Friday, March 31, 2017

Detroit Tigers season preview: Pitching

By Blake Froling

The unofficial national holiday of the spring, Opening Day, is nearly upon us. The Detroit Tigers are coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs by 2.5 games and had a chance to get in on the last day. An abysmal performance against the lowly Atlanta Braves crushed those hopes.

The offseason was not one that Tigers fans or general manager Al Avila might have envisioned. Center fielder Cameron Maybin, coming off his best season in his career, was traded away for a minor league pitcher, and that was it. No additions to the ailing bullpen, no slashing of payroll, no hoarding of prospects. The market forced the Tigers to stay in win-now mode with an aging roster that might not have another run in it. Or does it? It's time to look in my crystal ball and make some predictions for the upcoming Tigers season, starting with the pitching.

I have a complete lack of faith in Jordan Zimmermann. He is supposed to be the new ace of the staff, he says he's feeling better after a neck injury derailed his 2016 season, but I'm still not sold. If he can be at least decent (mid-3 ERA, 150-plus innings), it would go a long way towards helping the Tigers' playoff chances. But until I actually see it, I won't believe it will happen.

Listen: Tigers radio announcer Dan Dickerson talks Tigers on the SportsPen

Justin Verlander had a bounce back season last year, maybe good enough to win the Cy Young, but he's 34 years old with a ton of mileage on his arm. 16-9, 3.04 ERA, 254 strikeouts, vintage Verlander. But are those numbers sustainable? He has adapted his pitching style in his later years, no longer able to simply blow hitters away with a high-90's fastball. He's not to the point of "crafty veteran" yet, but he's on his way. He'll be good, but there will be some regression.

The back end of the rotation features three players all age 26 or younger in Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. Fulmer is the gem of the group, winning AL Rookie of the Year last season with a 3.06 ERA. Is he due for a sophomore slump? Yes and no. I don't see him sustaining those numbers this season, mainly because there is a year's worth of film on him for other teams to study. He won't be taking anyone by surprise. But he'll still be Detroit's second-best pitcher behind Verlander.

Boyd and Norris should both make nice jumps from last season. Norris made 14 appearances last year without giving up more than three earned runs in any of them, which is remarkable. But he only made one start from April until the middle of June and missed most of July with injuries. With the shaky and expensive Anibal Sanchez as your sixth starter and long reliever, the Tigers need more innings out of Norris.

Boyd earned the fifth spot in the rotation over Sanchez with a solid spring. But if the young lefty falters, manager Brad Ausmus might be forced to give Anibal another shot. That's something that Tigers fans fear. I have confidence in Boyd to improve on his ERA of 4.53 from last season. He could be an x-factor in this rotation.

Detroit parted ways with mediocre-at-best Mike Pelfrey late in the spring, but will still be on the hook for his $8 million salary, along with Mark Lowe's $5 million. Money well spent, huh?

For whatever reason, the Tigers did not make any upgrades to their bullpen this offseason, although you could say releasing the awful Lowe is a plus.

The bullpen's ERA was 24th in the MLB at 4.22. Most would say that means you need to make some upgrades. Al Avila apparently is not one of those people. K-Rod is getting old and can be a roller coaster every time he steps on the mound. Look for Bruce Rondon to possibly usurp Rodriguez as the closer by August at the latest. He had the best season of his young career last season with a sub-3 ERA and a strikeout rate of 11.15 per nine innings.

The Wilsons will be a key component of the Tigers' bullpen.

Justin Wilson had a shaky second half last season  while Alex Wilson was probably the best arm in the 'pen all year, with a 2.96 ERA in 73 innings of work. If the rotation falters and the bullpen is called on more and more, those two will be called on to hold the Tigers together in the middle to late innings.

Prospect Joe Jiminez could be called up to the majors at some point this season if one of the relievers gets hurt, or if his play warrants it. Jiminez rose quickly through the Tigers' minor league system last season, going from class-A Lakeland all the way to triple-A Toledo, all while owning a 1.51 ERA. I can't wait for this guy to get to the Show.

As for the rest, just close your eyes and cross your fingers.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Surviving my first winter in the UP with basketball

By Blake Froling

I was warned many times about taking a job in the Upper Peninsula, especially since I had never even been there before.

"Do you know how cold it is up there?"

"They get so much snow up there!"

"Summer lasts about a month up there! What are you going to do?"

People tried to scare me about coming to the UP, but obviously those people have never spent much time here. The picture they painted was bleak: Marquette would be a one-stoplight town, they might have to fly in groceries until the ice roads form, you'll have to use sled dogs to get to work. Surprisingly, none of that turned out to be true.

Even once I got to the UP, people tried to scare me.

"Oh, just wait until the real snow comes."

"This is a piece of cake compared to what I'm used to."

It turned out to be a piece of cake for me, too. Never needed sled dogs to get to work, never got stuck in a snowdrift, didn't hit any deer and I didn't get frostbite. I actually enjoyed my first winter up here in the UP. Most of that was due to basketball, of course.

I didn't really know what to expect in terms of the level of play in high school basketball in the UP. There is a general bias downstate that UP basketball players can't compete with players below the bridge, they were all slow and nonathletic and overall the games would be boring. Those people obviously haven't heard of that unbeaten North Central team. They obviously haven't seen Carson Wonders or Trent Bell play. Those sentiments couldn't be further from the truth.

The intensity level of every game far surpassed most of the high school basketball I watched back home. My first game behind the mic turned out to be one of the most exciting: an overtime thriller between Westwood and Gwinn, complete with a buzzer-beater, plenty of lead changes and bruising inside play. It only took that one game to get me excited for UP basketball.

The excitement in the stands at every game and in the cities around high school basketball was something I wasn't used to. Just about every team has a commercial radio station covering their games, unheard of in metro Detroit. If there was a close game, it made the front page of the sports section the next day, unheard of in metro Detroit. High school games dominated the sports segments of news shows, something that also took me by surprise. People talked about games all over the UP, told me about all these great players I had to go see from all over the UP. All of this made my job a whole lot easier and much more enjoyable.

Every coach I've met so far was genuinely excited about their team and it showed in every interview. Westwood fans fondly remember Kurt Corcoran's emotional post-game speech after his Patriots beat undefeated Norway on the road (they still won't let him forget that he cried on the radio). You don't see that kind of passion and genuine love for the game in many places, but I definitely saw it here. The Gwinn girls started the season 0-12, but you'd never know it listening to coach Ben Olsen talk about his players every week on the Coaches Show. He gave one of the most heartfelt, honest and inspiring senior night speeches I could remember.

That kind of passion is what makes me excited to cover all these basketball games and to call the UP my new home. You can try to scare me all you want about how brutal next winter will be, but it's not going to work. Those hours in the gym will keep me warm through whatever impending blizzard you predict will hit Marquette.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Predictions for Michigan, Michigan State in the first round

By Blake Froling

March Madness is upon us. Bracket "experts" will emerge from the woodwork, fresh off watching their first college basketball game of the year, to tell you with absolute certainty who will win the National Championship. I don't claim to be an expert, but I watch a ton of Michigan and Michigan State hoops, and I can say with a pretty good deal of confidence that Michigan will move on and Michigan State will be sent packing.

Michigan survived a harrowing plane incident to become the lowest-seeded team to ever win the Big Ten Tournament. After losing to Northwestern on "The Pass," the Wolverines are 5-0. They have five wins over tournament teams in their last 10 games. Derrick Walton Jr. is proving to the Big Ten voters why he deserved to be on the all-conference first team. Zak Irvin is finally coming into his own after being an enigma for most of the season. Moe Wagner's offense is blossoming before our eyes, even if his defense leaves something to be desired.

It might be surprising that a Michigan State grad is showering praise on the hated Wolverines. But hey, I'm a journalist now, I have to be objective (most of the time). Their first round opponent, Oklahoma State, is trending in the opposite direction of the Wolverines. They've lost three games in a row, albeit to Iowa State twice and Kansas, two of the top teams in the Big 12. Their last impressive win came all the way back in the beginning of February against West Virginia.

The guard play will be a key deciding factor in the matchup. Jawun Evans is one of the top guards in the nation and is a finalist for the Bob Cousy award for the nation's best point guard. Evans averages 19 points and six assists per game and will give fits to whoever draws the undesirable task of guarding him. The Cowboys also boast one of the top offenses in the nation, scoring about 85 points per game, but they leave much to be desired on the defensive end. That's why Michigan will win this game.

Michigan's offense is already steamrolling teams. Wagner is an absolute matchup nightmare (just ask Purdue) and the Cowboys won't be able to slow him down enough. With Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman emerging as a secondary scorer and DJ Wilson providing some explosiveness, the porous OSU defense will be left in the dust. But that strong offense will keep the Cowboys in the game.
Michigan 82, Oklahoma State 70

I've watched just about every game Michigan State has played this season, I've been to games in person, I've been to practices, I've talked to the players and I still have no idea what to make of the Spartans. Their youth makes them inconsistent, but also dangerous in the postseason. They will face a Miami Hurricanes team that is led by senior Davon Reid and junior Ja'Quan Newton. When scouting a Michigan State opponent, the first thing to look for is height. MSU simply can't beat good teams that outsize them (see Purdue).

In terms of size, Miami has a slight advantage. Their leading rebounder, Kamari Murphy, is 6-foot-8, but weighs 30 pounds less than MSU freshman Nick Ward. Miami has three more players 6-foot-10 or taller, but none of them start. What tips the scales in my mind is the lack of experience for the Spartans. They're anchored by four freshmen playing in their first NCAA tournament, two sophomores that played injured last season against Middle Tennessee, one junior who has no offense to speak of in Tum Tum Nairn and one senior who has never played major minutes for Michigan State until now in Alvin Ellis III.

Every Michigan State team in recent memory has had an elder leader on the floor that brought everyone together and became a coach on the floor, while simultaneously being a playmaking threat. Last season it was Denzel Valentine, the year before was Travis Trice and the year before that was Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. No one jumps out to me this year as a guy who can not only be the emotional leader, but also be the playmaking leader like all of those previous names could. Nairn is the emotional leader, but he's not even the best point guard on the roster. Miles Bridges is by far the best player, but as a freshman he simply doesn't have the experience to be the leader during the NCAA tournament.

Lack of size, lack of experience and lack of depth are what will doom the Spartans in the first round against Miami, but don't expect Tom Izzo's squad to go down without a fight.
Miami 65, Michigan State 60

Monday, March 6, 2017

Will lightning strike twice for Westwood boys?

By Blake Froling

When I first came to Marquette, everyone who talked to me about the job told me how exciting and incredible Westwood's run in the MHSAA playoffs was last year. No one had seen it coming, they said. I still can't believe it happened, others told me. I wish I could have seen it myself, just based on the stories people keep telling me.

A year later, Westwood needs lightning to strike twice if they want another magical run. They face off with West Iron County on Wednesday in the opening round of districts, at West Iron County, at 8 p.m. EST. It seems so long ago since these two teams faced off in the first game of the season, before I even got here. The Wykons came out on top 50-41 on December 5th, in case you forgot.

Since I arrived in Marquette, I've seen this Westwood team develop and consistently get better, and the results eventually reflected that. My first game was an overtime loss at home to Gwinn, when Austin Pierpont hit a crazy game-tying three from the corner. Since then, I've seen the Patriots grow in so many ways, taking their lumps along the way.

David Delarye has become an absolute force in the paint, exemplifying the "bull in a china shop" metaphor. He was raw in December, and maybe a little out of control at times. But now he's at the top of scouting reports and the subject of heated timeouts at the beginning of games for opposing coaches. He's a double-double threat on any given night, and his touch around the hoop has improved immensely.

Nathan Beckman has the three C's you want in a point guard: he's cool, calm and collected. Even if he doesn't always light up the scoreboard, which he certainly can do on any given night, he makes the offense flow so much better when he's on the floor. Ethan Burke is the ultimate glue guy, a scrapper with blazing speed. He wreaks havoc on defense and at times fearlessly drives to the hoop, where he can be out-sized by almost a foot.

Every coach I talk to before games brings up Westwood's defense. It's unrelenting, it slows teams down and it even frustrates opposing stars at times, who are used to scoring at will. The Patriots will need that defense to step up in a big way on Wednesday.

If the Patriots can keep the Wykons in the 40's, they have a very good chance of winning. However, the offense will need to pick up in the playoffs. Westwood has only broken the 50-point mark in five of its 19 games, hence why the game needs to stay in the 40's. The Patriots have been shooting the ball better as of late, but if they can do it on the road in the playoffs remains to be seen.

For lightning to strike twice, they also would have to defeat one of the top teams in the UP in the district finals, if they can get there. Norway and Iron Mountain are the early matchup at West Iron County High School on Wednesday, and it's a shame that one of the top five teams in the UP has to go home on night one. Such is life without seeding in the MHSAA playoffs.

The Patriots are 0-4 against these two teams, but played Norway tight both times, losing by seven and nine points. Iron Mountain and Carson Wonders were tougher for the Patriots, but the Patriots played a more competitive game at Westwood.

The odds are slim that lightning will strike twice for the Patriots, but the odds were slim for last year's team as well, and it turned out alright for them. Or so they tell me.