It was ten years ago that the worst baseball team of the last generation, perhaps of the last half century, began their season in earnest. Here are the facts.
The team, managed by Alan Trammell, went 43-119. They scored 591 runs and allowed 928. They finished a whopping 47 games out of first place in the AL Central. Somehow, the Tigers still outdrew Tampa Bay in 2003.
But it was so much more than the bare facts. It was year two of the Dombrowski administration and year one of the three year experiment with Trammell at the helm. It was the bottom of the bottom.
The only offensive player to post higher than 1.0 WAR was Dmitri Young (2.1). The position players, as a whole, posted a negative 0.7 WAR. The only team of position players to be worse in my lifetime was the 1998 Twins (-2.0).
The pitching was better, if you can call it that. The pitchers combined for a 3.8 WAR, which is only 12th worst since 1990. But for perspective, let’s remember that 25 individual pitchers posted WARs of 3.8 or higher last season.
That’s really terrible.
Let’s add a little context. Who was this team? Who played the most at each position? Ladies and gentleman, your 2003 Detroit Tigers!
Catcher: Brandon Inge
First Base: Carlos Pena
Second Base: Warren Morris
Shortstop: Ramon Santiago
Third Base: Eric Munson
Left Field: Craig Monroe
Center Field: Alex Sanchez
Right Field: Bobby Higginson
Designated Hitter: Dmitri Young
I don’t know, that isn’t so bad. If I was evaluating that offense, I’d consider them one of the worst four teams in the league, but I don’t think I’d put them down for 119 losses or anything. The pitching staff?
Nate Cornejo, Mike Maroth, and Jeremy Bonderman pitched full seasons and Adam Bernero, Gary Knotts, Matt Roney, Wil Ledezma, Nate Robertson, Chris Mears, and Shane Loux all made several starts. Some of those guys had decent runs in their careers, but none of them happened during 2003. If this was my rotation in 2013, I would probably be looking for a new one.
So these names are certainly a blast from the past. Lots of Tigers from the days before the Tigers were Verlander and Cabrera.
The 2003 Tigers were very terrible. It was sad and comical and a mess. But there is another side of the story that we often divorce from this team.
This was the beginning of the baseball renaissance in Detroit. It was this terrible season that earned the Tigers the #2 pick in the 2004 draft (At this time, the first pick alternated leagues so the Padres went first).
With that pick, the Tigers chose Justin Verlander and everything began to change.
Dombrowski chose Verlander, who is now the Tigers ace. They signed Pudge Rodriguez that offseason and traded for Carlos Guillen. Both played major roles in the Tigers resurgence.
Then Magglio Ordonez came to town. The Tigers took a chance on him when no one wanted to and he rewarded them greatly. And then there was Kenny Rogers and Jim Leyland. And breakout seasons from Inge and Granderson. Monroe and Thames.
DD took Maybin and Miller in the 2005 and 2006 drafts and later turned them into Miguel Cabrera.
A magical run in 2006 came before a string of extended success. The Tigers have finished below .500 just once since that 2006 season.
The seeds of the current powerhouse, big spending, contending Tigers were planted among the ashes of the 2003 Tigers. The hapless, terrible 2003 Tigers gave us Justin Verlander, and soon, a real winner.
Mike Illitch brought in Dave Dombrowski who showed Mr. I what a winner could look like in Detroit. Now Illitch backs up the money truck and fans storm the turnstiles. Detroit is a place for premier free agents. Fans have astronomical expectations each season and anything short of 90 wins seems like a disaster. People revere the Old English D instead of pity it now.
This wonderful run of baseball at Comerica Park happened for a lot of reasons, but the 2003 Tigers deserve some credit. They were so bad that things finally started to change. Verlander through the draft. Pudge through a mitzvah of his own. Maggs as the marriage of a broken player and a team looking for a savior.
Then the floodgates opened. Cabrera and Fielder and Scherzer and Fister. Anibal Sanchez, Torii Hunter, Alex Avila.
Just ten years ago, the Tigers were drawing poorly and losing more games than any American League team ever had. But then, as it usually does in times of great struggle, everything changed.
Maybe that never happens if the Tigers hadn’t bottomed out like they did. We’ll never know. But as we “celebrate” the ten year anniversary of the worst team I’ll ever cheer for, let’s also remember it was that devastation that led to this great era of Tigers baseball.
The Tigers enter the 2013 season as the division favorites and World Series contenders after back to back playoff berths and an AL Pennant, but they do so on the backs of a 119 loss club that came ten years before.
Here’s to the 2003 Tigers. Happy birthday, guys.