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Detroit TIGERS
Mark Bechtel
March 29, 1999
The Tigers' chances are linked to three young pitchers and an itinerant catcher
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March 29, 1999

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers' chances are linked to three young pitchers and an itinerant catcher

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By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (AL rank)

1998 record: 65-97 (fifth in AL Central)

BATTING AVERAGE

.264 (11)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.277 (11)

RUNS SCORED

722 (12)

ERA

4.93 (10)

HOME RUNS

165 (9)

FIELDING PCT.

.982 (8)

In an era in which numerous pitchers have personal catchers, Randy Smith is the first executive to have one. As a general manager, first with the Padres from 1993 to '95 and now with the Tigers, he has traded for Brad Ausmus three times, and as a Rockies assistant G.M. in 1992 he successfully lobbied his bosses to take Ausmus in the expansion draft. Smith, however, vows that his most recent acquisition of the 29-year-old backstop—in a seven-player trade with the Astros in January-will be his last one. After the trade Ausmus asked for a contract extension that included a no-trade clause. It was a no-brainer for Smith, who eagerly granted him his wish. "Brad's one of the best defensive catchers in baseball," he says. "He's great at handling a pitching staff and has a knack for putting down the right finger."

Smith is counting on Ausmus to be a steadying influence on a pitching staff whose top three starters—Brian Moehler, Justin Thompson and Seth Greisinger—have a combined five full major league seasons and an average age of 25. At the front of the rotation is Moehler, as unlikely a No. 1 starter as you'll find. Before the 1996 season Moehler was dropped from Detroit's 40-man roster. Even after winning 15 games for the club's Double A affiliate in Jacksonville that year, he thought so little of his chances of a September call-up that he bought tickets to a late-season Braves-Expos series in Atlanta, which is less than 25 miles from his home in Marietta, Ga.

Detroit, however, was hit with injuries, and Moehler got a call from Smith telling him to join the team in Milwaukee. Moehler gave the Braves tickets to his brother-in-law, hopped on a plane, made two starts for the Tigers and hasn't left the rotation since. Last year he threw three shutouts and was one of only five pitchers to beat the Yankees twice. "I didn't do anything flashy," Moehler says, "so it was easy for me to blend in. I didn't have anybody's eyes on me. I just went out there and pitched. I wasn't a prospect."

The same can't be said of Thompson, the injury-prone lefty who has had the Tigers salivating since they drafted him in 1991. "As far as lefthanded pitchers go, he's probably one of the best three in baseball in terms of pure stuff," says Ausmus, who caught Thompson as a member of the Tigers in 1996. He should be even better this year. For the first time since 1993, Thompson didn't spend at least part of the off-season recuperating from an injury, and he has developed a tailing two-seam fastball to complement his four-seamer. "Now you're talking about a ball coming into the plate that can move either way," says manager Larry Parrish.

Unfortunately for Parrish, who begins his first full season as Detroit's skipper this year, the rest of the rotation, like a Thompson heater, could also go either way. If the 23-year-old Greisinger fulfills the promise that made him the Tigers' No. 1 pick in 1996 and Willie Blair can recapture his form of '97, when he won 16 games, Detroit will be in good shape. But if Greisinger struggles as he did early last season when he lost seven of his first eight decisions, and Blair loses 16 games again as he did in '98, the Tigers will be in trouble.

Not that Detroit isn't capable of winning a few 10-9 slugfests. Though only two American League teams scored fewer runs than the Tigers in '98, the addition of free-agent third baseman Dean Palmer gives them three players—Palmer, first baseman Tony Clark and second baseman Damion Easley—who hit more than 25 homers and drove in at least 100 runs last year. A fourth, outfielder Bobby Higginson, did so two years ago.

The Tigers' biggest offensive concern is leadoff man Brian Hunter. Last year the fleet 28-year-old centerfielder proved the old adage that you can't steal first base. His on-base percentage was a terrible .298, he hit just .254, and he swiped 42 bases, down from 74 the previous season. "Brian got confused," says Smith. "He had a lot of guys in his ear. This year we told him the only guy he's going to hear from is Tram [hitting coach Alan Trammell]."

Hunter's struggles reflected the team's. Detroit made great strides in 1997, winning 26 more games than it had in '96, when it finished 53-109. But that, many Tigers say, bred some cockiness, and the team took a huge step backward last year. Says closer Todd Jones, whose ERA swelled to 4.97 in '98 from 3.09 two years ago, "We were overconfident coming out of spring training last year and we didn't know it. But we've learned our lesson. Now we've got some ghosts to put to sleep."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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