The first post on this website came prior to Game 3 of the 2012 ALCS. The Tigers were about to win two at home against the Yankees before being roasted in the World Series by the Giants. That’s a slightly elongated way of saying that this is fourth time I’ve written a eulogy for a baseball team.
In each of the three prior cases, there was no guarantee the season would end on any particular day. The 2012 Tigers could have won Game 4 and played on. The 2013 Tigers could have won Game 6 and played on. The 2014 Tigers could have won Game 3 and played on. The 2015 Tigers have no such option. They were officially eliminated last week and effectively eliminated in July. This is the first time since I began writing about the team in 2012 that the end came with no possible hope.
There are good and bad aspects to that. The miserable baseball we watched this season was trying, but there was something peaceful about not playing any games during the final two months of the season that dialed up your blood pressure. I wouldn’t recommend that the Tigers try to lose every year, but if they were going to miss the playoffs decisively, I’m happy they lost in July rather than on September 15th, if only for our health.
It was a weird and depressing season. They started 6-0 and 11-2. They went 65-83 the rest of the way and gave up runs like it was going out of style. The final record belies the quality of the team they started the season with, however, as they dealt David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, both of whom had tremendous seasons before and after the trades. The Tigers also lost two and half months of Verlander and had some combination of broken/missing Anibal Sanchez.
Dave Dombrowski built a better team than the one that Al Avila will finish with, but it was never a team that could rival the great 2011-2013 squads. The starting pitching was worse off even when Price was still on the team. Calling the bullpen a dumpster fire would be an insult to dumpster fires. And while the offense was solid and the defense was better, there were still weak points around the diamond, primarily in center field, third base, and (sadly) designated hitter. And that’s before acknowledging the six weeks Miguel Cabrera missed during a crucial juncture of the season.
In part, this was a failed design and dumb luck. These Tigers weren’t build to steamroll the American League and they really weren’t build to overcome adversity, but losing Cabrera, Verlander, and Sanchez for big chunks of time while also getting nothing from a recovering Victor Martinez was always going to be too much to overcome.
Even with a tremendous follow-up campaign from JD Martinez and four great months from Price and Cespedes, this just wan’t going to work. James McCann was a revelation against the running game, but his bat slowed as the year wore on. Jose Iglesias made dazzling plays and definitely hit at or above his projections, but he botched more routine plays than you’d like and wound up missing time with various injuries.
Nick Castellanos played better defense than he did a year ago, but it was still extremely poor. His bat definitely picked up after a few days off in June, but his second half performance is the minimum he has to do in order to make his defense tenable at the hot corner.
Ian Kinsler was great again, highlighting one of Dombrowski’s great moves. Miguel Cabrera was terrific when healthy until the final month of the season, when he was unable to really drive the ball. A long offseason should help there. Anthony Gose showed some raw ability, but did nothing to make a claim on a 2016 starting job. Rajai Davis had a nice season, as did Andrew Romine’s glove. Alex Avila remained an on-base machine, but a complete lack of extra base power is going to force him to find employment as something lesser than a front-line catcher.
On the pitching side, Verlander’s late season resurgence will be the story. You shouldn’t let it blind you to the coming effects of aging, but getting healthy and having success will bode will for the near term. Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson had solid seasons in the bullpen, but everyone else who touched the mound basically turned to mush. Time will tell whether Sanchez can be Sanchez when he’s healthy, and fully rested and acclimated versions of Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd are compelling, but if the Tigers are going to be great again, they need a lot of new relievers and at least one starter.
The story of this season will, however, always be what happened in the first days of August. After a disappointing season, the Tigers were sellers for the first time since 2010 and despite a universally lauded deadline, owner Mike Ilitch showed Dave Dombrowski the door in favor of Al Avila. I wrote extensively about the move and what it means, but the biggest head-scratcher is that Dombrowski was the only casualty of the failure. The rest of the front office survived, as did Brad Ausmus and the entire coaching staff. The blame fell at the feet of one man. A man who happened to do more to revive the franchise in the preceding week than anyone really thought possible.
The Tigers farm system is in much better shape going into 2016, and they’ll have a protected first round pick next June as well. Yet despite all the success and the firm footing for the future, the architect was relieved of command.
Avila is well-prepared for the task ahead after a lifetime of experience, but the mind-boggling decision to retain Ausmus and his staff rings as a very bad omen for what’s to come. We don’t really know what Avila will do now that he’s the guy but his history of finding good talent to sign is at least somewhat shadowed by his inability to see the colossal embarrassment his own manager has been.
This was a transition year for the Tigers. A transition that started back in November of 2013, I suppose. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the club’s failure to win a title over the last five years and their inability to make the postseason this year. It was a shaky roster, managed poorly, and oft injured. It was what it was.
Yet there’s a very odd feeling I have at the end. Objectively and subjectively, this was the hardest Tigers team to watch since the Renaissance. They wound up finishing about on par with the 2008 club, but the horrible fundamentals and inept leadership made it much less fun. But the feeling I have transcends that a bit.
This was the worst Tigers team since the turnaround, yet the day after the official surrender was the most optimistic I’ve been about their long term future in quite some time. Adding Norris, Boyd, Fulmer, et al to the stable made the organization look healthy. And then three days later Dombrowski was gone. At first, it seemed mutual but it slowly turned into a clear dismissal with an unclear origin. Dombrowski was not perfect in that chair, but a split had clearly occurred at the highest levels, and the person I trusted most of the group was the one that wound up elsewhere.
Ilitch and Avila are both good overall, so the future still looked bright, even if it wasn’t quite as rosy a transition as you’d like. And then it happened last week. Avila made the determination that Ausmus was coming back, and all of the signals he was sending about modernizing the organization started to look like cheap talk. Avila spoke about elevating analytics in their decision making, but outside of the bullpen, Dombrowski rarely seemed to make decisions that flew in the face of analytics. The Tigers could certainly modernize a bit, but the first and only real decision we have to evaluate Avila was retaining a horrible manager with no idea about how the game is played. It does make you worry.
There will be an entire offseason to evaluate what happens next, but the seeds were planted in the ashes of the 2015 club. There were injuries of concern and some very good seasons to appreciate. The overall on field product was rough, but all of the flaws there are correctable. Replacing the bad starters is within their grasp. If they learn their lessons, the bullpen is fixable. Patching the position player side is manageable.
It is very easy to imagine the 2016 team being a real contender. It’s not a particularly tall task to get them there, in fact. The question is the overall direction. We don’t have much data on Avila as the leader, but the one data point we have is bad. We used to think of Ilitch as the ideal owner, but that image has fractured as well.
There were things to like about this team, but after those early days, it was not a team that was easy to love. The roster isn’t a disaster zone and things could be great in one year’s time. The problem, as we arrive at the end of this version of the franchise, is not that they were bad this year, it’s that we don’t know if their next step is going to be in the right direction.