4. Detroit Tigers
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Another change in philosophy for a team that can't afford a turn for the worse
By Mark Bechtel
Before the 2000 season Detroit tried to improve by adding a big bat to its lineup, trading for slugging rightfielder Juan Gonzalez. But it did not turn out to be a good fit, and he batted .289 with just 22 homers and 67 RBIs. Attempts by the club to sign him to a long-term deal were deflected early on, and the drawn-out talk of his future was a distraction for the rest of the team, as was his propensity for removing himself from the lineup (47 games missed because of various injuries). Gonzalez, who before last season turned down Detroit's offer of $151 million over eight years, left as a free agent and signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Indians in January.
"Last year we had a superstar, and it took away from what we were trying to accomplish as a team," says righthander Jeff Weaver. "You constantly had your eyes on the situation, and you never knew when he was going to be in the lineup."
But Gonzalez's attitude was only part of his problem; Comerica Park, which opened last year, is as friendly to sluggers as late-night comics are to President Bush. "You've got to try to hit line drives," lefthanded-batting leftfielder Bobby Higginson says of Comerica, which has left-to-right dimensions of 345', 395', 420', 365' and 330'. "You can't get frisky and try to hit home runs, especially not as a righthanded hitter."
So this season's big off-season acquisition was switch-hitting Roger Cedeño, who in six major league seasons has 117 RBIs -- 40 fewer than Gonzalez had in 1998 alone. But Cedeño stole 66 bases with the Mets in '99 (he had only 25 for the Astros in an injury-plagued 2000). "When he's on the base paths, Roger can make the pitcher and catcher a little worried," says Higginson, who, along with Damion Easley and Juan Encarnacion, is also capable of 20 or more steals.
Cedeño was obtained, along with righthander Chris Holt and catcher Mitch Meluskey, in a trade that sent catcher Brad Ausmus and two relievers to Houston. Meluskey belted 14 homers in 337 at bats last year, but don't expect him to be a big power threat in Detroit: 11 of his dingers came at homer-friendly Enron Field. He is, however, a line drive hitter, and his .374 average with runners on base was the second best in the majors. "I feel a lot better about this year because of the way the team is made up," says Higginson. "We have more gap hitters who can also get on base and steal, as opposed to just playing for three-run homers."
That's not to say the Tigers can't win a game with one swing of the bat. They set a team record for home runs on the road (108), despite Gonzalez's off-year and power-hitting first baseman Tony Clark's missing 102 games, mostly with a bulging disk; Clark has looked healthy this spring. Shortstop Deivi Cruz drove in 82 runs, and Higginson rediscovered his stroke. After his batting average dropped 45 points, to .239 with 46 RBIs in 1999, the 30-year-old hit .300 with career highs in homers (30) and RBIs (102) last year.
There were two reasons for Higginson's resurgence. First, he was healthy; a nagging injury to his right big toe two years ago had caused him to come off the ball and pull it too much. Second, he's had manager Phil Garner's support from Day One. "We came in and said Bobby was going to play every day," says Garner. "This organization had seen him struggle for a year and a half, and everybody was concerned."
After a dismal 6-18 start last year, Detroit was 64-49 over its next 113 games, thanks largely to a dramatic improvement in the starting pitching. For the season the Tigers had the fifth-best ERA in the AL, and Weaver and righthander Brian Moehler formed a respectable duo. After an up-and-down rookie season, the 24-year-old Weaver pitched well in 2000 despite having the fourth-worst run support (4.23) in the league. He's a hard thrower who relies on his cut fastball and who's not afraid to come inside.
Despite having traded the organization's best prospect, outfielder Gabe Kapler, to get Gonzalez and receiving only two compensatory draft picks after Gonzalez signed with Cleveland, G.M. Randy Smith says he doesn't regret making the trade for the slugger. Moving into a new park, he says, "the thought was we would have the revenue to support a marquee player, and that was one thing we were missing. Obviously, it didn't work out, but I'm not going to look back."
Cedeño doesn't qualify as a marquee name, and playing small ball might not sell tickets, but the Tigers at least have a shot at finishing with a .500 record, which they haven't done in eight years.
Issue date: March 26, 2001