ESPN UP Blog: Are basketball skills eroding among young players?

We hear the refrain from coaches all the time: “Back in my day…”

You’re going to hear it some more here.

I talked with local high school basketball coaches to see what skills they thought young players were lacking as they reached high school. What did they have to focus on the most in practice? Why is this happening? Most coaches didn’t hesitate in their answer. They’ve thought about this before and discussed it with their peers.

The overall sentiment I got from these coaches is that mastery of fundamental skills among kids entering high school is at a low point. The skills they focused on varied, as well as the reasons why those skills are lacking.

If you’re a young player looking to play for one of these coaches, you better take notes.

Marquette boys coach Brad Nelson thinks it starts with shooting, and most kids don’t put in the time required to become a lethal shooter.

“I think it has digressed over the years,” said Nelson, “and I think it’s a product of kids going into the gym and playing street ball and not taking the time to learn how to shoot properly. It’s something that takes thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of repetitions, not from the three-point line but starting at five feet, working on your form, doing that thousands of times, stepping back to ten feet, 15 feet.

“It’s a generation that wants instant gratification,” Nelson continued. “They want to see results the next day and shooting is not something that that happens. It takes years and years of experience.”

Other coaches, like Gwinn’s Jim Finkbeiner, saw ball-handling as the most glaring weakness of players today. Not an inability to cross players up like Kyrie Irving, but something as simple as being able to dribble with both hands.

“You get good at doing one particular thing,” Finkbeiner said, “whether right-handed layups or dribbling with your right hand and you want to go everything to your right. The game has changed over time…and you have to be able to use both sides of the floor and go both ways.”

Only being able to go one way makes it easy to scout against you and defend you, a refrain many of the coaches echoed. This isn’t only with middle school players. Some coaches even said they’ve seen a few varsity players have that same glaring weakness, on their own team and teams they’ve faced.

“A lot of kids can sit here and ‘two-ball’ and do things stationary,” said Negaunee girls coach Brandon Sager, “but live ball-handling with both hands is what I believe is the most lacking trait in the game today as they hit the high school level.”

If you’re a high school player reading this, they could be talking about you.

Negaunee boys coach Dan Waterman broke it down into three areas kids have to excel at in order to succeed and move on to the next level, and he used the top players from last year as prime examples.

“Last year’s senior class was really good with Dre [Tuominen] and Trent [Bell] and [Carson] Wonders and [Dawson] Bilski and [Jason] Whitens,” said Waterman. “I look at those five players specifically. They can all handle the ball with both hands…they’re all good passers and they’re all good shooters. Offensive fundamentals, overall, they’re lacking.”

One common theme among those five players, besides their mastery of offensive fundamentals? They’re all playing college basketball. Tuominen is at Bay College, Bell and Bilski are at Michigan Tech, Wonders is at Northern Michigan and Whitens is at Western Michigan. That’s no coincidence.

We can’t forget about defense. Defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. Ishpeming boys coach Anthony Katona sees scores on all levels of basketball rising, and it’s mostly due to a lack of defense, and not knowing what to do in game settings.

“Players could be a little bit more offensively advanced,” Katona said, “but I think knowing what to do in a one-on-one situation and a team situation on the defensive end is one of the things that we stress on teaching our kids and one of the things that we start from the get-go.”

Ishpeming girls coach Ryan Reichel went into more nuanced skills that might go overlooked, unless you’re at one of his practices.

“We see a lot of girls with the wrong pivot foot,” said Reichel, “and a lot of girls that don’t always line up the seams of the ball as the game gets faster on them as they move up the ranks. I think all basketball players, not just girls in general, need to do a better job of adapting to the speed, but also slowing down the skill set so they do it right, because that’s in the end going to make you a better basketball player.”

Think lining up the seams of a basketball is a trivial skill when shooting? Imagine throwing a ball without using the laces — that’s what Reichel said it’s like when you don’t line up the seams, and why he emphasizes it to his players almost every day.  

Why are these fundamental skills eroding? Is it social media? Is it AAU ball? Is it just because of those darn Millennials? Ben Smith, Marquette girls coach, thinks kids just don’t play enough anymore.

“That trait is kind of a lost art almost,” said Smith, “where it used to be at Miners Park in Negaunee or Harlow Park in Marquette or the playground in Ishpeming, where people from different towns would get together and play all day and have fun and see who’s better that day, that game or that possession.”

The recipe to becoming a successful basketball player seems pretty simple according to these coaches: Spend thousands of hours working on your shooting form; line up the seams when you shoot; make sure you use the correct pivot foot; make crisp passes; learn how to dribble with both hands; play defense; and most importantly, go outside and play with your friends.


Lions are locked in, for better or worse

By Blake Froling

A sudden realization hit us during Monday’s episode of the SportsPen.

Sam Ali from ABC 10 and I were talking about the Lions, and how the expectation was that they need to make the playoffs and win a game. Then, Sam asked me, “Who gets fired if they don’t? Does anyone?”

Well, surely someone has to be blamed, right? Someone has to go if they fall short of expectations once again. But who?

The Lions basically locked themselves into this core of coaches and players for the foreseeable future. Head coach Jim Caldwell signed a multi-year extension before the season started (but didn’t tell anyone), so firing him would cost the team millions of dollars.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford surely isn’t going anywhere after signing the richest contract in NFL history this offseason. He’s also the best quarterback in the history of the franchise, so don’t even think about it.

Can you blame offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter? He’s been handcuffed by one of the league’s worst rushing attacks all season. Firing Cooter would accomplish nothing when he can basically work with only half the playbook. Just weeks ago he was the darling of the NFL and some even whispered his name among those poised to become head coaches in the very near future. Now those same people blame his playcalling for the Lions’ first-half woes.

What about defensive coordinator Teryl Austin? Nope. His defense has been decimated with injuries to the defensive line and linebackers, so the blame shouldn’t fall on the scheme. Austin’s name perennially comes up during hiring season in the NFL, and is again linked to another head coaching job, this time with Arizona State. No one blames Austin.

General manager Bob Quinn is only in his second season with the team, far too short a time-frame to judge his performance.

Quinn’s strategy from day one has been to make a series of smaller moves to steadily improve the overall roster instead of overhauling it overnight. He has signed three higher-tier players in wide receiver Marvin Jones and offensive linemen TJ Lang and Rick Wagner, but overall his signings have been fairly conservative.

His drafting has been graded highly thus far. According to my non-scientific opinion, 10 out of 19 of Quinn’s draft picks have made some kind of impact, and two more could in the future but have been held back by injuries.

Quinn has not been blamed for much of anything in his tenure, but one glaring error that falls squarely on his shoulders is the running game. Anyone who has watched the Lions the last four years knew the run game needed to be improved. Sign someone. Draft someone. Do something! Quinn did nothing, and now the Lions have the 30th-ranked rushing offense. Eight rookie running backs are averaging more yards per carry than Ameer Abdullah. This is the year of the rookie running back and the Lions missed out, because of Bob Quinn.

Is this a fireable offense? Not yet. The overall depth of the roster has improved and the drafting has improved. For now, Quinn is safe.

One thing to keep in mind as well is that the season isn’t even over yet, even though this sounds more like a postmortem on another failure. Detroit has five games remaining, four of them against opponents with a losing record. At 6-5, they’d need to go at least 4-1 to have a shot at making the playoffs. That’s doable. But that’s only part of the equation.

The Lions also need to win a playoff game. No more “wait until next year” anymore. I said it at the beginning of the season and I still say it now, if the Lions don’t win a playoff game, the season is a failure. Plain and simple.

All of this leads me back to my original question. What happens if the Lions fall short of those expectations, as Sam Ali expects them to? Who is gone? Stafford? Caldwell? Cooter? Austin? Quinn?

Nothing of significance will happen. No one of importance will be fired or let go.

They might fire some assistants and not re-sign a couple guys, but for the most part everything will remain the same. This means either the Lions finally have some stability in their organization, or it’s just the Same Old Lions. Only time, and results, will tell us which.

Lions need 4th quarter mentality all game

I hope everyone knew it wasn’t sustainable.

Matthew Stafford’s late-game heroics always entertain us, and eight times last season actually brought the Lions a win. But it was never going to be sustainable. We’re seeing that already this year through six games. It’s called regression to the mean.

If the Lions are going to be serious contenders, they need to win games from start to finish, and do it consistently. This Sunday’s game against New Orleans is the latest example of a team that digs itself a huge hole, then climbs back when the opposing defenses lay off the gas pedal. While Stafford and company should be applauded for not giving up in those situations, it’s concerning that they have to do this every single week.

In the Lions’ three losses this season, they’ve been outscored 95-57 in the first three quarters, then outscored their opponents 31-14 in the fourth quarter. Maybe last year those are wins, but those last-second comebacks that seemed to fall in Detroit’s favor are now stalling out, and the Lions are 3-3.

If this year is going to be different, if the Lions are going to win the NFC North for the first time since 1993, then they need to show up in the first three quarters. Being a “good fourth quarter team” isn’t going to take this team farther than another first-round exit in the playoffs. If that’s ok with you, then sit back and watch Stafford chuck the ball around when he’s down 21 and see what happens.

If you look at the consistently good teams, the Super Bowl winning teams, they have occasional fourth quarter comebacks, but they don’t live off them like the Lions do. Until that changes, they’ll never be a Super Bowl contender.

Don’t get me wrong, cutting a 35-point deficit to seven like the Lions did Sunday against the Saints is impressive, but good teams wouldn’t have been down 35 points in the first place. Regardless of how healthy Stafford really is, that should never happen.

So what’s the problem in the first three quarters? Good question.

Right now, the Lions have a paper-thin offensive line that limits the plays offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter can call. Stafford usually doesn’t have enough time in the pocket to let deep plays develop. The calls get conservative, the offense stagnates, and the Lions fall behind. Stafford gets beat up in the process.

In the fourth quarter, when opposing teams have the lead on the Lions, the defenses get more conservative and bring less pressure in hopes of avoiding the big play. This allows Stafford more time to throw, the offense gets aggressive, and points start racking up. If the Lions can have a fourth quarter mentality all game, maybe they can be a Super Bowl contender. Maybe.

Part of this will (hopefully) be fixed when left tackle Taylor Decker recovers from his shoulder injury, because Greg Robinson is atrocious. Plain and simple. Getting rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay back should also open things up for Stafford.

Don’t bury the Lions just yet, even if it sounds like I just did. The bye week comes at a perfect time. Stafford has the week off to recover from his high ankle sprain and whatever else he’s dealing with, the offensive line can heal up, Golladay can come back, and maybe things can go back to how they looked earlier in the season.

The NFC North is wiiiiiiide open with the possible season-ending injury to the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers. The four quarterbacks in the division are now Brett Hundley, Case Keenum, Mitchell Trubisky, and Matthew Stafford. Advantage Lions.

Maybe Jim Caldwell and Jim Bob Cooter will spend the next two weeks trying to dissect the first half woes better than I can, and stop relying on the comebacks to sustain their season. Because they won’t. And the Lions will only break your heart once again if things don’t change.

Lions love, Packers loathe primetime

By Blake Froling

Two primetime games, two very different results.

It’s not really fair to compare the Lions’ win with the Packers’ loss. Atlanta is far superior to New York right now and let’s be honest, the Falcons simply own the Packers. The Giants were dealing with a depleted offensive line that couldn’t block me and receivers who couldn’t catch the ball. The Falcons looked nearly flawless against the Packers in the first half. Two completely different situations. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Lions beat Giants 24-10

It definitely wasn’t a pretty game to watch. Matthew Stafford did just enough to put the Lions ahead with touchdown passes to Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron, but threw for just 122 yards. 122 yards??? Did the Lions run the triple option the whole game or something?

Despite his low passing yards, Stafford looked impressive. He continues to surprise people with his scrambling ability, something he was dreadful at during the first few seasons of his career. Stafford also seemed more in control at the line of scrimmage than in recent years, and Jon Gruden made sure to point it out several times on the ESPN broadcast. He engineered the win more with the intangibles than the stats last night.

Running back Ameer Abdullah showed improvement running the ball against the Giants after a lackluster performance against the Cardinals. He looked like the elusive back we saw in his rookie year and ripped off a couple big runs, finishing with 86 yards on 17 carries. Believe it or not, that’s the most rushing yards for a Lions running back since Joique Bell had 91 yards against the Bears on Thanksgiving 2014. There’s your sad Lions stat of the day.

The Lions have shown now that they are committed to the run, whether it’s successful or not, and they’ll need more performances like that out of Abdullah if they’re going to keep defenses honest.

On defense, Ziggy Ansah and company exploited the Giants’ paper thin offensive line and sacked Eli Manning five times. I almost felt bad for Manning a couple times after seeing the sad attempts his offensive line made to protect him. Let’s just pretend I didn’t pick the Giants to win their division.

The front four for Detroit, which had been maligned as the weak spot of the team going into the season, has gotten to the quarterback for six sacks and allowed just 107 rushing yards through two games. Ansah has already surpassed his sack total from a year ago, when he was dealing with a high ankle sprain. I, along with many other fans, was worried about how Ansah would play early in the season after being M.I.A. for most of training camp and the preseason. Through two games, it’s safe to say he’s back.

The secondary looked extremely impressive for most of the night, minus one breakdown in coverage in the red zone that led to a touchdown. Giants receivers had no space to work, Eli constantly ran out of time to throw and Odell Beckham Jr was held in check.

That secondary will be tested even more on Sunday when the high octane Atlanta Falcons come to town. They effortlessly dropped 34 points on the Packers and have a stable of talented receivers to spread out the Lions defense. Add in two great running backs with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and this will be the toughest game on the Lions schedule this season. Speaking of those Falcons…

Falcons beat Packers 34-23

I bet if you Google who owns the Packers, instead of seeing thousands of Green Bay residents, you’d get Matt Ryan. At least that’s what it should say. Ryan surgically picked apart the Packers’ revamped secondary early in the game. I had flashbacks to the NFC Championship game last year where he basically did the exact same thing. I certainly didn’t mind.

The absence of Jordy Nelson completely derailed this powerful Packers offense. It’s clear that despite having a bevvy of talented receivers, Aaron Rodgers depends on Nelson the most, and without him, things go wrong. It also doesn’t help when you have two starting offensive linemen out, and your best defensive tackle, and two members of the secondary.

Injuries cost the Packers a real shot at a Super Bowl last season, and they’re already threatening to do the same this year. We still don’t know the severity of these injuries yet, so don’t jump to conclusions, but if this becomes a trend, they’ll have to wait another year to get over the hump.

Maybe this is me reading into things too much, but if the road to the Super Bowl runs through Atlanta again, does Green Bay even have a chance? Right now, I’d say no. Whatever adjustments Dom Capers made from the NFC Championship game to Sunday night clearly didn’t work. For all the talk the young secondary gets and how great the “nitro” defense is, will it ever be good enough to beat these Falcons? I have serious doubts.

Young Patriots look to learn from tough season

By Blake Froling

Last season: 2-7, 1-5 in Mid Pen

Playoffs: None

Only six players in the Mid Pen Conference who earned all-conference honors last season are returning this year. Westwood has two of them.

While seemingly every team in the conference suffered heavy attrition from graduation, Westwood was barely affected. The Patriots started six sophomores, four juniors and only one senior for the most part last season, according to head coach Scott Syrjala. The playing time for the underclassmen was invaluable, even though they certainly took their lumps — a 35-0 loss to Chetek-Weyerhaeuser to open the season, a 30-0 drubbing from Ishpeming, a 34-0 loss to Gwinn and a 28-0 loss to Negaunee to end the season, just to name a few.

Syrjala said he can see the experience is already showing in the preseason.

 “I can tell just through our camp here a little bit our kids are moving faster, they’re knowing things, they’re a little bit smarter, so yeah it has helped,” said Syrjala after a joint practice with Bark River-Harris in July.

Syrjala also noticed a greater number of players working out in the offseason than in years past, coming in to lift weights as a team year-round. Instead of getting discouraged by a losing season, they dedicated themselves to getting better in the winter and summer months.

“They see how strong they have to be and how fast they have to be,” said Syrjala, “and if it wasn’t a good group of kids, they wouldn’t have responded in the offseason the way they have.”

Listen to Scott Syrjala’s full interview here

One of the players leading the charge in the offseason was Nathan Beckman, who started at quarterback as a sophomore and also earned all-conference honorable mention at defensive back. Being such a young starter last season, he struggled at times, but Syrjala has been impressed with his dedication in the offseason.

“This is a kid that would go in for basketball practice and then lift afterwards,” said Syrjala. “He would ask to come in on Saturdays and Sundays and I’d have to tell him, ‘Becks you have to take a break, you have to rest your body a bit.’”

Beckman completed 45 percent of his passes and threw for 610 yards, ranking third in the conference. He also tossed eight touchdowns and only three interceptions. Syrjala said Beckman isn’t making some of the simple mistakes he did as a sophomore and is ready to take the next step.

“The game is starting to slow down for him, and he’s starting to make his reads and go through his progression,” said Syrjala. “His footwork is getting better, he worked on his footwork in the offseason, and I expect big things out of him this year.”

Westwood also returns three of its top four receivers from last season, which should boost an offense that was stagnant at times. Junior Jacob Adriano caught 11 passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns. Speedy senior Ethan Burke averaged an incredible 24.9 yards per reception and found the end zone three times.

The defense is just as young as the offense as well. Burke, Beckman and Adriano had an interception each, and junior defensive end Sam Gilles earned all-conference honorable mention last season. But their inexperience showed as they allowed fewer than 28 points in a game only twice, their two wins against L’Anse and Manistique.

In a year when the Mid Pen Conference might be perceived as being “down” due to the exodus of talented seniors from last season, it could turn into the perfect landscape for the young but more seasoned Patriots to shoot up the standings. Syrjala doesn’t have any specific expectations for his team — he’d prefer to focus on the little things.

“It would be foolish to say ‘well, we can only win six games this year.’ You’re almost setting yourself up there,” said Syrjala. “Let’s be a solid defensive team, know our blocks, know our assignments, make sure we’re in position to make plays. You do those things, we start little, we keep continuing to build on it, then hopefully the wins will come. And once those wins start coming and if you worry about the little things and break the game down for the kids, then maybe bigger things will be on the horizon.”


How the Quintana trade affects the Tigers

The Chicago Cubs made the first splash of the MLB trade season, nabbing pitcher Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for OF Eloy Jiménez, RHP Dylan Cease, 1B Matt Rose and INF Bryant Flete. This trade has ramifications for the Detroit Tigers as well, both positive and negative.

The negative of this trade is that the Tigers lose out on a possible trade partner. The Cubs had been reportedly interested in the likes of Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, but talks never got too serious. Now Chicago filled its pitching need. The Cubs were seen as a potentially perfect trade partner for the Tigers to dump Verlander because they aren’t afraid to spend big money and they have a deep farm system. Now that Chicago is off the table, the likelihood that Verlander gets dealt just plummeted.

In the case of Fulmer, the Cubs had plenty of top prospects to give up in order to land him, as seen with the Quintana trade. This might seem like a blow to the Tigers, but there is a positive way to look at this. Fulmer is younger, cheaper and having a better season than Quintana, which means his trade value should be higher. If the White Sox were able to get this impressive of a haul for Quintana, the return for Fulmer should be even greater, if the Tigers decide to deal him.

I was against the idea of trading Fulmer initially, but seeing the Quintana deal might change my mind. Jiménez is the No. 5 prospect in the MLB, according to Baseball America, and Cease is No. 83. The White Sox are writing the book on how to do a quick and effective rebuild, and the Tigers should be taking notes. The Sox now have seven of the top 100 prospects, according to Baseball America, and only one of them was originally signed by the organization. The rest were acquired via trades like this one and the Chris Sale deal with the Boston Red Sox.

The argument against trading Fulmer, which I used, was that it would be trading the future for an uncertain future. But if the haul included at least two top 100 prospects plus maybe a major leaguer and another lower-tier prospect, that would be a huge boost for Detroit. It would replenish their farm system and signal that the Tigers are finally committed to an actual rebuild.

Other names that could be thrown into trade conversations would be closer Justin Wilson, outfielders JD Martinez and Justin Upton, and catcher Alex Avila. But by far the most valuable commodity in Detroit’s organization is Michael Fulmer, and the Tigers absolutely have to listen to any and all offers for the young ace.

The only caveat is that general manager Al Avila must make sure he doesn’t take a lesser deal for Fulmer just for the sake of making a deal. After striking out last offseason, he might be more desperate to pull the trigger. If he doesn’t get the same or better return for Fulmer as the Sox got for Quintana, it would be a complete failure and could set the rebuild back drastically. What Avila does in the coming weeks could determine his future and the future of the organization.

Keeping tabs on Tigers prospects

The Detroit Tigers’ season is effectively over.
They have no hope of making the playoffs and a rebuild is looming. Things may look depressing in the present, so let’s take a look at the future. Most Tigers fans in the past never cared who was in the Tigers’ farm system because they were rarely needed. Why develop the next Miguel Cabrera when you can just trade for him?
Those days are over, and the homegrown talent will shape the future of the organization, for better or worse. Let’s take a look at some of Detroit’s top prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.
No. 1: Matt Manning, RHP, Connecticut Tigers, single-A short season)
Manning was the Tigers’ 9th overall pick in the first round of the 2016 draft. He’s thrown just 10.1 innings so far, giving up seven hits and two earned runs with 15 strikeouts. He’s projected to make the MLB in 2020, so there’s really not much to report yet.
No. 2: Christin Stewart, LF, double-A Erie SeaWolves
Stewart has been flexing his muscles big time. He’s hitting .282 with a team-leading 19 home runs and 60 RBIs. Those gaudy stats earned him a spot in the Eastern League All-Star game, along with OF Mike Gerber (No. 7 prospect), 3B Gabriel Quintana and LHP Jario Labourt (No. 19 prospect), who is also playing in the futures game. Stewart was the 34th pick of the 2015 draft and is projected to make the big leagues sometime next season. Look for him to possibly move to triple-A late in the season and get a shot at making the big league roster next spring training, especially if the Tigers trade JD Martinez or Justin Upton.
No. 3: Beau Burrows, RHP, single-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
Burrows has a dazzling 1.23 ERA in 11 starts. The 20-year-old was Detroit’s first-round pick in 2015 and hasn’t disappointed since. He’s also struck out 62 batters in 58.2 innings of work. MLB Pipeline projects him to make it to the big leagues by 2019 and he’ll be representing the Tigers in the MLB Futures Game during All-Star Weekend in Miami.
No. 4: Tyler Alexander, LHP, double-A Erie SeaWolves
Alexander was drafted out of TCU in the second round of the 2015 draft and has ascended the Tigers’ organization very quickly. He seems to have hit a bit of a rough patch this season though. Alexander is 4-6, with a 4.85 ERA in 15 starts. Opponents are hitting .311 against the southpaw through 72.1 innings. But at age 22, bumps in the road are expected. MLB Pipeline projects him to reach the majors sometime this season, though that seems way too optimistic at this point.
No. 5: Joe Jimenez, RHP, triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Jimenez, thought to be the heir to the closer role in Detroit sometime in the future, dealt with some nagging injuries early in the season. Since returning to Toledo on June 18, the 22-year-old has made 10 appearances, throwing 7.2 innings and giving up 8 hits and 4 earned runs. That’s not too encouraging, but Jimenez hasn’t given up a run in his last six appearances, so things could be turning around for one of Detroit’s brightest prospects.
Other notables in the minors
Outfielder Jim Adduci was activated from the disabled list and sent to Triple-A Toledo after recovering from an oblique strain. Since returning to the Mud Hens’ lineup on June 26, Adduci is hitting .171 with 4 RBI and 9 strikeouts. Depending on what the Tigers do at the trade deadline with JD Martinez and Upton, we could see Adduci back with the big league club soon. But before that happens, his bat needs to wake up.
LHP Matt Boyd was optioned to Toledo after struggling in the first couple months of the season for the big league club, and he seems to have regained his confidence in the minors. In six starts with the Mud Hens, Boyd is 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 36.1 innings of work. Fellow southpaw Daniel Norris has been battered lately and could be demoted to the minors after the All-Star break. If that happens, look for Boyd to take his spot.
Center fielder JaCoby Jones had a cup of coffee in the MLB this season, but a shot to the head knocked him out of the lineup and back to Toledo. His abysmal hitting kept him there. Since then, Jones’ bat has been a bit better. He’s hitting .250 with 6 homers and 23 RBI, much better than his .137 average in 51 major league at-bats. Jones’ outstanding fielding will keep him in the mix if an injury occurs to a Tigers outfielder, but his bat needs to be more consistent before he gets called up full-time.

Pistons, Red Wings prepare for very different drafts

June 19 – Detroit sports fans have two drafts to pay attention to this week: the NBA Draft on Thursday and the NHL’s Expansion Draft, with picks being revealed on Wednesday night. One team has the opportunity to add to its core, while the other will be losing a piece from theirs. There are opportunities for both teams in each draft.

Losing a player sounds bad on the surface, but it could turn into a positive for the Red Wings, depending on who is taken. They decided not to protect goalie Petr Mrazek, a move that surprised most experts. Mrazek is only 25, eight years younger than Jimmy Howard, and makes less money than his elder. But the Red Wings might actually be hoping Vegas takes Mrazek.

He struggled to find consistency in net last year with a mediocre 3.04 goals against average and .901 save percentage, both of which ranked 42nd among 44 qualified goalies. When Howard went down with a knee injury early in the season, he was playing some of the best hockey of his career. When he came back months later, he continued that trend. The Wings are hoping that version of Howard will return this season, and that the injury was just a fluke.

If Vegas doesn’t pick Mrazek, Detroit will be in a tough situation. They’ll have two spots available for three goalies and nearly $10 million tied up to one position group. Detroit would likely be forced to place either Mrazek or Jared Coreau, who made 14 appearances for the team last year, on waivers. If Vegas selects Mrazek, his $4 million cap hit is wiped from the books and Detroit can use it to try to bolster their blue line. The only problem is that there are better goalies on other teams that were exposed to the draft, so Mrazek will likely stay in Detroit.

The Red Wings are hoping for addition by subtraction. The Pistons might be doing the same.

The Pistons might look to trade the No. 12 pick in Thursday’s draft, and maybe a player such as Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson, for a veteran that can help them in the short term. With a ballooning payroll that’s only going to get gaudier when the team re-signs shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (yes, I guarantee they will sign him), the Pistons are almost forced to be in win-now mode. Having a top ten payroll and a lower tier team usually isn’t good for job security.

Rod Beard of the Detroit News said on the SportsPen that the “win-now veteran” could be someone like a Dwayne Wade. Not necessarily Wade himself, but an older player with playoff experience that can possibly get the young Pistons over the hump and past the first round of the playoffs. Detroit is hoping a deal like this will materialize before the draft, but just like the Red Wings, I don’t think the Pistons will get their wish.

The Pistons, for better or worse, will be stuck with the 12th pick. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all; I’m still not sold on this “win-now veteran” idea. That didn’t work so well with Josh Smith or Ben Gordon or Charlie Villanueva or Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady or Chauncey Billups the second time (I could go on and on).They’ll end up drafting some teenager who will help them in three years or so but provide limited impact in the short term. The Pistons will be better than last season (I guaranSheed it) but not much better. They’re doomed to NBA purgatory unless they blow it up or they strike gold with their recent picks. Sounds a lot like the Red Wings right now…

Tigers might be selling, but who’s buying?

After an up-and-down start to the 2017 campaign, the Detroit Tigers might finally be breaking up the band.

Fox’s Jon Morosi reported that if the Tigers are below .500 by the end of June, the front office would go into full sell mode. Basically, do what they tried (and failed) to do last offseason. So if the Tigers really are selling, who’s buying?

I can’t imagine general managers lighting up Al Avila’s phone with offers for Justin Verlander. The 34-year old is owed $28 million per year through the 2019 season with a $22 million option in 2020. That’s a hefty price to pay for an aging ace with a 4.87 ERA this season who can’t keep the ball in the park on the road.

Teams won’t be knocking down Avila’s door to trade for designated hitter and noted bunt specialist Victor Martinez. He’s 38 and is owed $18 million next season.Yes, he’s a year removed from hitting 27 home runs and three years from his best statistical season of his career. But at his age, the decline comes fast. This season, he’s going nearly twice as many at bats per home run than a year ago,. which means his power is all but gone. No power and no speed is not a great combination for a designated hitter.

What about Miguel Cabrera? Surely someone will want one of the best right-handed hitters of all-time, right? Detroit certainly won’t give away the face of their franchise for pennies on the dollar. He has six years and $184 million left on his mammoth contract, with two options after that. He’s also 34 and is going through a slow start this season, hitting just .266 with five home runs in 38 games.

For the Tigers to make a deal happen, they’d likely have to pay a chunk of his contract, similar to the Prince Fielder trade (they’re still on the hook for $6 million per year until 2020 for that one). With the MLB gravitating towards younger, faster teams, power hitters like Cabrera might get left behind. Now, I’m not saying his career is over by any means. But in terms of his trade value, what the Tigers would want for him and what teams would give for him are likely two very different things.

Nicholas Castellanos is tanking his trade value so far. Before the season, his value was one of the highest on the team. He was destined to make an all-star team and emerge as one of the premiere young third basemen in the MLB. Since then, he’s been hitting .212 with four home runs and 58 strikeouts, second on the team.

Who’s first in strikeouts, you ask? That would be $132 million dollar man Justin Upton. If it weren’t for an incredible September last season in which he clubbed 12 home runs and batted .307, he’d be known as one of the worst free agent signings in recent memory. He has four years and over $88 million left on his contract after this season, and last time I checked, no one wants to pay that kind of money for a player to lead your team in strikeouts.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Avila. He does have an upper-tier left-handed reliever in Justin Wilson who still has another year of arbitration before hitting free agency. Right fielder JD Martinez has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball since his return from the disabled list and he’s a free agent after this year. Some teams might be interested in the leather-flashing shortstop Jose Iglesias, but his .226 batting average will certainly hurt his value.

Is a rebuild a good idea for the Tigers? Absolutely. I think it should have happened this offseason. But Avila realized the market doesn’t value expensive, aging stars like it used to. If the sell-off does happen, don’t expect him to be able to pull any Dombrowski-esque highway robbery. The Tigers will likely get mid-level prospects and return to their pre-2006 losing ways. That’s the price you pay for years of going all-in for a World Series and failing.

Ailing Tigers can’t catch a break

Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler finally returned to the lineup after a nagging hamstring injury kept him out for five games. Right fielder JD Martinez is expected to make his season debut Friday after he suffered a  Lisfranc sprain in his right foot during spring training. Brad Ausmus was supposed to have his first fully healthy lineup of the season, something he almost never had last year. Then one swing ruined it. 

Right fielder Jim Adduci hurt his oblique during batting practice before Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels. He’s now on the disabled list. With Martinez returning to the lineup, Adduci was expected to move to center field, where he played for two years in the Korean League. Tigers fans were supposed to finally get a glimpse at what this team’s potential could be in perhaps the last season before a rebuild. That glimpse will have to wait now.

Coming into Friday’s game with the Angels, Detroit is 17-16. Nicholas Castellanos is the only player to appear in every game so far, and we’re not even halfway through May. This year was supposed to be different. The Tigers would be finally healthy and show their true potential, give it one last run at a World Series before general manager Al Avila breaks up the band. But they’re having the exact same issues as last season, so why should we expect a different result?

On the surface, losing a right fielder who’s a career minor leaguer shouldn’t be a big blow to the Tigers. But Adduci has been a revelation for the team, posting an impressive .318/.338/.500 line in 13 games since being called up from triple-A Toledo. The combination of Tyler Collins, Mikie Mahtook and JaCoby Jones, three guys who were supposed to lock down center and right field for the time being, have hit a paltry .202. Jones was so bad at the plate that the Tigers decided to keep him in Toledo after he came off the disabled list.

In all, five starters have hit the disabled list at some point this season, make it six now with Adduci. It’s actually a miracle that Detroit is above .500 at this point with all these injuries and weird lineups Ausmus has had to use, and that should give Tigers fans hope. If they can hang around while they deal with these injuries, they could pounce when (if) they get healthy. 

Knock on wood, the pitching staff has been largely unscathed by the injury bug so far. If the starting rotation starts to get banged up, Detroit doesn’t have much of a backup plan. We could be faced with a situation where *gasp* Anibal Sanchez  has to make a spot start, and you can just chalk that up for a loss right now. Things may seem depressing now, but always remember, it could be worse. Anibal Sanchez could be your starting pitcher.