"I think it's got the potential to be a much better defensive team than we were," manager Jim Leyland said Monday night.
Considering their struggles in the field in 2008, they couldn't afford not to improve.
Though defense can be measured in so many specialized statistics, the Tigers' fielding woes were evident on a most basic level -- not just on the stats sheet, but watching the games. Only the Rangers had a lower fielding percentage among American League teams than the .981 mark the Tigers posted. Their miscues helped saddle the pitching staff with 71 unearned runs, second-most among AL clubs, and helped contribute to a mentality of what else can go wrong.
Just two AL teams had more wild pitches than the Tigers in '08, and it wasn't simply the result of the command woes of the pitching staff. Detroit catchers combined for 16 passed balls this past season.
Even with Detroit's big names and bigger offense, they couldn't overcome that many miscues. Their goal this offseason is to set up a squad that eliminates as many free outs as possible.
"You don't need All Star-name players all the time, and I think in our situation last year, we had a lot of them. We still have a lot of them. We're looking to try to really emphasize catching the ball."
-- Tigers GM|
It isn't the entire reason for their approach; the team's payroll expectations obviously help play into it. Once the Everett move is final, the Tigers will be set in terms of position players, save for maybe a backup catcher. They'll move on from there to their pitching staff, notably their bullpen, and look to become more stingy there. They've engaged the Mariners on talks regarding closer J.J. Putz, with left-handed hitters Jeff Larish and/or Matt Joyce as potential parts of a deal.
Still, one of the thriftiest ways to improve a struggling pitching staff is to shore up the defense behind it.
"We should score runs," president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We should be in a position to swing the bats. We're looking more from a defensive perspective -- not role players, but guys who can do some little things for Jim."
In the Tigers' case, they started with the man who will catch those pitchers. While Laird compiled eight errors in his 88 games behind the plate for Texas this past season, he is regarded as a solid worker with a relatively strong arm and an ability to call a good game for a pitcher. He won't approach the defensive reputation of Ivan Rodriguez, but he won't have the same struggles the Tigers experienced in trying to replace Pudge down the stretch last year.
"He can catch," Leyland said of Laird. "We've seen him, obviously, for the last few years and myself and the coaching staff have been very high on him. I think we are very fortunate. You know, Johnny Benches are not out there. That's the way it is, and we think that we have got a guy that's really going to fit our club. He will change our club a little bit, really."
For his part, Laird said that he's looking forward to learning the Tigers' pitching staff and putting together a game plan to help get the most out of them. It's something he thought about as soon as he learned about the deal Sunday.
"I was going over all those guys," Laird said Monday afternoon. "Those guys have tremendous stuff."
The Tigers didn't want to comment on Everett specifically until he passes his physical and his deal is finalized, other than to say that they liked the reports on him from a workout last Thursday in Lakeland, Fla. Still, they were fine discussing the importance of the position. When they announced at season's end that they wouldn't pick up the contract option on Edgar Renteria, they said that improved defense would be their priority in replacing him.
Defense has long been Everett's calling card as a regular Major League shortstop, though a shoulder injury cost him a good portion of last season. As long as he's healthy, though, he's expected to be an upgrade in the field, especially in terms of range. Even with his limited playing time, he boasted a 5.09 range factor -- putouts plus assists per nine innings -- that was well above the league average, boosting his career mark to 4.68.
Ramon Santiago will also be a factor at short, having demonstrated a strong arm and good range himself in his occasional starts.
Just as important a factor, the Tigers believe, will be Brandon Inge's return as their everyday third baseman. The combined coverage should stop a good share of ground balls that managed to get into left field last season.
The sum total, the Tigers hope, will be a more fundamentally-solid squad -- even if the deals themselves aren't fundamentally huge.
"You don't need All Star-name players all the time," Dombrowski said, "and I think in our situation last year, we had a lot of them. We still have a lot of them. We're looking to try to really emphasize catching the ball."