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Imagine the kind of happiness that comes with winning the lottery or making the last mortgage payment. That was the feeling the brain trust of the Tigers experienced as they were making their pitch to free-agent closer Troy Percival on a mid-November night at The Capital Grille in suburban Detroit. The stop was the first in a planned multicity tour for Percival, who was scheduled to meet with the Indians and the Cubs over the next three days.
"I'm ready to sign," Percival suddenly announced after the salads had been delivered. Manager Alan Trammell, who was sitting next to Percival, almost dropped his fork. He wanted to be sure he had heard it right. "I'd like to get this done tonight," said Percival, who had spent the last 10 seasons with the Angels. "My agent's waiting for your phone call."
Four months later the straight-talking Percival, 35, was just as upbeat about his migration from World Series contender to a franchise that hasn't finished over .500 in 12 years. "If I didn't think we'd win, I guarantee you I wouldn't be here," says Percival, who has saved at least 32 games in each of the last five seasons, despite being on the disabled list in four of them. "I didn't come here to just finish my career. I came here to be a solution to a problem."
The Tigers swung and missed at their share of big-name free agents over the winter. Righthander Carl Pavano spurned them in favor of the Yankees, and Troy Glaus signed with the Diamondbacks. But in addition to Percival (two years, $12 million), they did land overpriced rightfielder Magglio Ordo�ez (five years, $75 million). "Maybe some people don't trust us yet," Trammell says of the free agents who went elsewhere. "If we continue to keep this going in the right direction, maybe more guys will come next year."
Detroit jumped from 43 wins in 2003 to 72 last season despite a bullpen that blew 28 saves, which tied the Athletics and the Indians for the league's worst. The Tigers believe they've bolstered a dreadful setup corps with the acquisition of fireballer Kyle Farnsworth, who can throw 99 mph but never lived up to expectations (22-37, 4.78 ERA in six seasons) with his previous employer, the Cubs. The spring's big surprise, however, has been the emergence of Franklyn German, 25, who has been hitting 96--97 mph on the radar gun with what one AL scout called "an unhittable splitter."
One front office executive says the Angels didn't want to re-sign Percival because his velocity dropped in 2004. "He's going to throw 92 now, not 97," the executive said. "Look at his decline in strikeouts last year." Percival averaged 1.3 strikeouts per inning in his first four seasons in the majors; last year he had 33 whiffs in 4923 innings, an average of 0.66. "I feel great," Percival says. "I just came off the best half-season I've had in a long time." His ERA over the last three months of the '04 season: 1.74, including 0.90 with six saves in September.
To help sway Percival, the front office enlisted Al Kaline, the Tigers Hall of Famer who's now a special assistant to G.M. Dave Dombrowski. On the morning of the day he committed to Detroit, Percival received a tour of the city's tony suburbs from Kaline. "I've been a Tiger for 53 years," Kaline says, "and he seemed to get a kick out of me giving a history of the Tigers and basically telling him that whether he comes or not, we're going to win here very soon. Plus, I think he was totally knocked out by what he saw."
After his team's improvement last season, owner Mike Ilitch is hungry for more--whatever the cost. Early in spring training he seemed almost mournful over Detroit's missing out on Pavano. "I'm going to keep spending," he says, "until we win." In Pavano's absence, the Tigers will rely on a young rotation fronted by Jeremy Bonderman who has promise but a 17--32 career record as well.
"Let's not sugarcoat it. We'll need some of these kids to come through to contend," says Trammell of a rotation that also includes Mike Maroth, Jason Johnson, Nate Robertson and Wilfredo Ledezma (combined ERA in '04, 4.73). "But they'll have some help. We've got a bullpen that'll put some fear in people." --P.K.