Gary Sheffield assumes his familiar bowlegged batting stance, his eyes focused slits, his bat cocked and waggling by his right ear, ready to annihilate anything thrown his way. He holds the pose for 60 seconds. Then he slowly uncoils, sits on his chair in the Tigers' spring training clubhouse and begins chatting and laughing with locker neighbors Sean Casey and Carlos Guillen as Fox News blares from a nearby TV. As valuable as Sheffield's bat will be to the Tigers' lineup, the 20-year veteran's biggest contribution may be the example he sets. "His attitude at the plate is, he's going to hit something really hard," says third baseman Brandon Inge. "He reminds you that he's the type of fearless hitter you need to be."
The reigning AL champs were the major leagues' most fair and balanced team in '06, the only one to rank in the upper third in batting average, runs, ERA and saves. But they were missing something, as evidenced by their five-game World Series washout against the Cardinals. G.M. Dave Dombrowski believes the missing piece was an intimidating middle-of-the-order slugger. So in Detroit's lone significant off-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 123 games last season with a wrist injury. "We had a lot of good hitters" -- including six with 19 or more homers -- "but we lacked that imposing guy," the G.M. says. "That's what [Sheffield] brings to the lineup."
Now Detroit has no apparent weaknesses, only concerns. One is injury. Shortstop Carlos Guillen, for instance, played 153 games last season but averaged only 112 in the previous two years with Detroit, and Dombrowski acknowledges that another injury to Guillen would spell trouble given the Tigers' shallow bench. But he contends that the maladies that have earned players such as Sheffield, outfielder Magglio Ordoņez and second baseman Placido Polanco reputations as injury-prone were mostly the result of unusual events. (Sheffield hurt his wrist last April in an on-field collision.)
The other concern is that the big load carried by the young pitchers in '06 will catch up to them. In the case of AL Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander, who threw 186 innings, it already did: After a first four months in which he went 13-4 with 2.69 ERA, Verlander slammed into the rookie wall in August. "I'd never felt anything like it," he says. "The back of my shoulder was so sore. The worst 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 pitch counts, but to little effect. From Aug. 1 through the World Series he went 5-7 with a 5.88 ERA, including two losses to St. Louis. To fortify his shoulder Verlander does regular resistance exercises -- but young power arms are notoriously fragile. "It's a concern," Dombrowski says, "but we're not overly concerned."
Why should they be? No other AL team enters 2007 with established players at every spot on the field and in the rotation, and three closer-caliber relievers. And no other team has Sheffield. In his three seasons with the Yankees he could be a prickly clubhouse presence, but in Detroit he seems happy -- particularly to be back with manager Jim Leyland. They won a World Series with the Marlins in '97, and Sheffield sees the skipper as a kindred competitive spirit. (Leyland says, "I manage, he plays, and we get along real good.") Even so, happiness ranks pretty low among Sheff's priorities. "All they need to do is win one more series, and they win the whole thing," he says. "It's not about being happy to be there. It's about winning it out. Hopefully I can help with that. -- Ben Reiter
Issue date: March 26, 2007