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Published: Sunday, 3/30/2003

Cutting Easley not easy but definitely right

Say what you want about Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. He's made his share of well-documented mistakes spending too much money on the wrong player or manager. Or not spending enough.

But even the most hard-boiled Ilitch critic will admit the best thing to happen to the Tigers was Ilitch not allowing finances to interfere with rebuilding his baseball team.

Every player is either an asset or a liability, depending on his contract, production and popularity/marketability.

But if a player is an asset, the amount of the contract shouldn't matter because other teams will take him, contract and all.

Ilitch: costly move Ilitch: costly move
PAUL SANCYA / AP Enlarge

Could 33-year-old Damion Easley be traded by the Tigers, $14 million-plus contract and all?

No. That's why he's worth more as an ex-Tiger, even if Ilitch has to eat the final two years of his contract.

This decision wasn't made easily. Easley's settlement is the largest that a big-league club has owed a player it has released.

Ilitch's surprising generosity, his about-face willingness to write off Easley's contract in a show of support for the youth movement endorsed by general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Alan Trammell, is priceless at any cost.

Easley's contract was not the problem.

Easley's production - his lack of production - was the problem.

Battling injuries, he hit .224 with 30 RBIs in 85 games last season.

In his breakthrough season in 1998, Easley hit .271 with 27 homers and 100 RBIs and made his lone appearance in the All-Star Game. His output, however, declined the next three seasons.

Easley's contract, calling for $6.7 million this year and next year with an $8 million option in 2005, was too pricey for a rebuilding team struggling at the gate.

His production didn't match his paycheck for a team that's better off evaluating young infielders such as Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante.

Easley and Trammell were teammates for a few games in Trammell's final season in 1996.

It speaks volumes that their association apparently had no influence in Trammell's decision to release him.

In other seasons, Ilitch had the opportunity to buy out contracts of underachieving, overpaid baseball players. But he wouldn't take the financial hit.

What Ilitch has been doing all these years resulted in a financial and on-field disaster.

Why do you think all those losing Tigers seasons keep happening?

Finally Ilitch, who also owns the wildly successful Detroit Red Wings, realized the Tigers needed total change in this regard.

Ilitch hired Dombrowski and put him in charge. Dombrowski fired general manager Randy Smith and manager Phil Garner.

After replacing Garner with Luis Pujols, Ilitch and Dombrowski collaborated in hiring the popular Trammell as manager.

Still, those were all cosmetic changes until Ilitch decided to put his money where his mouth is.

Releasing Easley is a start, a big start, in turning the franchise around.



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