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Original Issue

2 Detroit Tigers The Tigers' chances are linked to three young pitchers and an itinerant catcher

In an era in which numerous pitchers have personal catchers,
Randy Smith is the first executive to have one. As a general
manager, first with the Padres from 1993 to '95 and now with the
Tigers, he has traded for Brad Ausmus three times, and as a
Rockies assistant G.M. in 1992 he successfully lobbied his
bosses to take Ausmus in the expansion draft. Smith, however,
vows that his most recent acquisition of the 29-year-old
backstop--in a seven-player trade with the Astros in
January--will be his last one. After the trade Ausmus asked for
a contract extension that included a no-trade clause. It was a
no-brainer for Smith, who eagerly granted him his wish. "Brad's
one of the best defensive catchers in baseball," he says. "He's
great at handling a pitching staff and has a knack for putting
down the right finger."

Smith is counting on Ausmus to be a steadying influence on a
pitching staff whose top three starters--Brian Moehler, Justin
Thompson and Seth Greisinger--have a combined five full major
league seasons and an average age of 25. At the front of the
rotation is Moehler, as unlikely a No. 1 starter as you'll find.
Before the 1996 season Moehler was dropped from Detroit's 40-man
roster. Even after winning 15 games for the club's Double A
affiliate in Jacksonville that year, he thought so little of his
chances of a September call-up that he bought tickets to a
late-season Braves-Expos series in Atlanta, which is less than
25 miles from his home in Marietta, Ga.

Detroit, however, was hit with injuries, and Moehler got a call
from Smith telling him to join the team in Milwaukee. Moehler
gave the Braves tickets to his brother-in-law, hopped on a
plane, made two starts for the Tigers and hasn't left the
rotation since. Last year he threw three shutouts and was one of
only five pitchers to beat the Yankees twice. "I didn't do
anything flashy," Moehler says, "so it was easy for me to blend
in. I didn't have anybody's eyes on me. I just went out there
and pitched. I wasn't a prospect."

The same can't be said of Thompson, the injury-prone lefty who
has had the Tigers salivating since they drafted him in 1991.
"As far as lefthanded pitchers go, he's probably one of the best
three in baseball in terms of pure stuff," says Ausmus, who
caught Thompson as a member of the Tigers in 1996. He should be
even better this year. For the first time since 1993, Thompson
didn't spend at least part of the off-season recuperating from
an injury, and he has developed a tailing two-seam fastball to
complement his four-seamer. "Now you're talking about a ball
coming into the plate that can move either way," says manager
Larry Parrish.

Unfortunately for Parrish, who begins his first full season as
Detroit's skipper this year, the rest of the rotation, like a
Thompson heater, could also go either way. If the 23-year-old
Greisinger fulfills the promise that made him the Tigers' No. 1
pick in 1996 and Willie Blair can recapture his form of '97,
when he won 16 games, Detroit will be in good shape. But if
Greisinger struggles as he did early last season when he lost
seven of his first eight decisions, and Blair loses 16 games
again as he did in '98, the Tigers will be in trouble.

Not that Detroit isn't capable of winning a few 10-9 slugfests.
Though only two American League teams scored fewer runs than the
Tigers in '98, the addition of free-agent third baseman Dean
Palmer gives them three players--Palmer, first baseman Tony
Clark and second baseman Damion Easley--who hit more than 25
homers and drove in at least 100 runs last year. A fourth,
outfielder Bobby Higginson, did so two years ago.

The Tigers' biggest offensive concern is leadoff man Brian
Hunter. Last year the fleet 28-year-old centerfielder proved the
old adage that you can't steal first base. His on-base
percentage was a terrible .298, he hit just .254, and he swiped
42 bases, down from 74 the previous season. "Brian got
confused," says Smith. "He had a lot of guys in his ear. This
year we told him the only guy he's going to hear from is Tram
[hitting coach Alan Trammell]."

Hunter's struggles reflected the team's. Detroit made great
strides in 1997, winning 26 more games than it had in '96, when
it finished 53-109. But that, many Tigers say, bred some
cockiness, and the team took a huge step backward last year.
Says closer Todd Jones, whose ERA swelled to 4.97 in '98 from
3.09 two years ago, "We were overconfident coming out of spring
training last year and we didn't know it. But we've learned our
lesson. Now we've got some ghosts to put to sleep."

--Mark Bechtel

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Written off back in '96, Moehler has quietly persevered and has emerged as Detroit's unlikely king of the hill.


By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (AL rank)
1998 record: 65-97 (fifth in AL Central)

RUNS SCORED 722 (12)
HOME RUNS 165 (9)
OPP. BATTING AVG. .277 (11)
ERA 4.93 (10)
FIELDING PCT. .982 (8)

Following a Brave Example?

For the first time in franchise history Detroit has had a losing
record in five straight years. Since 1900, 106 teams have had a
record as bad as that of last year's Tigers while in a streak of
at least five consecutive losing seasons. Only seven of those
teams had a winning record the following year. But one of those
was the 1991 Braves, who, coming off a 65-97 record the year
before, won 94 games.

Team W-L Pct. Losing Seasons W-L Pct.

1991 Atlanta Braves 94-68 .580 7 (1984-90) 65-97 .401
1968 Oakland Athletics 82-80 .506 15 (1953-67) 62-99 .385
1963 Chicago Cubs 82-80 .506 10 (1953-62) 59-103 .364
1951 Chicago White Sox 81-73 .526 7 (1944-50) 60-94 .390
1947 Philadelphia 78-76 .506 13 (1934-46) 49-105 .318
1938 Cincinnati Reds 82-68 .547 9 (1929-37) 56-98 .364
1917 Cincinnati Reds 78-76 .506 7 (1910-16) 60-93 .392

Next Up...

When asked this spring to cite a weakness in 23-year-old
outfielder Juan Encarnacion, Tigers manager Larry Parrish seemed
stumped. "Uh, I guess he didn't show a lot of glaring
weaknesses," Parrish said. Indeed he didn't. Encarnacion, who
hit well in his 40-game stint last year, is a bona fide
five-tool player. If he has a shortcoming, it might be a short
fuse. In a Triple A game last June, Encarnacion charged the
mound after being plunked by a pitch and tried to Tae-Bo the
pitcher. He was suspended for 10 games. Confident that he'll
keep his cool this season, the Tigers will start him in their
outfield, either in right, with Bobby Higginson moving to left,
or in left.

Projected Roster With 1998 Statistics

Manager: Larry Parrish (second season with Detroit)


CF Brian L. Hunter R 118 .254 4 36 42
DH Gregg Jefferies*[1] S-R 128 .301 9 58 12
RF Bobby Higginson L-R 76 .284 25 85 3
1B Tony Clark S-R 53 .291 34 103 3
3B Dean Palmer[1] R 60 .278 34 119 8
2B Damion Easley R 43 .271 27 100 15
LF Juan Encarnacion R 92 .329 7 21 7
C Brad Ausmus[1] R 206 .269 6 45 10
SS Deivi Cruz R 307 .260 5 45 3


C Bill Haselman[1] R 297 .314 6 17 0
IF Jason Wood (R)[#] R 340 .279 25 102 1
IF Frank Catalanotto L-R 376 .282 6 25 3
OF Gabe Kapler (R)[2] R 242 .322 28 146 6


RH Brian Moehler 38 14 13 6.7 1.25 3.90
LH Justin Thompson 51 11 15 6.5 1.38 4.05
RH Seth Greisinger 133 6 9 6.2 1.46 5.12
RH Willie Blair[1] 169 5 16 6.4 1.42 4.98
RH Bryce Florie 212 8 9 5.8 1.50 4.80


RH Todd Jones 30 1 4 28 1.48 4.97
RH Matt Anderson 138 5 1 0 1.57 3.27
RH Doug Brocail 156 5 2 0 1.04 2.73
RH Masao Kida (R)[1][3] 192 4 7 16 1.37 4.62
LH Sean Runyan 243 1 4 1 1.49 3.58
LH C.J. Nitkowski[1] 277 3 3 3 1.21 3.77

[1]New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched

PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 154)
*Combined AL and NL stats
[#]Triple A stats [2]Double A stats [3]In Japan