A year ago this time, Jim Leyland heard how his Detroit Tigers were Murderers Row and the Gashouse Gang rolled into one. They'd score 1,000 runs; win 100 games, maybe more. The AL Central Division? Mere child's play. It was World Series or bust.
"I tried to warn people," Leyland said last night.
As all baseball fans know, the 2008 Tigers produced the bust part of the equation. They won 74 games, lost 88, and finished in last place in their division. The bullpen was horrible, the starting pitching was barely and rarely better, position players were jockeyed around, the defense was spotty, and the big bats couldn't begin to play over it all.
"I think we were all embarrassed about what went on last year," Leyland, the Tigers' manager, said. "Some of it was our fault, some maybe wasn't. But we botched it, no question.
"Here's the bottom line, and here's what I tried to caution people when we got to spring training last year. In '06, we were a good team that had a great year and went to the World Series. But there's no guarantee. And last year we were a good team that had a real bad year.
"How many NFL teams that were supposed to be in the Super Bowl have been home for a couple weeks now watching? It's just a realistic look at how difficult it is to win. Hey, we're in the big leagues. There are a lot of good teams. I think we'll be one of them. Were we last year? Yes and no. A good team still has to play well. Winning isn't automatic."
So, which will it be for the
Tigers in 2009, yes or no?
Upwards of 600 fans wondering just that packed The Pinnacle in Maumee last night for the Mud Hens/CYO youth foundation dinner. It also was the first stop on the Tigers' winter caravan and Leyland, the Perrysburg native and the event's featured speaker, brought along a few of his coaches and plenty of players.
What the Tiger entourage may have learned from the evening, based on the sheer numbers that showed up, is that nobody holds a grudge. What the fans may have learned is that the Tigers have the same high hopes for '09 as they do.
But, again, there are no guarantees.
It almost always comes down to pitching. Last year, Kenny Rogers got old, Jeremy Bonderman got hurt, and Justin Verlander got human. The bullpen was an injury-plagued powder keg.
Some Detroit pitchers are already working out in Florida. Joel Zumaya is "throwing bullets from 90 feet," Leyland said. The reports on Dontrelle Willis are "outstanding, better than at any time last year." Bonderman? "Good, real good," Leyland said.
But the Tigers' skipper knows that throwing is one thing, facing hitters is another. Detroit will likely add another reliever from a still-stocked free agent pool before spring training starts. Edwin Jackson, acquired from Tampa Bay, should be a solid starter down the line of the rotation, but he's surrounded by question marks.
Having newcomer Gerald Laird behind the plate means Brandon Inge will be at third base, next to new shortstop Adam Everett. And that means Carlos Guillen is the left fielder. The defense should be better.
But there are a lot of coulds and a lot of shoulds when talking about the '09 Tigers.
"Not everything is etched in stone," Leyland said.
Not when it comes to his roster, and, as '08 proved, not when it comes to guarantees.
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