Leyland ready for new challenge

Players eager to impress veteran skipper

Jim Leyland wants the Tigers' season to be focused on the players, not him. That's one wish Leyland probably isn't going to get.

As the Tigers embark on what's at least an improvement-now season with largely the same cast of players as last year, with the Opening Day starter and the closer as the notable exceptions, the attention has largely centered on Leyland's return as a manager. He has pushed all the right buttons in Spring Training and provided more good quotes in six weeks than some managers do in several years.

But as Leyland himself will point out, everything looks good when the wins and losses don't count, even a 61-year-old skipper.

"I'm fired up, I have energy and I'm ready to go," Leyland said earlier this spring. "Now, you say, 'What about in August, when you're not doing well?' ... If not, he hasn't done a good job. If I look like Frankie Avalon at the end of the season, then I didn't do a good job.

"Show me a manager at the end of the season that looks fresh and handsome, and I'll show you a guy that probably didn't do a very good job. It wears on you, and I look a little old to start with."

The Tigers had become known for bad starts, but they've played around .500 or better in each of their last two opening months. It's what happens after that. Alan Trammell and his staff couldn't find a way to sustain it, whether health or bad fundamentals plagued them. It's up to Leyland to find a way.

After a pretty victorious, relatively encouraging, always entertaining Spring Training -- the last part thanks largely to Leyland -- he has at least set up the Tigers to enter the season with a chance to win. Brandon Inge says the clubhouse atmosphere is the best he has seen here. Others feel like Leyland is the kind of manager to get the most out of this team, including its first winning season since 1993.

"He's got great common sense," Inge said. "He knows when to jump on you, when to joke with you. It just seems like he's a people person. That's what you need."

To Leyland, though, this team has to get the most out of itself. As he said time and again in the closing days of camp, it's all about talent.

"We're not bad," Leyland said. "We're out there playing with a little fire. I think they're having fun. The atmosphere's getting better on a daily basis. The next test will come when the season starts. If things don't go right, then you really find out."

The parts appear to be there to pass the test. As long as Carlos Guillen's back doesn't act up further, the Tigers should be able to put all their projected starters into an everyday lineup for Opening Day. A year ago at this time, Magglio Ordonez was already ailing with what ended up being a hernia, Guillen was nursing his surgically repaired ACL and then-second baseman Omar Infante didn't seem to have a strong arm.

The bullpen is also at full strength. Fernando Rodney and Chris Spurling have shown no signs of arm trouble two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and the closer position rests on the healthy arm of Todd Jones.

"I take it personally," Leyland said, "because my job is to get this team ready and keep this team 100 percent. I always take pride in protecting my pitching staff, protecting my players and smelling things pretty good. It's hard to do, but I always take that personally."

The health gives Leyland all the weapons to use. How he uses them is the next factor. He has discussed his strategy in bits and pieces all spring, emphasizing the need to produce runs when the team isn't hitting well and the need for any pitcher to be able to get a key out at any time.

He has practiced some of those strategies in the spring, and he has certainly drilled them into his players' minds with extra drills each morning. Now is when they really count. He wishes he had more time to work with them, but he'll take what he has.

When Leyland looks at his lineup, he sees the balance to be able to get a key hit at any spot while boasting veteran presence in the run-production part of the order. He sees his pitching staff with some reliable veterans, some youngsters whose time has come to break out, and the fruits of a farm system that could bring a wealth of talent over the next few years.

And in the end, he sees more guys taking responsibility.

"We're the ones who perform," Inge said.

It's time for them to do just that.

"It's about talent," Leyland said. "We'll see how it works out."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.