Pittsburgh in Detroit
Jim Leyland, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1986-96, has been hired as the new manager of the Detroit Tigers.
Hired last week to replace the fired Alan Trammell, Leyland is expected to help nurture the Tigers into a contender for the AL Central crown. The Tigers backslid in 2005, finishing 71-91, falling far short of expectations. Some even felt the club could vie for the division title.
One of Leyland's big challenges will be to improve the cohesion of the club. Shortstop Carlos Guillen went on the record recently saying that under former manager Alan Trammell, the team had separated into ethincity-based cliques. Some baseball sources have veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who had an especially horrible season, as a major source of dissension.
Beyond the clubhouse, Leyland and his lieutenants have a challenge ahead of them in terms of sheer talent.
The Tigers are not a young team; only three 2005 regulars (Nook Logan, Omar Infante, and Chris Shelton) were younger than 28, and of them, only Shelton performed acceptably. The offense centered largely around home runs, which is too bad since spacious Comerica Park is better suited for doubles and triples. Third baseman Brandon Inge was the club's only truly complete player last season.
Logan and fellow center field prospect Curtis Granderson (23) both lack the skills to be leadoff hitters, and getting on base is something the Tigers desperately need; Detroit hitters finished last among AL clubs in 2005 in walks, 12th in on-base percentage, and 11th in runs. Granderson, the organization's best hitting prospect close to the majors, could be a mid-order hitter in time. Infielder Tony Giarratano may get a look.
To be sure, injuries took a chunk out of the Tigers' attack. Guillen missed significant time, and outfielder Magglio Ordonez played only 82 games. But the Tigers knew Ordonez was coming off a knee injury, and building an offense around him, born-to-DH Dmitri Young, fragile Rondell White, Shelton, Rodriguez, and Carlos Pena guaranteed a spate of station-to-station baserunning, frequent medical problems, and double play balls. Despite having few runners on base, the Tigers still hit into more DPs than all but three AL clubs.
The pitching is a bit better. 22-year-old Jeremy Bonderman, 14-13 last season, continues his learning at the top level. The other 2005 rotation members (Mike Maroth, Jason Johnson, and Nate Robertson) are each, in reality, no better than #5 starters. Detroit's bullpen was neither deep nor particularly solid; Fernando Rodney, who could still become a quality closer, is the best bet to take the ninth innings in 2006.
Detroit had a payroll ranking in the middle of AL clubs this year, and may spend some money to increase the talent level.
Leyland's reputation outweighs his career record. Despite a World Series win with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and three other division titles (with the Pirates) to his credit, Leyland's career record is 1,069-1,131.
When the Pirates won (1990-92), they did it with a great core of position players in their prime (Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Jeff King, Jay Bell, and Andy Van Slyke), a constantly shifting starting staff, and a deep and heavily-used bullpen. Leyland liked to bunt and steal, wasn't afraid of using a bullpen by committee, and dipped into his bench.
Leyland, always loyal, has brought along his old lieutenant in Pittsburgh, Gene Lamont, as his third base coach. The rest of the coaching staff is made up of former players that Leyland managed: Andy Van Slyke, Rafael Belliard, Lloyd McClendon (recently deposed as Pirates manager), and Don Slaught.
All of these choices were Leyland's; the Tigers have yet to hire a pitching coach, having been rebuffed by Larry Rothschild (who chose to remain with the Cubs); one can assume that Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski will have significant input on this final coaching decision.
It would be foolish to expect the Tigers to win in 2006. The White Sox and Indians are the class of the division, and it should be interesting to see how the Twins choose to rebuild. It's hard to see things ending up worse in Motown than they did last year, but then again Leyland's last season as a manager, with Colorado in 1999, began with rosy predictions and ended up a car crash.
Leyland says his enthusiasm is back for managing, but you have to wonder about a franchise that recently tried to resurrect the ghosts of the '84 team (Trammell, Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris) in critical management positions, realized that didn't work, and now has chosen a big name who hasn't won anything in nearly ten years.