February 15, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Lynn Henning

Some MLB execs share fans' pessimism about Tigers' moves

Lakeland, Fla. – Notes, thoughts, items from the first days of Tigers spring camp:

Tigers getting little respect, nationally.

Jayson Stark, the ESPN.com baseball writer who has about as many front-office contacts as anyone in the business, had a not-so-sunny take on the Tigers in a major preseason story he wrote last week.

Stark polled 23 baseball executives on the best/worst trades, best/worst free-agent signings, most/least improved teams, etc., heading into a long 2014 season. His sources, all anonymous, ranked the Tigers among three teams (joining the Blue Jays and Orioles) that were the “most unimproved” following offseason remodeling.

The low grade makes more sense when Washington was picked as having struck the offseason’s best trade in grabbing Doug Fister from the Tigers for Robbie Ray, Ian Krol, and Steve Lombardozzi.

“Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski is so good at his job,” Stark wrote, referring to the Tigers front-office chief, “he always gets the benefit of the doubt. But one exec who admires Dombrowski still found himself calling this trade "an epic head-scratcher." It should tell you something that this deal got 14 votes in our poll, and no other trade got more than five.”

The trade’s success, or lack thereof, won’t be decided until Ray and Krol prove whether the Tigers had it right or wrong about two young left-handed pitchers.

More interesting is the jury’s verdict that Detroit did little to better itself.

This is either prescient on the executives’ part or it confirms that even front-office people can shoot from the hip – particularly when they’re not named – when assessing another team.

Those same people’s scouts and managers probably believed, correctly, in 2013 that the Tigers were baseball tortoises when it came to running the bases. They might also have reported that Detroit had the worst defense in all of baseball.

Agreeing with any and all indictments, the Tigers decided to revamp.

Miguel Cabrera moved to first base. Prince Fielder relocated to Texas (along with $138 million in salary the Tigers shed). Ian Kinsler now sets up at second base, with Nick Castellanos shifting to third. Rajai Davis will take turns in left field with Andy Dirks. Mixed with a full season of Jose Iglesias at shortstop, these alterations are one way in which a bad bunch of runners and defenders should get significantly better.

The critics, of course, contend that replacing Fister with Drew Smyly, and trading Fielder’s bat for that of a rookie, Castellanos, is no way to make yourself better – not even when the bullpen has since added an authentic closer in Joe Nathan.

They might be right. Or, they might prove to be superficial to a point of recklessness in assessing a team some of us thought had to become significantly better at balancing a lineup that last year reminded me of every slow-pitch softball juggernaut I ever saw.

We’ll see who’s vindicated. Fister will no doubt help the Nationals. The Tigers will learn in time whether Ray and Krol – and utility man Lombardozzi – were worth the price of Fister.

But I was surprised by the overwhelming rejection of Dombrowski’s deal. Critical fans can take heart in that a truckload of baseball execs share their pessimism.

Getting a bead on Brad Ausmus.

If you believe managers make a dramatic difference in how a team performs, Brad Ausmus is probably your guy. The people who subscribe to this theory are almost universally convinced Jim Leyland was a mediocre, if not lousy, skipper.

They would argue Leyland’s reputation as one of the game’s best managers was not merited and was the product of an inner circle of baseball people protecting one of their own.

But ask yourself this: Had the Tigers gone with Lloyd McClendon as their new general, would fans have been as happy with new leadership, even if McClendon had managerial experience and Ausmus had none?

Of course not. They lumped McClendon with Leyland and believed both were cronies and that neither person was right for the Tigers.

Of course, it’s a lot of frivolous nonsense, all attitudinal in its origin, because Leyland is one of the game’s best at running a baseball team and McClendon, likewise, is a skilled baseball man, which is why the Mariners hired him.

But it underscores completely why the Tigers are better off with a new face overseeing their team. The fan base was simply worn out from eight seasons of Leyland. Had any of his coaches, McClendon primarily, been knighted after Leyland retired last October, resentment and fatigue would have festered and antagonized a fan base that wanted new blood.

This is why I thought Dombrowski had little choice but to name someone fresh, someone different, someone far removed from the Leyland administration.

It won’t win the Tigers additional games. Not in any significant number. But it will change for the better the disposition of a fan base that had simply grown tired of the same crowd.

Human nature can’t be quashed, particularly in that most human of games, baseball.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Assistant GM Al Avila, GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Brad Ausmus talk during the Tiger pitching workout on Saturday. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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