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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2005

Tigers much improved since '03

Three years ago, the Detroit Tigers' organization had the distinction of being the most inept in baseball.

Alan Trammell's first season as manager was a daily test of his patience and perseverance.

The once-proud franchise had become the ugly mutt of the major leagues, and the rebuilding process appeared to be imploding, given the carnage of a 119-loss season.

The Tigers started 0-9 in 2003, and became the first team to lose 60 games by July. About the only thing Detroit did right was win five of its last six games.

That allowed the Tigers to finish 43-119, and narrowly took them off the hook as the worst team of the modern baseball era - the 1962 expansion New York Mets lost 120 games.

When Alan Trammell signed up to be the Tigers' manager in 2003, he didn't have much major league talent on the roster. When Alan Trammell signed up to be the Tigers' manager in 2003, he didn't have much major league talent on the roster.
WADSWORTH / BLADE Enlarge

Trammell and the Tigers never had a chance, especially with the perceived incompetence among the Tigers' top executives.

"I don't know how much 2003 counts," Trammell said earlier this week. "We were trying to keep the ship afloat. We had to clean some things up."

Trammell was forced to play minor league talent at numerous positions, and other players were rushed to the majors too quickly, including pitcher Jeremy Bonderman.

"At the time, there was no commitment from the owner to spend any money," Dmitri Young said. "We had Rule 5 guys on our team, and we had guys who should have been in Double-A that we're starting in the big leagues.

"So Alan was more of a teacher than a manager. And that was a bad position for him to be in. It wasn't fair."

Trammell, a six-time All-Star shortstop who played 20 seasons for the Tigers and helped lead them to their last World Series championship in 1984, tried to stay upbeat. It wasn't easy.

After that dreadful 2003 season, owner Mike Ilitch knew he had to do something drastic. He signed catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million contract. All Rodriguez did was finish fourth in the American League with a .334 batting average with 86 RBIs as the Tigers went 72-90 last year.

It was a 29-game improvement over the previous season, and came within one victory of the franchise record.

The Tigers have been rather quiet this off-season. They did sign closer Troy Percival to a two-year, $12 million contract, and he certainly will strengthen the bullpen.

And Detroit is currently courting free-agent outfielder Magglio Ordonez, who would be a great addition although he missed much of last season due to a knee injury.

Whether or not they sign Ordonez, who averaged 30 homers and 118 RBIs for the Chicago White Sox from 1999-2003, Trammell expects the Tigers, given up for dead by many just three years ago, to be competitive in the AL Central Division.

"The changes from 2003, there were so many of them, almost too many too count," he said. "We are a totally different team now. We have turned the page. Last year was a significant improvement. I don't think we can expect to improve 29 games this year, but we do expect to play better baseball.

"How many more wins is that going to be? I don't know. That's the challenge. That's what we're going to find out pretty soon."

Trammell, set to begin his third season as manager, really likes the Tigers' three young starting pitchers - Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Wilfredo Ledezma - although he doesn't have a bona fide ace on his staff. Trammell also is excited about the addition of Percival, who had 316 saves in a 10-year career with the Anaheim Angels.

"Our pitchers might not be the biggest household name guys, but everybody that's ever played this game has had to kind of earn it and pay their dues," Trammell said. "We feel we're going to be a pitching staff that's going to be reckoned with."

Then there's the offense. Rodriguez, Young and Carlos Guillen, who had a breakout season last year before it ended three weeks early with a torn ACL, will handle the middle of the lineup.

Trammell expects continued improvement from second baseman Omar Infante and first baseman Carlos Pena. And Trammell thinks former catcher Brandon Inge, who will become the team's everyday third baseman, has Gold Glove potential.

As of now, four outfielders are vying for three spots, including Rondell White, highly-overpaid Bobby Higginson, Craig Monroe and Alex Sanchez. Of course, that lineup would have to be reshuffled if Ordonez comes aboard.

Trammell insists the Tigers don't need career years from everyone on their roster to be competitive.

"Let's go back to 1984," he said. "We didn't have anybody hit 30 home runs. We didn't have anybody drive in 100 runs. We didn't have anybody win 20 games. And we won a world championship."

Perhaps it's a bit of a reach for Trammell, but if everyone on the Tigers' roster does his part at the right time, it could be done again.

Maybe just not in this decade.



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