Change of direction is likely best plan for Tigers
With Leyland, Fielder and Fister gone, Detroit will have a new look next season
Now, the dismantling of the Tigers begins.
They've tried over the past few years in an attempt to win their first World Series since 1984, which begs a couple of questions: Why wasn't life grand for a franchise that kept producing loaded rosters, and will the Tigers become the Red Sox by deleting a bunch of folks one season before winning it all the next?
Probably not. It was Boston Strong, not Detroit Strong. Miracle teams rarely surface in the same sport in back-to-back seasons. This might evolve into an inspirational story of a city rising from the ashes to become Detroit Strong -- as in we just might see the Tigers sprinkled with pixie dust next season.
That's sort of what Tigers officials have in mind. One by one, they've allowed some of the gigantic pieces that turned the Tigers into a significant team in recent years to leave. There was the retirement after the season of future Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland. Then there were the trades of accomplished slugger Prince Fielder and efficient starting pitcher Doug Fister with the Winter Meetings still approaching. As a result, you just know the Tigers aren't finished wheeling and dealing.
These things happen when you remain only a "significant" team despite possessing all of the attributes of a great one.
Great ones win the World Series, and the Tigers haven't done that during this century despite spending the past three seasons with the game's most talent on a consistent basis. Nobody else has Miguel Cabrera, owner of the past two American League MVP Awards. As for pitching, well, the Tigers have featured the most dominating group of starters in the Major Leagues in recent years. Nobody else had the extraordinary likes of AL Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer leading a starting staff that posted a combined 2.06 ERA during the AL Championship Series last month against the Red Sox.
The Tigers lost that ALCS, by the way. But what else is new? This was the third consecutive year the Tigers captured the AL Central, reached the ALCS and didn't do what the Red Sox later did -- find ways to win a World Series championship.
Whether you're talking physically or mentally, these weren't the same Red Sox who finished the previous year in last place in the AL East with 69 victories. The year before that, they blew the biggest September lead in baseball history. Plus, some Red Sox players left the dugout down that stretch to watch games from the clubhouse while consuming fried chicken and beer.
No wonder Red Sox officials spent the 2012 offseason rebuilding their roster by unloading high-priced stars and hiring former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell as manager.
You know the rest. Tigers officials do, and they are showing as much by altering a roster that once looked solid enough on paper for them to keep intact for several more seasons.
The key phrase is "on paper." Unfortunately for the Tigers, you have to play "on the field" at a high level through the end of October to win the World Series. But on paper, there was much to cherish about those Detroit teams, whose bosses spent a franchise-record $153 million to build rosters featuring stars beyond Cabrera, Verlander and Scherzer.
Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter is the consummate pro, and he also can hit and field a little. There was All-Star shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and Victor Martinez has ranked among the AL's top designated hitters. When the discussion involves the combination of a leadoff hitter and a center fielder, Austin Jackson is near the top of the list. Jackson, Martinez, Hunter and Peralta were among the reasons the Tigers led the Major Leagues last season in team batting average while ranking among the elite in just about every other hitting category.
For the pitchers not named Verlander or Scherzer, the Tigers had Anibal Sanchez and Fister last season, and they did much to push the Tigers toward more strikeouts than anybody in the Major Leagues while finishing third in the AL in team ERA at 3.61. In addition, Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez and Fister spent just the playoffs compiling a 2.39 ERA overall.
Still, the Tigers fell short.
Leyland had it right when he told reporters early during their latest postseason run, "We were set up to fail. When you have expectations like we have, it's tough. But you have to learn to embrace expectations and make it good pressure."
That, and you need a decent bullpen. Instead, the Tigers spent last season rotating bodies in and out of crucial relief roles, and they got the inevitable result of no relief during the postseason. They are hoping this week's signing of Joe Nathan will be a boost to the back end of the 'pen next year.
Plus, other weaknesses for the Tigers also leaped from the shadows once summer crept toward fall. They were defensively challenged, and the Red Sox took advantage of a Detroit gaffe. The same was true of the Tigers' poor baserunning, and it didn't help their cause that Cabrera was playing injured and Fielder couldn't hit for power.
The dismantling quickly followed. When Leyland decided to step down to take a front-office job with the Tigers, management went from a seasoned veteran in the dugout to Brad Ausmus, a former Major League catcher with virtually no managerial experience. Then Detroit traded Fielder to the Rangers for three-time All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler. For Fister, they got a backup infielder and a couple of pitching prospects.
Mostly, the Tigers got a change of direction.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.