3 Detroit Tigers New stadium, new manager, new star--it all adds up to a rejuvenated club

March 27, 2000

One of Phil Garner's first acts as the Tigers' new manager was
to issue a challenge to the five-time defending American League
Central champion Indians. "Cleveland is vulnerable," Garner
announced the day before spring training began, before he had
even met all of his players. "They're vulnerable, and we're
better."

Slow down, Scrap Iron. If you believe that, you believe
Pavarotti appreciates the vocal talents of 'N Sync. The gap
between these two teams is still wide. Detroit finished 271/2
games behind the Indians last season and hasn't had fewer than
83 losses in a full season since 1993. Nevertheless, Garner's
declaration was a welcome burst of optimism to a bunch of
players who, by midseason last year, had little more expected of
them than to hit the field in the correct jersey-pants-stirrups
combo. "It was kind of nice to hear him set some lofty goals,"
says righthander Dave Mlicki, who won eight straight starts at
one point last season and will serve as staff ace this year.
"When he said that, everybody in this room believed it."

Even though the Tigers won't be whipping up on the rest of the
league this season, the run of listless baseball that marked
their final years at creaky Tiger Stadium should be over. A
sense of restored dignity emanates from the club's new Comerica
Park, and the expected bump in attendance will enable Detroit to
populate its lineup with big-name players not seen since the
heyday of Cecil Fielder and Alan Trammell. "We've never really
been a small-market club," says general manager Randy Smith,
whose 2000 payroll of about $50 million tops last year's by $15
million. "We've been a small-revenue club. It's a little
different environment now that we're in Comerica Park. We should
have some money to spend."

If Smith has his way, a good chunk of that windfall will be
lavished on outfielder Juan Gonzalez, who was acquired from the
Rangers in a nine-player trade that sapped the Tigers of their
two best prospects (outfielder Gabe Kapler and pitcher Francisco
Cordero), among others. Adding a two-time MVP whose per-season
production over the last four years has been a .314 average, 43
home runs and 140 RBIs adds instant credibility to an offense
that scored the third-fewest runs in the league in '99. Keeping
him--Smith has been trying to sign Gonzalez, who's a free agent
after the season, to a contract extension since the deal was
made in November--is an absolute necessity considering what
Detroit gave up to get him. "We had to make that trade," says
Smith. "That's the only way you can get a player like that, a
future Hall of Famer: You trade for him in the last year of his
contract. It was time for us to dare to be good."

With Gonzalez hitting cleanup, Garner will actually trot out an
imposing lineup. First baseman Tony Clark, the subject of trade
rumors most of last season, rebounded from a horrid start to
ring up 23 homers and 59 RBIs after the All-Star break; he'll
benefit from hitting behind Gonzalez and the knowledge that he
no longer has to shoulder the burden of being the team's primary
run producer. Clark (31 homers), shortstop Deivi Cruz (13),
second baseman Damion Easley (20) and third baseman Dean Palmer
(38) combined for 102 dingers, more than any other projected
starting infield in the league. Detroit is also expecting big
things from centerfielder Juan Encarnacion, a five-tool star in
the making who had 19 homers and 33 steals in his first full
major league season. "He's a lot more confident in what he can
do this year," Clark says of Encarnacion. "Being around Gonzo
has already helped him."

Alas, Gonzalez can't help a pitching staff that had the league's
third-highest ERA (5.17). That task falls to Hideo Nomo, who
followed Garner from Milwaukee to Detroit after Garner oversaw
the resuscitation of the righthander's career last season. "I
was impressed with him last year," says Garner. "He brings our
pitchers credibility."

That speaks volumes about the sorry state of the rest of the
rotation, the success of which will also hinge largely on
whether righthander Jeff Weaver proves to be the pitcher who won
six of his first nine major league decisions or the pitcher who
faded badly in the final three months last season.

Garner also needs to teach his hitters to be more patient (no AL
team walked fewer times than Detroit in '99), and he needs to
pray that his righthanded-heavy lineup doesn't become
discouraged by Comerica's 398-foot power alley in
left-center--in particular, one newly arrived righthanded power
hitter for whom the Tigers would probably move back to the old
yard at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull if they thought it
would keep him in Detroit. "You should have seen Encarnacion's
and Cruz's eyes light up when Gonzalez walked in the clubhouse,"
Garner says. "I felt the same thing when I played with Sal Bando
and Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi. They make other guys feel
bigger and better than they might otherwise be."

Tigers fans can only hope.

--S.C.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE PASSING THROUGH? Acquiring Gonzalez, a free agent after this season, was easy; keeping him in Detroit will be more difficult. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES

around the HORN

OFFENSE
[3 1/2 stars]
DEFENSE
[2 1/2 stars]
STARTING PITCHING
[1 1/2 stars]
BULLPEN
[2 stars]
MANAGER
[3 stars]

by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (AL rank)

Batting average .261 (12)
Runs scored 747 (12)
Home runs 212 (T4)

1999 record: 69-92 (third in AL Central)

Opponents' batting average .276 (7)
ERA 5.17 (12)
Fielding percentage .982 (6)

next up...

If nothing else, Rob Fick has a flair for the dramatic. In the
eighth inning of the final game at Tiger Stadium last September,
the rookie catcher hammered a grand slam that came within a few
feet of clearing the hallowed rightfield roof. As the last home
run hit at the Corner, the moon shot turned Fick, 26, into an
instant Motown celebrity. "People were asking me about it and
congratulating me all winter," he says. "But that doesn't matter
anymore--it's, What have you done for me lately?" If Fick's
brief career is any indication, he'll hit. A fifth-round pick in
the 1996 draft, he won the Class A Midwest League batting title
(.341) a year later and has six home runs in 63 major league at
bats. Fick will start the season as a backup at catcher and
first base, but several in the Tigers' organization think he'll
be Detroit's every-day designated hitter by midseason.

the lineup
projected roster with 1999 statistics

Manager: Phil Garner (first season with Detroit)

BATTING ORDER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

DH Luis Polonia L 167 .324 10 32 17
C Brad Ausmus R 187 .275 9 54 12
LF Bobby Higginson L-R 119 .239 12 46 4
RF Juan Gonzalez[1] R 16 .326 39 128 3
1B Tony Clark S-R 65 .280 31 99 2
3B Dean Palmer R 73 .263 38 100 3
2B Damion Easley R 155 .266 20 65 11
CF Juan Encarnacion R 86 .255 19 74 33
SS Deivi Cruz R 216 .284 13 58 1

BENCH

C Robert Fick (R) L-R 205 .220 3 10 1
OF Karim Garcia L 255 .240 14 32 2
OF Wendell Magee*[1] R 338 .283 20 79 10
IF Shane Halter*[1] R 375 .274 6 35 19

STARTERS PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Dave Mlicki 82 14 13 6.2 1.46 4.61
RH Hideo Nomo[1] 99 12 8 6.3 1.42 4.54
RH Brian Moehler 138 10 16 6.1 1.47 5.04
RH Jeff Weaver 161 9 12 5.6 1.42 5.55
LH C.J. Nitkowski 179 4 5 5.3 1.32 4.30

BULLPEN PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Todd Jones 57 4 4 30 1.49 3.80
RH Doug Brocail 208 4 4 2 1.04 2.52
RH Matt Anderson 251 2 1 0 1.79 5.68
RH Danny Patterson[1]264 2 0 0 1.59 5.67
LH Jim Poole[1][2] 287 2 1 1 1.87 4.71
RH Willie Blair 327 3 11 0 1.59 6.85

[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 164)
*Triple A stats
[2]Combined AL and NL stats

the book
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Tigers

"This club has too many of the same type of player: An abundance
of corner outfielders, but no centerfielder. An abundance of
decent 3 and 4 pitchers, but no ace. An abundance of pretty good
relievers, but no stopper.... Jeff Weaver is tough as nails
against righthanded hitters, but good lefthanded-hitting teams
like the A's and Yankees really give him trouble.... C.J.
Nitkowski has a good arm and has matured. But moving him to the
rotation makes the Tigers pretty much all righthanded in the
bullpen. They really need a lefthander.... Brad Ausmus is one of
the best defensive catchers in the game.... Juan Gonzalez should
put up big numbers, but the outfield is a mess right now. Juan
Encarnacion is a great tools guy, but he's not a centerfielder,
especially in a big park like Comerica. Two years ago Bobby
Higginson was one of the most desirable players in the majors.
Now they're trying to unload him for a centerfielder....
Shortstop Deivi Cruz might have the best hands in the league,
but he limits himself offensively by swinging at everything."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)