I have been on a hiatus from writing, or even thinking, about the Tigers but I’ll make an exception by commenting a little bit on the hiring of Jim Leyland. First, let me say that I didn’t buy all the Tigers hype entering this season. There were many people that picked the Tigers to make the playoffs. My prediction was that the Tigers would be lucky to finish at .500 but that it was plausible. In a way, I actually did by into the hype. Even saying the Tigers had a 50/50 shot at finishing at .500 turned out to be going overboard. We were all fooled—even the people that had tempered their expectations. Imagine the disappointment when you go into the season with a “you have to prove it to me first” attitude so you don’t get burned, only to find that you were let down anyway. That’s what the Tigers do to their fans. Everything is a let down. Just when you think it can’t get worse, it does. So, please excuse me if I’m not jumping through hoops at the hiring of Jim Leyland. The Tigers could literally hire Casey Stengel and I wouldn’t care (although, it would be pretty cool if they could somehow pull that off).
However, I promise that I will put my disappointment aside and give the Leyland hiring an unbiased look. All things aside, I love the hire. I think it’s a great move. Judging from how quickly this move took place, I suspect that Dave Dombrowski had his mind made up a long time ago. Leyland and Dombrowski won a World Series together with the Florida Marlins. These guys know how to get it done which is a far cry from the leadership of the Tiger organization over the last 15 years. I’m intrigued by so many angles of this hire that it actually gives me hope (that is until I realize that it is the Tigers that we’re talking about). I think everyone was excited about the prospects of Alan Trammel returning the Tigers to glory because he is, and always will be, a Tiger. What better person to turn around an organization than a former player who made Detroit a winner in his playing days? Everyone wanted it to work. The thing with Leyland is that he provides fans with the same hope. Leyland played in the Tigers organization. He grew up as an avid Tigers fan with Jerry Glanville (yes, that Jerry Glanville). Leyland was a candidate for this same job back in the late 70’s before Sparky Anderson took over. The dream of a former Tiger leading the club to glory is still alive with Leyland. Personally, I think that’s pretty cool.
Leyland has proven that he’s a winner. But, the thing that caught my eye was the coaching staff that he assembled. He has brought in a who’s who of quality baseball men to help him. Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon are former managers. Andy Van Slyke and Don Slaught were hard-nose players who had MLB success under Leyland. Everyone hoped that Tram and Gibby could get the job done. The difference with Leyland and his staff is that we know they're capable of getting the job done. The Tigers now have proven winners leading the team. The General Manager is first class. The Manager is first class. The coaches are first class. The farm system has made a remarkable turnaround to become one of the best in baseball. If the Tigers can’t win under these circumstances, then that indicts one man—Mike Illitch. He only started “caring” about his “beloved Tigers” when the NHL went on strike. Nobody is buying his sudden fondness for making the Tigers a winner. Turning the Tigers from one of the worst teams in Major League history to a viable playoff franchise in just two years is a lot to ask of anyone. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Illitch has put his front office and players in that position. The good news is that there are few combinations better than Dombrowski and Leyland. If anyone can get it done, I would say it’s probably those two. Also, the Tigers get to shed the salaries of Bobby Higginson, Jason Johnson and Fernando Vina at a minimum. The Tigers will try to spend at least $20 million in free agency. That doesn’t mean free agents will want to come but the Tigers will try.
Jim Leyland will make sure that the Tigers don’t lose next season because of managerial missteps and poor preparation. For instance, the Tigers finished fourth in the AL in batting average at .272. However, the Tigers were also last in the AL in walks. Leyland will make sure that doesn’t happen again. What he can’t do is guarantee that certain players won’t underachieve. Here is how things may look next season with the lineup and the starting rotation:
The offense looks formidable on paper but that really doesn’t mean anything. The lineup was too inconsistent to mount any sort of win streak. Too many players were out with injuries. Too many players underperformed. If this lineup plays to its potential, then it could be dynamite. The good news is that Carlos Guillen should be close to 100% for the first time in two years, Mags should be more comfortable, Pudge will have his personal-life mess out of the way, and Curtis Granderson should provide a much needed boost. Nonetheless, expect the offense to be average until proven otherwise.
The starting rotation looks much better on paper than it actually is. Bonderman should finally jump into the elite status of pitchers. He had various arm issues this past year that should be remedied by next season. If the Tigers can sign A.J. Burnett, like they want to, then he will give them a solid #2 starter. Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth are as good as they will ever be. They won’t be spectacular. In fact, they will downright stink at times. Justin Verlander will likely have to take the bumps that a rookie pitcher generally takes. Basically, the Tigers could have two dependable starters and three undependable starters. That’s not a good ratio.
Finally, the Tigers are in the same division as the White Sox, Twins, and Indians. The White Sox will be just as good next season. The Indians were the hottest team in baseball over the last two months and they will continue to get better. The Twins had an off year but still managed to finish over .500. I don’t see how the Tigers can compete with such a strong division and a suspect pitching staff. The lineup will continue to be up and down. I see more of the same next season. I like Leyland, but there’s only so much a manager can do.
It’s possible for an organization to turn around in a few years, but, it’s virtually impossible for an organization as bad as the Tigers were to accomplish that feat. The Tigers had the worst minor league system in baseball and the worst major league team in baseball. Illitch let things get so bad that it’ll be nearly impossible to win now. When an organization is as bad as the Tigers were in 2002, no free agents will want to come. That forces the Tigers to overpay on a player that’s still weighing his options late in the free agency season. That’s the only recourse the Tigers had to rebuild. The only reason why a player wouldn’t have signed by then is because the market was still unsure on that player’s worth for one reason or another. First, it was Pudge who was an aging catcher. Second, it was Mags who was coming off a career-threatening knee injury. The best case scenario in overpaying for veteran free agents with questions marks is that they give you three or four good years. The worst case scenario is that they are on the downside of their career.
Since the minor league system was neglected for so many years, the Tiger had no hope for a “shot in the arm” by anyone other than the players on the opening day roster. Most organizations have a boat load of prospects that are progressing towards the major leagues. However, the Tigers had one or two prospects that were even remotely capable of making an impact in the majors. Thus, when one of those guys goes down (like Kyle Sleeth) it pretty much wipes out the minor league system. Illitch let things get so bad that he couldn’t just buy his way out of it like he wanted to. The good news is that while we’re suffering as a result of Illitch’s incompetence, Dombrowski has been building a superb minor league system since 2002.