Speculation surrounding Jim Leyland's status has been running rampant since the Detroit Tigers manager announced he would agree to only one-year contracts for the rest of his tenure. At 68 years old and going into his seventh season running the Tigers, Leyland didn't want to commit to a long-term deal.
Expectations were sky-high for the 2012 season. When the Tigers weren't playing up to those expectations, Leyland caught a nasty backlash from a disappointed fan base finding fault in his not hitting home runs or pitching shutouts. It got to the point "FIRE LEYLAND" became a defacto rallying cry for a loud, vocal minority of crazed Tigers fans on the social networks, even more so on Detroit sports talk radio.
Rumors there would be a parting of the ways between the still in contention Tigers and Leyland reached a fever pitch as the season reached its final weeks. Detroit News columnist Lynn Henning wrote it was quite likely Leyland would not return in 2013 in a pair of September articles, falling short of the post season the driving reason for a change in stewardship.
Sept. 5, Henning wrote Leyland may have tired of the managerial grind, claiming:
"these could be his waning weeks in Detroit."
Sept. 19, Henning floated a trial balloon with Terry Francona's name on it, stating with certainty:
"If the Tigers fail within the next 14 days to close a three-game gap with the White Sox, it is expected team chief Dave Dombrowski will decide to change managers for 2013."
Knowing Henning has contacts in the Tigers' organization, you had to believe someone in the front office was feeding him information. Henning has used his insiders for speculative columns in the past, specifically in predicting the Tigers were going to move Curtis Granderson after the 2009 season.
When asked about his future employment with the team late in season, Leyland dismissed it post haste, calling it a private matter between him and the organization.
After the regular season ended, the Tigers playing well and safely in the playoffs, Leyland's thoughts weren't so private anymore.
Leyland appeared on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption on Oct. 3 and was specifically asked about Henning's columns. His reply was telling. Leyland didn't rip Henning's piece, but rattled off what he's accomplished as the Tigers' skipper:
"Did I heard about all the rumors, am I still hearing about them? Yes. But you know what, that's really not a very important issue right now," Leyland said. "We're in the postseason, we were fighting to get there. I think everybody counted us out when we lost a doubleheader to Minnesota. … Now I can stick my chest out a little bit and say we did achieve. We're Central Division champions for the second time in two years, and (making the playoffs in back-to-back years) hasn't been done by the Detroit Tigers since 1934-35, so what's not to like?"
That doesn't sound like a man ready to move on from managing.
Former Tigers beat writer Danny Knobler, now writing for CBS Sports, doesn't think so either. Knobler all but says Leyand will be wearing the Olde English D next year.
But it appears at least one option can be ruled out, as Leyland has been telling people in recent days that he does not plan to retire at the end of this postseason.
More telling is this nugget from the same Knobler post:
Leyland is still considered one of the game's best managers. When scouts and executives from rival teams have talked about his future, one of the first questions asked is, "How are they going to find someone better to replace him?"
That last question hit the bat on the sweet spot.
Managers with a reputation as good as Jim Leyland's are few and far between. The only manager with a track record and star power to match Leyland (who isn't under contract) was Francona. He's no longer an option, if he ever was in the first place, hired by the Cleveland Indians this past weekend. The "FIRE LEYLAND" contingent lost their patron saint.
Should Leyland leave and Francona now off the market, anyone who would be available to manage is either a retread or unproven. Either would be a huge, huge gamble.
The Tigers have been there, done that, lost 119 games. Owner Mike Ilitch isn't going down that road again. I sure as Hell don't.
The Tigers are already well ahead in the managerial game with the cards they currently hold. Do you really want to ask for a new draw when you are almost assured of a bad beat?
For those who will still cry "FIRE LEYLAND," beating the drum for change, wanting an "outside the box" manager? What you want doesn't exist. Managers who work Xs and Os "outside the box" are rarer than a bad Justin Verlander start.
For all the frustration with Leyland over bunting, batting orders, Sunday lineups and having favorites, another manager would make essentially the same decisions. Managers are risk adverse to the point of predictability. All managers run their bullpens identically, use the same basic strategy in identical situations and play favorites. It's called a managerial bible for a reason.
Leyland is no different, neither would be his replacement. Regardless, the change in the overall record moving from Leyland's strategy to another manager's would be minimal, at best. It would be change for the sake of change.
But on-field decision-making is a small part of being a big league manager. Running a clubhouse and keeping players happy and ready to perform, from superstars down to the 25th man, is where managers make or break teams.
We've seen plenty of broken teams over the years in Detroit.
Remember the messy, divisive, cliquey, often mutinous Tigers' clubhouse which existed before Leyland arrived? The roster which harassed stewardesses and smoked pot on the team plane? The locker room of clubhouse lawyers and head cases which ran roughshod over Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, Phil Garner, Luis Pujols and Alan Trammell? How can anyone forget an in over his head Trammell being completely bulldozed by Pudge Rodriguez?
Tigers fans talked more about the ridiculous clubhouse antics than the awful results on the field...when fans even bothered to pay attention to the worst team in baseball.
Since Leyland arrived in Detroit back in 2006, when was the last time there were rumors, or even a hint, of an unhappy clubhouse? When was the last time Leyland was shown up by a player?
There hasn't been a time.
There won't be a time.
Leyland runs a tight knit clubhouse full of players who would run through a wall for their leader, which is
more than half the battle of being a manager in the big leagues.
All of which leads to one incontrovertible fact. It would be outright stupid to let Jim Leyland go if he wants to stay. Leyland is the best Tigers manager since Sparky Anderson, and one of the best in the team's illustrious (and the decade before Leyland's arrival, not so illustrious) history. Teams don't fire managers of Leyland's ilk unless they have someone his equal or better signed, sealed, delivered and in your hip pocket. To find someone better than Leyland means hiring a World Series winning, Hall of Fame quality manager.
Good luck finding one.
If you're the mid-90s Tigers, despite the massive downside and very little upside, you still part ways with your legendary manager, then reside in baseball irrelevance for a decade while you try to find a legitimate replacement. I don't ever want to live though another misbegotten period of rotten baseball in Detroit ever again, thank you very much.
Jim Leyland wanting to manage in Detroit next season is the best news the Tigers could hear, short of winning the World Series. I just hope fans are smart enough to realize it.