It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Detroit Tigers.
Whoops! I think it’s safe to assume that the Tigers, winners of four consecutive division titles, didn’t expect to be the second-worst team in the AL this year. Certainly, no one else expected it; PECOTA projections had the Tigers winning the Central again (beating the Royals by ten games!), and most prognosticators agreed that the Tigers would fight their way to yet another division title. Instead, the Tigers submitted a disasterpiece, as a fast start (15-8 in April) soon gave way to reality (five straight months below .500) and eventually culminated in the ouster of longtime GM Dave Dombrowski.
So, what happened? The story begins last season, when the Tigers began to create a succession plan to absorb the impending losses of Max Scherzer and Torii Hunter. Lacking the funds to land a significant free agent, Dombrowski engaged in a shell game to fill the roster, trading Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and top prospect Willy Adames for David Price, then trading Robbie Ray and prospect Domingo Leyba for Shane Greene to replace Smyly, then trading Rick Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Wilson to replace Hunter and Ray, then trading Devon Travis for Anthony Gose to replace Jackson, then trading shortstop Eugenio Suarez and a prospect for Alfredo Simon to replace Porcello. As is always the case in such a spate of transactions, the farm system took the brunt of the hit, as Dombrowski sold off quite a few of tomorrow’s starters for a better chance with the current core of players. Regardless, it appeared that the Tigers filled all of the holes, and Detroit entered the season optimistic about their chances.
What began as a shell game, though, ended as a collapsing house of cards. Last year, the presence of big names like Verlander, Scherzer and Price obscured the fact that the Tigers had a below-average pitching staff; the division title was won mostly as a result of an offense that could beat opposing teams into submission. This year, the already-thin starting rotation lost Scherzer, Porcello and Smyly, and after the inevitable Anibal Sanchez injury and a surprise disappointment from Alfredo Simon, the Tigers were left with a rotation that was basically Verlander, Price, and a prayer for weather that isn’t nice.
Nine pitchers have made at least six starts for the Tigers this year; seven of those pitchers have ERAs over 4.90, and three have ERAs over 6. The bullpen was similarly decimated by injury and ineffectiveness; the Tigers have had one closer injured, one traded, and one sent home due to a “lack of effort.” Things became so desperate in Detroit that the Tigers actually dragged 38-year-old Randy Wolf out of retirement and gave him five starts, what’s even more alarming is that Wolf wasn’t anywhere close to the worst Tigers’ starter this season. All told, Detroit’s 84 ERA+ is the worst by a pitching staff in the American League and would likely be the worst in baseball if the Phillies hadn’t turned in a historically bad season this year.
Dave Dombrowski’s general plan for the year was certainly understandable; faced with the loss of a key pitcher, Dombrowski scrambled to extend the current window of competitiveness for as long as he could. Unfortunately, Dombrowski’s attempt to steal another year of contention out of the core played out like the clumsy kid trying to steal a cookie from the cookie jar; the jar is now broken, the cookies are all over the floor, and Dombrowski has been sent to his room (in this case, his new room on Yawkey Way). Dombrowski did leave a bit of a parting gift to the next GM, flipping David Price, Joakim Soria, and Yoenis Cespedes at the deadline for a sextet of young prospects that should provide some help for the otherwise barren farm, but that’s cold comfort for a team that expected to roll to another division title.
It’s not clear what Detroit does from here. There’s no point in blowing things up when your team has a top-two offense (and a generational player in Miguel Cabrera), but the pitching staff is awful, the farm is barren, and the payroll is stretched to the limit with long-term deals for Verlander and Cabrera. The good news is that the pitching staff apart from Verlander and Price was almost five wins below replacement level, so pretty much anyone the Tigers could plug in next year is likely to be better than this year’s collection of uninspiring arms. The bad news is that Price is gone, which means that Tigers now have to fill four starting slots and a full bullpen with at least somewhat credible arms if they want a chance at taking on the suddenly-good Royals or the young and improving Twins.
Detroit last won a World Series in 1984. This year will be the first time since 2010 that they will not participate in the postseason.
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