The 2016 Tigers season ended Sunday afternoon when Justin Upton took a Jim Johnson called third strike with Andrew Romine at first. There’s a metaphor there, I think, but it’s also true that the Tigers season would have ended a few minutes later when the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox, clinching the last remaining wild card spot.
The Tigers finished 86-75, eight back of Cleveland and 2.5 back of Baltimore and Toronto. If you’re the kind of person who demands a postseason berth or a World Series each year, you’re obviously disappointed right now. The Tigers will miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season and haven’t won a playoff game since 2013. But if you’re the kind of person who watches baseball and roots for a team because you enjoy the rhythm of the summer, this Tigers team gave you plenty to enjoy.
The club was playoff eligible during all 161 games they played and the season didn’t officially slip away until the last inning of the last game. You could argue the season ended when Dansby Swanson started the double play on Saturday or when he started the other double play on Sunday, but the club was right in it until Upton took strike three.
And while the team came up a bit short, there were a number of tremendous individual performances worthy of celebration. Justin Verlander proved his great second half in 2015 was the sign of a real return, and while he might not have done enough to win the Cy Young, he’ll finish in the top five. His rotation-mate, Michael Fulmer, is going to finish first or second in rookie of the year and looks every bit like someone who can fill a key rotation spot for the next six years. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd didn’t have the season Fulmer did, but they both showed why the Tigers wanted them and left you feeling like this team has a strong young core of pitchers around which to build.
Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler had great seasons despite staring Father Time in the face. JD Martinez and Nick Castellanos missed time with injuries but they crushed the ball when they were healthy. Justin Upton started so bad but by year’s end his late season surge brought him almost all the way back. Even James McCann, light-hitter that he may be, learned to frame much better. He might not be an MLB caliber starter, but he’s good enough to be the weak half of a platoon or a backup if that’s how it shakes out.
And other than Saltalamacchia, Aybar, and McGehee, this entire team is coming back if the Tigers want them. There is no giant hole to fill like there was a year ago when Price and Cespedes left gaping voids on the roster. The Tigers could upgrade at CF, C, the bench, and in the pen, but they have a core of position players and starters that would be the envy of a lot of teams. It might take some creativity to make a big upgrade, but even if they do nothing this is a wild card caliber roster in 2017.
Brad Ausmus will probably return, and while I don’t think much of him as a manager, the roster he had this year hid his flaws more effectively than the one he had a year ago. I’d rather they hire someone else, but I don’t think it will be Ausmus who torpedoes them in 2017.
There will be time shortly to decide who they should sign and acquire via trade, but for now, we can reflect on a good team that was just as good as they should have been. Despite big injuries to Martinez, Castellanos, and Zimmermann, they were the last team to be eliminated in the AL.
It’s easy to look at a season that ends without a parade as a failure. But I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations given that it’s authored died this past week. I recognize the contexts are vastly different, but wisdom is transferable. Rather than thinking of 2016 as a failure, think of it as one step within a broader effort for the franchise toward a title. So I’ll leave you by paraphrasing the line:
The Tigers title run did not fail. It is just not yet finished.