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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

WS PREVIEW: Tigers have been built to win, but had to figure out how

DETROIT — It was a learning experience for the Detroit Tigers in 2006.

Not necessarily from a franchise standpoint, even thought it had been 13 seasons — and the span of five managers — since the Tigers had posted a winning record.

No, it was more a learning experience as a team, because a talented collection of players needed to jell together into a winner.

And it started with having the attitude of a winner, learning how to have an edge about them.

“That’s what I preached to my team in 2006. When I took the team in 2006, they laughed at me because I said I really don’t know these guys. I was talking about I didn’t know the players’ personalities. But I knew in 2006, when I took over the team, it was a very talented team that had no idea how to win. And they figured it out. It wasn’t me, THEY figured it out,” said Jim Leyland, who was in his first season at the helm of the Tigers at the time, but had a long resume of winning.

“You try to send (the message) from time to time, but you can’t force it on anybody. You can’t force yourself on anybody, as a manager. You can’t make people ... they gotta be what it takes. You can talk until you’re blue in the face. But those guys figured it out, because they knew they were talented.

“They were a talented team. I know, I watched them, I saw them. They were talented. But they had no clue what it was to win as a team. They knew what it was to have some pretty good individual stats — and I don’t mean that disrespectfully to those guys. That’s just the way it works.

“But there was a lot of talent here. It wasn’t by mistake that team got to the World Series.”

Leyland had this reminiscing conversation in one of his daily news conferences in mid-June, in part to make a point. His team had just rallied to cut a six-game divisional deficit down to just two games, and get back within one game of .500. It would be another 17 games before the Tigers would get back to even, though, right before the All-Star break.

At the time, it still seemed to the boss like there was something missing in his team, an element of “dirtbag” player who will do the little things to make sure his team wins. A thought process that ‘We’re GOING to win,’ rather than, ‘We’re probably going to win.’

“When you’ve got some really good players, we’ve got some stars – but it takes more than stars. ... I’m not talking about a dirtbag personality, I’m talking about a dirtbag player. This is a guy that does whatever it takes to win, you know, wins at all costs — under the rules,” Leyland said. “Well, we just need a little mean streak. We’ve got a wonderful clubhouse and a wonderful group of guys, and I wish we had a little more (butt)hole in us. That’s kind of putting it blunt. ...

“They really are. They’re a bunch of great guys. I wish they’d have a little meaner streak in them from 7-10, and just kept that other personality the rest of the time. That little edge.

“If you watch all the good teams in all sports, over the history of sports, they all got a little different swagger to them. You call it cocky, you call it whatever you want. But they’ve got a little swagger to them.”

This year’s team would eventually develop that killer instinct, too.

That swagger.

The mentality that had them constantly telling those pesky White Sox kids to get off their lawn.

The mentality of taking an extra base. Or sliding hard to break up a double play (ahem, Andy Dirks). Or lifting the ball for the sacrifice fly, when the opponent has walked the previous hitter to get to you (see: Don Kelly). Or running flat out, like a runaway locomotive anytime there’s a chance to leg a double out of a single, even if you aren’t the fleetest afoot (Prince Fielder ring a bell?).

It’s making things happen.

That’s the way the Tigers played down the stretch, as this team, too, learned how to win.

While it’s a very distinct similarity to the 2006 squad — obviously glaring, since both ended up in the World Series — there are some very vast differences, too.

While the 2006 team was a collection of talented players who were at the peak or downside of their prime, the 2012 team is much younger, built around a core group of players just entering their primes.

That would indicate a window of opportunity that might be open a little longer.

“I think it is pretty sustainable. Last year we got to the ALCS and felt like we fell a little short. I felt like it was because of injuries at the wrong time of the year, and I felt like we had a chance to make the next step last year, but I also felt like we had an incredibly good team and talented team in 2010 when I came over," Phil Coke said. "So I think it’s pretty sustainable."

The oldest guy who will get a start in the field for the Tigers in the World Series is Gerald Laird at 32. After him, the oldest regular is 30-year-old Omar Infante, who is just the NINTH-oldest position player who’s suited up for the Tigers this year. Jhonny Peralta, who is five months younger than his newest double-play cohort, is the only other starter 30 or older.

Miguel Cabrera, for all that it seems like he’s been in the big leagues for 25 years, won’t turn 30 until April.

By contrast, the 2006 team had eight starters who were 29 or older. The then-25-year-old Curtis Granderson was the spring chicken of the bunch.

That young core — which includes Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander — coupled with a run of relative success in the span between the two most recent World Series appearances that make the Tigers a hotter commodity than they had been. It’s much easier to attract stars in free agency than it had been when team president Dave Dombrowski first took over here.

“We have a very appealing franchise for people to watch, if they want to watch because they’re attracted to stars. There’s no question, when you have a guy that was the Cy Young and MVP award winner in Verlander, when you have Cabrera, a Triple Crown winner, Fielder is one of the best hitters in the game, in the prime of his career. Those three guys are stars. Austin Jackson’s coming along, Scherzer’s in this — so we’ve got some other guys at that (level),” Dombrowski said.

“But one thing about this club, and every one of those guys — they don’t act like superstars. They bust their tail. They all work. Sometimes, you’ll see a star with a prima donna attitude. That couldn’t be further from the way our club handles themselves. And those three guys lead the way, because they bust their tail every single day.”

The Tigers have, indeed, become one of the upper-echelon franchises in MLB.

It took the blockbuster signing of catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez to start the ball truly rolling.

“Well, you know, when I came, I came from — in ’03, the World Series with the Marlins and came here. And that year it was the year they — the Tigers lost like 116. And everybody is telling me why you came to the club?” Rodriguez said.

“And the reason I came here is because I saw the talent. When I came here, they just tried to rebuild the team and bring in some new faces, new team, new players, and that’s what they did.

“Dombrowski ... when we’re talking in the negotiations, he told me that he’s going to put a winning team together. And basically that’s what he did. I signed, you know, Magglio signed, Magglio Ordoñez signed. They got a trade for (Carlos) Guillen to the ballclub and Cabrera.

“And you can see the results right now. The way the team plays right now, came in the World Series, we — after two years, you know, ’06 we were in the World Series like Dave told me.

“And after that, everything was history. The team becomes a winning team, always in the pennant race. And that’s the reason that they play so well right now.”

The Tigers have also been built into a win-now operation with astute trades, whether it be picking up Guillen for Ramon Santiago and a minor leaguer, or picking up current shortstop Jhonny Peralta for a low minor leaguer. Three-quarters of the playoff rotation of Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez came to the team by way of trade.

This year’s trade deadline deal, acquiring Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante from the Miami Marlins, may not have paid immediate dividends, but it’s a large part of the reason the Tigers are here. Sanchez stabilized the back end of the rotation, which had been held down by rookies for most of the season, while Infante stopped the revolving door at second.

“I’m sure, as (the Marlins) look on, they’re going to be very happy with the three guys they got. But I think from our perspective, as I said to our people all along, we know we’re giving up a lot, but for it to be a successful trade for us, we need to win our division and go into the posteason,” Dombrowski said.

“We have done that, so in that sense, it’s not like we gave up the guys that were going to be good, and then weren’t able to make it. That would not have been a good formula for me.

“We would’ve still made the deal, because we had a hole at second base, and needed another starting pitcher. But I’m sure people would have written it was not a successful deal, and would have had much more chance to poke holes in it — and I understand that.

“Ultimately, you’re judged from the outside on the results. Internally, though, it was the right move to make, no matter what, and I’m glad that it helped us win.”

Email Matthew B. Mowery at and follow him on Twitter @matthewbmowery. Text keyword “Tigers” to 22700 to get updates sent to your phone. Msg & data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.

Acquired by draft 
Ryan Raburn, UT — 5th round, 2001
Justin Verlander, RHP — 1st round, 2004
Brennan Boesch, OF — 3rd round, 2006
Rick Porcello, RHP — 1st round, 2007
Danny Worth, IF — 2nd round, 2007
Alex Avila, C — 5th round, 2008
Andy Dirks, OF — 8th round, 2008
Drew Smyly, LHP — 2nd round, 2010
Bryan Holaday, C — 6th round, 2010

Acquired by signing 
Brayan Villarreal, RHP — non-drafted FA, Oct. 25, 2005
Ramon Santiago, IF — minor league FA, Dec. 12, 2005
Avisail Garcia, OF — non-drafted FA, July 6, 2007
Don Kelly, UT — minor league FA, Jan. 14, 2009
Jose Valverde, RHP — Jan. 26, 2010
Al Alburquerque, RHP — Nov. 19, 2010
Joaquin Benoit, RHP — Nov. 19, 2010
Quintin Berry, OF — minor league FA, Nov. 9, 2011
Gerald Laird, C — Nov. 18, 2011
Octavio Dotel, RHP — Dec. 9, 2011
Prince Fielder, 1B — Jan. 27, 2012

Acquired by trade 
Miguel Cabrera, 3B — From Florida Marlins in 8-player trade on Dec. 5, 2007
Phil Coke, LHP — From NY Yankees in 6-player, 3-team trade on Dec. 9, 2009
Austin Jackson, OF — From NY Yankees in 6-player, 3-team trade on Dec. 9, 2009
Max Scherzer, RHP — From Ariz. D’backs in 6-player, 3-team trade on Dec. 9, 2009
Jhonny Peralta, SS — From the Cleveland Indians, for Giovanni Soto, July 28, 2010
Doug Fister, RHP — From Seattle Mariners in 6-player trade on July 30, 2011
Delmon Young, DH/OF — From Minnesota Twins for Lester Oliveros, Aug. 16, 2011
Omar Infante, IF — From Miami Marlins in five-player trade on July 23, 2012
Anibal Sanchez, RHP — From Miami Marlins in five-player trade on July 23, 2012


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