Monday, October 21, 2013

End Of An Era In Detroit: Don’t Blame Jim Leyland

Detroit’s ugly exit from the 2013 American League Championship Series no doubt caused some of the faithful to second-guess manager Jim Leyland, especially some of the late-inning moves he made with his bullpen. But let’s be fair. Leyland, who retired as manager today after a terrific career that included eight exceptional seasons with the Tigers, didn’t exactly have many good options in that bullpen. In fact, he really didn’t have any. Detroit’s bullpen stunk.

The autopsy of the 2013 Detroit Tigers should conclude with two questions:

1.) How do you spend $150 million in payroll on a Major League Baseball team and decide somehow that you don’t need to spend any of that on a bullpen?

2.) Who makes such a decision and thinks it’s a good idea?

Not the manager, that’s for sure. The answer to both questions is general manager Dave Dombrowski, an accomplished and highly respected baseball executive whose feet nonetheless should be held to the fire for the makeup of Detroit’s relief corps. Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit won’t be mistaken for Mariano Rivera anytime soon, yet he was easily their best reliever. The dropoff after Benoit was immense. If the Tigers had just two competent relievers to pitch the seventh and eighth innings and bridge the gap between their other-worldly starters and the often-shaky Benoit in the ninth, then St. Louis would be heading to Detroit and not Boston for Game 1 of the World Series.

The bullpen wasn’t the only glitch in the construction of the Detroit roster. The Tigers’ everyday lineup had to be the oldest and least athletic in all of baseball. Aside from shortstop Jose Iglesias, acquired from Boston at the trade deadline July 31, and center fielder Austin Jackson, the Tigers are slow and plodding. And aging.

Third baseman Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in the game, is an unathletic 30 years old. He limped down the homestretch with some sort of leg or hip injury that serious compromised his production, and went 11-for-42 in the Tigers’ two postseason series, homering twice and driving in seven runs.

Right fielder Torri Hunter, 38 years old, was 9-for-45 with two RBIs in two postseason series. Second baseman Omar Infante was 8-for-39 and looked every one of his 31 years. Slugging first baseman Prince Fielder — 29 years old but going on 39, at least 50 pounds overweight and as nimble as a three-legged elephant — went 9-for-40 in two postseason series without an RBI or a home run.

In fairness, it should be noted that Detroit got production from two of its aging hitters. Designated hitter Victor Martinez, now 34, was 17-for-42 in the postseason with four doubles and a home run. Shortstop turned outfielder Jhonny Peralta, 31, served a 50-game sentence for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, but returned for the playoffs and was 11-for-33 with four doubles and a homer. And that was it. The rest of the Detroit offense was thoroughly punchless.

Given the makeup of an awful bullpen and a broken-down lineup, Leyland did a terrific job managing this team as far as he did. Sure, he had the best starting pitching in the American League, and starting pitching wins in October. But he also had a bad bullpen and a station-to-station offense that didn’t hit. Bad bullpens lose in October. So do slow lineups that fail to keep the line moving. The Tigers were fatally flawed and none of that was Leyland’s fault.

In eight years in Detroit, Leyland managed the Tigers to a pair of World Series. He might have won both if his team hadn’t clinched the ALCS so quickly. While the Cardinals in 2006 and the Giants a year ago played out a full slate in the NLCS and went into the World Series with momentum, the Tigers spent nearly a week each time sitting, watching and growing stale from inactivity. No amount batting practice, simulated games or scrimmages against your instructional league team can make up for not playing real games. The Tigers paid for it both times. Maybe they’d have lost anyway, but after buzzing through the ALCS without breaking a sweat either year, Detroit came out flat, played horribly in both World Series and got blown out.

Jim Leyland’s legacy in Detroit should have nothing to do with losing the 2006 or 2012 World Series, or the 2013 ALCS. Leyland should be remembered as the guy who took over an awful team and immediately made it a winner. In the three years before he took over as skipper in 2006, the Tigers lost an average of 100 games a year, including a horrific 43-119 season in 2003. They went 95-67 his first year. The Tigers had one losing season under Leyland, won three division championships and came within a game of first place twice. They averaged 88 wins a year and won a pair of American League pennants.

His eight years compare favorably with the best managerial performances in franchise history. That, and not this year’s ALCS flameout, should be Jim Leyland’s legacy in Detroit.

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