Leyland looking to forget last season
Tigers manager wants to restore team's confidence
LAS VEGAS -- Jim Leyland stepped into the media room at last year's Winter Meetings with the aura of a World Series favorite and a crush of reporters at his table. The Tigers had just traded for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, and Detroit looked like a Major League power.
One year and a last-place finish later, he didn't have to worry about a crowd this time around as he sat down to a scattering of reporters and a couple microphones. But then, he isn't worrying about the low expectations, either.
If people want to feel sorry for his situation, or write off the Tigers just as quickly as they were crowned a year ago, he doesn't care. He has his own idea of what his team can do.
"We have a good ballclub," Leyland said Wednesday morning at baseball's Winter Meetings. "We have a very good team. ... We have some issues, but we've got a very good baseball team, potentially a very good team. Do we have some holes to fill yet? Yes, absolutely. But there's not many perfect teams."
The Tigers are obviously far from perfect. Leyland's assertion is that they're not that far away compared to everyone else.
"I think that we need to get that confident but professional swagger back," Leyland said, "and I think we lost that last year. I think, for one thing, we were asking some people to do things that they weren't capable of doing, and I think that's very unfair. I think some of our veteran players were probably disappointed."
If it's swagger the Tigers need, it's a flashback, since it was one of the defining points of his 2006 season. He declared in Spring Training that year that his club needed a swagger, and they built one through their play. Now, as Leyland enters the final year of his current contract, a situation that he tried to quiet Wednesday, it's the challenge on which his season and his future could ride.
"Players are smart," Leyland said. "You know, when you have as many injuries as we did, as well as other clubs, players aren't dumb. They're very perceptive to what goes on, and they know when you're going out there undermanned. They know when you're bringing people in to pitch that it's kind of a crap shoot whether or not they're going to be successful. I'm not saying that's right, but that's the way it is.
|"Last year, we walked way too many people, and there's no defense for that."|
|-- Jim Leyland|
Regaining that swagger is probably not going to include a rah-rah speech from Leyland. That isn't his nature. What he wants to give his club is a fresh start and a short memory, basically a way to erase 2008.
"Everybody," Leyland said, "has got to get over that."
But as he admitted, it isn't just going to simply take a change in mentality. It's going to take a change in fortune, especially in health.
Jeremy Bonderman, who missed half the season following surgery to repair an obstructed artery, needs to be a productive pitcher for the full season. His progress is enough that the Tigers are counting on him to take a rotation spot alongside Justin Verlander and Armando Galarraga.
"After that," Leyland said of the rotation, "I'm not sure."
In the bullpen, the Tigers are trying to put themselves in the position where they aren't doomed if Joel Zumaya doesn't return at full strength or misses part or all of the regular season.
"I don't want to get overly confident and just say, 'Oh, everything will be all right," Leyland said, "because that doesn't work. I'm hoping that he's all right. I think he's going to be all right."
Adding a closer will answer that to a point, erasing any reliance on Zumaya in the ninth, but the Tigers will need Fernando Rodney to emerge as a consistent performer, no matter what role he's in.
"Is the stuff there [to close]? Yes," Leyland said. "Is the poise and the charisma there yet? Sometimes, not all the time."
One advantage Leyland sees in that regard is Rodney's pending free agency next offseason. In other words, while the poise has been inconsistent, the motivation next season is going to be constant.
Beyond that, Leyland pointed to the Tigers' need for solid starting pitching. He believes that Nate Robertson's offseason workouts will give him a better chance to be effective after a down season that saw him pulled from the rotation in August. He'll wait and see how Dontrelle Willis' workouts leave him looking when he reports to Spring Training. He expects Verlander to be back to his old form next spring, and he wants to emphasize to Galarraga not to get wrapped up in expectations after his breakout 2008 season.
The Tigers' defensive upgrades should help all of them. But in the end, Leyland pointed out, they have to pitch better as a team to take advantage of it.
"The thing that goes along with that, the most important thing for our club, is it's huge if you throw strikes and make them put the ball in play," Leyland said. "Last year, we walked way too many people, and there's no defense for that. That's one thing we're going to have to cut down on. Having a great defensive infield or outfield means nothing if you're walking people."
Healthy or not, having a swagger is difficult for a team that gives opponents extra chances to win, whether through pitching or defense. If the Tigers can drop those, they could have reason for confidence. And Leyland could be vindicated for his belief in his club.
"People can speculate all year long if they want," Leyland said of his situation. "They can write what they want all year long. But no matter where you are or what your contract is, if you do good, you stay, if you don't, at some point you go."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.