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Hot stove throwback: Tony Phillips and Lloyd Moseby helped lift Tigers from basement in 1990

Coming off a 59-103 season in 1989, Tigers GM Bill Lajoie brought in two veterans who faced each other in that year's ALCS, instantly giving Detroit some more credibility and relevance.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Second in a series, looking back at high profile free agent signings by the Tigers.

The Tigers' fall from grace in the late-1980s was stunning in its scope and rapidity.

You want extremes?

The 1987 Tigers won 98 games, the most of any team in the major leagues. Two years later, the Tigers led MLB in losses with 103.

So how did the Tigers go from division winners to bottom feeders in just two years?

Well, they lost Kirk Gibson, for one.

Gibby bolted from the Tigers after the '87 season for Los Angeles, joining the Dodgers as a free agent. His fire and brimstone personality was just what the loosey-goosey Dodgers needed. Come October of 1988, the Dodgers were world champions, thanks in no small part to Gibson, who was NL MVP in '88 and who won Game 1 of the World Series with his dramatic walk-off homer off Oakland's closer extraordinaire, Dennis Eckersley.

Second, many of the Tigers veterans who had performed so admirably in the past and who were expected to do so a little while longer, started to show their age real fast.

Position players like Chet Lemon, Dave Bergman, Larry Herndon, Fred Lynn (acquired in 1988) and Darrell Evans seemed to age overnight. Pitchers Jack Morris, Frank Tanana, and closer Guillermo (he was no longer Willie) Hernandez also struggled.

It all created a perfect storm that caused the Tigers to, in 1989, have their third-worst year, based on winning percentage, in franchise history (59-103).

Things got so bad in 1989 that manager, Sparky Anderson, took several weeks leave in the middle of the season for what was described as exhaustion. In his book They Call Me Sparky, Anderson wrote that he nearly retired instead of simply taking a leave.

So when the dust settled after the '89 campaign, there was no question that the Tigers had more holes to fill than a dozen doughnuts.

Two of those holes third base and center field were addressed within days of each other in the first week of December 1989.

GM Bill Lajoie went free agent shopping, something he had done in a low profile way since signing Darrell Evans in the 1983 offseason. No player was signed after Evans, who could be considered a "splash" kind of a guy.

That changed on December 5, 1989, when the Tigers announced the signing of utility man-plus Tony Phillips, who was the Oakland Athletics' primary second baseman in their world championship '89 season.

But the Tigers didn't sign Phillips, age 30, to play second base. Some guy named Lou Whitaker pretty much had that position sewn up.

Instead, the Tigers made Phillips their third sacker, which was fine by Tony, who had played every position except pitcher and catcher for the A's in 1988. He was a one-man lineup card.

Two days after inking Phillips, Lajoie went back to the market and came home with outfielder Lloyd Moseby, himself a division winner with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989.

Moseby, 30, maybe wasn't quite Chet Lemon defensively, but he was a very capable centerfielder who was the Jays' primary starter there for the previous eight years (1982-89). Moseby could also steal bases; he swiped 255 bags as a Blue Jay between 1980-89.

The Tigers expressly signed Moseby with the idea that he would be replacing Lemon, who, at age 35, was moved to right field for the 1990 season.

Phillips was a pugnacious, frenetic little guy who played baseball with an almost nervous anger. According to Phillips' behavior, no pitch he ever refrained from swinging at was a strike. If the umpire dared to call it as such, he would almost certainly be met with the Phillips Glare, and occasionally some choice words.

That approach at the plate earned Phillips 22 career ejections by the time his 18-year career had ended. According to Retrosheet, all but four of those ejections were due to arguing balls and strikes.

Moseby, on the other hand, was as relaxed and as loose as Phillips was intense.

Unlike the short, stubby Phillips (5'9", 155 pounds) Moseby was 6'3", 200 with long, lithe legs. And unlike Phillips, Moseby was unflappable. Moreover, his skill set was seemingly a terrific fit for Tiger Stadium's expansive center field territory.

There was one more influential free agent the Tigers signed before the 1990 season, inked a month after Phillips and Moseby, but we'll get to him next time.

Tony Phillips and Lloyd Moseby were Sparky Anderson-type players: veterans who had won elsewhere, who weren't disruptive, and played the game the right way.

In 1990 with the Tigers, Phillips played primarily third base, though he put in some time at second base when Whitaker needed a rest. Moseby started 96 games in center field, which was his lowest total by far since 1981.

As far as production goes, neither player set the world on fire, though the Tigers pretty much got out of Phillips what was expected: .251 batting average, 97 runs scored, .364 OBA with 8 home runs and 55 RBI.

Moseby, on the other hand, was trending downward when the Tigers came calling.

In 1987, Moseby's batting average was .282 with 26 home runs and 96 RBI. In 1988 he slipped to .239 with 10 home runs and 42 RBI. In 1989, he fell further, to a .221 batting average with 11 home runs and 43 RBI.

But the Tigers felt that a change of scenery (Moseby had been a Blue Jay since 1980) might send those numbers in the opposite direction.

It did, sort of.

In 1990, his first year as a Tiger, Moseby batted .248 with 14 homers and 51 RBI, and his OPS of .735 was his highest since that career year in 1987 (.831).

But Moseby would only play one more year in Detroit before retiring at 32-years-old. He signed a two-year deal with the Tigers, but once that was honored, the team was no longer interested in keeping Moseby around. By that time, young Milt Cuyler had taken over in center field.

As for Phillips, the Tigers got much more out of their little utility guy.

Phillips played in Detroit through the 1994 season, capably filling the leadoff spot in the batting order and doing what a leadoff guy should do getting on-base and scoring runs. In 1992-93 combined, Phillips scored 227 runs, walked 246 times and posted an OBA of .418.

Defensively, Sparky played Phillips all over the diamond with glee, though primarily at second and third base and in left and right field.

On April 13, 1995, the Tigers traded Phillips to the California Angels for outfielder Chad Curtis.

Tony Phillips and Lloyd Moseby won't go down in Tigers history as franchise greats, but their presence on the field and in the clubhouse did help transform the team from a 103-loss unit in 1989, into a club that won 79 games in 1990 and 84 games in 1991 — even briefly contending for the AL East title in the late summer of the latter year.