DETROIT -- Where the Tigers are concerned, it’s easy to lose yourself in the statistical feats of their star sluggers: Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown, of course, but also Prince Fielder notching his sixth consecutive 30-homer season and Austin Jackson’s huge year.
But successful seasons from his stars are one of the hallmarks of Jim Leyland’s contending teams over the years, going all the way back to his original trio of Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla in Pittsburgh. They powered his Pirates team that won three straight division titles from 1990-92. Each man from among that trio was worth three wins or more at the plate, using Baseball-Reference.com’s oWAR or offense-only WAR, as did shortstop Jay Bell. His World Series-winning ’97 Marlins featured a trio of three-win players (Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou and Bonilla). And the Tigers of this year and last? Same deal. Miguel Cabrera is the lone holdover at that level, though, with the 2011 performances Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta and Victor Martinez being replaced by Fielder and Jackson this year.
Admittedly, there’s an obvious bit of circular logic in play here: If you pile up great players, you’re liable to see great results. One of the frequent criticisms of Leyland’s legacy is that he has been given great talent to work with -- he’s supposed to win with it, and if he didn’t, you’d be no more likely to remember Leyland as a skipper than you do Larry Parrish. Stars represent big-time investments by owners and general managers; you might credit or discount Leyland’s impact on their contributions.
But that brings us to another aspect of Leyland’s teams worth keeping in mind: As with most teams, they’re not just made up of the superstars. Which is why an equally important way to evaluate a manager’s impact is where his choices make a difference. Who’s filling out the rest of the lineup or manning the back end of the roster, and what are they there for?
Unlike Joe Girardi with the Yankees, Leyland has usually had to help conjure up solutions everywhere his stars were not, and to his credit he’s been remarkably adaptable and creative in his lineup and roster choices. As uncharitable as it might be to say about some of the players, Leyland might be one of the best stars-and-scrubs skippers in the majors today.
How so? First, he’s long been willing to make sacrifices on defense in the infield and outfield corners to make room for an extra bat. Having Cabrera play third is only the most recent instance, but Leyland was willing to use the far more error-prone Bonilla at the hot corner 20 years ago, and it worked just as well then: Like Miggy, Bonilla wasn’t great but he was adequate, and the payoff of getting another outfield-level bat on the lineup card more than made up for it, now as then.
Opening up space in the lineup to add extra bats hasn’t been a problem for Leyland over time because he’s one of the game’s more adept platoon-builders. The Pirates' catching platoon of Don Slaught and Mike LaValliere is perhaps his signature on this score, but in the absence of a star first baseman on that same team, he’d do things like pair off Orlando Merced with Lloyd McClendon. He’s platooning with Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia in the outfield right now, not because he wanted to all along, but because he adapted to the talent he had on hand once Brennan Boesch and Ryan Raburn -- the latter a key masher of left-handed pitching -- broke down this year. What he didn’t do was something easy or lazy, like just write Delmon Young into his everyday outfield.
Which demonstrates something else Leyland’s adaptable about: He may make a sacrifice to get another star into the mix, but he doesn’t just punt defense outright. If anything, he’s been willing to compensate for the risks he’s been willing to run with guys like Bonilla or Cabrera or by employing some fairly slick defenders over the years. Pirates second baseman Jose Lind was perhaps the best example of his relying on an extreme glove-first everyday player: His highest OBP in any of the five years he started for Leyland was .308, and he had as much power as a potato battery, but he was there to play second base.
Over time, Leyland’s list of guys whose primary value has been on defense includes middle infielders Ramon Santiago and Adam Everett, or when he’s using a less-than-Ozziesque shortstop, slick-fielding third basemen like Steve Buechele and Brandon Inge. In short, the selections seem more tailored for each collection of talent. Get the core in place, and then figure out how the rest of the edges of the roster should work around them.
But even those big plans leave room for a quick-fix solution, which brings us to one other thing Leyland’s rosters have reliably featured over 21 seasons: Utility players that he puts to work. Going all the way back to aging utilityman Bill Almon on his first ballclub as a rookie big-league skipper for the Pirates in 1986 to John Wehner with the Pirates to Don Kelly, Leyland has a knack for carrying multi-positional supersubs he can start at five or six positions and give 200-250 at-bats to. They’re not great, but they are handy for the tactical flexibility they give Leyland in-game.
In short, easy as it might be to home in on the big things when evaluating Leyland as a skipper, beyond seeing his stars shine you can just as easily admire the man’s tradecraft with his lineups and roster usage. There is no such thing on a Leyland roster as a player he doesn’t know how to use, or might only use in an emergency, and he keeps them sharp with consistent use. In a postseason where Fielder and Cabrera have one homer between them so far, it’s that sort of acumen that has helped compensate.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.