"We had a good spring training and then started off 8-7," says Trammell, "then we just hit a wall and didn't know how to handle it. It's a matter of confidence. Guys get down on themselves, and it just spreads to the next guy."
As of yet, no one has accused the Detroit players of packing it in, which leaves one glaring problem: talent. The Tigers simply don't have enough of it, particularly on the pitching staff. Detroit may not break the record for losses, but it is on track to set the major league mark for the worst team ERA (6.70, by the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies). At week's end the Tigers' staff ERA was 7.13, more than a run higher than the majors' second-worst ERA (5.99), which belonged to the Colorado Rockies. Of the 17 pitchers who had taken the mound for Detroit this season, only three had ERAs under 5.40. Even more amazing, the opposition was hitting .306 against Tigers pitching—59 points higher than Detroit's own team average. For anyone who hopes to see Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar (who was batting .401 through Sunday) hit .400 this season, here is the good news: Alomar has yet to face the Tigers' staff.
Says Fielder, "I think we have to find some good arms if we're going to win."
After last season Fielder said that if the Tigers were committed to rebuilding, he wouldn't mind being traded to a contender. Smith would probably like to accommodate him, but he would have an easier time dealing the rights to Hank Greenberg. Fielder can still go deep—he had 12 homers and 31 RBIs through Sunday—but he is virtually untradable because he is signed for $7.2 million per year through the 1997 season. "My phone's not ringing off the hook," says Smith.
For years the Tigers thought they could make a trade, sign a free agent and leave it to former manager Sparky Anderson to put a competitive team on the field. The farm system wasn't productive. The last homegrown starting pitcher to have a significant impact for the Tigers was Dan Petry, who last pitched for Detroit in 1991. The most recent first-round pick to make a difference in Detroit was Kirk Gibson, who was drafted in 1978 and whose most memorable moment in baseball was hitting a pinch-hit home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 World Series.
Of course, he's not the only Detroit prospect to make a name for himself elsewhere. John Smoltz was signed by the Tigers in 1985 and traded to the Atlanta Braves for 37-year-old pitcher Doyle Alexander in August 1987. Alexander went 9-0 for Detroit the rest of that season, helped the Tigers win a division title and was out of baseball two years later. But the bill on that deal has come due. At week's end Smoltz was 10-1 for the Braves this season. The nine pitchers who have started for the Tigers this year are a combined 7-27.
"I've had friends leave messages telling me to stay away from sharp objects or to stay on a low floor," says Jon Matlack, Detroit's first-year pitching coach. "In spring training I was pleased with the effort and thought we'd be O.K. But then when we cut down from 31 to 11 pitchers there was this collective sigh of relief. A lot of guys were, like, 'Hey, I made it.' They were just happy to be in the big leagues."
Some did not stay in the big leagues for long. Last Friday, Detroit shipped out three pitchers, sending Jose Lima (0-4, 7.82 ERA) to Toledo while designating John Farrell (0-2, 14.21 ERA) and Scott Aldred (0-4, 9.35 ERA) for assignment. "We'll probably go with Lolich on Thursday," Bell said jokingly, when asked to run down his rotation. "And if we can get McLain, which I don't think is possible, he'll pitch on Friday." Justin Thompson, a 23-year-old lefthanded phenom who was dominating in Toledo, was called up on Sunday.
While he would rather not make a run at the '62 Mets, Smith makes no apologies for the direction in which the Tigers are moving. He knew he faced a formidable task when he was hired by Detroit owner Mike Hitch and team president John McHale. Hitch said the team had lost $20 million in each of the previous two years while finishing a combined 33 games below .500. Smith was enlisted to revamp the neglected farm system and forgo the quick-fix, big-money, free-agency route. Bell, the former major league third baseman who spent the last two seasons as the Indians' infield coach, brought a reputation for patience and an ability to work with young players. Smith insists that nothing has happened in the first 50 games of the season to alter the organization's long-term plans.
"Hey, I was in San Diego in '94, and we started out 10-32," says Smith. "Everyone was laughing at us. Now two years later that team is poised to win its division. When you try to win every year, you never win. You have to go back to basics and build a club the right way, which means scouting and development and sticking with young players."