Tigers growing future on farm Detroit sacrifices short-term success in bid for slow fix

Around the AL East

February 27, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

LAKELAND, FLA. — With expectations running high for the Orioles, The Sun is looking at the other teams in the AL East. Today's preview is the second of a four-part series:

Tomorrow: Blue Jays

! Thursday: Red Sox

LAKELAND, Fla. -- It isn't easy being the soft underbelly of the American League East, but the new-look Detroit Tigers will not apologize if they end up at the bottom of the division. They don't have to worry about impressing anybody this year, because the future isn't now.

"When you try to win every year, you don't ever win," said new general manager Randy Smith.

Perhaps that should be the organization's unofficial motto as it heads into a new era. The Tigers have spent lavishly over the past decade in a largely unsuccessful effort to stay competitive in one of baseball's toughest divisions. Now, the newly restructured front office is ready to sacrifice the 1996 season -- and next year, too -- if that is what it takes to create a contender in Detroit.

No one is ruling out a miracle like the one that almost occurred in Baltimore in 1989, but Smith and club president John McHale are comfortable with the likelihood that the Tigers will be closer to the other end of the standings. The organization has reduced payroll and refocused attention on scouting and player development, leaving rookie manager Buddy Bell to create a learn-as-you-grow environment.

"Buddy is a development-minded guy," Smith said. "He really understands that the backbone of an organization and the only way to be a consistent winner is scouting and player development. There is no such thing as a quick fix."

There is, however, such thing as a quick turnover. The Tigers' organization has been overhauled at every level. After the club finished in fourth place last season, Smith replaced Joe Klein as general manager and hired Bell to replace longtime manager Sparky Anderson. The Tigers began selling off their high-salaried players last season and continued to make sweeping changes during the off-season, even letting go of longtime second baseman Lou Whitaker.

More than half of the players who were on the 40-man roster a year ago have been replaced -- largely by modestly priced free agents, Triple-A prospects and minor-league castoffs from other organizations. A few quality veterans remain, but no one is trying to pass the club off as a contender.

"What we're determined to do is rebuild the organization and rebuild it right," said McHale. "If that costs us some pain at the top of the organization for a short period, we're ready to accept that."

Make no mistake, the Tigers aren't going through the motions this spring. The 1996 season will provide a framework for the future, so Bell and Smith are hoping to create the kind of positive environment that might allow the team to exceed its limited expectations.

"That would be great, but we can't fool ourselves," Smith said. "We have to be honest with where we are and the talent that we have."

Where they are is on the outside looking in at what appears to be a three-team AL East race. The talent they have is not impressive, especially in the starting rotation, but there are enough quality holdovers to keep the lineup from being a pushover.

First baseman Cecil Fielder showed up in camp in excellent shape. So did third baseman Travis Fryman and outfielder Chad Curtis. If shortstop Chris Gomez and outfield prospect Phil Nevin can step up at the plate, the Tigers could create enough excitement to make the '96 season a positive experience.

"I'm not going to concede 1996," McHale said. "[Boston Red Sox GM] Dan Duquette was smart enough to find Tim Wakefield and some great young outfielders last year. With the right combination of luck and scouting, you can find yourself in the wild-card race a lot sooner than imagined, but we're not going to do anything to sacrifice the long-term."

That's a difficult balance to strike. The trick will be trying to remain just competitive enough to keep the developing players from developing a losing attitude.

"You do that by bringing in medium-priced free agents who aren't going to cost you millions of dollars and aren't going to cost you draft choices," Smith said. "That's the main thing. We can't give up draft choices, and you can't spend $4 million or $5 million on a player."

Then it's a matter of translating the long-term management philosophy into a day-by-day approach that prevents the young players from losing confidence while gaining experience.

"I think that's where the veteran leadership of guys like [Alan] Trammell and Cecil Fielder and Travis Fryman comes in," Smith said. "And Buddy is a good communicator. He'll communicate that we're all in this together and you can't get down on yourself if there are a couple of bad stretches."

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