OUCH! Weren't we all thinking the Tigers were going to win it all this year? The thousands of people that bought season tickets or stood in long pre-season lines to get tickets to key games certainly thought so. Instead, the Tigers... excuse the term, suck, and in every facet of the game. So, despite a series of moves that in the off-season looked brilliant, the Tigers fans now seem saddled with a team that cannot hit, pitch, field or win. What happened? Here's the Sports Guy's take on the Tigers.
Too many high-priced contracts. I still can't argue the trades that brought Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Edgar Renteria to the Tigers, but why did they have to give Cabrara and Willis expensive long-term deals before they played their first game in a Tigers uniform? By doing this, they locked themselves into these players for years down the road. If they performed, great, if they didn't, and as they haven't, they created an obligation no other team will want. Why didn't the Tigers prefer to keep these players hungry, with a greater incentive to perform? Add to this the long-term deals other under-performing Tigers have (Bonderman, Robertson, Sheffield, Inge) and you have a roster full of players that are difficult to move, and unfortunately, don't have much of an incentive to prove their worth or perform.
Living in the Past. The Tigers shaped their current roster based on a "play by the numbers" assumption that recent performance trends would continue or improve: Gary Sheffield and Pudge Rodriguez would maintain career offensive production; Renteria's performance in the American League with Boston was an aberration, and his career numbers were more indicative of how he would perform for the Tigers; Polanco would perform as he has for the last two seasons, with little possibility that he would return to the type of performance that was indicative of his early career. Curtis Granderson, also given a long-term contract, would only continue to improve. These assumptions were made by many of us, but now, with only Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez performing up to expectations that we could have reasonably had for them, the Tigers are stuck with an under-performing, seemingly unharmonious group of players that not only aren't hitting, but they aren't fielding their positions, or for that matter haven't settled into the position they will play.
Departure from Philosospy. The Tigers built an expansive new ballpark designed, either intentional or not, to favor defense, pitching, and speed, and rebuilt their farm system on those attributes. Instead, particularly with recent moves, they built a team that seems overly reliant on the expectation of a three-run homer, with a pitching staff and bullpen that needs a couple of them per game in order to win. Defense and speed have become secondary, and with prospects they have given up, have been traded away.
Pitching. Ultimately, and over the long haul, pitching wins, and this has been the Tigers biggest failing, and has been exacerbated again by long-term contracts awarded to under-performing pitchers and productive prospects, most notably Jair Jurrjenns, that have been traded away. In my view, nowhere are the prospects for a near-term turn-around more bleak. Bonderman is out for the season and has never performed over a full season up to the expectations for him, and it is very possible he never will. Robertson has never been and will never be more than a No. 4 or 5 starter. Willis? More walks than innings pitched, and bizarre mechanics (remember Justin Thomposon, anyone?) he probably will not be able to change. Kenny Rogers was great for a year, but obviously can't be considered part of the Tigers future. That leaves Justin Verlander and a few prospects. The Tigers will live, and have thus far died, based on the performance of Verlander, but I contend he remains the Tigers lone pitching bright spot. Here's another prediction - Joel Zumaya will never again perform the way he did in the Tigers '06 season. He possesses neither the physical or mental make-up necessary to be a dominant relief pitcher over the long term.
The Future. Despite this gloomy outlook, all is not lost for the Tigers. They can be a championship caliber team. It won't be this year, however, and the sooner the Tigers realize that, the better off they will be. Although it is not likely, if the Tigers can trade Inge, Rodriguez, or Sheffield and a bunch of Mike Ilitch's cash to anybody, for as much as a strong prospect, they should do so. In building for the future, they are better off without these players on the team. Rodriquez and Sheffield because they are through as the type of player that will start on a championship-caliber team, and Inge, despite his work ethic and defensive skills, because he can't hit well enough to assume the type of role that would satisfy them. Get a few players in the mold of what the Oakland A's always get to stay competitive - good defenders, guys that get on base, guys that don't strike out, and guys that are hungry for, rather than getting fat on, a rich contract. The Tigers can develop a a team around a core of Guillen, Cabrera (because they have to), Granderson, and Polanco. Verlander will get better run support, and will be the Tigers ace for years to come. They can and should try to re-sign Ordonez. They can and should try to add a good young, yet inexpensive catcher and top-3 starting pitcher. They should give Willis a chance to work out his problems - but in the minor leagues.
The biggest reason why the Tigers can win, and the reason for my optimism, is that Dave Dombrowski is a good general manager, and Mike Ilitch is committed to giving him what is necessary to win. Dombrowski now realizes they made some mistakes. He will learn from them, and will figure out what he needs to do. He'll develop key prospects, make smarter free agent acquisitions, will find a market for some unproductive assets or players that don't fit the puzzle, and will build on what he has to return the Tigers to winning form. The Central division is winnable - just not for the Tigers in 2008.