DETROIT – Tigers manager Jim Leyland leaned back in his office at Comerica Park, propped his feet on his desk and allowed himself a Marlboro Red.
It was 10:45 in the morning, about two hours before the playoff-bound Tigers were set to host the Toronto Blue Jays in front of a large crowd of Detroit fans starved for success.
“I thought we’d improve,” Leyland said. “I thought we had enough talent to eventually get to the point where we could be pretty consistent. But I didn’t know that we’d do as well as we’ve done.”
While the Pirates are wrapping up their 14th consecutive losing season with another 90-loss effort, the Tigers — for many years an American League version of the Pirates — are preparing for the playoffs.
Three years ago, the Tigers lost an AL-record 119 games. They have combined a thriving farm system and shrewd free-agent pickups with an owner’s financial commitment and Leyland’s leadership to post one of the most dramatic turnarounds in major-league history.
Can the Pirates’ front office and their young pitchers use the Tigers as a model for success, or does the current discrepancy between the two franchises come down to nothing more than payrollâ¢ Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield has the faith of Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, the architect behind the Tigers’ turnaround. Littlefield was an assistant under Dombrowski with the Florida Marlins from 1998-2001.
“Dave is a good baseball man, and he has good baseball people around him,” Dombrowski said. “They would have to be encouraged by what’s taken place.”
“The talent is there for the Pirates,” said first baseman Sean Casey, traded to the Tigers in a late July salary dump. “But I definitely think they need a couple more pieces. They need to spend some money, no doubt about that.”
Spending worked for the Tigers, whose $82.6 million payroll is 75 percent higher than the Pirates’ $46.7 million.
The Tigers ended a streak of 12 consecutive losing seasons, including five 90-loss seasons in a row. Leyland, the former Pirates manager, was hired in the offseason.
“I figured .500 this year would be good,” third baseman Brandon Inge said. “That was our spring training goal. But now, at this point, we’ve had to readjust our goals.”
How far have the Tigers comeâ¢ Had the Pirates been in the same division with Detroit, they would have finished 32 games ahead of the Tigers in 2003, and 17 games up in 2002.
The parallels to the Pirates are everywhere. The Tigers are anchored by three young and rising pitchers, starters Jeremy Bonderman, 23, and Justin Verlander, 23, and flame-throwing reliever Joel Zumaya, 21.
There’s Andy Van Slyke, coaching first base. And Gene Lamont, coaching third. Lloyd McClendon, fired last season after nearly five years as the Pirates manager, works in the bullpen. Former Pirates players Don Slaught and Rafael Belliard are part of Leyland’s staff.
Casey walks into the locker room, standing about 20 feet from former Pirates prospect Chris Shelton’s locker.
Heck, one year ago the Tigers hosted the All-Star Game.
But there remain about 36 million reasons why Detroit is getting ready for its first playoff series in 19 years – against the A’s or the Yankees — and Pirates fans are wondering how much optimism to give themselves.
That’s the difference in payroll between the two teams separated by about 300 miles of interstate. The Pirates are 29th out of 32 teams. The Tigers are 14th.
Since the 43-119 disaster in 2003 — which came within one loss of the worst record of all-time — Tigers owner Michael Ilitch has raised his payroll from $49.1 million. Key additions
In the past three years, the Tigers have signed notable free agents Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones and Troy Percival and traded for Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco.
Even with the changes, 11 players on the current roster were on the 2003 team.
By contrast, the Pirates signed Casey, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa for a combined $18.5 million this past offseason. Casey was traded, and Burnitz and Randa won’t be back.
“I think our turnaround is a combination of factors,” Dombrowski said. “First of all, it starts with real focus in player development and scouting. It’s apparent that our farm system is starting to produce quality players. Second, the players we’ve signed are good players, and they have stayed relatively healthy. The biggest factor is the leadership of Jim Leyland. Jim’s faith provided the type of leadership we need. He’s one of the best — if not the best — managers in baseball.”
Last offseason, Detroit gave left-handed starter Rogers a two-year, $16 million contract and signed Jones for $5.7 million to replace another high-priced free agent, injured closer Percival. Rogers (17-7, ERA) is among the AL leaders in wins and ERA. Jones is third in the AL with 37 saves.
Because of their recent struggles, the Tigers needed to overpay their free agents. The $40-million, four-year deal given to Rodriguez in 2004 was considered above market value for the then-32-year-old catcher.
“It’s not the easiest,” Dombrowski said. “You don’t fall on the top of their choice list. You have to give them a reason to come to your place. The reason ends up being a little bit more money or an extra year. But if you are going to get better, you have to do these things.”
Casey, a three-time All-Star, feels the Pirates are on the verge, with pitchers Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Ian Snell.
The Pirates are trying to finish with a non-losing record in the second half of the season for the first time during their recent 13-year run of futility.
“They’ve got some good young pitching,” Casey said. “They really do. And (manager Jim) Tracy is the right guy for that team.”
Leyland said he doesn’t follow the Pirates close enough to grade any strides after the All-Star break, the team’s recent losing streak notwithstanding.
“I really don’t know (if the Pirates took a step forward this year),” he said. “They had a better second half. I’m sure they are disappointed in their record. But I’m sure they are satisfied that they are taking steps in the right direction and making progress; Jim (Tracy) seems to feel that way. He is on top of it, and I don’t really know anything about it. I’m sure they feel that they are moving in the right direction.”
Casey pointed out that acquiring Rogers was a huge step for the Tigers. He relieved some of the pressure off the Tigers’ young pitchers. Casey, an Upper St. Clair native, also believes the Pirates need to take the same approach, even if it costs a little more.
“Kenny has been the X-factor,” Casey said. “Sometimes the Pirates might have to overpay for a guy like that. But with the talent that they have, they are close. You go out and get a big free agent, a legit, No. 1 starter, and you pay him.
“I think all the guys who are there have the ability to be great pitchers in the big leagues. Maybe a couple of them are going to be No. 1 starters. But right now, they are young. If you take their talent and add somebody who can lead the way, that would make a difference.”
Leyland said another factor in the turnaround — and one that Littlefield has stressed the Pirates will need to achieve — is the wholesale maturation of the young players during the same season.
“I kind of caught lightning in a bottle,” Leyland said. “It was time for them to graduate, and they graduated this year and took that next step. They took the step in the right way. They took it up instead of down. Forward instead backward. That’s been one of the big things for us.”
Littlefield is hoping for the same team-wide “graduation” in the coming seasons.
“We have the same group of players that are going to be together for the next 3-to-5 years,” he said earlier this month. “There is an improvement trend that goes on through the ages that we’ve got most of our guys. We’ll be able to add on. I feel very optimistic about where we are going. It’s the first time we’ve had such a large of players together.”
McClendon has seen it from both sides. He is encouraged by the strides of his former team, but said it’s not fair to compare the Tigers with the Pirates.
“From a talent level, you are probably talking apples and oranges,” McClendon said. “We have quite a few accomplished players here, guys who have had success in the past. A lot of the young kids in Pittsburgh have not had that type of success.
“But, overall, I think they are probably on their way to being a pretty good ballclub. I want to see them do good, and I think they are on their way to doing good.”
Leyland said it all comes down to talent evaluation and a balanced roster. He said a team of all young players, no matter how gifted, is going to get beat. Likewise, veteran players hanging on for a paycheck ruin any hope of success.
Most importantly, Leyland said the front office must be able to judge those who can play at the highest level — and those who can’t — and react accordingly.
“If you believe in their ability, eventually it will come out,” Leyland said. “You just have to be patient. You just have to make sure you make good judgments on them and make sure they are good enough.
“When those good players develop, you keep the ones that you really like and you take that step forward, and you weed the ones out that you don’t think are good enough. That’s what you have to do, in order to be good.”
|Consecutive losing seasons||13||12|
|2006 record||65-95||95-65 (thru Friday)|
|*not counting 1994-95 strike years|
– By John Grupp