COMMENTARY

Leyland’s job security not ironclad

10/21/2013
BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

In the past 10 days, two Detroit Tigers insiders have shared two pieces of informed guesswork.

Leyland
Leyland

1. President-general manager Dave Dombrowski will welcome Jim Leyland back as manager.

2. Leyland, the pride of Perrysburg who just completed his 50th season in professional baseball, would be happy to return in 2014.

If that sounds like a done deal, well, maybe not.

There may be more in play than the personal desires of two men.

It more likely will come down to the inclinations of one man, franchise owner Mike Ilitch.

The boss has basically provided Dombrowski with bottomless pockets in funding a roster and hiring a staff. The opening-day player payroll this season was in excess of $148 million, which ranked among the top five in baseball.

All the billionaire owner has asked in return is a world championship.

Leyland has given Ilitch plenty to cheer in his eight seasons as manager. The Tigers have twice been to the World Series and just concluded a three-year run of AL Central Division championships.

But a bid for the top prize again came up short with an ALCS loss in six games to the Boston Red Sox.

Don’t forget that Cincinnati recently dispatched of veteran manager Dusty Baker after three straight trips to the postseason came up empty.

Ilitch is 84 years old and, if you believe reports, may not be in the best of health. Thus, he may not have the luxury of patience and may see the window of opportunity for the franchise starting to close as wealthy, long-term contracts begin to squeeze the life out of an aging roster.

Even if Ilitch were to OK Leyland’s return with another in a series of recent one-year contracts, it may come with conditions.

And here’s where the veteran skipper, who turns 69 in December, might get a bit stubborn.

Tiger announcer Jim Price, a former player, went on a mini-rant late in Saturday night’s radio broadcast from Boston.

He predicted changes, mentioned Leyland, but made it clearer that alterations might be needed on his coaching staff. Without naming names, it was obvious Price was targeting hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.

Price made the point that the team’s younger hitters have regressed. Outfielder Andy Dirks, for example, hit .322 in 88 games a year ago, but was a bust by late-season 2013 and got only six plate appearances in the playoffs. Alex Avila, the catcher, was another example. An All-Star in 2011 with a .295 average, Avila has dipped to .243 and .227 at the plate the last two seasons, although to be fair injuries may have been something of a factor.

McClendon played for Leyland in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s and later managed the Pirates, as did longtime Leyland confidante Gene Lamont, currently the Tigers’ bench coach. Both have been on Leyland’s staff throughout his tenure in Detroit and the skipper is loyal to a fault.

Despite his success and relative popularity, the sometimes emotional, sometimes crusty Leyland is a polarizing figure among Detroit’s fans with his itchy bullpen trigger finger despite having the game’s best starting rotation.

His moves worked during much of the regular season, but not in some key situations in the Red Sox series. He also showed an affinity for too-early defensive substitutions that took more dangerous bats out of the lineup and backfired when leads were erased.

No one can dispute his gears are always grinding and after 22 seasons and more than 3,460 games, Leyland is a future Hall-of-Fame manager in some minds.

We should learn very quickly into which camp Ilitch falls.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.