August 5, 2014 at 8:10 pm

Tony Paul

Tigers mailbag: Reliever Jim Johnson worth a risk-free look

Reliever Jim Johnson compiled a 7.14 ERA with the A's this season, after saving a combined 101 games for the Orioles in 2012 and 2013. (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Detroit — Tuesday night was the night — the night David Price was to make his debut wearing the Tigers’ Olde English D.

Well, at least he wore the Olde English D on his hat.

Price’s home debut isn’t expected to be for another 10 days.

Still, it was a night to tune in — as if FSD needed the ratings. In fact, I got to thinking. Has there been a more highly anticipated debut by a Tiger, midseason? Not in the Dave Dombrowski era, that’s for sure. While many moves have been gems, none came this highly acclaimed.

Of course, I’m only in my mid-30s, so I might be forgetting another Tigers debut that moved the needle as much as Price’s.

Feel free to let me know if I missed one.

Until then, on to this week’s Tigers Mailbag.

Question: How do you think Jim Johnson will turn out for the Tigers? — Crash

Answer: I’ll get to that, Crash. But first, I have to comment on your Twitter handle. Man, think you can find another team to root for, in other city? Sheesh.

As for Johnson, 31, it was an interesting move Tuesday by the Tigers. To some, it reeks of the Jose Valverde flyer last spring. Then again, it hasn’t been that long since Johnson was a lockdown closer.

Given the cost and the potential — that being the key word — payoff, it’s a move to applaud. Look, the Tigers bullpen has holes. They missed on acquiring Andrew Miller at the deadline, and they have absolutely no clue what they’ll be able to get via a waiver trade this month.

So Johnson at least will be worth a look. After all, he did save 50 games last year, and 51 the year before — all while posting good numbers in the much more respectable stat, WHIP.

For whatever reason, he turned to mush this year with the A’s. Heck, the $10 million man lasted only 10 days as the A’s closer before he was bumped to middle relief, where he continued to reek.

There’s a very good chance this transaction means zilch, in the end, for the Tigers. They didn’t give up barely a nickel to get him — the A’s are on the hook for most of his paycheck — so if, as expected, he doesn’t even see the light of Comerica Park, then no harm done. But the chance Tigers pitching coaches could find something and set him straight was well worth the effort in bringing him aboard.

In other words, the risk factor is right on par with the Joel Hanrahan signing, which didn’t pan out.

Had a lot of questions regarding Johnson during Tuesday’s Twitter chat. To answer them all quickly: Yes, I expect he’ll at least get a cursory look in the majors, and no, I don’t think he will have an impact.

Question: Why not take a shot on Matt Thornton? Guy is still good. Dave Dombrowski confuses me. — Brett Cieslak

Answer: This one is a head-scratcher to me, too, Brett.

Thornton, the veteran lefty reliever who doesn’t throw as hard as he used to but still can be effective, was claimed by the Nationals, who parted only with cash to acquire him from the Yankees.

From my standpoint, Thornton should’ve just been changing dugouts Tuesday — from the Yankees home to the visitors’, where the Tigers have set up camp this week.

Think about it: The Tigers desperately need another lefty reliever, especially since they no longer can count on the crux of Drew Smyly heading there for the postseason. Phil Coke can’t be trusted, and same holds true with Pat McCoy and Ian Krol. Blaine Hardy’s been good, but is still a big question.

Meanwhile, Thornton went to the Nationals for next to nothing, despite posting some of his most promising numbers since his All-Star season of 2010 with the White Sox.

Question I got asked a lot: Didn’t the Nationals have waiver priority? The answer is: No. Yes, the Nationals have the worse record, but priority first goes to a team in the same league as the selling team, in this case, the Yankees. So if the Tigers wanted Thornton, he would’ve been theirs. They passed, though, probably because of the $3.5 million Thornton, 37, is guaranteed in 2015.

Then again, it doesn’t seem like enough money to get cold feet over. Plus, the idea of heading to spring training in 2015 with the likes of Joakim Soria, Joe Nathan, Thornton and, potentially, Bruce Rondon had to be at least considered.

As it stands, Thornton, the West Michigan native, is a National, just like Doug Fister.

Heaven help Dombrowski if the Nationals beat the Tigers in the World Series.

Question: Has Miguel Cabrera lost his bat speed? — Steve Bardon, submitted via email

Answer: That’s an interesting question, Steve, and is much along the lines of others I received, including from reader Ivan Dimcheff, who insisted to me “Cabrera is not the same.”

I think we’re past the point of making too-early proclamations. Cabrera, most definitely, is not having a Cabrera-like season. I’m not sure that the bat speed is necessarily slower, but he surely doesn’t have the leg drive that’s typically generated his power in recent seasons.

That probably can be attributed to the shortened conditioning program this offseason — thanks to his core-muscle surgery —as Justin Verlander’s lack of power pitching could be traced to the same thing.

Both of these guys work out relentlessly in the winter months. So to take that preparation time away — as both stars recovered from going under the knife — should certainly have been expected to lead to some rather uncharacteristic performances from the two of them.

They’re probably not as strong, and we were all a little bit naïve to expect everything to be normal.

As for Cabrera, since that’s who you asked about: So many of the balls that normally would’ve flown out for home runs in past years have landed short — either on the warning track, or in the outfielder’s glove. No coincidence, then, that he’s leading the American League in doubles, yet remains on pace to homer less than in any other full season.

The good news for Tigers fans, Cabrera still is producing — just not at his other-worldly levels.

Verlander, meanwhile, is the bigger concern for the rest of 2014.

Just don’t be surprised if both are back to themselves in 2015.

Question: The Tigers should give out free beers or hot dogs anytime Alex Avila gets three hits in a game. — Josh Baker, submitted via email

Answer: Ah, another Avila detractor. That’s OK. Your club seems to be blossoming these days.

Yes, Avila has struggled at the plate. Mightily. That’s why something needs to be done. That something, however, isn’t benching or — God forbid — cutting Avila, who just this week was named in a survey by all 30 Major League Baseball managers as the second-best defensive catcher in the American League, behind only the Royals’ Salvador Perez.

Of course, it didn’t take 30 major-league managers to tell me that. Anyone who watches Tigers baseball night in and night out knows Avila can pick it, throw it and call the game.

So, Avila has immense value, and none of you are going to convince me otherwise.

But his numbers against left-handed pitchers are extremely troubling, and should lead the Tigers to start considering platoon alternatives, ASAP. After all, Avila’s on-base percentage is .345 vs. righties.

Problem is, Bryan Holaday isn’t much of an answer, batting just .185/.233/.222 against lefties.

That leaves Toledo’s James McCann, a right-handed hitter who tees off on Triple A left-handers, as a distinct possibility to get a look, and soon, perhaps even before Sept. 1, when rosters can expand. Numbers, after all, are tough to ignore: McCann, 24, has a sizzling .920 OPS against lefties.

Question: Any other waiver pickups you expect? — JoeBoo

Answer: Dombrowski said last week he didn’t expect anything more to get done, for a couple reasons. For starters, there aren’t that many teams just letting players go, given this new-age parity has so many teams still considering themselves contenders.

Then there’s this: The Tigers have a better record than most, putting them down the pecking order when it comes to putting in waiver claims.

A lefty reliever remains a target — or, at least, it should, even though the Tigers surprisingly let Thornton slip through their fingers.

Three to watch, and they aren’t new names: Philadelphia’s Antonio Bastardo, Arizona’s Oliver Perez and Houston’s Tony Sipp. Bastardo and Perez become trickier to acquire, since National League teams will get the first opportunity to make good on a waiver claim. And the Astros, amazingly, still don’t appear interested in cashing in on Sipp’s sky-high value.

In other words, it doesn’t look great for the Tigers.

That’s why passing on Thornton is just so bizarre.

The Tigers probably will continue to scour for offense, too, in the event Andy Dirks is no help. Lefty bats remain appealing, though there aren’t that many out there. Nor are there many, if any, available shortstops, should Eugenio Suarez’s left-knee injury be more serious than it was originally believed.

Can you stomach an Andrew Romine-Hernan Perez platoon at short?

tpaul@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/tonypaul1984