Roster is old, but Tigers could be full of surprises

April 04, 1991|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Correspondent

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Management has engaged in some bitter in-fighting for control, with Bill Lajoie quitting as general manager.

Jack Morris has fled home to Minnesota, leaving the least effective starting staff in the American League without its workhorse.

With the additions of Rob Deer and Mickey Tettleton and with Cecil Fielder back from a 182-K year, they have a chance to challenge the single-season team strikeout record, set by the 1968 New York Mets.

Michigan lawmakers are sponsoring bills in an effort to save Tiger Stadium, the senior park in the league.

The roster is aging, the starting pitching questionable and the farm system just now recovering from a disastrous run in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, the Detroit Tigers remain an intriguing team, one that could finish almost anywhere in the wide-open East Division, depending on how several things break.

"A lot of people have us picked seventh," said manager Sparky Anderson. "But we tricked them last year, and maybe we can come right back."

The one thing that will change is Fielder's impact. Scorned for signing him to a two-year, $3 million contract to leave Japan, the Tigers sat back and smiled after the first baseman produced a season of legendary proportions.

Fielder had the first 50-homer season in the majors since 1977, the first in the league since 1961, and led the league in RBI, total bases, slugging percentage and extra-base hits. He hit a homer every 11.2 times at-bat.

Anderson acknowledged that Fielder is "probably the biggest all-around thing I've very lucked into in my [21] years as a manager."

Anything Fielder does for an encore will not be surprising unless he flops.

But all he wants is to "stay consistent. If I can hit well for average, get maybe 30 homers and drive in my runs, say about 100 for the second year in a row, I'll be satisfied and the team will be, too."

Fielder's leadership and their friendly park should enable the Tigers to challenge for the league home-run title they won with 172 last year.

Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker are capable of 20 apiece if healthy, Lloyd Moseby maybe 15. Deer and Tettleton should flourish in their new surroundings. And young Travis Fryman has some sock.

"We'll be swinging and the flags will be rustling at Tiger Stadium," said Tettleton, referring to the sluggers' penchant for all-or-nothing results.

Will the power show be enough? "We'd better score more than a lot," said Anderson. "But I ain't going to lose any sleep over it."

Besides Morris, the Tigers lost Jeff Robinson in the Tettleton trade. They must depend on relics like Frank Tanana and Walt Terrell and youngsters like Steve Searcy to get people out.

There are some pluses to the pitching staff, including the acquisition of Bill Gullickson, another ex-Japanese League player, who can consume innings (at least 29 starts the past seven major-league years) and relieve the loss of Morris.

And the bullpen, anchored by Mike Henneman and Jerry Don Gleaton, was fabulous last season, working a league-high 505 innings and converting 45 saves, third-highest total in club history.

Although Whitaker has slowed slightly and will share second base with Tony Phillips, the infield defense should be sound. Deer is an underrated gloveman, and Milt Cuyler is being compared to a young Gary Pettis in center.

So, the Tigers will be able to hold their own in the field.

But the way the rotation functions should determine how high they climb. If Anderson and his staff can coax one more big year out of Tanana, the kids progress and a surprise or two surfaces, Detroit has the offense to mount a challenge in this division.

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