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Published: Thursday, 2/21/2008

Leyland to stars: hit the cutoff man

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Tigers manager Jim Leyland, left, and Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish would appear to have lots of talent available. Tigers manager Jim Leyland, left, and Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish would appear to have lots of talent available.
DUANE BURLESON / AP Enlarge

LAKELAND, Fla. - Jim Leyland gathered the 2008 Detroit Tigers together for the first time, addressing the full squad standing in a semicircle.

"We've got a good team, but don't get in a trap by bragging," Leyland told the players yesterday morning. "We're going to go about our business as professionals."

Before hearing the message, though, Edgar Renteria couldn't help himself.

"It's like a dream team," Renteria said.

Potentially, it certainly looks like it.

The Tigers have seven all-stars in their lineup, one of baseball's best pitchers to lead the rotation and a closer who has averaged 38-plus saves during the last three seasons.

They are not, however, flawless because of their Joel Zumaya-less bullpen.

"I don't know that we have many questions to answer, but that one is a big one. It's huge," Leyland acknowledged.

Detroit was great two years ago when it reached the World Series for the first time since 1984, then slipped to good last season when it contended for a playoff spot.

A flurry of moves during the offseason raised expectations and spiked interest among baseball followers from coast to coast - and beyond.

"People back home in Colombia are talking about this team," Renteria.

For the first time, newcomers Renteria, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis were on the same field with holdovers such as ace Justin Verlander, reigning AL batting champ Magglio Ordonez, all-stars Placido Polanco and Ivan Rodriguez along with closer Todd Jones.

More than 100 fans pressed against a fence as the Tigers stretched out and did agility drills.

Team president Dave Dombrowski, who put the team together with owner Mike Ilitch's money, walked on the field with a blue-and-orange sweater and an ear-to-ear grin.

"This is great," Dombrowski said. "We're ready to go."

Leyland is determined to make sure Detroit doesn't expect to simply suit up and let its talent take over.

"I don't want anybody at the end of the season to say, 'They've got really good players, but they didn't get guys over, they didn't hit the cutoff man,'•" Leyland said. "As a manager, I don't ever want to hear that we didn't play the game right.

"That's one thing that would stick in my craw if somebody said, 'They had Cabrera, Rodriguez, Ordonez and Polanco. But they didn't play the game right.'•"

The Tigers insist that will not be a problem.

"It doesn't matter what our team looks like on paper," Polanco said. "We still have to perform.

"Sure, we have talent. But we can't take anything for granted. We need to take every workout seriously and every opponent seriously."

Even though Detroit's improved roster has drawn rave reviews, Leyland insists the Tigers are not starting the season as a target.

"Last year, we were the team to beat. This year, we're not," Leyland said. "The way I look at it, the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox are the teams to beat."

Detroit will start the season without two relatively key players from last year: Zumaya, who is out until at least midseason with a shoulder injury, and Sean Casey, who signed with Boston.

Carlos Guillen shifted to first base, leaving a void at shortstop that Renteria filled. Cabrera turned third baseman Brandon Inge into a utility player. Newly acquired left fielder Jacque Jones becomes the left fielder on most days.

"Just because you pretty much have a set team, we have a lot of things to work on," Leyland said. "This will be the toughest spring since I've been here because you don't want to curb the excitement, but you want to control it and you don't want to lose sight of what you're doing.

"A lot of people are saying a lot of nice things about us, but if we don't do anything, they'll say a lot of bad things about us. We talk about being out of options, but if we don't do anything, I'll be out of options."



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