Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, left, speaks to fans Wednesday at the Mud Hens’ Fandemonium at Fifth Third Field as the American League championship trophy is displayed.
BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge
Jim Leyland came to Fifth Third Field on Wednesday night to apologize.
"I’m sorry the entire World Series lasted 6 hours and 7 minutes last year," the Tigers manager cracked.
All was forgiven.
Some 250 fans turned out to greet the Mud Hens’ parent team — also the defending American League champion — and kick off a season that will open with towering expectations.
A year after Detroit was swept from the World Series, Leyland and his band are back — and, as the Perrysburg native told the crowd, "ready to take it one step further this year."
It was not a hard sell.
The Tigers want to win now and have continued to prove their commitment by adding to a payroll that climbed to $134 million last year.
They signed outfielder Torii Hunter, who batted .313 with 92 RBIs for the Angels last season, to a two-year, $26 million deal and re-signed starter Anibal Sanchez to a five-year, $80 million contract — keeping intact a rotation that mowed through the 2012 postseason with a 1.02 ERA during the first two rounds.
The club also welcomes back Victor Martinez, which will further deepen a lineup that often nose-dived after Prince Fielder in the cleanup spot last year. Martinez batted .330 with 103 RBIs in 2011 before missing last season with a torn ACL.
"He’s good to go," Leyland told a group of reporters. "He missed a whole year, so you never know how it's going to play out, but if anybody's going to do it, it's going to be Victor.
"He's been relentless about his work ethic. All systems are a go."
The club’s biggest question mark is at closer, where 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon looks to replace the departed Jose Valverde. The hard-throwing Venezuelan climbed from Single A to Toledo last season, saving 29 games with a 1.53 ERA across three stops.
"We're going to give him an opportunity and take a look at him, see what he looks like, and we'll play it by ear," Leyland said. "One thing about it, he's got talent.
"I don't care how old he is, I like talent, and he's got a lot of it. If he throws it over the plate at 100 miles per hour, he'll do fine. ... I’m excited about the Rondon situation. That’s obviously going to be a big topic."
As for the neophyte’s ability to face the heat, say in the ninth inning of the Tigers’ home opener against the Yankees?
"When you put those three tiers on and the Yankees show up, who knows?" Leyland said. "I'm not smart enough to tell you what's going to happen. But I know one thing: It will be exciting because he's going to throw it hard. I don't know if he's going to throw it in the ocean, but he's going to throw it hard."
The rest of the team features plenty of knowns, which means Leyland knows this:
"If we play the way we're capable, we should give you a very exciting season," he told the crowd.
Hopefully, he added, with a better — and longer — ending in October, in the postseason.
"Maybe won't sweep the Yankees," hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said, laughing.
"We’ll take it to five or six games and go into the World Series a little sharper."
EXTRA INNINGS: Fans took swings in the batting cage and toured the stadium before heading to a moderated question-and-answer session with Leyland, McClendon, bench coach Gene Lamont, pitching coach Jeff Jones, and players Casey Crosby, Darin Downs, Bryan Holaday, and Danny Worth. ... Leyland said he values the Tigers’ relationship with the Mud Hens. As a first-year manager for Pittsburgh in 1986, the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate was the Hawaii Islanders. "We’d call a guy up, and you might not see him for a week and a half," Leyland said. "And as bad as we were, he might not want to come up. It’s a little different in Toledo. We can go to batting practice, if you're home and we're home, we can start batting practice, and if there’s an injury, there's a strong possibility we can have a player up here by game time. I can't tell you what a luxury that is." ... Leyland said Lamont’s move to the bench had nothing to do with the 66-year-old former third base coach’s ill-fated — and much-debated — decision to wave in Fielder during Game 2 of the World Series. "Trust me. Nothing. ... Gene got hit three times last year by line drives and one-hop shots. He got hit pretty good, and we just felt when you get to our age, you're not reacting quite as good." Tom Brookens will man the third-base box this season.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.