Tigers Claw Their Way Back to Contention
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Every good team has a philosophy. The St. Louis Cardinals, for instance, maintain a core of superstar talent and treat all other players as basically interchangeable. The Chicago White Sox are built around starting pitching, power, and defense. The L.A. Angels value contact hitting, aggressive play, and relief pitching. Within certain bounds, it doesn’t really matter what a team considers important, so long as it’s able to carry out its ideas and be consistent in its approach.
Going into last night’s games, the Detroit Tigers were tied with the White Sox for the best record in baseball. Their 3.27 team ERA was tops in the league – well ahead of the Yankees’ 4.01 mark – and they led the league in home runs. You can’t really call the Tigers successful – last year was their 12th consecutive losing campaign. But they have a philosophy, they’ve stuck with it, and it’s why they’re not only on top right now, but a legitimate World Series contender. This season isn’t a fluke, it’s the culmination of a long and exceptionally well-managed rebuilding process – one other teams would be wise to emulate.
In 2003, as you’ll recall, the Tigers lost 119 games and were probably the worst team in major league history. This wasn’t an accident. For many years the Tigers had been just awful – they’d drafted terribly, invested in the wrong players, made mind-bogglingly stupid trades, and become a consistent 90-game loser. In 2002, Dave Dombrowski, architect of the world champion 1997 Florida Marlins, took over and promptly eviscerated the team, trading every veteran with any hint of market value for prospects.
The idea wasn’t so much to play the kids; apart from Jeremy Bonderman, acquired in the 2002 deal that sent Jeff Weaver to the Yankees, the Tigers didn’t have anyone worth playing. Instead, it was to rid the team of commitments to veteran players who weren’t going to help the team win and clear the way to implement a new philosophy of building around homegrown pitching, signing stars other teams considered too risky to big-money deals, and trading for veterans with upside.
Like any philosophy, it sounds obvious, but the key is in execution. In the Tigers’ case, the strategy was effective for two reasons: Dombrowski is an excellent talent evaluator, and ownership was willing to spend the money to enact his plan.
Looking over the key players on this year’s team – starting pitchers, hitters with at least 100 at-bats, and relievers with at least 15 innings pitched – it’s remarkable to see how many instruments were used to acquire them. Young pitchers Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, and Fernando Rodney were drafted or signed by the Tigers, and Bonderman, Mike Maroth, and Nate Robertson were all acquired as young prospects. Verlander and Bonderman give the Tigers a pair of young starters to match any in the game, Zumaya’s 102-mph fastball has made him the top relief prospect in the game, and the rest are solid contributors. This is exactly the kind of homegrown staff the team was intent on building, and useful position players Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson came out of the system, too.
Ancient lefty Kenny Rogers is the only important pitcher brought in from the outside, and he fits another class of Tigers players: He was a free agent no one else wanted to touch (in his case because he’s old and because he beat up a cameraman before a game last year), whom the Tigers signed to a much better contract than anyone else would have given him (in his case, a two-year deal).
Catcher Ivan Rodriguez and outfielder Magglio Ordonez fit this mold, as well. Rodriguez signed as a 32-year-old catcher for four years; Ordonez, coming off a leg injury that had cost him half a year and seemed like it might cost him his career, signed for a seemingly outrageous five years and $75 million. To Dombrowski’s credit, all three players have been excellent.
He took similar risks on another couple of key veterans. He picked up infielder Carlos Guillen in 2003 for nothing because the Mariners thought he was a bad influence, and Guillen has hit like Derek Jeter since becoming a Tiger. Last year, Dombrowski picked up Placido Polanco, an excellent hitter and defender for whom the Phillies couldn’t find an infield spot, again for nothing. In both cases, Dombrowski wisely signed the players to market value extensions before they’d had a chance to become free agents.
The last piece of the puzzle is a free player. The Tigers picked up Chris Shelton, a slugging catcher with no defensive skills, from the Pirates in the 2004 Rule 5 draft. Everyone knew he would hit if some team just stuck him at first base, and he has – currently slugging .659, he’s the best hitter on the team.
Lessons for other teams are easy to draw. A consistently bad team like the Mariners or Pirates might do itself less harm blowing the whole thing up than by just staggering along in the netherworld between mediocrity and failure. A bad team should take some risks to get premier talent like Rodriguez. And most important, a team needs to settle on a direction and stick with it. This last is the easiest of all, and it doesn’t cost a dime.