MANAGER JIM LEYLANDsecond season with Tigers
GARY SHEFFIELDassumes his familiar bowlegged batting stance, his eyes focused slits, his batcocked and waggling by his right ear, ready to annihilate anything thrown hisway. He holds the pose for 60 seconds. Then he slowly uncoils, sits on hischair in the Tigers' spring training clubhouse and begins chatting and laughingwith locker neighbors Sean Casey and Carlos Guillen as Fox News blares from anearby TV. As valuable as Sheffield's bat will be to the Tigers' lineup, the20-year veteran's biggest contribution may be the example he sets. "Hisattitude at the plate is, he's going to hit something really hard," saysthird baseman Brandon Inge. "He reminds you that he's the type of fearlesshitter you need to be."
The reigning ALchamps were the major leagues' most fair and balanced team in '06, the only oneto rank in the upper third in batting average, runs, ERA and saves. But theywere missing something, as evidenced by their five-game World Series washoutagainst the Cardinals. G.M. Dave Dombrowski believes the missing piece was anintimidating middle-of-the-order slugger. So in Detroit's lone significantoff-season move, Dombrowski sent three prospects to the Yankees for Sheffield,who averaged 36 home runs and 125 RBIs from 2003 through '05 before missing 123games last season with a wrist injury. "We had a lot of goodhitters"--including six with 19 or more homers--"but we lacked thatimposing guy," the G.M. says. "That's what [Sheffield] brings to thelineup."
Now Detroit has noapparent weaknesses, only concerns. One is injury. Shortstop Carlos Guillen,for instance, played 153 games last season but averaged only 112 in theprevious two years with Detroit, and Dombrowski acknowledges that anotherinjury to Guillen would spell trouble given the Tigers' shallow bench. But hecontends that the maladies that have earned players such as Sheffield,outfielder Magglio Ordo√±ez and second baseman Placido Polanco reputations asinjury-prone were mostly the result of unusual events. (Sheffield hurt hiswrist last April in an on-field collision.)
The other concernis that the big load carried by the young pitchers in '06 will catch up tothem. In the case of AL Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander, who threw 186innings, it already did: After a first four months in which he went 13--4 with2.69 ERA, Verlander slammed into the rookie wall in August. "I'd never feltanything like it," he says. "The back of my shoulder was so sore. Theworst was when I reached to take the covers off to get out of bed--oh, man,that hurt." The Tigers gave Verlander extra rest and limited his pitchcounts, but to little effect. From Aug. 1 through the World Series he went 5--7with a 5.88 ERA, including two losses to St. Louis. To fortify his shoulderVerlander does regular resistance exercises--but young power arms arenotoriously fragile. "It's a concern," Dombrowski says, "but we'renot overly concerned."
Why should they be?No other AL team enters 2007 with established players at every spot on thefield and in the rotation, and three closer-caliber relievers. And no otherteam has Sheffield. In his three seasons with the Yankees he could be a pricklyclubhouse presence, but in Detroit he seems happy--particularly to be back withmanager Jim Leyland. They won a World Series with the Marlins in '97, andSheffield sees the skipper as a kindred competitive spirit. (Leyland says,"I manage, he plays, and we get along real good.") Even so, happinessranks pretty low among Sheff's priorities. "All they need to do is win onemore series, and they win the whole thing," he says. "It's not aboutbeing happy to be there. It's about winning it out. Hopefully I can help withthat."
a modest proposal...
The Tigersshouldn't be too attached to closer Todd Jones. Though he had 37 saves in 43chances last year, strikeout rate is the best predictor of a pitcher'slongevity, and Jones's 3.94 K's per nine signify that he may be headed for adecline. Of the 19 pitchers with 30 or more saves in '06, Jones, 38, was lastin strikeout rate (none of the others was even under six K's per nine) and 16thin strikeout-to-walk ratio, another key indicator of effectiveness. Since '88only two closers have saved 30 games while striking out fewer than five battersper nine innings: Dan Kolb and Jose Mesa in '04; the ERAs of both pitchers rosedramatically the following year. Detroit has flame-thrower Joel Zumaya ready tostep in, as well as Fernando Rodney, who outpitched Zumaya (left) at times lastyear and is very effective against lefthanded batters. Either should beelevated as soon as Jones starts to slip.
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2006 STATISTICS
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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On-base percentagefor the Tigers, who ranked 12th in the AL last year. But not even a paltry 430walks (fewer than only the Mariners among AL clubs) hampered Detroit's abilityto score--the club was fifth in the AL with 5.07 runs per game, thanks largelyto its 203 home runs (third in the league). The addition of Gary Sheffield andhis .398 career OBP should improve the club in all four categories.