Thursday, another day the Tigers did not play, came and went with Leyland still working on that same deal and no word about next season. It could mean something or it could be meaningless, but it has the potential to become a distraction for a team that needs to focus all its energies on catching the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central. Leyland noted a year ago that "at the end of next year if they don't want me, that's fine. It's real clear-cut. If I decide I don't want to do it anymore, you never know." The veteran manager has given no indication his interest is flagging and retirement is in his future. In fact, several times -- even as his team has struggled -- he has said he's as energized and enthusiastic as ever. And healthy. At some point, though, his future is going to be a topic of interest as the Tigers travel around the league. The general manager will face those questions, too. And while "we'll sit down and talk about it at the end of the season" is an answer, it isn't a discussion-ender. More columns will be written and sports talk radio will have fun with it. You can look at the standings and say Leyland hasn't done a particularly good job because Detroit is in second place with a team widely forecast before the season began to run away with the division title. Yet in many ways this has been one of Leyland's better managing jobs. He has taken a team revealed to have potentially lethal flaws and has it in a position to make the postseason. The Tigers are better suited for postseason play than the grind of a 162-game season. There is no team in baseball that would want to face Detroit in a five- or seven-game series if Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister are pitching well. None. Leyland has a batting order featuring one of the best top fours in baseball, but even now he continues to patch and fill with his bottom five. Alex Avila has gotten hot in August, but Leyland has no idea what he's getting on a day-to-day basis from the other four names he writes down. Detroit's production from all its fifth-place hitters might be the worst in baseball. He recently tried four different players in four days. Fister had a nightmare first half battling a sore side; Rick Porcello has shown little advancement from being a win four, lose two or three pitcher; rookie lefty Drew Smyly did a better job as the fifth starter than veteran acquisition Anibal Sanchez has done. Weakness in the four and five spots has kept the team from reeling off a long winning streak. Critics carp about closer Jose Valverde, but he came off a 49-for-49 year in saves and the four he has blown to date this year are about average for a good closer. Joaquin Benoit has faltered recently; Octavio Dotel slumped in midseason; a midgame shut-down artist like injured Al Alburquerque was last year is sorely missed. Yet Leyland keeps running around the base of the dam, plugging the leaks with mud or cement, whatever he's handed. A Baseball America survey this summer ranked him the best manager in the AL. In private moments, not for publication, he shows how proud he is off the work he has done since he came in to take over a team that had lost oodles of games for more than a decade. He can be cranky with the media, refusing now to discuss why certain players play and who bats where in the order. Holding two press conferences (pre- and post-game) more than 200 times a year isn't easy; you'd be amazed at the number of inane questions he has to put up with on a daily basis. "At this time next year," Leyland said when he re-upped for 2012, "hopefully I'm signing another one-year contract." The fact there has been no announcement regarding 2013 might not be significant for a manager who conceded last season he needs to go year-by-year now because of his age. It has the potential to be a distraction, though, and it doesn't need to be.
- Jim Leyland