When Troy Percival arrived in Detroit one day last November, he had three cities left on an itinerary that was supposed to help him determine where he wanted to play this year. Instead, in the middle of dinner at the Capital Grille, Percival told the Tigers he wanted to sign, right there. He agreed to a two-year, $12 million deal, and the next day he said: “I saw all I needed to see. I didn’t need to see other cities.… Honestly, after coming here, it wouldn’t have mattered what team called.”
Not so fast
A week after Percival signed, the Tigers hosted free agent Carl Pavano for another Capital Grille dinner. Forget about lucky steaks, though, because Pavano went elsewhere. So did Troy Glaus, Adrian Beltre, Steve Finley and any number of other free agents the Tigers pursued unsuccessfully. It wasn't until former White Sox slugger Magglio Ordonez agreed to a five-year, $75 million deal that Detroit could add another big name. “(The Tiger offers) have been competitive,” general manager Dave Dombrowski said at one point. “We’ve been able to compete financially. We just haven’t been their choice.”
The addition of Percival gave the Tigers three players with World Series rings. Percival was on the mound when Anaheim got the final out in 2002. Pudge Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina won the World Series with Florida a year later. The Tiger coaches also own four World Series rings between them, with Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish winning with the 1984 Tigers, and Gibson winning again with the 1988 Dodgers. Not bad for a team that hasn’t even had a winning season since 1993.
At least the Tigers know there will be a few All-Stars playing at Comerica Park this year. All of them, in fact, because Detroit will host the All-Star Game for the fourth time in history and the first time since 1971. The games have been memorable (Ted Williams’ game-winning home run, Reggie Jackson’s towering home run), but what about the seasons? Well, the Tigers finished below .500 in 1941 and 1951, and won 91 games but finished a distant second to Baltimore in 1971.
Now comes the hard part for the Detroit Tigers. Last year, anything they did was an improvement. Even the smallest achievement won praise and cheers from the rapidly expanding crowds at Comerica Park. Manager Alan Trammell kept saying, “I want more,” but what the Tigers accomplished in 2004 was good enough. Not this year. Now everyone really does want more. “I think this team is going to win the Central,” new closer Troy Percival said on his first day as a Tiger. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so.” Can they win? That’s the hard part.
The longer they looked at the market for free agent starting pitchers, the more the Tigers became convinced of the need to develop a young rotation of their own. But how do they speed up that process? Jeremy Bonderman looks like he could be an ace, and his late-season run (5–3, 2.33 in his final eight starts) gives the Tigers hope. But his age (22) reminds them not to expect too much just yet. So if not Bonderman, then who? Lefty Wilfredo Ledezma has great potential, but he’s 24 and has even less big league experience than Bonderman. Jason Johnson has experience, but he flopped so badly as last year’s free agent acquisition that the Tigers brought him up as a reason not to chase mediocre free agent starters for this year. Mike Maroth? Nice comeback from 20 losses, but will he ever be a 20-game winner? Nate Robertson? He led the Tigers with 12 wins, but he didn’t win any of his last six starts. At least the Tigers can put together a rotation that won’t have them looking everywhere for a fifth starter. They can come up with five, and even six if you count Gary Knotts, who went 7–6 in 19 starts last year. What they’d like is one guy they can count on, one guy they can consider an ace. For now, they’re waiting for one to develop.
The Tigers will be asking a lot of Percival, who signed a two-year, $12 million contract to take over a bullpen that tied for the American League lead in blown saves in 2004. Of course they expect him to hold virtually every ninth-inning lead, as he did down the stretch last year with the Angels. But the Tigers also hope Percival can help them develop promising young reliever Fernando Rodney, who is coming off Tommy John surgery. The dream is that Percival can work with Rodney the way he did with Francisco Rodriguez, who now takes over from Percival as the Angels’ new closer. The Tigers also hope that ex-closer Ugueth Urbina accepts — and thrives — in being Percival’s setup man, at least until the team is able to trade him. And if all those guys do the job, the Tigers can avoid overusing left-handed specialist Jamie Walker, who was having great success against lefties until a late-season slump that could have been a result of overwork.
For everything Pudge Rodriguez did in his first year as a Tiger, there was a yearlong debate on whether Rodriguez or shortstop Carlos Guillen was the Tigers’ MVP. Guillen missed much of September after right knee surgery, but the Tigers go into this season counting on him in the middle of the field and the middle of the lineup. They’ll also count on him to continue helping young double-play partner Omar Infante develop, just as he did last year.
Carlos Peña remains something of a puzzle, able to do great things but also prone to frustrate. He showed enough in the second half of 2004 for the Tigers to commit to him for this year, but the pressure to prove himself remains. Meanwhile, the Tigers are convinced they like Brandon Inge, but not so sure they like him as the everyday third baseman. They sought big upgrades when they bid unsuccessfully for free agents Troy Glaus and Adrian Beltre, but now Inge has a chance to win the position for good.
Ordonez takes over in right field for the perennial disappointment Higginson. Rondell White enters the final year of his contract. Unless Alex Sanchez shows great improvement defensively in center field, the Tigers will keep trying hard to replace him. White remains a big part of the Tigers’ offense. Craig Monroe finished strong in 2004 but has yet to prove he’s an everyday player.
Sure, there were those who wondered whether the marriage between the Tigers and Rodriguez would work. But it did work, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t work just as well this year. Maybe even better, because even though Rodriguez won the Tigers’ first Gold Glove since 1989, by his own admission he didn’t have his best defensive season. Rodriguez remains the face of the Tigers, and that’s just the way they want it. He likes to play a lot of games, so as long as he stays healthy the backup catcher spot isn’t crucial. But the Tigers always have the option of moving Inge back behind the plate if anything goes seriously wrong.
Limited to DH duty by injuries in 2004, Dmitri Young could see time at various positions this year. But Young still figures to see most of his time as the DH, and if he’s healthy, he’s a strong middle-of-the-order contributor. The bench remains questionable, particularly if Inge is playing every day at third base. The team is probably better if he can rotate between three or four positions, as he did so successfully last year.
As the Tigers become more competitive, there will be more and more focus on Trammell’s in-game moves. He admits he’s been learning on the job, and he expects to keep improving. That will be a lot easier if the addition of Percival really does stabilize the bullpen. General manager Dave Dombrowski has turned over the roster almost completely since taking over in 2002. Over the winter, he also brought in a new scouting director and a new farm director.
The Tigers had money to spend over the winter, and if more free agents had taken to Detroit the way Percival and Ordonez did, the Tigers would be a real contender in the weak American League Central. As it is, a winning season would be a big accomplishment for a team that hasn’t been over .500 since 1993 and is just two years removed from a 119-loss debacle.