One February morning at Tigers camp in Lakeland, Fla., Dmitri Young cameoed on The Oprah Winfrey Show, taking batting practice from an Ohio college professor and longtime Detroit fan. Says Young, who appeared along with manager Alan Trammell on the program's "Dreams Come True" segment, " Oprah got Tramm's name wrong. She pronounced it tra-MELL, and it's not like he's a nobody. He played 20 years, and he's got Hall of Fame credentials." Young shakes his head with palpable disappointment. "That was the thing that got me."
No, the Tigers get no respect, not after an abysmal 43-119 season that ranks with the worst in baseball history. Outfitted with unprepared prospects, journeyman placeholders and veterans in their death throes, Detroit's offense sputtered and finished comfortably last in the league in runs per game (3.6) and on-base (.300) and slugging (.375) percentages. General manager Dave Dombrowski got a financial reprieve this winter, as the Tigers shed about $18 million in salaries—contracts with ciphers Shane Halter, Dean Palmer, Craig Paquette and Steve Sparks expired, and rightfielder Bobby Higginson's salary decreased—and spent it to fill in the lineup's deepest potholes.
Dombrowski added free agents Pudge Rodriguez (.297 batting average versus .190 by last year's Tigers catchers) and Rondell White (.289 versus .244 by Detroit leftfielders), and traded for shortstop Carlos Guillen (.276 versus .220). Along with free-agent second baseman Fernando Vi�a and closer Ugueth Urbina, they represent modest, short-term upgrades, but they supply an urgently needed element of respectability to a franchise that embarrassed itself a year ago. Says Young, who was consulted by Trammell about personnel decisions and enthusiastically recommended White and backup catcher Mike DiFelice, "They said they were building the lineup around me, so they wanted to keep me in the mix. We have some genuine, authentic, actual ballplayers."
Young possesses the most power in the order, but the biggest upside belongs to 26-year-old Eric Munson. He was drafted third, as a catcher, out of Southern Cal in '99 and was relocated to first before landing at third last spring, where, says infield coach Mick Kelleher, "he had everything to learn." Munson was shaky, making 19 errors, third-most in the league, but he worked diligently, taking 50 to 100 balls a day from Kelleher before and during BR He has an above-average arm and handled slow rollers and bunts well, and he feels comfortable making backhanded plays. (He also has an informal counselor in best friend and three-time Gold Glover Eric Chavez of the A's, who has advised him to follow his instinctual movement on each play.)
Kelleher and Munson agree that he's weakest on balls hit to his left, which require him to reset his feet and square to first before throwing; tall for the position at 6'3", Munson has always struggled with his footwork. A fractured left thumb, which cost him the last six weeks of the season, slowed his development, but, says Munson, "I think of myself as a third baseman now. I just want to make the routine plays. If I make the diving ones, fine, but I want to concentrate on not making the same mistakes I did last year." His move to third matters because Detroit needs Munson's bat. He hit 18 home runs in 99 games, and if he becomes less pull-conscious, he can boost his batting average and become a well-rounded hitter with gap-to-gap power.
Detroit will score more runs, and righthander Jeremy Bonderman, who's working on adding a circle change to his potent fastball-slider combination, has the makings of an ace despite being rushed to the majors. "We don't have the finished product yet, we have a learning 21-year-old," says Trammell. "But we like what we have. I give him credit, going through what he went through last season, getting on-the-job training. He handled himself well under the circumstances."
Even in baseball's weakest division, the Tigers will be hard-pressed to rise to respectability. The 125 teams that have lost 100-plus games in the modern era have improved, in the ensuing season, by an average of 10 games. Detroit would need to quadruple that rate to play .500 ball.
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