Tigers manager Jim Leyland has his team at 17-13 in spite of some obvious flaws. His strength is his experience and ability to lead men. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
Any day now it would be no surprise to see the Tigers announce an extension to manager Jim Leyland's contract.
That's because hiring Leyland beyond 2009 is deserved, no matter what Leyland's critics contend.
Leyland's team was tied Monday for first place in the American League Central Division. The Tigers were 17-13 and playing well despite some obvious weaknesses.
And yet the manager has a contract only through this season. It was proper not to extend Leyland after a 2008 season that was a joint failure by all parties -- front office, manager, players -- but it's 2009, key pitchers are healthy (Joel Zumaya, notably), and Leyland has done a solid job since spring camp.
For those who insist Leyland costs his team games, there's no regular evidence of such nor any assurances that anyone else out there would handle this team any more effectively.
He earns respect
Leyland's strength is his experience and ability to lead men. Players respect him and feel as if a sharp, seasoned man who has managed thousands of games is in charge. Dugout strategies and decisions on pitching changes can be quibbled with endlessly, and will be no matter who is managing, but in the end what determines a popular manager vs. a manager the fans want axed is whether their team is winning.
That, fundamentally, is an issue determined by players, particularly by pitchers. Notice how much better Leyland has been managing since Justin Verlander straightened out after a tough year that, historically speaking, is not uncommon for star pitchers to experience.
Notice how much better the back end of the bullpen has behaved since Zumaya came back, since Fernando Rodney (no matter how nervously he performs) got healthy and began closing games, and since Bobby Seay and even rookie Ryan Perry became shutdown relievers.
If starters and relievers pitch effectively, the manager made the right call. Victories are rarely second-guessed. But if the pitchers don't perform well, then the e-mail bins and talk radio are ablaze: Why didn't Leyland use someone else?
The realities of what a manager does and cannot do are understood in the front office and in owner Mike Ilitch's quarters. It explains why Leyland will be extended, almost certainly, and likely soon. In the way business is done at Comerica Park, the news will arrive spontaneously, probably with a midafternoon press release, and if one person's vibes are right, it will happen sometime this month.
Close to the vest
Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager, was asked Monday about extending Leyland and said only it was an "internal matter."
Dombrowski and Leyland, as best can be determined, have a fairly standard manager-GM relationship. They have their agreements. And they certainly have their disagreements. Those disagreements are of more serious consequence if the team isn't playing well.
Lose six out of eight and it can be terrifically tempting for a GM to imagine another, less-contentious manager sitting behind the desk.
But in the end a GM understands the difficulties of managing a big league team. And in that context Dombrowski appreciates he has in Leyland a man who is savvy at working with players and representing his team in trustworthy fashion.
Leyland's greatest skill, in this view, is his gift for psychology. He can adapt to the individual player and to his mindset as artfully as anyone I have covered in any sport at any time.
If the Tigers do business the way Ilitch's teams normally handle these issues, Leyland will be extended through 2010 -- this month, and earlier rather than later.
And it will happen for the soundest of reasons: A man, and his team, warrant it.