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.