The bullpen and defense are two areas where Detroit needs to improve significantly if the Tigers are to follow their improvement this season with another year of advancement in 2005.
The Tigers were the worst defensive team in the league for the second consecutive season, something manager Alan Trammell said would be unacceptable for 2005.
"It'll be awfully difficult to move up if we're last in defense," Trammell said. "It makes it too tough to win close ballgames when you give away extra outs. We can't afford to be last (in defense) and make the kind of improvement that we expect to make next year."
Some defensive improvement will come as a matter of course.
Installing Brandon Inge as the regular third baseman will plug one of the holes, but reducing the 32 outfield errors will be difficult if Detroit doesn't change its cast of characters in the outfield. One of the offenders, Craig Monroe, cut down his careless early season errors as he went from part-timer to regular, but he figures to be playing nearly all the time next year.
Trammell said repeatedly over the final month of the season Detroit's relief staff would be overhauled. The absence of closer RHP Ugueth Urbina put an untenable strain on the bullpen.
Detroit ended with 72 wins but lost at least a half-dozen games because the relief pitchers could not hold leads. It accented a trend that surfaced periodically throughout the season.
The collapse of the bullpen and some weak late inning hitting sent Detroit from the fringes of a battle for third place in the AL Central as August neared its end to its final resting place, 20 games out of first.
Some questions remain for internal discussion and resolution.
Detroit will have to decide whether or not to bring back CF Alex Sanchez -- and, if not, who plays center? Do the Tigers, indeed, put Inge at third and go after a solid backup catcher? Do they rely on Rondell White and Craig Monroe to give them the outfield production they needed most of the season? Do they spend a ton of money on a front-line starter or trust that RHP Jeremy Bonderman and LHP Wilfredo Ledezma will do the job and let them spread the money around elsewhere?
"The theme for next year is we have to be more efficient," Trammell said. "If we do that we take the next step forward.
"(President/general manager) Dave Dombrowski and his staff will put together a game plan, present it to Mr. Ilitch, and I feel comfortable Mr. Ilitch will allow us to do some things."
--Alan Trammell completed his second season managing the Tigers and will find out by a Nov. 1 deadline whether the Tigers will pick up the option it holds on a fourth season. "I haven't really thought about it at this point," Trammell said, "but I feel good about myself. Things have always kind of fallen in place for me and somewhere along the line in the next month, I'll be told. I'm not worried about it. There is a fourth year, but it's not even crossed my mind. It's their choice, but I feel comfortable about the situation. I feel I've done what I'm supposed to do."
"We're very happy with the job he's done," President/General Manager Dave Dombrowski said, "but I'm not prepared to comment about it at this point other than that. I'll sit down after the season to discuss it with (owner Mike Ilitch)."
Detroit's entire coaching staff is expected to return, although only pitching coach Bob Cluck and bench coach Kirk Gibson are under contract for next year.
--RF Bobby Higginson became a 10-and-5 player (10 years in the majors, the last five with the same team) at the conclusion of the season, meaning he can veto any trade provided the Tigers don't decide to eat the final year of his contract and release him.
"I signed on for four years," he said. "I'm willing to fill my commitment. It's just up to them if I'm in their plans or not. I don't know what they're thinking."
Higginson is due $8.85 million next season no matter where or whether he plays. He understands that's out of whack with today's market.
"They let (Damion) Easley go," Higginson said, "and he had $14 million left. So you never know."
--Detroit finished with 32 outfield errors this season, most by any major league team since the Tigers made 33 in 2002. Only three Tiger teams since World War II have committed more outfield errors: 43 in 1996 and 35 in 1974.
--RHP Gary Knotts won his final two starts to put a nice finishing touch on his season. Knotts wound up 7-6 -- one less win than Opening Day starter RHP Jason Johnson -- for a team that was way under .500, and he did it even though he was bounced between starting and relieving.
"I do want to say he's done a heck of a job this year, however we've used him," said manager Alan Trammell. "A guy like that is very valuable for any club. It's a little added bonus for us."
Knotts said, "If they can't get the right-handed starter they're talking about in the offseason, or if somebody goes down, they know I'm a solid backup. I think that works in my favor. I really don't prefer one or the other, although if I had my druthers, as we say in the South, I'd probably say I'd be a starter."
In his last two starts he pitched like a player no long worried about staying in the majors. He flashed the sharp curve he needs to succeed, kept runners off the bases and kept things from spinning out of control when he did get into trouble.
--LHP Mike Maroth rebounded from a 21-loss season to go 11-13 despite losing his final start of the season Friday (Oct. 1).
"I feel real bad for Mike," manager Alan Trammell said. "If he could have gotten a little more luck this year ... he pitched outstanding ball and got a couple bad breaks."
Maroth was 6-6 with a 3.55 ERA in his last 15 starts. However in his final six starts they totaled seven runs of support while he was in the game.
"I felt I had a pretty good year, especially coming back after everything I went through last year," Maroth said, "but I'm definitely not satisfied. Next year I want to get even better."
The bullpen also blew five saves after Maroth left the game, and 15 of the 27 runners he left on base were allowed to score by his relievers.
--C Ivan Rodriguez and pitching coach Bob Cluck were seen arguing heatedly in the eighth inning of Detroit's 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Friday (Oct. 1).
Afterward the clubhouse was closed for an extended period of time, apparently to get the matter under control and keep it out of the papers.
"We don't have a problem," Cluck said. "The relationship between the pitching coach and the catcher is the most important one on the team. There's no problem. Water under the bridge.
"We just had a disagreement. I argue with my wife. We've been married for 36 years."
"I don't want to talk about that," Rodriguez said. "It was in the dugout. It stays in the dugout. We already talked about it. It's over. It's already behind. Clucky and I, we're fine. Nobody needs to know what happened."
--CF Alexis Gomez was claimed off waivers Friday (Oct. 1) by Detroit from the Kansas City Royals.
Gomez, who just turned 26, played in 13 games with the Royals this season and hit .276 with a double and four RBI. He batted .251 in Triple-A with 17 doubles, eight triples, seven home runs, 34 RBI and eight stolen bases in 109 games.
"He's a guy our scouts have liked for a few years," manager Alan Trammell said of Gomez, who will join Detroit in the spring.
Kansas City believes David DeJesus is its center fielder and it would have had to keep Gomez on its major league roster next year because he is out of options, a problem the Tigers will confront in the spring.
He is a left-handed hitter with speed who lacks patience at the plate, strikes out too much and whose stolen base totals have fallen as he moved up the system.
--SS Carlos Guillen showed up in the Detroit clubhouse Friday (Oct. 1) with his surgically repaired right knee in a brace after getting his ACL repaired earlier in the week. "It doesn't feel bad," Guillen said. "I can even bend it a little." Guillen said when he had the same surgery in 1999 "I was in bed for a week."
--RHP Jeremy Bonderman was terrific over his final nine starts of the 2004 season, leading Detroit to hope he's ready to take a major step forward next season. He was so good the Tigers were downplaying his dominance to keep a lid on expectations. "For us to be anointing him, I think you have to stay away from that," manager Alan Trammell said. "We'd like for him to develop sooner, but not because we're saying it.
"He has to go out there and pitch like that. We all feel he's a top-of-the-rotation guy, but top-of-the-rotation guys do that on a regular basis."
Bonderman was 6-10 with a 6.07 ERA until being told by Detroit to just go out and pitch. He ended 11-13 with a 4.89 ERA. Over his final nine starts he was 5-3 with a 2.32 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 19 walks in 58 innings and an opposing-team batting average of .201.
"I just started going after people," Bonderman said. "Attack the zone and make them hit my pitch."
Pitching coach Bob Cluck said Bonderman, who won't be 21 until later in the month, "won't be a star in this league until 2006."
Logan, hitting from his weaker left side, has battled back from a 1-2 count to draw a leadoff walk. He was in motion when Infante hit a single past the vacated shortstop position, and Tampa Bay CF Carl Crawford routinely threw in to second -- only to be startled at the sight of Logan making a no-stop dash for the plate.
"He flat-out can run," manager Alan Trammell said. "That play shows you what Nook Logan can do. If he can develop (as a hitter), he can be something special."
3B/C Brandon Inge said Logan's first-to-home dash "was probably the most unbelievable display of baserunning I've ever seen."
"I hate to say he has world-class speed," Trammell said. "But it's world-class-for-baseball speed. When you see it, it's so exciting.
"It gives you a taste of what he can do. If he can develop, he could be something special. If not, he'll be one of many. He's raw, very raw."
--RHP Jason Johnson, Detroit's Opening Day starter, was winless in his last seven starts to finish 8-15 with a 5.13 ERA.
"I'm not happy about it," said Johnson, who signed a two-year, $7 million contract before the season to assume the position of staff ace. Johnson blamed fatigue and said he will cut back on his in-season workout program next year.
"The last three years I've stuck with the same workout program throughout the whole year, never tailed off at all, and it's hurt me the second half (of the season)," Johnson said. "My shoulder starts to get tired. I kept working out (this season). That's something I'm definitely going to change and next year I'm going to come back strong the whole year."
Johnson was 3 1/3 innings shy of reaching 200 and was hurt at times by lack of run support.
"He knows he has to make some adjustments (in his workout regimen)," Trammell said. "He recognizes it, that somehow he needs to back off a little bit."
Johnson gave up four home runs in his last start, and 16 of the 22 he allowed came in Comerica Park.
"People talk about how this is a pitchers' ballpark," he said. "It's not even close to that. The only safe haven is center field for any pitcher here. The ball jumps out of left and right field."
The figures of Detroit pitchers would dispute that, but Johnson did pitch better on the road than at home this year. He was 4-10 with a 5.98 ERA in 19 home starts and 4-5 with a 4.14 ERA away from home.
He won once after the All-Star break, beating Chicago on July 29 at Comerica Park. After that he was 0-7 in 11 starts with a 7.13 ERA. He started 33 games and the Tigers won only nine of them.
--3B Eric Munson keeps giving Detroit pause. Munson hasn't fielded well enough nor has he hit well enough to retain his spot as the regular third baseman. Still, he flashed enough power this year so that the Tigers will have to argue for some time whether to pay him the minimum $1.2 million it will have to pay to keep him on the bench next year.
The major league contract Munson signed as the No. 3 draft choice in the country in 1999 expired at the end of the season. He made $1.5 million this year, and Detroit can only cut him 20 percent without releasing him.
Munson hit his 19th home run last week (a game-winner) and ended the season barely getting more than 300 at-bats.
Moreover, his home runs come at good times. He has hit 16 with a difference of three runs or less in the score, and 10 have tied the score or put the Tigers ahead.
Curiously, Munson has barely hit .200 against right-handers.
"Eric is still a guy who's a threat," manager Alan Trammell said. "He has power, and that's a tool which is hard to come by. As much as there's been some frustration from his side and from our side, he's still a guy that's a threat."
"I've never had to play like this," Munson said. "I've never been in and out and not play a week at a time. It's an adjustment for me, and I haven't done a good job of adjusting to it.
"That's one thing you have to learn. It's a game of adjustments and I haven't made too many adjustments this year."
BY THE NUMBERS: 29 -- Increase in victories by Detroit from 2003 (43 wins) to 2004 (72).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We just had a disagreement. I argue with my wife. We've been married for 36 years." -- Pitching coach Bob Cluck on his heated argument with C Ivan Rodriguez, seen in the Detroit dugout Friday (Oct. 1) in the eighth inning of Detroit's 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay.
POSSIBLE CHANGES IN 2005:
--Beefed up bullpen: At least six wins were turned into losses the last month of the season, exacerbated by the absence of closer RHP Ugueth Urbina. Help must be found for LHP Jamie Walker (is LHP Steve Colyer up to the task?), and Detroit must decide whether to gamble on RHPs Franklyn German and Roberto Novoa or go outside for high-priced help. The Tigers want to retain free agent RHP Esteban Yan, who was used outside his comfort zone.
--Better outfield boppers: How many teams don't get 100 RBI from one of their outfielders? Not many -- and Detroit is one. Production from RF Bobby Higginson has been off for three years now, and he figures to be a high-priced part-time player unless the club decides to munch on his $8.85 million contract and release him. LF Rondell White had a superb first half, but a subpar second, slumping after the All-Star break and then being hurt by injuries. OF Craig Monroe hit for average but not power in the first half but picked it up in August (again) and looks as if he'll be a regular next year. CF Alex Sanchez was MIA after July 7 (40 ABs), and Detroit found out his pluses were equal to his minuses.
--Pick up the pieces or let them lay: Improving the offense was the mandate after 2003; this winter it's shoring up the defense, which means serious decisions are due concerning CF Alex Sanchez and 3B Eric Munson. Sanchez is the best bunter in baseball and a major disruptive force on the bases -- but also a maddeningly un-instinctive center fielder with a weak arm. He's eligible for arbitration, so Detroit may elect to pink-slip him and try to get by with OF Craig Monroe (but who backs him up?) until it can get CF Nook Logan or CF Curtis Granderson ready, or it might sign him and deal him when the time is right. Munson hit 19 home runs in barely more than 300 ABs, which could put him in the 35-45 range with 100 RBI as a full-time player even if he did barely hit .200. Is that enough to live with his mediocre defense? (But remember, he's played third for only two years.) Could he contribute as a subpar backup defensive C/3B/1B? Detroit will have to pay him at least $1.2 million because the major league contract he signed as the third pick of the 1999 draft has now run out.
STATE OF THE FARM SYSTEM:
The farm system mirrors the major league team. How could the Tigers get worse in 2004 than their 43 wins in 2003? How much worse can a farm system be that has produced no impact players for decades? That could be about to change. Emphasis on pitching should start paying off in 2005-06, and some position players could challenge for jobs in the next two years. CF Curtis Granderson and 2B Ryan Raburn got a taste of the majors in September, and SS Tony Giarratano could be next. Caution flag: Arm problems have afflicted the top pitchers in the system.
PROSPECTS TO WATCH IN 2005:
--CF Curtis Granderson displayed shock in his first game at spacious Comerica Park but has a shockingly good arm and looks able to handle the dimensions once he's ready offensively. Granderson answered all the questions with a standout year for Double-A Erie (.301-21-94), breaking through for .343 average and 16 home runs in his final 62 games. He's ticketed to begin next year in Triple-A.
--2B Ryan Raburn struck out 15 of his first 22 at-bats and will have to speed up his bat, but he got two hits in the final game of the season for Detroit. Slowed by injuries the previous two years, Raburn oiled out the rust and overcame a .200 start to hit .364 over his final 58 games for Erie, finishing .301-16-63. Just switched to second base from third, so there's room for a lot of defensive improvement. Will open 2005 at Toledo.
--CF Nook Logan would be a lock to replace CF Alex Sanchez if he could hit left-handed as well as he bats right-handed. Billed as the fastest major league player since Willie Wilson of KC, he's got loads of work to do on his bunting and left-handed hitting but will spend this offseason getting stronger and improving his port-side punch. A big plus for him is that he hit .263 in Triple-A and looked better (and supremely motivated) once he got to the majors. His speed is electric -- he scored from first, easily, on a hit-and-run single to left center. Defensively he's got it all over Sanchez in range, arm and routes to the ball. Would move Granderson to right if they both make it.
--LHP Steve Colyer was up briefly with the Dodgers last season and made a couple of cameos with Detroit this year. Wildness has negated his mid-90s fastball and sharp curve, but he was effective in nine of his last 10 one- and two-batter appearances for Detroit this September and could provide much-needed help for LHP Jamie Walker. Disappointing in his results after being sent down early in the season, he seemed to be getting it in September.
--RHP Franklyn German has been up and down so many times with the Tigers over the last two years he should have a yo-yo tattooed on his forehead. He's walked roughly a batter per inning with Detroit, and the club has been waiting for him to get past his wildness so his low to mid-90s fastball and devastating split-finger can come into play. Was sharp his last two times out, so he'll go into the spring with a definite shot to make the team. Out of options, too.
MEDICAL WATCH: SS Carlos Guillen (right knee ACL surgery ACL Sept. 28) has a recovery time of 4-6 months that could have him ready for spring training,but the Tigers will be careful in hopes he'll be OK for opening day. CF Alex Sanchez (15-day DL Aug. 9, right quadriceps) batted just 40 times after July 7 because of hamstring and quad injuries, but arbitration eligibility could mean he won't be offered a 2005 contract. 2B Fernando Vina (60-day DL, right hamstring, 2/3-torn left patella tendon) declined surgery, which was iffy as far as a recovery, and is facing the end of his career. RHP Nate Cornejo (60-day DL, right shoulder surgery, labrum) is out until spring and will be brought back slowly. RHP Fernando Rodney (right elbow ligament transplant surgery, 60-day DL) has begun throwing lightly and hopes to be ready during spring training. RHP Chris Spurling (right elbow ligament transplant surgery, 60-day DL) is throwing again and hopes to be OK for spring training.