Tigers’ Leyland walks line between genius, failure

May we pay homage, for a moment, to the incredible New York Mets. The great September choke is something they redefined the last two seasons, and so the Detroit Tigers’ attempt at the same looks like a green kid trying to emulate a connoisseur.

Don’t the Tigers know they’re supposed to lose games like Sunday’s at Minnesota, to a team missing one of the best hitters in the American League, its best pitcher and its starting third baseman? The Twins have been moderately competitive this year, and that may be an exaggeration, and it’s Jim Leyland’s responsibility to remind his Tigers that if they want to redefine the gagging animal – those choking cats! – that they can’t win such games.

There is an elite group of late-season flameouts – the 1914 Giants, ’51 Dodgers, ’64 Phillies, the ’78 Red Sox, the ’95 Angels, the ’05 Indians and both bunches of Mets – and the American League Central is such a steaming pile, this might not be deemed a choke as much a natural regression to the mean.

Still, it’s fascinating to watch. On Sept. 6, Detroit held a seven-game lead. Over the next two weeks, Kansas City beat the Tigers five of six games, Minnesota got hot and the lead whittled to two. The 6-2 victory Sunday pushed the Tigers’ lead back to three games, and with 13 remaining, they’re still better than 3-to-1 favorites.

Photo Leyland

And yet a sinking feeling surrounds the Tigers, and in particular Leyland, whose admirable job of managing may well go in a clockwise swirl should his team stumble further. With all the other pennant races more or less salted away, this is what counts for drama in September 2009, and so the eyes of the baseball world this week settle on …

1. Jim Leyland and his merry band of mediocrity, bloated contracts and fortunate geographical placement. The Tigers of the first half, with their stalwart pitching supporting puny bats, have disappeared: their team ERA is more than a half-run higher, and Detroit now has scored three fewer runs than it has allowed.

Short is the list of teams that has made the playoffs with a negative run differential – the 2007 Diamondbacks, at 90-72 despite a minus-20, were a remarkable mixture of luck and timeliness – and yet that may not stop the Tigers. Even if they are a one-man team on offense, with the remarkable Miguel Cabrera(notes), they are up three games, no small margin, and one hot streak will take them into October and leave …

2. The Twins and Ron Gardenhire on the outside for the second consecutive year. They did this last season, too, sneaking up on fading Chicago to almost swipe a playoff spot. This time it’s even more improbable. Justin Morneau(notes) is out and Kevin Slowey(notes) has been gone since early July, and it shows: Minnesota needed a six-game winning streak to carry it over .500.

How have the Twins done it? Well, Gardenhire, their indefatigable manager, for one. He may make strategic blunders. He gave Nick Punto(notes) more than 300 at-bats again. But damn if he doesn’t inspire and motivate better than anyone not named La Russa. Jason Kubel(notes) is a silent .900 OPS monster, Michael Cuddyer(notes) the quietest .500 slugger in baseball and …

3. Joe Mauer(notes) – OK, so he’s good enough that he’d thrive under Trey Hillman. Still, Mauer is the lifeblood of the Twins, and if there was any question that a .374-hitting, .442-on basing, .611-catcher wouldn’t win the AL MVP award, can we once and for all scuttle that talk? The Twins have no business being anywhere near the postseason, and while most of the credit is due Detroit, Mauer is 12 for 19 with six walks and one strikeout in his last seven games.

He is running away with his third batting title. Before Mauer, no AL catcher had won one. And to think, so many prospect hounds and baseball people …

4. Figured Howie Kendrick(notes) would be the one with the stranglehold on AL batting titles. It’s Howie again, right? Earlier this season, the Angels’ second baseman said he wanted to be called by his proper name, Howard. Then Howard Kendrick went out, hit .231 for the season’s first 2½ months and got sent back to Triple-A.

Since returning, he’s hitting .383, and his 10th home run of the season Sunday effectively destroyed Texas’ season. The Angels’ hitters have slumped in September. Not Kendrick, who is back over .300 for the season and hitting for the kind of power that the Angels always hoped would develop.

He’s never going to walk. That’s obvious at this point. If Kendrick can keep lashing line drives – and this week, against Andy Pettitte(notes) and A.J. Burnett(notes), it’s a nice test – it’ll prove that not all top prospects …

Photo Wieters

5. Are beyond hope because they develop a couple years late. Or, in the case of Matt Wieters(notes), a couple months. Confession: We bought the Wieters hype. He is a huge switch-hitting catcher who mashes for power and average, goes to all fields, calls a great game and has a Howitzer for an arm. In other words, he is a few sermons away from being Tim Tebow.

And so while Wieters has struggled – relative to expectations, his and everyone’s – since debuting May 29, it’s easy to forget the truth. He’s 23. He has a year and change in the minor leagues. There was no way he could fulfill PECOTA’s preseasons predictions, let alone a reasonable human’s.

On Sunday, Wieters batted third, the position he’ll likely occupy for years to come, and went 3 for 4. He’s hitting .395 in his last dozen games. It’s more in line with the expectations of the middling Wieters, and hopefully going forward he’s treated …

6. More like a ballplayer – flawed as we all are – than a machine. Which brings us, sadly, to the case of Angel Villalona. Only hardcore prospect watchers and San Francisco fans have heard of the 19-year-old, who is in custody in the Dominican Republic and the lead suspect in a shooting death at a bar.

The Giants gave Villalona $2.1 million three years ago, and while he struggled with weight issues and excessive strikeouts, he remained among their top prospects. Whether that had anything to do with the alleged crime – Latin American players admit their fear at being targets in their home countries because of their riches – is unclear, as Villalona will appear in court Monday.

It’s sobering nonetheless. Baseball officials find hypocritical the cries against its lawlessness when so many NFL players get arrested. Well, between Ugueth Urbina serving more than a decade for attempted murder in Venezuela and the allegations against Villalona, baseball hasn’t room to talk. These are the actions of individuals, yes, but they speak to a sport at large. Exactly how …

7. MLB and the Giants plan to address this will be interesting, particularly with the signing bonuses for 16-year-olds ever larger and the urge to rush them greater. Villalona was playing in Class-A Salem-Keizer before he turned 17, not able to legally drive in Oregon, let alone drink, and whether it’s Bud Selig or Giants general manager Brian Sabean, someone must answer: Is this what’s best for kids, many of whom come from poverty and no education into millions of dollars and a nomadic lifestyle as a teenager in a country in which they’re certainly not equipped to succeed?

Some can handle it. Some can’t. Perhaps it’s foolhardy to punish those who can as a reaction to the alleged actions of one person. Or maybe it’s best that MLB saves it from happening again and makes 18 the minimum age for the minor leagues in the United States. Let the best Latin American players mature in a country comfortable to them. They’d then be the same age as their peers in rookie leagues …

8. And what may seem like a punishment isn’t necessarily a deterrent. Derek Jeter(notes) started in rookie ball as an 18-year-old and held the Yankees’ shortstop job by his 21st birthday. And now, in his 14th full season, Jeter is as good as ever, though his MVP candidacy remains on life support.

This week is that last-gasp defibrillator. Six games against the Angels and Boston could seal the AL East for the Yankees and push them past the 100-win mark. They’re a remarkable story: Joe Girardi defending his job, Mark Teixeira(notes) his contract and the Yankees their recently lost crown of World Series favorite. Not even they could have predicted how good they’d be, whereas …

Photo Bradley

9. It didn’t take a blind squirrel to figure out what a disaster Milton Bradley(notes) would be in Chicago. All of the elements were there. Combustible personality. Persnickety manager. Ardent fans (among whom long-held allegations of racism continue to bubble). Big contract.

Well, kaplooey it went over the weekend, when the Cubs suspended Bradley for the rest of the season after he beefed with hitting coach Von Joshua, told the Daily Herald’s Bruce Miles that “you understand why they haven’t won in 100 years here” and allowed alleged marital problems to further destroy a season that was already a mess by any standard.

Bradley is 31. The Cubs are his seventh organization, and they will give him away this offseason. Perhaps finally teams will dump their inner Father Flanagan and understand: No, you can’t help Milton Bradley. Not when he can’t help himself.

Wherever he goes, he’ll continue to pull the same garbage, casting blame and misdirecting anger and …

10. Crying for help that no one can give. Right now, in fact, the same can be said of Jim Leyland, only it’s not of his doing. Leyland is a prisoner, and isn’t that the beauty and ugliness of being a manager: While he’s only as good as his players, they get to determine how his 2009 is viewed.

If the Tigers win the AL Central by one game, he’s a genius, a puppeteer who took a ragamuffin team and brought it into October.

And if the Tigers lose the Central by one game, he’s no different than those Mets and Phillies and Red Sox and Angels and Indians. A good-for-nothing choker.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Sep 21, 2009