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3 detroit Tigers
Stephen Cannella
March 27, 2000
New stadium, new manager, new star—it all adds up to a rejuvenated club
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March 27, 2000

3 Detroit Tigers

New stadium, new manager, new star—it all adds up to a rejuvenated club

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by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (AL rank)

1999 record: 69-92 (third in AL Central)

Batting average

.261 (12)

Opponents' batting average

.276 (7)

Runs scored

747 (12)

ERA

5.17 (12)

Home runs

212 (T4)

Fielding percentage

.982 (6)

One of Phil Garner's first acts as the Tigers' new manager was to issue a challenge to the five-time defending American League Central champion Indians. " Cleveland is vulnerable," Garner announced the day before spring training began, before he had even met all of his players. "They're vulnerable, and we're better."

Slow down, Scrap Iron. If you believe that, you believe Pavarotti appreciates the vocal talents of 'N Sync. The gap between these two teams is still wide. Detroit finished 27� games behind the Indians last season and hasn't had fewer than 83 losses in a full season since 1993. Nevertheless, Garner's declaration was a welcome burst of optimism to a bunch of players who, by midseason last year, had little more expected of them than to hit the field in the correct jersey-pants-stirrups combo. "It was kind of nice to hear him set some lofty goals," says righthander Dave Mlicki, who won eight straight starts at one point last season and will serve as staff ace this year. "When he said that, everybody in this room believed it."

Even though the Tigers won't be whipping up on the rest of the league this season, the run of listless baseball that marked their final years at creaky Tiger Stadium should be over. A sense of restored dignity emanates from the club's new Comerica Park, and the expected bump in attendance will enable Detroit to populate its lineup with big-name players not seen since the heyday of Cecil Fielder and Alan Trammell. "We've never really been a small-market club," says general manager Randy Smith, whose 2000 payroll of about $50 million tops last year's by $15 million. "We've been a small-revenue club. It's a little different environment now that we're in Comerica Park. We should have some money to spend."

If Smith has his way, a good chunk of that windfall will be lavished on outfielder Juan Gonzalez, who was acquired from the Rangers in a nine-player trade that sapped the Tigers of their two best prospects (outfielder Gabe Kapler and pitcher Francisco Cordero), among others. Adding a two-time MVP whose per-season production over the last four years has been a .314 average, 43 home runs and 140 RBIs adds instant credibility to an offense that scored the third-fewest runs in the league in '99. Keeping him—Smith has been trying to sign Gonzalez, who's a free agent after the season, to a contract extension since the deal was made in November—is an absolute necessity considering what Detroit gave up to get him. "We had to make that trade," says Smith. "That's the only way you can get a player like that, a future Hall of Famer: You trade for him in the last year of his contract. It was time for us to dare to be good."

With Gonzalez hitting cleanup, Garner will actually trot out an imposing lineup. First baseman Tony Clark, the subject of trade rumors most of last season, rebounded from a horrid start to ring up 23 homers and 59 RBIs after the All-Star break; he'll benefit from hitting behind Gonzalez and the knowledge that he no longer has to shoulder the burden of being the team's primary run producer. Clark (31 homers), shortstop Deivi Cruz (13), second baseman Damion Easley (20) and third baseman Dean Palmer (38) combined for 102 dingers, more than any other projected starting infield in the league: Detroit is also expecting big things from centerfielder Juan Encarnacion, a five-tool star in the making who had 19 homers and 33 steals in his first full major league season. "He's a lot more confident in what he can do this year," Clark says of Encarnacion. "Being around Gonzo has already helped him."

Alas, Gonzalez can't help a pitching staff that had the league's third-highest ERA (5.17). That task falls to Hideo Nomo, who followed Garner from Milwaukee to Detroit after Garner oversaw the resuscitation of the righthander's career last season. "I was impressed with him last year," says Garner. "He brings our pitchers credibility."

That speaks volumes about the sorry state of the rest of the rotation, the success of which will also hinge largely on whether righthander Jeff Weaver proves to be the pitcher who won six of his first nine major league decisions or the pitcher who faded badly in the final three months last season.

Garner also needs to teach his hitters to be more patient (no AL team walked fewer times than Detroit in '99), and he needs to pray that his righthanded-heavy lineup doesn't become discouraged by Comerica's 398-foot power alley in left-center—in particular, one newly arrived righthanded power hitter for whom the Tigers would probably move back to the old yard at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull if they thought it would keep him in Detroit. "You should have seen Encarnacion's and Cruz's eyes light up when Gonzalez walked in the clubhouse," Garner says. "I felt the same thing when I played with Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi. They make other guys feel bigger and better than they might otherwise be."

Tigers fans can only hope.

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

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