For years, promises were heard and patience was preached. In time, Mike Illitch would be the type of owner that spends money. Over time, Dave Dombrowski would give the Detroit Tigers his patented Florida facelift.
For years, Tigers fans would have to watch the Indians build a dynasty, the Twins make something out of nothing, and the White Sox win a world championship. They were simply instructed to sit back and take it, their day of reckoning was promised to be right around the corner.
For now, these Detroit fans are starting to believe. Maybe Jim Leyland can still manage. Maybe Dambrowski can pull a rabbit from his hat twice. Maybe Illitch will eventually spend the necessary money. Their belief is seen by a recent upswing in attendance numbers - three straight 25,000 home games - that should only continue with three consecutive home series against the Indians, Yankees and Red Sox, respectively.
Personally, I do not believe. The White Sox are too good, too built to last. But this column is not about the south side, but about Motown, and the cautious optimism slowly protruding from it. While I'm far from convinced this is the season the Tigers snap their losing streak, I do see good things happening. Worth noting:
For all the contact problems that Curtis Granderson has, the kid can play. Only 10 times in 47 games has Granderson not struck out in a game; he's on pace to exceed 150 strikeouts, making a high batting average very difficult. However, Granderson makes up for his contact inabilities with good power, great defense and fantastic discipline. His ISO seems to be settling in the .210 range, his Rate2 in center stands at 113, and Granderson has 26 walks in just north of 200 plate appearances. Not every formula for success reads the same, but whichever one that Granderson is using, it's working.
Kudos is definitely in order for the Tigers having the guts to give Marcus Thames a good number of at-bats. Thames has been able to hit for years; few hitters in professional baseball have a more prolific track record against southpaws. However, high strikeout rates and mediocre defense has plagued Thames for years, even following a double-digit home run season in 2004. At this point, Thames offers little long-term value for the club, but the ability to make small findings of his stature speaks volumes to the aptitude of the front office.
The front office also obviously has good drafting skills, as Justin Verlander has hit an unbelievable stride of late. After not pitching great in his first 2 May appearances, Verlander's last 2 starts (granted against AAA offenses in MIN and KC) have built a 17 inning scoreless streak. Verlander is such a fun pitcher to watch, a player that keeps his velocity until the end of games, and also throws a nasty, nasty curve. Verlander was far from a sure thing in a draft that included the fantastic Rice trio, but years removed, he was probably the best pick of the top ten.
In the American League East, it appears that Jon Papelbon has decided his own future with a fantastic start in the closer's role. After notching his third win and lowering his ERA to 3.22 on Thursday, it's impossible not to wonder if Joel Zumaya has not done the same. Scouts always believed that Zumaya's future likely was in the bullpen, and this spring, Jim Leyland was smart enough to speed up his timetable. And while Zumaya is prone to the occasional home run -- the longball has been responsible for 3 of his 4 earned run outings -- his dominance in a short role is undeniable. The other route, which Tigers fans should be growing increasingly afraid of, is the Scott Williamson route. After winning 12 games in a dominant 1999 reliever season, the Reds relief-to-starter experiment in 2000 ended poorly, creating a health hazard. At this point, leaving Zumaya in the bullpen might be for the best.
Soon, it will be in the pen that Zumaya should have some pitching prospect company. While Kevin Whelan has seen control problems slow his progress in high-A, the Tigers seem to be growing arms at will these days. The next starter-turned-bullpen ace should come via Humberto Sanchez, who seems to be continuing upon his Arizona Fall League success. This season, the 6-6, 230 pound giant has allowed just 38 hits in 57.2 innings, while striking out 68. Sanchez may still have a career in starting left, but teamed with Zumaya, the Tigers could have bullpen dominance for a decade.
So, as you can see, the newfound Detroit optimism exists for a reason, even if it currently stands a bit overabundant. In a group of players like Granderson, Verlander, Zumaya and others, as well as a good front office, the pieces are slowly fitting into place. And with a bit more patience, Tigers fans are really going to have a team to stand behind.