Rebuilding Tigers throw new GM for a loss . . . or 43 Smith's uphill battle starts on the mound

June 04, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

The full scope of the situation began to dawn on Detroit general manager Randy Smith a couple of weeks into the March exhibition season. The Tigers won a few games early, playing respectably, and then they began to lose.

And lose. And lose.

Smith knew, when he assumed control of the Tigers last October, that he faced years of rebuilding. But, he acknowledges now, "It's more than I expected."

Since beginning this season 8-7, the Tigers have dropped 36 of 41 and are making a strong case for being one of the worst teams in baseball history. Should Detroit, which has not won more than two consecutive games, remain consistent in its current rate of futility, the Tigers would finish 38-124, a worse percentage (.234) than even the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics. Two years after winning the American League under Connie Mack, Philadelphia finished 36-117 for a .235 percentage.

The Tigers' pitching staff has compiled an ERA of 7.00, worse than the major-league record of 6.70, set by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1930.

The Tigers are to bad pitching what Albert Belle is to power hitting -- peerless -- and Detroit visits Camden Yards for three games against the Orioles beginning tonight. The three games promise to be explosive, given the combination of a hitter-friendly park (87 homers in the first 29 games) and a hitter-friendly Tigers pitching staff. No wonder Brady Anderson intends to play through the pain of a strained quadriceps muscle.

"It's difficult," said Smith. "You wonder every day and every night pTC if there's something you can do differently. But you come to the conclusion there isn't a whole lot you can do except change the parts."

Making one or two deals to improve the club is possible, at the expense of a farm system thin in prospects. But that won't serve the long-term goal of Smith and new manager Buddy Bell, of constructing the organization into a contender through scouting and development.

"We are not going to mortgage our future just to make this team look a little better now," Smith said. "I'm sure it's difficult for [the players]. But . . . they've handled themselves about as well as can be expected. They haven't quit, and they have given us a good effort. Most of these guys are trying to establish themselves in the majors, and so they're giving everything they've got."

Without much success. Ex-Oriole Gregg Olson, still searching for his elusive command, has a 6.00 ERA. Greg Keagle, one of the Tigers' most effective pitchers in April, was bombed in his start against the Chicago White Sox on Sunday, his ERA soaring to 8.31. Left-hander Mike Myers, suited to be a specialist against left-handers, has had to expand that role and has suffered the consequences, his ERA at 5.10.

They've lost by scores of 24-11, 13-4, 11-0, 12-5, lacrosse scores.

Smith said the Tigers don't even have a designated closer right now, "because we just aren't in that situation very often."

"The thing is, it always seems like we play to the level of our competition [early in the games], but then, each game, two or three things don't break right and we're not quite good enough to win."

Smith assumed control of the San Diego Padres in 1993 and, ordered by ownership to slash payroll, he began rebuilding that club; now, three years later, San Diego is in first place in the NL West, led by many of the players acquired by Smith, like Andy Ashby, Trevor Hoffman and Steve Finley.

However, Smith says, there is a huge difference between the project in San Diego then and Detroit now. When he became GM of the Padres, he had several strong commodities to trade -- All-Stars Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff, and pitchers Greg Harris and Bruce Hurst. That allowed him to make deals for Ashby, Hoffman, catcher Brad Ausmus and reliever Tim Worrell.

And the San Diego farm system was churning out a few prospects, like pitchers Joey Hamilton and Tim Worrell.

Detroit's minor-league system, according to one NL executive, is similar to that of the Orioles: almost barren in Double-A and Triple-A. There are no viable short-term solutions.

Rather than travel with the team this season, Smith has scouted, watched minor-league teams, prepared for today's draft. "The draft is huge for us," said Smith. "That's going to be critical for us long-term.

"Realistically, we knew in the off-season that we would struggle, and that the pitching was going to be a question for us. But we're finding out we do have a long way to go."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 7: 35

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Tigers' Greg Gohr (3-6, 6.00) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (7-2, 4.66)

Tickets: 4,200 remain

A mound of troubles

The pitching numbers tell the story for the 13-43 Detroit Tigers.

ERA: .. .. .. .. .. 7.00 .. .. Highest in AL

Saves: ... .. .. .. 6 .. .. .. Fewest in AL

HRs allowed: ... .. 94 . .. .. Most in AL

Walks: ... .. .. .. 284 ... .. Most in AL

Wild pitches: .. .. 34 . .. .. Most in AL)

The staff's longest scoreless streak is nine innings

The six relievers currently on the roster allow the first batter to reach base 43.7% of the time

Ten pitchers have started the game.

Five pitchers with the most starts have ERAs of 6.00, 6.40, 8.31, 9.35, and 9.78

The staff allows 11 hits per nine innings.

No pitcher has a winning record.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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