|Pretenders to contenders: Detroit Tigers have turned around franchise|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 28 March 2008 13:12|
The Tigers were baseball's losingest team for more than a decade and had to drastically outbid other teams just to get free agents to listen and some - Miguel Tejada for example - essentially dismissed overtures from the lowly franchise.
Fans grew tired of being angry and simply were apathetic.
Well, things have changed.
The Tigers have had consecutive winning seasons for the first time in two decades and some are projecting they will go to the World Series for the second time in three years.
All-Stars such as Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria are excited to play for the Tigers because they're regarded as winners, spending a lot of money and creating an atmosphere cultivated by likable manager Jim Leyland and leaders such Carlos Guillen, who is called, `Papi' in all corners of the clubhouse.
Comerica Park routinely is packed, drawing a franchise-record 3 million fans last season, and a blockbuster trade spiked ticket sales so much that the team temporarily stopped selling 81-game packages for this year.
The Tigers have sold 27,000-plus full season equivalents, nearly tripling the total sold in 2006.
Without a doubt, Detroit has dramatically altered its place in the game.
``It's almost like I got traded again because the organization is so different,'' said starting pitcher Nate Robertson, who was acquired from Florida in 2003. ``It's pretty incredible.''
The Tigers orchestrated an array of moves in the offseason that made them the mythical champions of the hot-stove league.
The Tigers began their busy offseason with a win-now decision, exercising a $13 million option to keep All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez after he helped start their renaissance by signing as a free agent in 2004.
Less than a month after the 2007 season, Detroit handled its No. 1 priority by sending prospects to Atlanta for five-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove shortstop Edgar Renteria. The deal helped the Tigers execute their plan to shift Guillen to first base, replacing Sean Casey, the only key player gone from last season.
Detroit addressed two more needs on the same day in November, re-signing closer Todd Jones and acquiring left-handed hitting outfielder Jacque Jones. It later re-signed starting pitcher Kenny Rogers to complete its rotation.
During the winter meetings, Detroit dealt six prospects - including Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin - to the Marlins for Cabrera and starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis. That move alone led to the sale of about 5,000 season ticket equivalents.
Suddenly, the Tigers are in the pack of big-spenders, with a payroll at about $135 grouped with Boston and the New York Mets behind only the Yankees.
``Last year, to me, this team was the best team in the majors. Now, it's a little bit better with Cabrera and Dontrelle and some other players,'' Renteria said. ``It's amazing.''
Owner Mike Ilitch, who was criticized when the team was awful, deserves a lot of credit for the turnaround.
First, Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski to run the franchise after he built the expansion Marlins into a champion in just five seasons. Then, Ilitch opened up his checkbook to let Dombrowski sign Rodriguez, reigning American League batting champion Magglio Ordonez and Rogers over three straight winters.
And, he encouraged Dombrowski to go after Cabrera even though he knew it would cost him $20 million a season to keep the slugger when he becomes a free agent after the 2009 season. Then, Ilitch signed to Cabrera a $152.3 million, eight-year contract on Tuesday, the fourth-largest package among current major leaguers.
If Cabrera keeps up his production, he'll be worth every penny in today's market.
He has averaged 32 homers and 115 RBIs while averaging .318 the previous four seasons, putting up gaudy numbers in those categories matched by just Albert Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero.
Cabrera will be in the middle of the lineup behind Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield and Ordonez and in front of Guillen, Renteria, Rodriguez and Jones.
Barring injuries, the Tigers appear to have a chance to join the 1999 Cleveland Indians as the only teams to score 1,000 runs since Boston did it in 1950.
``There's a lot of people talking about us and we're going to get baited every day with questions about the Murderers' Row lineup. We don't have a Murderers' Row,'' Leyland said, entering his third season in Detroit's dugout. ``You've got to be careful to not fall for all that stuff.
``Expectations are high and it's a real dangerous year because you could fall into an excuse trap if you're not careful.''
The Tigers' chances of matching projections will likely be decided by pitching - particularly its depleted bullpen. It will be without Joel Zumaya for at least half the year and Fernando Rodney for the start of it because of shoulder injuries.
Ace Justin Verlander leads the rotation after becoming the first pitcher in baseball history to throw a no-hitter, start a World Series game, be a Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in his first two full seasons.
Detroit is counting on the other four starters - Rogers, Willis, Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman - to bounce back to previous form after lackluster seasons last year.
Leyland, who is adverse to hype, was quick to stunt some of the buzz surrounding his team in spring training.
``The Cleveland Indians are the defending champions, not the Detroit Tigers,'' he said. ``We sound good. We look good. We are good. But we haven't done anything.''