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Published: Sunday, 12/21/2008

Tigers' moves please Leyland

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Made to order?

In mid-sentence, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland pulled his cell phone away from his face so he could order french fries and a soda.

"In 2006 we were a good team that had a good year. In 2008 we were a good team that had a brutal year," Leyland said last week in a phone interview with The Blade after he was done with the cashier. "I'm really looking forward to this year because we still have good players. We just didn't play very good last year."

Leyland and the Tigers couldn't have ordered up a worse season in 2008, but they believe - and Leyland dearly hopes - a much better 2009 campaign is on the menu.

Despite owning baseball's second-largest payroll and bringing in all-stars like Miguel

Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, and Edgar Renteria, Detroit flopped in the face of World Series expectations and finished dead last in the American League Central at 74-88. The Tigers finished 12th in the American League in pitching, 13th in defense, and had huge problems with the back end of their bullpen.

General manager Dave Dombrowski is in the process of cleaning up that mess through offseason moves. He's acquired catcher Gerald Laird and starting pitcher Edwin Jackson via trades and signed free agent shortstop Adam Everett and backup catcher Matt Treanor last week.

None of those moves came with the same fanfare of netting Cabrera, Willis, and Renteria, but the

Tigers had neither the need for more big names nor the pocketbook.

"I'm very tickled with what Dave's done," Leyland said. "We were informed after the season that we would not be able to use more financial resources because our payroll was already so big. We have to be creative. I look forward to working with the team we've got."

Detroit's payroll is reportedly at $134 million right now and was north of $137 million at the start of last season.

Everett agreed to a one-year contract for $1 million and Treanor's one-year deal is worth a reported $750,000. Jackson and Laird are both eligible for salary arbitration.

The Tigers received Laird in a trade with Texas for a pair of young minor league pitchers. Dombrowski said Laird is a "sound defensive catcher" and will be Detroit's primary player at the position.

Jackson, who was acquired from Tampa Bay in exchange for up-and-coming outfielder and former Toledo Mud Hen Matt Joyce, won 14 games for the Rays last year and Everett is known for his defensive skills.

"Our focus this offseason was to improve our defense and our pitching, and the two really go hand in hand," Dombrowski said in a telephone interview. "With Brandon Inge at third base, Laird catching, and Everett at short with Ramon Santiago supporting him, we should be a much-improved team defensively. And Jackson won 14 games last year, so we've been encouraged by the moves we've made."

The Tigers are still looking to add to their bullpen and are particularly looking for a closer. They lost out on both Kerry Wood (signed with Indians) and J.J. Putz (traded to Mets), and may have to rely on incumbent Fernando Rodney if they can't find anyone by opening day on April 6.

Rodney missed about half the season with a shoulder injury and was erratic when he returned in 2008 (0-6, 4.91 ERA, 13 saves), but is pitching in winter ball and should enter spring training healthy. Dombrowski also said oft-injured flamethrower Joel Zumaya (shoulder) is on pace to begin throwing in January.

As Detroit continues to

attempt to solidify its pitching and defense, Dombrowski believes the Tigers' returning group of position players will be able to score enough runs. Cabrera led the AL with 37 home runs in 2008, Magglio Ordonez was fifth with a .317 batting average,

Curtis Granderson paced the junior circuit with 17 triples, and Carlos Guillen was the team's lone all-star.

"We've got a real good team," Leyland said. "We've got a premier right fielder [Ordonez], a premier first baseman [Cabrera], Granderson's a great player, Guillen. I've managed a long time and I think I know what I'm doing. I didn't take it too serious in 2006 when everyone thought we were great and I didn't take it too serious in 2008 when everyone thought we were brutal."

Leyland is entering the final year of a four-year contract himself and expressed disappointment after the season for not receiving an extension. He vocalized his frustrations over not being extended and it was perceived publicly that a rift had developed between Leyland and Dombrowski.

Leyland said last week that he wasn't mad at anyone because of his contract and knows his mix of returning all-star-caliber players and promising newcomers need to perform for him to keep his job.

"The only thing I was saying was I want to manage the Tigers," Leyland said. "We had a brutal year. I don't want to manage just one more year, so we have to do well. If we don't, I'm sure they'll be looking for a different manager."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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