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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Monday, July 25, 2011

So you're saying there's a Chance?

(C'mon — I had to. You know I did. Stop rolling your eyes.)

After Sunday's game at Target Field, the Tigers announced they'd be sending Lester Oliveros back to Triple-A Toledo, and giving one of their two No. 1 picks from the 2010 draft — a kid named Chance Ruffin — his first Chance.

(OK, I'm done now. Seriously.)

What does it mean that Oliveros was sent down? Nothing much, really. Most of the writers who cover the Tigers were a tad surprised that he got through the past two weeks — which included a handful of agonizing transactions — unscathed.

Not that he'd pitched poorly. He hadn't. But while he hadn't earned himself a bus ticket out of town (trademark: Bobby Ross), he hadn't exactly made it impossible for him to be optioned out, either. In short, he'd been OK — nothing more, nothing less.

So what makes this transaction noteworthy — other than the symmetry with Chance making the majors just a year after being drafted, as had his father, Bruce, to start his own 12-year MLB career? The younger Ruffin was taken with the compensatory pick the Tigers got when they lost Fernando Rodney to free agency. Bruce Ruffin was a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1985.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland certainly didn't sound like he was the architect of the move. "I don't know anything about him," the manager told reporters in Minneapolis after the game. "I know nothing about him except he's tough, he's good and he's from Texas."

Think about it this way, then: If Oliveros hadn't really done anything to force the issue on being sent down, what did Ruffin do to earn the promotion at this point?

Well, he'd done well enough with both Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo, going 3-3 with a 2.09 ERA, 17 saves, 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, and a WHIP of 1.209. Solid, but not spectacular.

He'd been accorded a special spot with the Mud Hens since his July 1 promotion, though, holding down the closer spot over guys with MLB experience in Daniel Schlereth and Ryan Perry — both former first-round draft picks — as well as Enrique Gonzalez, who leads the Hens in saves.

"Chance Ruffin is closer makeup and closer stuff," Hens manager Phil Nevin said, when asked by the Toledo Blade's John Wagner recently. "This is what we see him as down the line, and so far he's done nothing to deter anyone from thinking of him that way. He's someone we think very highly of."

Fair enough. But why bring him up to the big leagues on July 24, in the middle of a pennant race, especially when all of the short relief spots in the Tigers' bullpen are ably filled? Jose Valverde has yet to blow a save opportunity as the closer, high-priced free-agent acquisition Joaquin Benoit has settled into the set-up role just fine after a shaky start, and rookie Al Alburquerque, the seventh-inning guy, has arguably been one of the Tigers' four most pivotal pitchers this season.

In this case, think outside the box — or outside the organization.

This move — just like accommodating moves to pitch prospects Andy Oliver and Charlie Furbush in front of scouts from other teams — could very well just be a showcase of Ruffin's skills as a potential trade chip before the July 31 trade deadline.

If the Tigers don't want to move one of their blue-chip prospects, like Oliver, Furbush, Jacob Turner or Nick Castellanos, maybe a guy like Ruffin — a quick riser with a mid-90s fastball and a closer's disposition — would be next on the list of candidates for a swap to land the Tigers another starting pitcher for the stretch drive.

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