The goal was simple: win at all costs.
But they didn’t.
After years of division titles, MVP awards, Cy Youngs, and countless All Star Game selections, the Detroit Tigers are, right on cue, feeling the repercussions of going all-in to win a title for aging owner Mike Ilitch.
Now that the core of the team that won four straight division titles from 2011 through 2014 has been broken up, the Tigers are on the inevitable downslide that was expected to happen after years of winning.
Except they didn’t win.
Well, they won, but never achieved the ultimate goal. Ilitch’s death in January punctuated an era that, in the long run, will be considered a failure.
Now, we are left with a carcass of a baseball team, wondering what could have been.
The four division titles, five playoff appearances and two American League pennants since 2006 look nice, and provided some fun memories for Tigers fans along the way, but there will always be an empty feeling for Detroiters looking back at these years.
When did the downfall begin? Tough to say.
It’s easy to look back on an October night in Boston, where one Joaquin Benoit changeup to David Ortiz reversed Detroit’s path from likely World Series winner to dead meat in 2013.
From there, the Tigers went on to win just one more playoff game, losing to the Red Sox in six and getting swept by the Orioles the following year before tumbling all the way to the division’s cellar in 2015.
It was a quick death, but it was far from painless.
Heading into the 2013 offseason, Detroit still had assembled a team that looked capable of winning a ring the following year. But after veteran manager Jim Leyland hung up his cleats, the Tigers went in a completely new direction.
They hired a manager with zero coaching experience in professional baseball. Not just in the Major Leagues. Not just zero managerial experience.
Zero. Coaching. Experience.
Unless you want to count managing Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic.
Sure, Brad Ausmus was a successful big league catcher like most managers, but right off the bat, his hiring raised plenty of question marks.
For an organization apparently set on winning now at all costs, hiring an inexperienced manager made little sense. But did this hiring signal a change in direction? Were the Tigers finally going to give a little thought to the future instead of throwing all of their eggs into the basket of the present?
Well, not exactly. They made a highly-criticized trade soon after, sending starting pitcher Doug Fister to Washington for Steve Lombardozzi, Robbie Ray and Ian Krol.
Sending away Fister left a void that is, in a sense, still waiting to be filled. Detroit got some good young talent in return, but any thoughts of prepping for the future were wiped away when Lombardozzi was flipped for ancient shortstop Alex Gonzalez…who was released almost immediately after.
Also before the 2014 season, the Tigers locked up slugger Miguel Cabrera for 10 more years – a contract which will pay Cabrera $32 million in his age 40 season.
Not exactly setting up a great future.
The Tigers needed some bullpen help (surprise!), so they traded highly-regarded prospects Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel for Joakim Soria – a steady closer whose best days were clearly behind him.
Knebel is now an All Star closer himself, for what it’s worth.
Soon after, at the 2014 trade deadline in the heat of a pennant race, the Tigers went for it again.
Detroit dished out two everyday players in center fielder Austin Jackson and young starter Drew Smyly, along with top prospect Willy Adames, for 2012 Cy Young winner David Price.
Price was, and is to this day, a guy who puts up impressive numbers but disappoints when it matters. He has never won a postseason start and holds a 5.54 ERA in October.
Well, it didn’t work out in Detroit and he was dealt away for a modest prospect package a year later.
But let’s back it up a bit.
After the 2014 season, the Tigers elected to let ace pitcher Max Scherzer pack his bags.
Unlike Price, Scherzer had experienced postseason success in his career and showed no signs of slowing down any time soon. He’s arguably the best pitcher in baseball today, in the midst of his third Cy Young-caliber season with the Washington Nationals.
But the “win-at-all costs” Tigers couldn’t afford him. Not after inking Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez and others to absolutely ludicrous deals.
Then again, they didn’t have an issue signing Jordan Zimmermann, who is clearly a tier or two lower than Scherzer as far as starting pitchers go, to a contract worth about $22 million per year just one offseason later.
Oh, and then $13.5 million more to Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe.
Basically, it comes down to inconsistency. Not the inconsistency that the offense or back end of the pitching rotation has experienced in recent years, but inconsistency in the front office to pick a direction and stick with it.
Inconsistency and, to quote the charming but historically inaccurate baseball flick Moneyball, “an imperfect understanding of where wins come from”.
Take a look at the past five World Series champs: 2012 Giants, 2013 Red Sox, 2014 Giants, 2015 Royals, 2016 Cubs.
A few things they all had in common: role players, unsung heroes, ridiculously strong bullpens and, perhaps most importantly, ridiculously strong bonds in the clubhouse.
Everyone in the big leagues can play baseball. Not everyone can play together. Watch some of this year’s contenders like Houston, Cleveland or Los Angeles. Hell, try to remember what it was like in the Tigers’ clubhouse five years ago.
High fives, special handshakes, pranks, jokes, smiles, dancing. Everywhere you look.
It doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see that the atmosphere in the Detroit dugout has taken a complete 180.
Jose Iglesias is there thinking to himself about what flashy play he’s going to make next inning.
Miguel Cabrera has a dejected look on his face as he hobbles back after a disappointing at-bat.
Victor Martinez is angry about Comerica Park “robbing” him of what he thought should have been a home run.
The front office has neglected to acknowledge the importance of two of these essential elements of winning teams in recent years: clubhouse chemistry and clutch performers.
Here are a couple of examples.
Maybin was brought back last season to fill a hole in center field. He missed the first month and a half of the season due to injury while Detroit hovered around the .500 mark.
However, his return provided a fresh breath of life into a team desperately in need of a spark. He was the perfect medicine to Detroit’s ailment, getting timely hits while also lightening up the clubhouse atmosphere.
Maybin’s bright smile was visible from all around the ballpark and his antics during exciting moments amped his teammates up.
Thanks in major part to Maybin’s contributions, the Tigers remained in the playoff race up until the season’s final week.
He was dealt to the Angels in the offseason because the Tigers were not willing to pay him $9 million. He currently leads the American League in stolen bases and the Angels are surprisingly hanging around in the playoff picture, even without slugger Mike Trout in the lineup.
Everyone in baseball knows how great of a guy Torii Hunter is, and Tigers fans got a brief taste in 2013 and 2014.
Hunter led some of the team’s victory dances and champagne celebrations and also chipped in on the field, racking up a numerous amount of late-inning hits in close games despite being near the end of his career.
Detroit did not re-sign Hunter for the 2015, as he finished up his career where it began in Minnesota. The Tigers dropped from first to last in the division while the Twins enjoyed a 13-game improvement (and then dropped off the face of the earth the following year after Hunter’s retirement).
The Tigers instead opted to replace Hunter in the outfield with Anthony Gose, who was acquired in exchange for current Blue Jays starting second baseman Devon Travis.
Gose did not exactly have the positive impact Hunter did, eventually getting sent to Double-A due to his poor performance, alienating reporters due to his negativity, and converting to a pitcher in a last-ditch attempt to salvage his career.
Maybe Delmon Young isn’t as likable of a human being as Maybin and Hunter, but he was unfairly tossed to the curb after providing two years of October magic in the Motor City.
Young mashed five home runs for the Tigers in the 2011 postseason, including three in a five-game series win over the Yankees in the ALDS.
He followed up by winning the ALCS MVP award in 2012, batting .353 and driving in six runs during Detroit’s four-game sweep of the Yankees en route to another World Series appearance. Despite muteness from pretty much the rest of the lineup in the fall classic, Young made up for his below-average defense by hitting a .357 clip against the Giants.
With no room left on the roster the following year as Young’s glove would likely relegate him to a DH spot already occupied by Victor Martinez, he was let go.
Young suited up for Tampa Bay in the 2013 playoffs, unsurprisingly lifting a solo homer in the Rays’ Wild Card Game win over the Indians.
In 2014, the Tigers looked primed to tie their ALDS series against the Baltimore Orioles, taking a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth.
The Orioles made it 6-4 and then took the lead for good on a three-run double later in the inning. The batter? Delmon Young.
An imperfect understanding of where wins come from.
Overspending on players who fill up the stats sheet has been proven time and time again to fail. Building through the system, trusting the process, and bringing in core pieces who gel together neatly and contribute when called upon is the way to create champions.
If the Tigers were so focused on winning at all costs, why did they hire Brad Ausmus and say goodbye to Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Cameron Maybin, Torii Hunter and Delmon Young, among others?
If they made those moves with the future in mind, why did they make the David Price trade? Why did they make the overreaches of the century in the Alfredo Simon and Joakim Soria trades, among others?
Now all that’s left is a carcass. And what do you do with a carcass on your lawn? Let it rot? Nope.
The trade deadline is July 31.