Since they challenged the Yankees for the pennant in 1961, the Tigers have plummeted into the second division. Now two major trades should make them a lively team again.
The Tigers were tied for second in team batting average last year and they may be even better this season. Manager Charley Dressen thinks he has six players who will hit at least .280. Outfielder Al Kaline is certainly one. Kaline has a career batting average of .309, best (along with Mickey Mantle) in the league. Last year Kaline was bothered by a torn ligament in his right leg and general fatigue. Even so, he hit .312. This year Detroit fans will see a beefier Kaline model, one that should hit more home runs—that is, 35 or so. Kaline is only 29, yet he is starting his 12th season with the Tigers. It should be a mighty good one. Norm Cash, the first baseman, was not hitting when Dressen took over as manager in June. Dressen noticed Cash was taking too many good pitches, waiting for one on the inside that he could hit for a home run. Cash's hitting improved, and he ended the season at .270, with 26 home runs. During the winter the Tigers traded Rocky Colavito to Kansas City, getting in return Second Baseman Jerry Lumpe and two pitchers. Lumpe, a line-drive singles hitter who bats .280 year in year out, is as predictable as Guy Lombardo. He will get on base a lot for Kaline and Cash. Detroit's other trade was with Philadelphia for Don Demeter, a long, lanky outfielder. Demeter has power—22 home runs in '63—and should hit for a better average than last year's .258. Shortstop Dick McAuliffe is an aggressive young player. A left-handed hitter, he raises his right foot as the pitch comes in—shades of Mel Ott. McAuliffe hits a lot of line drives, batted .262 with 13 home runs. Outfielder Bill Bruton is 34 and last year his average slipped to .256 (lifetime: .272). But Dressen plans to rest him periodically and thinks this will make him a more effective hitter. Catcher Bill Freehan looks as if he should hit .400. He is 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds and is built like a marble statue. Freehan got a $100,000 bonus to sign with Detroit, and last year, his first, he hit .243. "I know they're all counting on me," Freehan said this spring, and he is right. The Tigers have three third basemen—which is to say they really have none. Don Wert does not look like a good hitter, but last year was his first (.259)—and only half a year at that. Jake Wood hit .271 with 11 home runs. Bubba Phillips, 34, hit .246, and that is all Detroit can expect of him. Filling out the bench are Mike Roarke, George Thomas and Purnal Goldy. The Tigers have a 21-year-old outfielder named Willie Horton, who looks like money in the bank. Horton hit .333 at Knoxville last year. This spring he showed up 25 pounds overweight, the result, he said, of watching television and having "an occasional snack." Dressen ran him and ran him until the extra pounds were gone. The Tigers may send Horton back to the minors so he can play regularly, but if he should hit early and keep hitting, they would be only too happy to keep him.
To get Demeter from the Phils, the Tigers had to give up Jim Bunning, a proved, if aging, winner. This does not worry Dressen. His major talent as a manager is getting the most out of his pitchers, and he feels that this year's Tiger staff will surprise people. His leading pitcher is Phil Regan, who was 15-9. A right-hander, Regan has improved steadily in his four seasons with Detroit and at 27 could be outstanding. Hank Aguirre, a 32-year-old lefthander, was 14-15, hardly a show-stopper, but he is a crafty pitcher and also should improve. From Kansas City in the Lumpe-Colavito trade came Ed Rakow and Dave Wickersham, and Dressen considers both of them, but especially Wickersham, potential winners. Neither had a winning record with Kansas City, but few ever do. Wickersham was 12-15 and pitched all of 238 innings. He is a good low-ball pitcher. Rakow (pronounced Rocco) was 9-10; he is very fast. The Tigers have others: Jack Hamilton, who came from Philadelphia with Demeter; Bill Faul, who underwent hypnosis last year (no more of that, says Dressen); Larry Foster and Pete Craig. But the effectiveness of Detroit pitching depends on none of these as much as it does on Frank Strong Lary, the famed Yankee-killer who just three years ago was a 23-game winner. Lary hurt his arm pitching in miserably cold weather against the Yankees (he won) early in 1962. He has never been the same. Last year the Tigers sent him to Knoxville, where the heat helped loosen his arm. This spring he pitched well in early exhibition games, but his blazing fast ball is gone; he can only throw about six hard pitches during a game and must depend on the cunning acquired in nine major league seasons. Lary has been working on a knuckle ball recently, a pitch he hopes will make him a winner again. If he cannot win, Lary says he will retire. If he can win, the Tigers will be rough.
The Tiger outfield will do very nicely. Demeter will play center, with Kaline in right, which he likes, and Bruton in left, which he does not. Jerry Lumpe at second will tighten the infield. The Tigers were next to last in double plays in 1963; Lumpe should cure that. McAuliffe improved steadily at shortstop last year. The Tigers think this 24-year-old is as good as anyone at the position, which is a bit optimistic, perhaps. Cash is adequate at first base, and whoever plays third will not hurt the team defensively. Dressen is trying to encourage Catcher Freehan to be more aggressive. Freehan hesitated last year to tell his pitchers what they were doing wrong. He thought running out to the mound looked as if he were showing off. "That's not showing off," roared Dressen. "That's winning games." Freehan will try to take charge this year.
The Tigers have speed—Wood, Wert and McAuliffe, plus all three outfielders—consistent hitting and a good defense. If Dressen can put together a pitching staff, the Tigers will be solid contenders for second place.