Leyland on Tigers’ rebuild: ‘Growing pains’ are coming

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Jim Leyland managed a World Series champion in 1997, and managed a 108-loss team the following season.

So he’s all too familiar with both sides of the equation, a juggernaut and a rebuilding team, from his time with the then-Florida Marlins. Obviously, the contender is more fun. But the rebuilding often is all too necessary.

That’s how he views the Tigers these days.

“They’re going to go through some growing pains here,” Leyland said of the Tigers. “But I think the trades were really good. I’ve seen a lot of the players that they’ve traded for. They’re futures, they’re not today, necessarily, all of them.

“But at some point, you have to get a sensible payroll, and I think everyone pretty much knew this was gonna happen.”

The Tigers started the teardown with a bang in early July, trading J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for three infield prospects. It continued July 31, with the trade of lefty reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila to the Chicago Cubs for two more infield prospects. Then, late last month, GM Al Avila had a monster day, sending Justin Upton to the Los Angeles Angels for a pitching prospect, and then, just before the midnight deadline, ace Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros for a pitching prospect and two position-player prospects.

In all, four trades for nine prospects — pumping up a farm system that desperately needed a talent infusion, while shedding tens of millions of dollars in future salary commitments.

The trades signaled what we’ve known for some time: Detroit’s payroll, around $200 million in recent years, was unsustainable, especially with stiffer luxury-tax penalties, and for a market the size of Detroit’s.

“A lot of people were suggesting it should happen,” Leyland said. “So you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be upset when it does happen. Hopefully there will be some patience with everybody.

“I think Al did a good job, the scouts did a great job. Our farm system is stacked quite a bit better than it was before.”

Leyland managed the Tigers from 2006-13, and has since taken on a new role in the Tigers’ front office.

In that role, part of his job is to visit minor-league outposts and assess the talent. And this much he knows for sure: Things are a whole lot better today than they were on, say, July 1.

“To be honest with you,” said Leyland, “our farm system was not very good. Now, it’s pretty good, all of a sudden. I spoke with three general managers after the trades, and they all brought up the fact that, ‘Hey, Al really did good in those trades.’ ”

The headliners in the trades were infield prospect Jeimer Candelario (Cubs), who is off to a roaring start at the plate in a Detroit uniform; Dawel Lugo (Diamondbacks), another infield prospect; and pitching prospect Franklin Perez (Astros).

ESPN’s Keith Law, talking to The News, called the Tigers’ farm system “thin” before the trades, and “promising” after them.

Still, Avila is being judged cautiously by Tigers fans who aren’t yet sold on Dave Dombrowski’s successor — especially since so many of his moves, like Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe, haven’t panned out.

Leyland, of course, urges Tigers fans to keep the faith.

“It’s a very difficult job. You have to trade your own son? That’s a pretty tough ticket,” Leyland said while in town last week, awaiting his induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. “He just showed that he’s her to do the job and there’s no sentiment.

“He’s gotta do what’s best for the Detroit Tigers organization at the time, and at this time, he did what was best for the Detroit Tigers organization.”

While fans and analysts debate how long it will be before the Tigers contend again, Leyland said he believes it won’t take as long as most folks think.

Leyland used the Chicago Cubs as an example. They developed and promoted their young prospects like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, etc., and then when it was time to contend, they signed the free agents who helped put them over the top, like pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey.

A similar thing happened when Leyland first took over the Tigers. Young players like Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Joel Zumaya, Nate Robertson, Fernando Rodney, Craig Monroe, Brandon Inge, etc., were coming into their own, and free-agent signings like Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers, and in October 2006, the Tigers were playing in the World Series.

The Tigers went on to make the playoffs five times from 2006-14, including every year from 2011-14, but haven’t made it since.

“It doesn’t take as long to turn around a team anymore, because of free agency,” Leyland said. “It’s not as difficult as it used to be.”