Big-money free agents don’t always pay off

The cell phone rang, and Jim Leyland interrupted his pregame session with the media in the visiting manager’s office in Oakland the morning after the Tigers clinched the American League Central Division.

He had to take this call.

It was Tony La Russa offering congratulations.

“You guys are only 3 1/2 back,” Leyland told La Russa, regarding the St. Louis Cardinals’ pursuit of the NL wild card. “Anything can happen in this game.”

Again, anything did happen.

For the second straight year, the team spraying the season’s last champagne was one that didn’t make the playoffs until the last possible instant: San Francisco in 2010 and now the Cards. Both will stand as testaments to the virtues of camaraderie and chemistry.

It’s also a lesson that Mike Ilitch, Dave Dombrowski and Leyland should consider when approaching what will be a Tigers’ off-season of high interest. They’ll make some changes, and Ilitch will spend money when necessary.

But it’s more important molding a team you know will fight together through the ebbs and flows as opposed to simply collecting players and filling holes. Splashy free-agent acquisitions and padded payrolls will generate buzz, but it won’t necessarily get you out of the first round of the playoffs.

Case in point: the Yankees and Philadelphia this year.

Free agency begins Thursday, but the Tigers should concentrate on making trades that are fiscally and competitively sound.

Instead of fixating on — and potentially overpaying — for solutions at second base or third base, the Tigers should concentrate on an upgrade that would improve the entire lineup: the top of their batting order.

If Dombrowski could pry All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen from Pittsburgh for centerfielder Austin Jackson and one of the Tigers’ top minor league pitchers — Jacob Turner or Andy Oliver — he should do it.

Jackson will improve as a hitter, and he’s already one of the best defensive centerfielders. McCutchen, 25, is only a few months older. They both have virtually the same amount of major league time served. And they both remain under team contractual control for another four years.

But McCutchen is far more advanced offensively, leading the Pirates with 23 home runs and 89 RBIs year season. He becomes the perfect American League leadoff hitter, even though he hit only .259.

This is precisely why Dombrowski stockpiles his farm system with power pitchers, creating the opportunities for significant trades.

The Pirates might be compelled to pull the trigger on such a move if they could get a potential top-of-the-rotation young arm as well.

That makes more sense for the Tigers than wastefully tossing dollars at aging free agents like third baseman Aramis Ramirez. They gain nothing through overpaying for — at best — modest improvements, and Ilitch risks revisiting the 2008 season when he committed to disastrous contract extensions from which the Tigers only now have fully recovered.

There’s room for maneuverability, but it’s important that the Tigers don’t make moves strictly to “win now” as they did previously, but rather make smart moves that could keep them in the playoffs for the foreseeable future.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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