5 Detroit Tigers The goal of an off-season spending spree? For now, mere respectability

April 04, 2004

One February morning at Tigers camp in Lakeland, Fla., Dmitri
Young cameoed on The Oprah Winfrey Show, taking batting practice
from an Ohio college professor and longtime Detroit fan. Says
Young, who appeared along with manager Alan Trammell on the
program's "Dreams Come True" segment, "Oprah got Tramm's name
wrong. She pronounced it tra-MELL, and it's not like he's a
nobody. He played 20 years, and he's got Hall of Fame
credentials." Young shakes his head with palpable disappointment.
"That was the thing that got me."

No, the Tigers get no respect, not after an abysmal 43-119 season
that ranks with the worst in baseball history. Outfitted with
unprepared prospects, journeyman placeholders and veterans in
their death throes, Detroit's offense sputtered and finished
comfortably last in the league in runs per game (3.6) and on-base
(.300) and slugging (.375) percentages. General manager Dave
Dombrowski got a financial reprieve this winter, as the Tigers
shed about $18 million in salaries--contracts with ciphers Shane
Halter, Dean Palmer, Craig Paquette and Steve Sparks expired, and
rightfielder Bobby Higginson's salary decreased--and spent it to
fill in the lineup's deepest potholes.

Dombrowski added free agents Pudge Rodriguez (.297 batting
average versus .190 by last year's Tigers catchers) and Rondell
White (.289 versus .244 by Detroit leftfielders), and traded for
shortstop Carlos Guillen (.276 versus .220). Along with
free-agent second baseman Fernando Vina and closer Ugueth Urbina,
they represent modest, short-term upgrades, but they supply an
urgently needed element of respectability to a franchise that
embarrassed itself a year ago. Says Young, who was consulted by
Trammell about personnel decisions and enthusiastically
recommended White and backup catcher Mike DiFelice, "They said
they were building the lineup around me, so they wanted to keep
me in the mix. We have some genuine, authentic, actual
ballplayers."

Young possesses the most power in the order, but the biggest
upside belongs to 26-year-old Eric Munson. He was drafted third,
as a catcher, out of Southern Cal in '99 and was relocated to
first before landing at third last spring, where, says infield
coach Mick Kelleher, "he had everything to learn." Munson was
shaky, making 19 errors, third-most in the league, but he worked
diligently, taking 50 to 100 balls a day from Kelleher before and
during BP. He has an above-average arm and handled slow rollers
and bunts well, and he feels comfortable making backhanded plays.
(He also has an informal counselor in best friend and three-time
Gold Glover Eric Chavez of the A's, who has advised him to follow
his instinctual movement on each play.)

Kelleher and Munson agree that he's weakest on balls hit to his
left, which require him to reset his feet and square to first
before throwing; tall for the position at 6'3", Munson has always
struggled with his footwork. A fractured left thumb, which cost
him the last six weeks of the season, slowed his development,
but, says Munson, "I think of myself as a third baseman now. I
just want to make the routine plays. If I make the diving ones,
fine, but I want to concentrate on not making the same mistakes I
did last year." His move to third matters because Detroit needs
Munson's bat. He hit 18 home runs in 99 games, and if he becomes
less pull-conscious, he can boost his batting average and become
a well-rounded hitter with gap-to-gap power.

Detroit will score more runs, and righthander Jeremy Bonderman,
who's working on adding a circle change to his potent
fastball-slider combination, has the makings of an ace despite
being rushed to the majors. "We don't have the finished product
yet, we have a learning 21-year-old," says Trammell. "But we like
what we have. I give him credit, going through what he went
through last season, getting on-the-job training. He handled
himself well under the circumstances."

Even in baseball's weakest division, the Tigers will be
hard-pressed to rise to respectability. The 125 teams that have
lost 100-plus games in the modern era have improved, in the
ensuing season, by an average of 10 games. Detroit would need to
quadruple that rate to play .500 ball. --D.G.H.

COLOR PHOTO: DUANE BURLESON/AP CRASH COURSE Munson's move to third paid off, though he still needs work, especially on balls hit to his left. COLOR PHOTO: MLB PHOTOS/AP (DIGITALLY ALTERED BY SI IMAGING) URBINA

IN FACT

Last year Detroit pitchers struck out 4.78 hitters per nine
innings, the lowest rate in the majors since 1992.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Tigers

"They've played horrific defense this spring. They'll have to
improve that because they don't have a strikeout staff to make up
for the mistakes.... With his gap power Pudge Rodriguez will get
a lot of extra-base hits in that ballpark. I'm not sure he can be
a 100-RBI guy on this team, though.... Many people in the
organization are disappointed that Carlos Pena has not improved
more quickly. He's still a project.... If it were 1997, I'd be
excited about the addition of Fernando Vina. But it's 2004, and
he's on the downside.... Alex Sanchez is not good defensively in
centerfield. He too often finds himself having to outrun his
mistakes.... Jeremy Bonderman has the best stuff on the staff,
but he's still a pup. He really should be learning his craft in
the minors but may be a top-of-the-rotation guy in time.... In
the short term Ugueth Urbina will help groom Fernando Rodney for
the closer's role, but in the long term he'll be pitching for
someone else. And he'll be valuable because even though he
doesn't throw 95 mph anymore, he has a real good changeup."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

CF Sanchez
2B Vina
C Rodriguez
DH Young
LF White
RF Higginson
1B Pena
3B Munson
SS Guillen

ALEX SANCHEZ
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 78 .287 1 32 52

FERNANDO VINA [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 272 .251 4 23 4

IVAN RODRIGUEZ [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 57 .297 16 85 10

RONDELL WHITE [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 155 .289 22 87 1

BOBBY HIGGINSON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 213 .235 14 52 8

CARLOS PENA
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 132 .248 18 50 4

ERIC MUNSON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 201 .240 18 50 3

CARLOS GUILLEN [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 264 .276 7 52 4

BENCH

CRAIG MONROE
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 227 .240 23 70 4

OMAR INFANTE
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 351 .222 0 8 6

DESIGNATED HITTER

DMITRI YOUNG
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 47 .297 29 85 2

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Jason Johnson 135 10 10 5.9 1.56 4.18
LH Mike Maroth 129 9 21 5.9 1.45 5.73
RH Jeremy Bonderman 152 6 19 5.4 1.55 5.56
RH Nate Cornejo 204 6 17 6.1 1.51 4.67
LH Nate Robertson 283 1 2 5.6 1.75 5.44
[New acquisition]

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Ugueth Urbina 72 3 4 32 0.94 2.81
[New acquisition]
RH Danny Patterson 209 0 0 3 1.08 4.08
LH Jamie Walker 233 4 3 3 1.20 3.32

2003 RECORD
43-119
fifth in AL Central

MANAGER
Alan Trammell
second season with Detroit

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 142)

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)