April 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Tigers mailbag: Pistons radio switch could start dominoes falling

Joba Chamberlain had a rough start to the year, but has been nails lately, with five straight scoreless outings. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Big news in the Detroit sports radio world Tuesday, with the Pistons defecting from WXYT 97.1 — and WMGC 105.1 becoming the team's flagship station.

This could be a win-win for all parties involved.

WMGC, launched last summer, needed a professional team to gain credibility, and it just so happened that the Pistons contract was up first. And despite how bad the Pistons have been lately — and despite how bad the game ratings were at 97.1 — anything will bring better ratings, and lead to better ad revenues, than the national programming WMGC had at night.

Meanwhile, 97.1 no longer has to pretend to care about the Pistons. The Lions rule this town, in terms of fan interest, followed closely by the Tigers, with the Red Wings a stunningly distant third.

The Pistons, a down team at the moment, lag well behind, but should benefit from the added exposure at WMGC; 97.1 couldn't offer as much without losing audience.

After all, 97.1 still owns the broadcast rights for the Lions, Tigers and Red Wings. The question is, for how long?

It's believed there will be serious competition for the Tigers. They are pure ratings gold, not just because of the team's popularity but also because of the sheer volume of content. The flagship station gets the rights to all 162 regular-season games and all postseason games, plus as many spring-training games as it sees fit. It's telling that 97.1 has beefed up its exhibition coverage in recent years.

The Tigers are believed to be under contract through the end of the 2015 season, and the Red Wings are believed to be locked up through the end of next season, as well. It's no coincidence they're on the same schedule. The perception is they're a package deal, both being owned by Mike Ilitch.

So, losing both certainly would be a blow to 97.1, while a boon for WMGC.

That could make for an interesting bidding war in the not-so-distant future, especially if WMGC sees significant financial success with the Pistons.

Now, onto this week's Tigers Mailbag.

Question: Is Joba Chamberlain our official eighth-inning go-to guy from here on out? I'm pretty excited about his stuff lately. – T Fox (twitter.com/tfoxy83)

Answer: This is along the same lines as a question from Justin Aiken (twitter.com/jache25), who suggested Evan Reed was the set-up guy.

Isn't it funny that two right-handers who were shrugged off so swiftly by the fans at the beginning of spring training quickly are gaining admirers in droves?

You could also lump Al Alburquerque into the set-up discussion, but because of his impressive ability to get a strikeout — 12.9 per nine innings in his career — he's probably best issued for a batter or two in critical situations, regardless of the inning.

Reed, meanwhile, was a fantastic find last spring for the Tigers, who stole him off waivers from the Marlins. (As if the Marlins needed one more reminder how much better the Tigers' front office is.) He wasn't great in brief stints in Detroit in 2013, because all he really showcased was a 96-97-mph fastball. That's impressive, but hittable if there's nothing to throw off hitters’ timing. Now Reed is busting out a dandy slider, which at its worst is keeping hitters honest and at its best making them look silly.

The results are impressive. While he allowed runs in nine of 16 outings a year ago, he hasn't yet allowed run in six appearances in 2014. The last two, against the good-hitting Angels and White Sox, he hasn't allowed a hit.

If Reed keeps that up, he'll see his share of eighth innings this year; given his ability to work multiple innings, he might see the seventh and eighth on some nights.

But I'm still inclined to pencil Chamberlain, 28, into the official set-up role – mostly, because he's done it before, and in the New York pressure cooker to boot. The life on Chamberlain's fastball is back, his slider is nasty, and he's regained command of the strike zone, meaning Dave Dombrowski — who opened eyes when he gave Chamberlain a $2.5 million contract — might've outsmarted baseball again.

Chamberlain had a rough start to the year, but has been nails lately, with five straight scoreless outings. In that span he hasn't walked a batter. On the year he's fanned 11 in 613 innings.

Question: Biggest overreaction by fans/media so far, and what concerns you after 16 games? — Erik B. Veenhuis (twitter.com/erikveenhuis)

Answer: Good question. The chatter about the bullpen is starting to die down a bit, and rightfully so. There are good arms down there, and if certain guys fail, there will be other options — either in the minor leagues, or via a July trade. Really, I'm not that concerned there.

The most baffling talk, though, is all this worry about Miguel Cabrera, because, 16 games into the season, he is batting .206 with one home run and seven RBIs.

You would think that a body of work like Cabrera's — two consecutive MVPs, three straight batting titles, eight All-Star appearances, and not a down year to be found — would calm down most of the more passionate fans. But, amazingly, it hasn't. They're worried, and I just don't get it.

He's had a rough couple weeks. He's had a rough start to the season. It happens to everybody. Yes, even Miguel Cabrera.

Two theories that make me laugh: 1) He's content, now that he signed his $240 million extension, and 2) He no longer has Prince Fielder hitting behind him. I couldn't begin to pick the more silly statement. He was a ridiculously rich man before the extension, and he almost won an MVP with Victor Martinez batting behind him in 2012. How quickly folks forget.

Is his swing different now? Absolutely. He appears to be swinging with two hands, rather than letting one fly off in the followthrough — his patented move. To me, it certainly looks like a safety swing, not unlike the one he used when he admirably stayed on the field and played through all that core-muscle pain down the stretch in 2013.

It appears he's been just a bit gun-shy letting it fly in the early days of 2014 — many of which, by the way, have featured some awfully cold weather that can't feel great on anybody's muscles, let alone those surgically repaired.

But Cabrera is working hard to get right — good luck finding a harder worker — and he'll get there, likely before the end of the month.

Question: Do you see Dave Dombrowski making a run at an outfielder, or is Andy Dirks/Rajai Davis gonna be it for the rest of the season? – Morris Fabbri (twitter.com/MoMoneyMoFabbri

Answer: Interesting that you mention Dirks, given his back surgery will keep him out until at least the final days of May, and potentially longer, when you factor in some rehab games. Plus, Dirks didn't exactly knock the cover off the ball last year. He has some things to prove.

Dirks, surely, will get every opportunity to platoon with Davis in left field, as well as potentially give Torii Hunter a day off. But again, he has to hit.

Beyond Dirks, the Tigers have a bevy of options in the minor leagues — and fortunately for them, most of them are left-handed. Tyler Collins already has had a taste and will be back after a bit more seasoning, and Daniel Fields and Steven Moya are on their way, too. J.D. Martinez, a right-handed hitter, was to start for the first time Tuesday night, as the Tigers hoped his scorching ways in Toledo continue.

In other words, there's a fair amount of depth there for a team that, barring unforeseen injuries, is sold on its starting three of Austin Jackson, Hunter and Davis.

Odds are, if the Tigers make a move for a player outside the organization, it'll be to address the shortstop situation (Stephen Drew), or perhaps a pitcher. It's not that far-fetched that the Tigers will determine Drew Smyly — he of two pitches, one of which isn't an overpowering fastball — can make more contributions in the bullpen.

Question: Although it's a small sample size, honest, objective opinion of Brad Ausmus so far? — Scott Haber (lilhabez)

Answer: You're right. There's not nearly enough to judge him on.

Much of what we've seen has been advertised. He's shown a calm demeanor, whether after a win or a loss. And all those years as a major league catcher certainly have given him a good idea of when to remove a starting pitcher.

That said, I also believe the speed of the game is a challenge for any new manager — and I suspect there have been times Ausmus has failed to get a reliever up soon enough. (Joe Nathan, for instance, might've been rushed into an early game against the Orioles). All the drastic defensive shifts bug me, though Ausmus hardly is the lone wolf there. (I really hope more guys like Ian Stewart take advantage and bunt to the vacated area of the infield.) Ausmus also appears to like the bunt almost as much as his predecessor, Jim Leyland, did. Hey, sometimes you bunt. And, always, you let Hunter swing away.

As for the lineup changes? Those don't bother me all that much. Every player has to play, from Cabrera on down. Every player has to rest every now and then, from Cabrera on down. Some of the lackluster lineups he's run out there aren't Ausmus' fault, but far more an indictment on Dombrowski and Co., who've pieced together yet another punchless bench.

So, what's my verdict? Too early to tell. We're just getting familiar with the new manager, who is just getting familiar with his new gig.

This question is best asked Nov. 1.

If you want to ask Tony a question about the Tigers, you can e-mail him at tpaul@detroitnews.com or hit him up on Twitter at tonypaul1984. Every Tuesday, he hosts a Tigers chat on Twitter.