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CNN/SI Preview: Detroit Tigers
Posted: Thursday March 11, 1999 10:08 AM
By Dan George, CNN/SI
Player to Watch: Dean Palmer, 3B
How badly do the Tigers want to contend this season, their last before abandoning 87-year-old Tiger Stadium for shiny new Comerica Park? They essentially gave up on young third base prospect Gabe Alvarez over the winter, handing good-hitting, shaky-fielding Dean Palmer a five-year deal worth -- gulp -- $36 million.
GM Randy Smith figured he could afford it, given the moolah the new ballpark will generate. But most people thought that when Detroit plunged into the free-agent waters it would be for a front-line pitcher. Instead, the Tigers' top mound addition is Willie Blair, an NL flop last season after a career '97 in Detroit.
The right-handed Palmer, who batted .278 with 34 homers and a career-high 119 RBIs with the Kansas City Royals in 1998, should give the Tigers a lot more pop than last year's third sacker, Joe Randa (now coincidentally with the Royals), especially in cozy Tiger Stadium. On the other hand, Palmer has never put together consecutive standout seasons since hitting the majors for good in 1991, and he'll be 35 years old at the end of the deal. One can only wonder where Gabe Alvarez will be then.
1998 Recap (65-97, fifth place, AL Central)
After going 79-83 in 1997, the Tigers entered last season with high hopes. But a miserable 4-17 start doomed all playoff aspirations, and only an 11-6 finish helped them dodge a second 100-loss season in three years. Detroit limped home 24 games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians, a finish that ended Buddy Bell's managerial days in Motown.
Shortstop Deivi Cruz never really recovered from a broken left ankle early in the season, leadoff hitter Brian Hunter managed just a .298 on-base percentage and No. 1 starter Justin Thompson's ERA ballooned to a an un-ace-like 4.08.
How bad was it? In the Tigers' final game, Toronto's Roy Halladay tossed a one-hitter at them -- in just his second major league start.
Only two American League teams scored fewer runs than the Tigers in '98. Don't look for a repeat this season.
In addition to Palmer, Detroit added DH Gregg Jefferies, a career .292 hitter, over the winter. Expect big things, too, from young right fielder Juan Encarnacion (.329, 7 HRs, 21 RBIs in 40 games). The Tigers like him so much that they may move Bobby Higginson, who led AL right fielders with 16 assists last year, to left. Gabe Kapler, who knocked in 146 runs in the minors least year, could also make a splash. The Tigers have been working him in center field to get Hunter's attention, although he'll probably start the season in Class AAA.
But the Tigers' biggest addition may be catcher Brad Ausmus, acquired from the Houston Astros. Smith -- who has traded for Ausmus three times and drafted him once -- hopes the defensive standout will steady the pitching rotation of Thompson, Brian Moehler, Blair, Seth Greisinger and Bryce Florie. The bullpen should be set. Closer Todd Jones is openly eyeing Detroit's single-season save mark (38, John Hiller, 1973), and the Tigers have a solid backup in hard-throwing Matt Anderson.
Neither Smith nor new manager Larry Parrish has delusions of catching the powerhouse Indians, but second place in the AL Central is well within reach and a few breaks could put them in wild-card range.
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