Leyland's fate may be tied to Tigers' finish
Do the Tigers want to keep Jim Leyland beyond 2012?
Does the 67-year-old Leyland even want to keep doing this beyond 2012?
These questions remain unanswered, and that's only natural, given that a Detroit team that many expected to run away with the American League Central is instead in a brutal dogfight for what is arguably baseball's weakest division.
The Tigers' division deficit stands at three games after a makeup game malfunction in Chicago on Monday. They've got 16 left to play, none against the team they're chasing. Even in a year of expanded Wild Cards, the Wild Card isn't much of a fallback option for these Tigers, because they sit 5 1/2 games back of the second spot.
It is, to put it plainly, an uncomfortable position for a team touted by so many -- well, heck, everybody -- as the division favorite, and it certainly doesn't make for a comfortable situation for Leyland, whose contract expires at season's end.
Of course, to his credit, Leyland was careful to add caution to those preseason prognostications and premonitions from the outset. The mantra he relayed again and again in Spring Training was repeated the other day.
"It's hard to win big league games," Leyland said. "It doesn't matter if it's April 1 or Sept. 1. It's hard to win big league games."
But the Tigers increase their own degree of difficulty as a result of their struggles in the clutch, their not-so-dazzling defense and their mediocre bullpen. The best we can say about this club is that it has maintained the same temperament all year, even as the betrayal of the lineup, in particular, has bordered on bewildering.
Then again, perhaps that temperament has not served Detroit all that well.
Leyland believes there is a difference between a sense of urgency and a sense of panic.
"Urgency means you realize how important these games are," Leyland said. "Panic is getting yourself out of your personality and your sync."
Tigers fans are undoubtedly feeling a little bit of both senses these days. But if the results are any indication, Detroit has shown neither urgency nor panic here in the home stretch. The Tigers have played the same lately as they have all season, which is to say they've played inconsistently. Win three, lose two. Win two, lose three. The 2011-like late-season run so many -- myself, admittedly, included -- thought would happen, just hasn't happened. They're not pressing, but they're also not pushing. They're just kind of ... there.
"I think this club's pretty much been the same all year," Leyland said. "I know I have been. These guys are big guys. I respect my players and I expect my players to understand the magnitude of this. I expect them to come here and try to beat the other team.
"There's no rah-rah stuff or Knute Rockne speeches to a bunch of professional guys, in my opinion. If you've got to do that, then I don't have the team I thought I had."
Maybe this isn't the team the Tigers thought they had. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder play every day, and they play well. And yet, Victor Martinez's absence has nonetheless loomed large. Austin Jackson has been a revelation in the leadoff spot, yet the other members of the supporting cast -- Delmon Young, Brennan Boesch, Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta -- have been anywhere from average to abominable. The rotation, with Max Scherzer having a Justin Verlander-like second half and Anibal Sanchez improving, could be scary good in a postseason setting.
But they've got to get there first.
Every organization is different in its assessment of output and its assigning of blame, and it will be awfully interesting to see how Detroit goes about that process if this club falls short of October.
Generally speaking, players love playing for Leyland, and his policing of in-house issues is second to none. Leyland was a big part of the revival of what was a dormant franchise, guiding them to the playoffs twice and the World Series once thus far in his seven seasons at the helm.
But if this team falls short of the postseason, let alone the World Series, those successes must be weighed against the air of underachievement that has permeated here in 2012. And Leyland's Tigers have also endured some puzzling second-half collapses, most notably the '09 team that squandered a seven-game September lead and wound up losing Game 163 against the Twins.
Obviously, if the Tigers were content to extend Leyland no matter this season's circumstance, they would have done so by now. The fact that they haven't done that yet invites the sneaking suspicion that Leyland's fate is directly tied to that of this club.
If Detroit does fall short and opts to make a managerial change, it will be an extremely attractive opening. It is, after all, a team ripe with veteran talent and an aggressive owner who wants to win at all costs.
Then again, that formula hasn't exactly worked out that well for Leyland and crew in 2012. They have 16 games to alter that reality.