TALENT CHALLENGED/AL CENTRAL
The 1998 Tigers come with a guarantee. They promise to strike
out fewer times than they did last year, to score more runs and
to win more games--or to die trying. They are new and improved
again. They're not saying they will improve by 26 games, as they
did last year in finishing 79-83. But if all they do is win half
their games, they will not be satisfied. "I think we can push
Cleveland," Randy Smith, the Detroit general manager, says--and
he means it. Welcome back to baseball, men.
To be part of the race, the Tigers will need help from within
and from the outside, too. But if the Indians continue to lose
pitchers on a biweekly basis, if the White Sox don't come out of
their coma and if Detroit's young starters pitch competently
(and if lefty Justin Thompson continues to throw spectacularly),
it is not absurd to say the club can contend in the American
League Central. That's what the Tigers think. It's not that
they're cocky. What they are is ambitious.
In other words, they take after their owner, Mike Ilitch. Ilitch
played in the Detroit farm system for four years in the 1950s.
One day he called up a team executive, John McHale, and
announced his availability for the big club. Thanks, kid, McHale
told him, we'll call you if we need you. Ilitch didn't have
major league skills, just major league ambition. When he got out
of baseball he got into pizza, starting a chain called Little
Caesars that made him rich.
In 1982 he bought the Detroit Red Wings, and 10 years later he
bought the Tigers. He's a baseball owner who played the game
professionally, and it shows. He wants players who remind him of
himself as a player: fast, defensively sound, overachieving,
It has taken time, but Ilitch has also surrounded himself with
some of the ablest people in baseball. The club president is
John McHale's son, John Jr., who oversaw the construction of
Coors Field and is now doing the same for Tiger Ballpark, which
should open in 2000. The general manager is another
second-generation baseball man, Randy Smith, son of Astros
president Tal Smith and the guy who oversaw the turnaround of
the Padres in 1994 and '95. Best of all, the manager is Buddy
Bell, whose father, Gus, was a National League outfielder for 15
years and who himself had a distinguished 18-year career as a
major league third baseman before retiring in '89. The players
like and respect Bell.
The bosses are modeling the team makeover on what Cleveland did
in the early 1990s. They want the club to be really good just as
they move into their cozy new ballpark with the funky, uneven
outfield wall. With the money from increased attendance, they
would pump up the payroll and continue to improve the team. But
if they goof, if the team turns out to be decent this year and
very good next year, well, that wouldn't be so awful, would it?
In drawing up their grand plan, the Tigers made one critical
decision to distinguish themselves from the Indians and from
their own brawny history. They are looking to become a pitching,
speed and defense club, a National League club, an Ilitch club.
Tiger Ballpark will be close to 400 feet in left center and 420
in dead center. A slugger at The Jake would have warning-track
power at The Ballpark.
The Tigers are already reducing their power supply. The heart of
the order might have three guys--Tony Clark, Bobby Higginson and
Damion Easley--who can hit 90 homers combined, but if the rest
of the lineup gets 60, that would be a lot.
At least there should be a better sense of the strike zone. Last
year the Tigers were second to the Athletics in the American
League in strikeouts, with 1,164. By bringing in DH Bip Roberts,
leftfielder Luis Gonzalez and third baseman Joe Randa this year,
to replace free-swingers like DH Bob Hamelin, rightfielder
Melvin Nieves and third baseman Travis Fryman, Detroit expects
to reduce its strikeouts by 10% or more. Converting strikeouts
into batted balls should lead to more runs scored and more games
won. That's the theory.
Of course Ilitch didn't get rich on a theory. He got rich
selling pizza. The Tigers are not deluding themselves. They will
return to prominence when they increase their payroll. They will
increase their payroll when they improve their attendance. They
will improve their attendance when they put a winner on the field.
That should be this year.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J.LOVERO GRRRR! It's been awhile, but the Tigers, with Brian Hunter and Deivi Cruz, are back in the hunt.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Scott Sanders]
BY THE NUMBERS
1997 Team Statistics (AL Rank)
1997 record (third in AL East)
BATTING AVERAGE .258(13) OPP. BATTING AVG. .266(5)
RUNS SCORED 784(8) ERA 4.56(6)
HOME RUNS 176(7) FIELDING PCT. .985(1)
WHAT THEY NEEDED: Starting pitching, as always. With Travis
Fryman gone, a third baseman with some pop. A reliable veteran
catcher and a second big outfield bat to go with Bobby
WHAT THEY GOT: Luis Gonzales will join Higginson in the
outfield. Bip Roberts is solid at many positions. A bunch of
uninspiring pitchers, including Bryce Florie, Tim Worrell and
Frank Castillo, and Joe Oliver, a veteran catcher.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS: Lots of youth on board, but no legit
replacements for Fryman and starter Willie Blair. Unless their
kids step up immediately, this could get ugly.
In the majors, saying a pitcher has "great stuff" is a code for
"why the hell doesn't he win more games?" Bruce Berenyi had
great stuff. Remember him? Alas, should Scott Sanders again
allow the 30 home runs he gave up in '97, despite his great
stuff, he--and the Tigers--will have zero chance of reaching
.500. Manager Buddy Bell has Sanders listed as his fourth
starter, but with Justin Thompson the only proven Detroit arm,
it doesn't take a brainiac to figure out that Sanders will have
to perform more like a No. 2 starter for this team to be
respectable. That means he can't give up more than 18 dingers.
Projected Roster With 1997 Statistics
Manager: Buddy Bell (third season with Detroit)
BATTING ORDER B/T BA HRs RBIs SBs
CF Brian Hunter R .269 4 45 74
DH Bip Roberts[*] S/R .302 4 44 18
RF Bobby Higginson L/R .299 27 101 12
1B Tony Clark S/R .276 32 117 1
LF Luis Gonzalez[*] L/R .258 10 68 10
2B Damion Easley R .264 22 72 28
3B Joe Randa[*] R .302 7 60 4
C Raul Casanova S/R .243 5 24 1
IF Bill Ripken[*] R .276 3 24 0
OF Trey Beamon[*] L/R .277 0 7 1
C Joe Oliver[*] R .258 14 43 1
OF Pete Incaviglia R .247 5 12 0
SS Deivi Cruz S/R .241 2 40 3
STARTERS W L IPS BR ERA
LH Justin Thompson 15 11 7.0 1.15 3.02
RH Brian Moehler 11 12 5.7 1.51 4.67
RH Frank Castillo[*] 12 12 5.6 1.61 5.42
RH Scott Sanders 6 14 5.2 1.56 5.86
RH Tim Worrell[*] 4 8 5.1 1.63 5.16
RELIEVERS W L S BR ERA
RH Bryce Florie[*] 4 4 0 1.59 4.32
RH Todd Jones 5 4 31 1.37 3.09
RH Doug Brocail 3 4 2 1.45 3.23
RH A.J. Sager 3 4 3 1.26 4.18
LH Roberto Duran 0 0 0 2.34 7.59
LH Eddie Gaillard (R) 1 0 1 1.77 5.31
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie B/T: Bats/throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start BR: Base runners per inning pitched