LAKELAND, Fla. -- Detroit Tigers general manager Randy Smith talked all last spring about his organizational rebuilding program. How the club wasn't going to worry about wins and losses. How the franchise would endure whatever short-term pain was necessary for the club's long-term gain. And he meant every word of it.
He just didn't know how painful the first year was going to be.
"It was embarrassing," Smith said. "We knew it was going to be a difficult year, but I don't think anybody felt we would be overmatched the way we were."
Overmatched would have to be considered a euphemism in this case. The Tigers lost 109 games, the most losses by a major-league team since the fledgling Toronto Blue Jays lost the same number in 1979. They had one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball history and ranked at or near the bottom of the American League in every positive statistical category.
Nobody expected them to be in contention -- and no one seriously believes that they will be very competitive this year -- but Smith decided that he could not allow the club's developing nucleus to get beat up that badly again. So, he pulled off a series of deals that upgraded the major-league roster and, he hopes, moved the Tigers closer to becoming a regular American League East contender.
"I don't know if we accelerated our plan," Smith said, "but after 109 losses, we had to do something to improve the major-league team. We still feel we were able to improve our foundation."
Smith's phone is never on the hook. He has completed 23 deals of various magnitude since the start of last season, streamlining the major-league roster and stocking the minor leagues with prospects. The centerpiece of the off-season face-lift was a nine-player deal that sent catcher Brad Ausmus and four prospects to the Houston Astros for major-leaguers Brian Hunter, Todd Jones, Doug Brocail and Orlando Miller.
The result is a team with a better idea of where it is going, even if it doesn't have much chance to get there this year.
"Every deal was made with an eye to the future," Smith said. "The Houston deal gave us a closer, a shortstop, a center fielder and a serviceable pitcher. We made three deals with San Diego. The first one brought us Melvin Nieves and Raul Casanova last year, and we made a deal for Brad Ausmus that in turn got us Hunter. Even the Cecil Fielder deal last year was made with the future in mind. We came out of that with three prospects and saved about $4 million."
Though Smith has not hesitated to go outside the organization for help, the emphasis on youth and player development has not changed. The goal still is to have a home-grown contender by 1999, the year the Tigers hope to move into a new downtown stadium.
"I think it's a lot more satisfying the way the Braves did it and the Indians did it -- to build it instead of buy it," Smith said. "At some point, you have to fill some holes with free agents, but I don't think it's as satisfying to go out and buy players and then say 'We're better.' The nucleus has to come from within."
That nucleus includes several promising young players already at the major-league level -- such as first baseman Tony Clark, outfielder Bobby Higginson and pitcher Justin Thompson -- but the next wave of good young minor-league talent is at the Double-A level and below.
Manager Buddy Bell isn't fooling himself into thinking that the club can contend for a wild-card spot this year, but he would like to see his young players get some meaningful experience instead of getting their brains beat out every night.
"There are certainly a lot of skeptics out there who saw us last year," Bell said. "No one understands that more than myself and Randy. We made a lot of changes this winter and I think we'll be better.
"I think a successful season for us would be to play games in September that mean something. If we can get into September and play some games that really matter -- and not just play out August and September -- that would be nice."
Even that is a tall order. The pitching staff is better, but there wasn't any other direction to go after running up a frightening 6.38 team ERA last season. Jones should be a big help in late relief, but the Tigers still don't have a starting rotation that figures to get him a lot of save situations.
Thompson and promising Mike Drumwright have a lot of potential, but the rotation is anchored by so-so veterans Omar Olivares and Felipe Lira. The club will be fortunate to finish the season with one 14-game winner.
"The key still is the pitching," Bell said. "We were very concerned about that. We've brought some people in who can help. From all indications we have a better staff to choose from. Whether they can get command of their stuff, that is what we're here to find out."
The other big question is the potential of the offensive lineup. The Tigers have some pop at the heart of the lineup, with veteran Travis Fryman coming off a 100-RBI season, Higginson coming into his own and the addition of Hunter and Miller, but no team struck out as much last year and no American League team reached base less often.
"No question we need to make more contact," Bell said. "This team historically has been built around power, but you need to get people on base and move some runners."
Still, the outlook is so much more positive than it was a year ago that Bell can't hide his optimism, though he knows that a lot depends on the way his returning players rebound from their discouraging 1996 season.
"I'm anxious to see how last year affects some of our guys," he said. "I think you can learn something from any situation, and if you didn't learn something from last year, you're in trouble."
AL East series
The Sun continues its series on the other AL East teams.
Tomorrow: Red Sox
Buddy Bell: Tigers manager copes with wife's serious illness. 4d
Tigers at a glance
Manager: Buddy Bell
1996 record: 53-109
1996 finish: Fifth
Team batting avg.: .256
Team ERA: 6.38
Projected '97 finish: Fifth
Spring schedule vs. Orioles: None
Regular season vs. Orioles: May 20-21, Sept. 19-22 at Camden Yards. May 28-29, July 3-6 at Detroit.
Pub Date: 2/26/97