Before the hiring of Randy Smith in 1996, the Detroit Tigers experienced a transition of ownership that resulted in three different general managers to start the 1990’s. Part two focuses on Jerry Walker and his brief helm of running the team.
As the Detroit Tigers are going through a rebuild under Al Avila, I wanted to revisit the rebuild that started after the long run of Jim Campbell and Bill Lajoie that went from 1963 to 1992. In part one, I covered the short run of super scout Joe McDonald and the brief run he made the personal decisions and his influence on the farm system before the dismissal of his duties when Mike Ilitch took ownership in August of 1992.
Jerry Walker took over the reins of general manager in September of 1991. (Note: according to Baseball-Reference, he was listed as the assistant GM in 1992 but the source I pulled from is from the Detroit Free Press listed him as the GM as early as September of 1991). He was hired as a special assignment scout by the team in 1987 and moved his way up.
The moment Joe McDonald was let go, there was speculation that former Tigers GM Bill Lajoie would come back and run the team. According to his SABR bio, he was considering it but then he took a plane ride. (the quotes are from the bio, written by Rich Shook)
“I almost came back,” Lajoie said. “I agreed to terms with Mike. They always kept an apartment so I had them send the rental agreement over and I signed it.”
“I got on the flight but it stopped in Memphis,” Lajoie said. “I got off the plane to stretch my legs and asked myself, ‘What the heck are you doing? You’re stepping right back in the crap you just left.’ So I called the next day and told them I didn’t want the job. I told them, ‘You’ve got Jerry Walker and Jerry will do a good job.’ I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
The Tigers roster as of 1992 still had Lajoie’s imprint on it: He was responsible for signing Cecil Fielder, Tony Phillips, the trades of Mickey Tettleton, Frank Tanana, Dave Bergman, and Gary Pettis (who came back in July of 1992) With a firm no from Lajoie, Illitch gave Walker complete control of baseball operations. There was no longer confusion on who was doing what from drafting and building the roster. Walker had the reins.
He knew that coming into the off-season of 1992 that he had work to do. He had eight players that were set to be free agents including resigning Tigers ace Bill Gullickson, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, and address the starting rotation, which could have used some help when the Tigers were outslugging everyone in 1991 and 1992, including leading the league in runs scored in 1992.
For the MLB expansion draft in 1992, Tigers prospects Scott Aldred and Kevin Ritz were lost and Mark Leiter and both first-round draft picks Phil Clark and Rico Brogna were left unprotected but were not taken. Aldred and Ritz were viewed to help the rotation in 1993 so that put an urgent need for starting pitching. What also did not help matters heading into the winter meetings of 1992 was that Cecil Fielder was demanding a trade. An idea by Free Press writer John Lowe of trading Fielder for local product Jim Abbott was a good idea but nothing serious was ever pursued.
The Tigers made an offer to Fielder for four years at $17 million the previous season but he rejected because of everyone’s favorite deal, the Bobby Bonilla deal to the Mets that was for $29 million dollars. Fielder wanted five years, and closer to $30 million.
Mike Ilitch had not put a limit on spending for what Detroit could spend for pitching however both he and Walker had reservations about spending for free agent pitching.
“I’m not going to throw money away. I dont take the lack of a payroll limit to mean we have an unlimited payroll. To me, it means that if we’re one player away, we should go after him without having a payroll limit to stop us”- Jerry Walker October 1992
Sparky Anderson later added this quote that is true to this day about building a team. “You’ll suffer until develop pitching”. (See the rest of the Tigers in the 1990s) With no help from the farm system, the Tigers went shopping for pitching.
Hello Mike Moore, Bill Krueger, and Tom Bolton
In December of 1993, Walker shelled out $10 million for Mike Moore, $2.4 million for Krueger, and $400,000 for Bolton. He also resigned Gullickson for two more years at $4.6 million. In addition to getting the starting staff all set, he resigned Lou Whitaker to what would be his final contract in the majors for three more seasons and signed Alan Trammell to a one-year deal. He would also make Cecil Fielder the highest-paid Tiger player of all time with a five-year, $36.2 million dollar deal.
Moore was 33 years old and on paper, it appeared his better days were behind them, even at that point in his career. But keep in mind, the previous season, the Tigers team ERA from their rotation was 4.60, and Moore’s lifetime ERA was 4.60. However, the Tigers’ lack of pitching was the biggest need. Their team strikeouts of 693 were one of the lowest in the league. The second closest team was 100 strikeouts back.
Walker did what he could to plug the holes for the 1993 season. His most memorable pitching signing wasn’t the pitchers he signed in December of 1992, rather it was one he did as spring training came to a close in April of 1993. He signed left-hander David Wells.
The Tigers bounced back nicely, led by the bats once again. Tony Phillips and Travis Fryman would have 5.0 bWAR seasons, Trammell and Whitaker proved their value once again, each posting a 4.0 bWAR season and a breakout season in terms of bWAR from catcher Chad Kreuter. The Tigers were even tied for first in late June, with a 43-25 record before a 10-18 July sent them to an 85-77 finish, good for 3rd in the AL East.
Despite the trade for outfielder Eric Davis from the Dodgers in July of that season, Detroit still fell short due to a lack of pitching depth. David Wells provided the most value, having a 2.9 WAR season, with Mike Henneman at 1.8 and Tigers homegrown starter John Doherty providing a bit of value at 1.7. They were near the bottom in the AL in ERA, K’s, and hits allowed.
After the season was over, Walker was positive about the season. He got contributions from Joe Boever, who was signed in August, Kirk Gibson, who came back to the team in February of 1993, and Storm Davis. In his off-season conservation with Detroit News writer Tom Gage, he felt they were not too far away.
Walker to Boston?
According to rumors that were flying around Tiger Stadium in late December of 1993 and a report from Peter Gammons of Baseball America, Walker made himself a candidate for the vacant Boston Red Sox GM position. (strange how history almost repeats itself) and he was going to be replaced by George Bradley, a former Tigers scouting aide and former GM of the New York Yankees. Bradley was friends with Jimmy Develano, the senior vice-president of the Red Wings so that’s where the connection came in.
Walker had no idea where the rumor came from. But on January 24th, 1994, Mike Ilitch fired Jerry Walker, just after one season on the job. At the press conference, Ilitch said this about Jerry Walker.
“Walker was a deliberate individual who takes a lot of time in decision making, although he usually made the right one, while I’m quicker to making decisions. Communication could of been a bit better on Walker’s part. You want good clear communication and I didn’t feel we had it”.
He also cited that Walker did not get along with the people Ilitch brought in to help run the team and that with payroll at $38 million, the Tigers were still a winner. Walker responded with this quote that really wrapped it up his relationship with Mr. Ilitch.
“He wasn’t happy with the way things were going and neither was I”.
Jerry Walker was not out of a job for too long. He joined the Blue Jays as a special assignment scout in April of 1994 before heading to St.Louis where he worked for General Manager Walt Jocketty. For 13 seasons, 11 of which he was the vice president of player personnel and two seasons as the director of Major League player personal, he helped Jocketty turn the Cardinals into National League contenders with a World Series win in 2006.
That Tigers team of 1993 would the last time they were .500 until 2006. Like McDonald before him, Walker did not have enough time. His only draft produced Brian Moehler and he was responsible for the signing of Juan Encarnacion, who ironically enough, would join him in St.Louis later in his career.