LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland yesterday predicted good things for the Pirates -- with an important caveat.
"I thought they had some real nice pieces last year," the Detroit manager said. "If they can fill out the puzzle, they can be good -- and it's not going to be too long."
Leyland, one of three former Pirates managers on the Tigers' staff, is well aware of the sweeping changes the Pirates made throughout their organization beginning late last summer.
Frank Coonelly is the president. Neal Huntington is the general manager. John Russell is the manager.
"I hope they do tremendous," Leyland said, "but you have to get the players. I'm sure that's what Neal and his staff will try to do."
Getting those good players could necessitate trading a popular player such as Jason Bay or Jack Wilson.
"You can't be afraid to trade a popular player," Leyland said. "In 1987, we were going to trade Tony Pena and people said, 'We can't trade Tony Pena. He's our most popular player.'
"I said, 'If we lose a hundred games two years in a row, we won't have any popular players.' "
The Pirates traded Pena April 1, 1987, sending him to the St. Louis Cardinals for Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Mike Dunne. That trade helped to establish the Pirates as a contender.
The Tigers made a huge deal in December when they acquired third baseman Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Dontrelle Willis from Florida for six young players.
Adding those two to a team that had 88 victories in 2007 would seem to make the Tigers the favorites in the American League Central.
"I think Cleveland is the team to beat," Leyland said. "But whoever pitches best is going to win. You might outslug somebody for a month, but pitching wins."
Leyland thinks Cabrera and Willis will settle in nicely on a team loaded with talent.
"Over here, Dontrelle doesn't have to be the guy," Leyland said. "He can just tag along with the other guys. Same with Cabrera. He doesn't have to be the guy."
Could the Tigers have too many good players?
"There's a fine line between having enough stars and one too many," Leyland said. "We have a good group of guys. We play the game right. We might not always play it good, but we play it right. Our guys have respect for the game."
Leyland thinks Russell will do a solid job in his first year of managing.
"John waited a long time for the opportunity," Leyland said. "I'm sure he's going to take advantage of it. "John Russell will do fine -- if he has good players. Just like Jim Leyland will do fine if he has good players. Tony La Russa will do fine if he has good players. Bobby Cox will do fine if he has good players. But, if you don't have good players, you won't do fine."
Leyland noted that all managers know the game.
"We all know the hit-and-run," Leyland said. "We all know about playing the infield in or back. Now, people get tired of hearing this, but the team with the best players is going to win. I'm sorry. That's just the way it is.
"If the best players execute against a team of players who aren't very good players, the best players are going to win."
Russell took things further.
"It's how your players perform," Russell said. "It's not always having Hall of Fame players or All-Star players. If your players do things well and play the game right, that always helps. It's also about getting the most out of them, and Jim's always been able to do that."
First Published March 10, 2008 4:00 AM