid-August, the Tigers called up Maybin, who had only been promoted to Double-A Erie a week prior, and it showed how far the 20-year old is from reaching that stratospheric potential.

Maybin hit just .143 (7-for-49) with one home run and struck out 21 times in 20 games. Aside from the numbers, he looked woefully overmatched by major-league pitching.

The Tigers would never admit it, but Maybin's struggles may have given them second thoughts on how untouchable he should be.

Maybin, who plays center field, is projected to be better than current Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson, but after the season Granderson had, that's by no means a given, especially not anytime soon.

Dombrowski has built the Tigers into a winner after the franchise suffered through 12 straight losing seasons, including the 119-loss nightmare in 2003.

He did so by rebuilding the farm system (Granderson, Joel Zumaya, Justin Verlander, Fernando Rodney), trades (Jeremy Bonderman, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, Nate Robertson, Gary Sheffield) and free agency (Pudge Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers, Magglio Ordonez, Todd Jones).

The Tigers are now among the elite franchises in baseball, and elite franchises are built to win championships.

The booty

Cameron Maybin might be a stud.

Miguel Cabrera is a stud.

Some baseball fans tend to fall a little too in love with prospects. They hear, read and see all that potential and can't bear the thought of giving up somebody who might be the next Ken Griffey Jr.

In the world of baseball, the old saying a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush can often be applied.

You know what you have in Cabrera. You only know what you could have in Maybin.

Cabrera has been amazingly consistent over his first four years in the majors, averaging 32 home runs and 116 RBIs and a .318 batting average. In those years, he's hit no fewer than 26 home runs or driven in less than 112 runs.

All while playing for the Marlins with little around him and in a pitcher-friendly ballpark.

Willis is a little bit of a wild card because of his second-half struggles in 2007.

He finished with a 10-15 record and a 5.17 ERA, easily the worst numbers of his career. Some question whether all the early-career innings Willis, 25, has logged have caught up with him.

Would the Tigers have traded Miller for Willis, a former All-Star? Probably not given Dontrelle's late-season struggles.

But the Cabrera was the centerpiece of the deal, and Maybin and the other prospects simply wouldn't have gotten the deal done.

The leftie Miller has loads of potential, but he relies mainly on his fastball at this early stage of his career. Potential is just potential until if and when he can develop reliable offspeed and breaking stuff.

Willis has everything developed, the only question is whether he's right.

The bottom line

Cabrera could very well be the best hitter in a lineup that already features Granderson, Sheffield, Ordonez and Guillen.

It's also a lineup that is still very unbalanced with righthanded hitters, which is fine when you face lefties, but in a perfect world the Tigers would have a little more balance in the heart of that lineup.

There is still plenty of time to lock up Cabrera with a long-term deal, but the same cannot be said for Willis.

It's probably unlikely that Detroit will work a contract extension given Willis's second-half numbers, nor would the Willis camp probably want to sign anything knowing that he's capable of a much better performance, which could lead to some serious dollars on the open market next offseason.

So really the Tigers are treating Willis as a one-year rental with a player option to buy. If he performs well and likes it here, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has shown he'll take care of his own players.

The Tigers became a better baseball team for 2008 on Tuesday, but there are still questions.

The bullpen is questionable with the injury to Zumaya and Jones, who is not getting any younger or any more reliable. Dombrowski also added Denny Baustista on Monday to hopefully give the pen a little more depth.

The rotation needs Bonderman to get back on track and become the solid high-end rotation guy that everyone thought he would become. Robertson also could use a bounce-back year.

The trade on Tuesday, along with the deal for Edgar Renteria has significantly depleted the farm system's depth, so the rotation, especially, needs to stay healthy.

At the end of the day, the Tigers gave up a lot of potential.

But potential doesn't win titles, performance does. In Willis and Cabrera, they've added two guys that have proven they can perform at an All-star level.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Maxiell leading Pistons' youth movement

By Zeke Jennings

When the Detroit Pistons lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in last season's Eastern Conference Finals, Joe Dumars knew the team's core needed a shot in the arm.

As the final minutes ticked off of Cleveland's series-clinching win in Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena, Dumars scribbled some notes on a pad.

"Team looks tired; must get younger; must get more athletic," Dumars wrote.

Some of what Dumars was looking for was already on the Pistons' bench in Jason Maxiell.

Maxiell began to earn minutes last season, but being just the fourth big man behind Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber and Antonio McDyess, his playing time was inconsistent.

Webber was not resigned in the offseason, and the team moved McDyess into the starting lineup, paving the way for the Maxiell to be the first big man off the bench.

Maxiell, 24, a third-year pro out of the University of Cincinnati, is flourishing in his expanded role.

He's logging about 23 minutes per game and is averaging nearly nine points and six rebounds, including an 18-point, 11-rebound performance in Sunday's 118-95 win over New Jersey.

The win improved the Pistons to 11-5, good for first place in the Central Division.

More importantly, Maxiell's high-energy, hungry style of play gives the veteran Pistons a little something extra when he's on the floor.

Pistons coach Flip Saunders said Maxiell's style of play is well-suited to his role as sixth man.

"I think Maxie is better coming off the bench, because the refs tend to call games tight early, and he was picking up early fouls," Saunders said. "Now he's in there a little later, and he's able to be more aggressive."

The long-armed Maxiell, who plays much bigger than his listed heigth of 6'7", also leads the Pistons in blocked shots with 24.

Also earning more playing time is athletic 6'9" forward Amir Johnson.

Johnson, in his third season, played in his 11th game of the young season on Sunday, which equals his total games played for his first two seasons.

Johnson, who was a second-round pick by the Pistons after entering the NBA straight out of high school, is still learning how to be an NBA player, but there are few questions regarding his athletic ability. He probably would have been a lottery pick had he been in the draft this past summer.

Pistons fans still are awaiting the regular-season debut of rookie guard Rodney Stuckey, who suffered a broken hand in the final game of the preseason.

Stuckey, the 15th pick in the NBA Draft in June, has drawn comparisons to Dwyane Wade and is expected to see time at both guard positions behind Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton.

Stuckey's injury will obviously slow his development this season, but should be prove able once he returns, it could mean potential free agent Hamilton's days in Motown might be dwindling to an end.

Arron Afflalo, the Pistons other first-round pick, is averaging 12 minutes a game and provides defensive toughness and a strong outside shot of the bench, which the team was also lacking last season.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

ACC once again proving Big Ten is no challenge

By Zeke Jennings

Perhaps it's time to come up with a new name for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

After all, wouldn't the Big Ten have to win once in awhile to make it a challenge.

The ACC won four of five games on Tuesday to run its mark to 5-1 in this season's, um, challenge -- the ninth in the series, with the ACC having won the previous eight.

No. 15-ranked Indiana's narrow 83-79 home win over unranked Georgia Tech is the Big Ten's lone win thus far.

Barring the Big Ten sweeping the five games on Wednesday, which is highly unlikely, the ACC will run its series record to 9-0 against the Big Ten in the challenge, which began in 1999.

What's even more alarming for the Big Ten this time around is that three of the six games have been blowouts, including No. 20 Wisconsin's embarrassing 82-58 loss to No. 7 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday.

The bigger Badgers were never in the game. They were frustrated by Duke's guards, frustrated by the referees and frustrated by the Cameron Crazies. Duke led 48-25 at halftime.

Big Ten doormat Northwestern was beaten 94-52 on the road at Virginia in a game most didn't think would be much of a game, but a 42-point loss?

Florida State also easily handled visiting Minnesota 75-61.

Purdue fought valiantly at No. 18 Clemson, losing 61-58 in a game the Boilermakers led at halftime. Iowa also lost a narrow decision to Wake Forest on Monday, although the Hawkeyes were playing at home.

There is at least some hope that the Big Ten can make the final tally at least respectable.

Four of the five games on Wednesday are at Big Ten arenas, although one of them is No. 2 North Carolina visiting an inexperienced Ohio State team.

Michigan State should be able to handle North Carolina State at the Breslin Center, and Michigan has a decent shot at exposing undefeated Boston College in Ann Arbor.

The other games are Illinois at Maryland and Virginia Tech at Penn State, both of which could go either way, although once would have to give the edge to the ACC teams.

Still, even if things go well for the Big Ten tonight, the conference will be lucky to even post a 5-6 record. Chances are, it's not going to be that close.

But that would be fitting since the ACC-Big Ten Challenge hasn't been close either.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Michigan coaching search takes a surprise turn

By Zeke Jennings
e-mail Zeke

If you enjoy hotstove rumors, there is a good one coming out of Iowa City.

Growing rumors have Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a native of Royal Oak, Mich., as the new head man at Michigan.

Ferentz's name popped up as a possible candidate once Lloyd Carr announced his retirement, although most felt he would be a second-tier choice if the frontrunners, namely Les Miles of LSU, passed on the job.

Other than Ferentz having a history with current Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman (she was the president at Iowa when Ferentz was hired in 1998), there isn't a lot of reasons to think he would be Michigan's first choice.

After going 1-10 in his first season in Iowa City, Ferentz built the Hawkeyes into a national power, winning 21 games from 2002-04, but hasn't reached anywhere near that success since.

The Hawkeyes have gone 7-5, 6-7 and now 6-6, including a season-ending home loss to a middle-the-pack MAC team in Western Michigan.

Furthermore, Iowa has endured several off-the-field problems under Ferentz's watch, something highly frowned upon by the brass and alumni in Ann Arbor.

There have been numerous player suspensions and dismissals, as well as a scandal involving team members taking advantage of housing set up for low-income families, which included Frentz's son, Brian.

With the infamous Ed Martin basketball scandal still leaving a bad taste in the mouths of university administration, alumni and fans, Coleman and athletic director Bill Martin had better be sure about hiring Ferentz, considering his checkered past.

The Miles factor

What might make the Ferentz rumors a little more believable is the alleged riff between Carr and Miles, a former Michigan player and assistant coach.

If Carr's opinion is as highly regarded by Martin as he says, then the AD may think twice about hotly pursuing Miles, who has long been rumored to be Carr's successor.

When Carr took over for Gary Moeller in 1995 after Moeller was fired, Miles was the only assistant coach who didn't stay on as part of Carr's staff.

There was also an incident involving current LSU cornerback Jai Eugene, who originally committed to Michigan. Obviously, Carr wasn't happy about Miles stealing his recruit, although it's hard to believe that Carr would try and railroad Miles out of the Michigan job based on that alone. It obviously runs deeper than that.

Carr doesn't trust Miles to run the program he loves.

Although I doubt Carr would ever stoop to publicly saying so, it's been questioned if Bo Schembechler would have endorsed Miles.

Only a select few people inside the Michigan family know the answer to that, but Carr is probably one of them.

Carr said during his retirement press conference that he wants the next coach to uphold the tradition that Schembechler has established -- to win with integrity -- something some saw as a direct shot at Miles.

It's questionable that either Ferentz or Miles can live up to those standards the way Schembechler, or even Carr, did, but Miles still seems like the likely choice.

If Ferentz is already the choice, there has been a lot more going on behind the scenes than we realize.