Tigers with Bite
The Detroit Tigers club is not a one-year wonder.
After 12 years of mediocrity and sub-.500 ball, one of baseball's oldest and proudest franchises is back on top. Despite a solid 95-67 record in 2006, there were still those who did not buy into the Tigers' success, especially with the likes of the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox hanging around the American League Central.
I started my obsession with baseball in the midst of the Tigers' 11-year run of .500-plus baseball in the mid-to-late 1980s, so I vividly remember the last time the Tigers were good (and it was an embarrassment to admit you were an Atlanta Braves fan).
One of the last things my father told me before he passed away was to get to Detroit to see a game at old Tigers Stadium before it closed, because as he said, "It's the greatest place in the world to watch a baseball game." Unfortunately, I never made it... but one of these days I'm going to get to Comerica Park, where fellow scribe Al Doyle recently had the opportunity to visit.
Ah, Comerica Park. One of the reasons why the Tigers have gone from utter failures (43-119) to American League champs and improved every year since the fateful 2003 season is that the organization has done a better job of building the team around the stadium. When Comerica Park opened in 2000, the club was not built to succeed in its home park - it consisted of slow, one-dimensional sluggers. The team was on a modest upswing at the time of the opening, but the new, spacious park quickly put an end to that.
Old Tiger Stadium - especially the short porch in right field - was geared for the home run. But the outfield in Comerica Park - even more so before the fence was brought in in left-center - is where fly balls go to die. Don't get me wrong - the Tigers still have sluggers and more than one player who likes to swing for the fences - but they are much more balanced with the offence - as well as the entire club from top to bottom.
YEAR RECORD CHANGE
1998 | 65 - 97 (.401) | ---
1999 | 69 - 92 (.429) | plus 4 wins
2000 | 79 - 83 (.488) | plus 10 wins
2001 | 66 - 96 (.407) | minus 13 wins
2002 | 55-106 (.342) | minus 11 wins
2003 | 43-119 (.265) | minus 12 wins
The evolution of the Tigers:
The heart of the Tigers' order in 2000 consisted of Tony Clark
, Damion Easley
, Dean Palmer
, Bobby Higginson
, Juan Gonzalez
and Juan Encarnacion
. None of those players were known for their defence or their speed. They were, in fact, fairly one-dimensional sluggers, although Encarnacion was oozing with tools, which he was never really able to fully tap into.
Jeff Weaver was as good as it got in the starting rotation - and he threw more than 200 innings - but the motley crew behind him consisted of Hideo Nomo, Brian Moehler, Dave Mlicki, and Steve Sparks. Todd Jones (42 saves) and Matt Anderson were a pretty good one-two punch at the back of the bullpen.
Clark, Easley, Higginson, Palmer and Encarnacion remained with the club in 2001. Offensive-minded Robert Fick
was given the full-time catching gig after defensive-specialist Brad Ausmus
found his way back to Houston. Jose Macias
played the majority of the time at the hot corner for an injured Palmer. Macias did not really offer much in the way of power or batting average, but he stole more than 20 bases. The smartest move the Tigers made was obtaining the speedy Roger Cedeno
(55 SB) to patrol the massive outfield.
When the fresh blood in your starting rotation includes Chris Holt, Jose Lima and Nate Cornejo, you should know you're in trouble. It also did not help that both Jones and Anderson regressed significantly.
In 2002, the Tigers appeared to have realized that something was wrong with the team and they went into a rebuilding mode under the guidance of new General Manager Dave Dombrowski, who helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series after only four years of existence. The club was very bad in 2002 and looked like a Triple-A club with significant playing time going to the likes of Chris Truby
, Shane Halter
, Randall Simon
and Wendell Magee
, but bad contracts were beginning to be shed.
For a team in a "pitcher's park" things just were not improving for the Tigers on the mound. Sparks, Weaver and Lima were still playing key roles and Mark Redman, Adam Bernero and Mike Maroth did not offer much upside or hope for the future. Journeyman Juan Acevado was brought in to act as a stopgap at the back of the bullpen after Jones and Anderson were jettisoned.
In 2003, the club went back to some B-grade sluggers - albeit younger ones - with Carlos Pena
, Eric Munson
and Craig Monroe
. Dmitri Young
was the only player to really have a good offensive season and the club continued to field a number of Triple-A players, including Ramon Santiago
and Warren Morris
. By this time, Alex Sanchez
had replaced Cedeno as the only consistent source of speed - but his defence was a significant step down.
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2003 season for the Tigers. The organization committed highway robbery on the Oakland Athletics organization when it traded for 20-year-old phenom Jeremy Bonderman. He had a rough debut season, but it was clear to everyone who saw him pitch that he had a bright future. The usual collection of B-grade arms surrounded Bonderman in the rotation. Franklyn German, part of the Bonderman trade, fell flat on his face when the closer's role was gift-wrapped for him.
It was here in 2004 that the groundwork for future success began to be laid, with the addition of catcher Ivan Rodriguez
, who was brought in to help improve the pitching staff, and Carlos Guillen
, who was brought in to help solidify the infield defence. Because the team was so bad for so long, Dombrowski had to entice free agents to the City of Detroit with over-market deals. It was a risky move, but one that would work out not once, but twice.
Bonderman showed signs of improvement but had a 4.89 ERA in 2004. Nate Robertson had a respectable season and showed that he had the potential to be a solid No. 4 starter. Slowly but surely, the rotation was taking shape. Ugueth Urbina was good, but not great, in the closer's role.
The club, under former long-time shortstop turned manager Alan Trammell, began to improve in 2004 but failed to build on that and take the 'next step,' so after the 2005 season Trammell was replaced by veteran baseball man Jim Leyland.
Injury-prone, but talented, outfielder Magglio Ordonez was the next player that Dombrowski was able to sign for a little extra moola and Tigers had a fairly decent nucleus of veteran players to work with. But the lineup still needed a spark plug and depth.
The best thing about 2005 pitching-wise was that Bonderman and Robertson continued to gain experience by taking the ball every fifth day. No one on the club saved more than nine games.
2006 saw Leyland come aboard, but it also saw A) the pitching staff step up significantly and B) the lineup fill out a bit and a spark plug emerge.
Catcher-turned-third baseman Brandon Inge had a career year in 2006, as did outfielders Craig Monroe and Marcus Thames, but it was the addition of Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson to the top of the order that helped to set the table for the run producers like Ordonez. The loss of Polanco to injury coincided with a late-season swoon by the club. Luckily, he was able to return for the playoffs.
Two very different pitchers made huge impacts on the rotation in 2006, sandwiched in between Bonderman and Robertson. Veteran Kenny Rogers proved to the amazement of most that he was not washed up. And top pitching prospect Justin Verlander showed he was not as raw as many thought, after being taken second overall in the 2004 draft. Both Rogers and Verlander won 17 games in 2006. Zach Miner performed adequately as the No. 5 man (which is pretty much all you can hope for in this day and age). Jones made a triumphant return to Detroit, saved 37 games (with smoke and mirrors) and proved to the baseball world that he, like Rogers, was not ready for retirment.
I guess the key philosophy in the resurgence of the Detroit Tigers is "Slow and steady wins the race." As we can see above, the Tigers did not improve over night - things really began to head in the right direction in 2004. Far too often, teams do a complete overhaul during the course of one off-season (the Rockies seem to do it every year) and it rarely works, because it takes time for players to become comfortable with each other and to learn teammates' strengths and weaknesses. The fact Dombrowski realized this, is just one more reason why he is one of the best general managers in the game today.
2007: The Hitters
C - Ivan Rodriguez: His patience at the plate has dropped off significantly, but there are a lot of teams in baseball that would love to have a catcher that can hit .300 and be of value in the No. 2 hole in the lineup. Behind the plate, Pudge remains one of the best, even at the age of 35.
1B - Sean Casey: With only one home run on the season, Casey is probably one of the weakest starting options at first base in the majors. But he still maintains a solid batting average and rarely strikes outs. That said, this is the one area on the club that needs upgrading but it will likely have to be done via a trade because the options on the farm are limited.
2B - Placido Polanco: He lacks power, but Polanco can handle the bat and does all the little things like the true professional that he is. Offensively, he is hitting more than .330 this season and has walked more than he has struck out. He uses the entire (spacious) field better than any other player on the team. Defensively, he offers a steady glove.
3B - Brandon Inge: Inge has regressed a bit this year, but he offers steady defence and some power. He also won't clog the bases.
SS - Carlos Guillen: He doesn't get as much press as other (over-hyped) shortstops in the game, but Guillen is the heart and sole of the club offensively and in the field. He has power, hits for average and plays steady defence. The only real question marks with Guillen are his health and how long he can remain at shortstop.
OF - Curtis Granderson: Granderson is the guy the Tigers front office was looking for when it was sifting through Cedeno, Sanchez and Nook Logan. Granderson strikes out too much but he has explosive speed and an always-improving bat. His power is really starting to develop (22 doubles, 12 triples, 9 homers this season) and he could soon develop a Carl Crawford-type of reputation. Granderson, like Polanco, is perfectly suited for the spacious outfield.
OF - Gary Sheffield: Sheffield was the Tigers' big off-season acquisition and they gave up three promising, young arms to bring him over from New York. He started off the season slowly, but has raised his average to .295, added 17 homers, and walked more than he has struck out.
OF - Magglio Ordonez: Ordonez is having an absolutely ridiculous season and anyone who criticized the seemingly inflated contract Dombrowski gave him as a free agent should bow down to the GM. Ordonez has a major league leading 34 doubles (two more than he hit all of last year), 12 homers and is second in the majors with 66 RBI. He has also walked more than he has struck out and he is leading the majors with a .377 average. Do you smell a MVP?
OF - Craig Monroe: Monroe is probably the weakest member of the starting nine. He doesn't walk enough, has a low batting average, strikes out too much and hasn't shown enough power this year. That said, this lineup can more than make up for one player having an off first half.
2007: The Pitchers
It would have been easy for the Tigers to go into panic mode when Rogers went onto the disabled list and missed most of the first half of the season. But they found a way to stay afloat.
RHP - Justin Verlander: You'll have to look elsewhere for a sophomore slump. Almost all his numbers have improved this year - save perhaps for his walks per nine innings. Verlander has stepped up his game and been the No. 1 starter the Tigers needed. He leads the club in wins and innings pitched.
RHP - Jeremy Bonderman: Bonderman has yet to truly breakout and become the perennial CY Young candidate that everyone predicted for him. Even still, he is very, very good and a perfect No. 2 starter. If Rogers comes back at full strength and pitches like he did in 2006, Bonderman becomes the best No. 3 starter in the game.
LHP - Mike Maroth: Maroth has been bouncing around the Tigers' rotation for years, without ever seizing a permanent spot. Regardless, he has been invaluable to the club this year in terms of depth and could be a valuable chip and the trading deadline if Rogers is healthy. His stuff is probably better-suited for the National League.
RHP - Chad Durbin: The former Kansas City Royals' prospect finally found some consistency and has been better than anyone thought he would be. At this point, he doesn't really have much more upside than Maroth, but Durbin and his six wins in 14 starts (tied with Verlander for tops on the club) has helped to keep Detroit at the top of the AL Central.
LHP - Nate Robertson: The lefty has probably had the most disappointing season of any of the starters, not counting the injured Rogers. His ERA is above 5.00 and he has allowed 11.65 hits per nine innings, while striking out only 4.65 batters per nine innings.
Closer - Todd Jones: His season has been up-and-down. He has 17 saves in 21 opportunities, but his ERA is hovering near 6.00. He has allowed 35 hits in only 27.2 innings but he has only been taken out of the yard once all season. A late-season return to health by Joel Zumaya could give the bullpen a much-needed boost.
* * *
As mentioned above, the Tigers are now built to win in their home ball park. There are still holes on the club and areas that could be improved, but they are a much more well-rounded team than they were five or six years ago. They have steady defence up the middle, speed on the bases and in the field and some power from multi-dimensional hitters. The pitching, when healthy, is solid one-through-three and there is a proven, battle-tested closer in the bullpen. Zumaya, when healthy, offers hope for the future.
If the club can acquire another veteran starter by the trade deadline and a Scot Shields-type reliever, the club may be unstoppable in its quest to win the World Series this season. Even without significant upgrades, it has an outstanding shot at the title.