Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Silver Lining

The Tigers have not been good this month (August). Fans are growing restless to the point that even one 0-4 game from a player gets magnified ten fold. I can understand the frustrations. I am frustrated, too. But, it is important to remember that the Tigers were never as good as their record. Every time they played a stretch against the AL’s elite teams, they were bludgeoned. This should’ve been a sign for Tigers fans to temper expectations. Some heeded the warning while others wandered dangerously down the path of over-exuberance. This is not to say that the Tigers are a bad team, or that the Tigers won’t make the playoffs. Things have changed so much in the last three weeks that I have gone from the minority of people that consistently proclaimed that the Tigers weren’t nearly as good as their record and Jim Leyland isn’t nearly as good of a manager as the sports world has made him out to be, to being in the minority that still thinks the Tigers are going to the playoffs. My seat on the minority side hasn’t changed but everything else has. Now, I’m the optimist.

As of Sunday August 27, 2006 the Tigers are still four games ahead of Minnesota for the division lead and 5.5 games ahead of Chicago for the Wild Card lead. In similar situations, the Yankees are 5.5 games ahead of Boston and nobody in NY is worried while Oakland is 5.5 ahead of Anaheim and the A’s seem to be pretty comfortable. Granted, the Yankees are playing much better baseball than Detroit but 5.5 games is a lot. The Tigers are about to finish their toughest stretch of the season with a bigger lead than they had just a month and a half ago. The schedule gets much easier from here on out. The Tigers get to play two series against K.C., and a series each against Seattle and Baltimore. The Tigers also helped them selves immensely by booting Zach Miner from the rotation. Mike Maroth will return giving the Tigers a legitimate shot at winning every time out. Kenny Rogers has been the best pitcher on the team over the last six weeks which is a significant turnaround from the way things were heading just after the All-Star break. I’m not saying the Tigers are the best team in the AL, let alone, better than the White Sox. I am saying that the Tigers are good enough to hold on to two leads of 4 and 5.5 games respectively.

To be honest with you, everything I just said is moot in my mind anyway. I care if the Tigers make the playoffs to the extent that any fan wants their team to make the playoffs. However, the Tigers aren’t good enough to beat the Yankees or ChiSox in the post season. Simply getting to the playoffs is great for an organization that has been so bad for so long. But, the Tigers organization has more fish to fry in the future. What Tigers fans are seeing right now is only a glimpse of what the Tigers will be next year and beyond. The two best players in the organization may not even be in Detroit. Andrew Miller is killing people at Lakeland. Cameron Maybin is doing the same at West Michigan. The Tigers have won this year by the sleight of hand magic of Dave Dombrowski. He molded together a roster of serviceable, otherwise unwanted players and parlayed into the best record in MLB entering September. Nobody thought this was going to happen so soon. If that is true, and I’m pretty sure it is, then everything that happens this year is just a bonus. Tigers fans have been captivated for four months longer than they’re used to. Some may argue that it would be less stressful for fans if the Tigers just played .500 baseball all season rather than give so much hope only to take it away. If we’re talking about an old ball-club like the Atlanta Braves, then that might be right. When we’re talking about an organization with as bright of a future as the Tigers, then it’s always better to win earlier than expected. If anything, the success the Tigers have had this year legitimizes to the fans that a) Dave Dombrowski knows exactly how to build a winner and b) the Tigers young pitching prospects are the real deal. With the likely departures of Sean Casey, Dmitri Young, and the expiration of Troy Percival’s contract, the Tigers will shed 22+ million dollars from next year’s payroll. If there’s one thing Mike Illitch has proved in his tenure as the owner of the Red Wings and Tigers is that he’s a front runner. If his teams are crappy, he’ll ignore them like it’s a K-Fed rap album. If his teams are winning, he’ll nurture them like a bird regurgitating in a babies mouth (let’s hope it’s more enjoyable than that). Anyhow, if you can get that last sentence out of your head, there is plenty to look forward to. The Tigers have the deepest and most talented pitching in MLB. Dombrowski will have a bevy of young arms to dangle in front of other teams in hopes of landing dynamite position players which is exactly what the Tigers need. And no, those arms he’s dangling won’t be Verlander, Bonderman, Miller, or Zumaya. The organization is so loaded with arms that there are plenty of other prospects allowing the Tigers to hold on to every prove power pitcher on the team. I’ve grown to like the current group of Tigers positional players but the fact is that these guys aren’t good enough. They work hard and play well but without a lineup comparable to the Yankees or White Sox, the Tigers will be too weak offensively to contend.

I know it’s hard to see the silver lining in the midst of a potential colossal collapse. The last thing Tigers fans want to do is think about next year. But, next year isn’t that far away. If you think the rotation was good this year, then think about how good it’s going to be next year when Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander take one step closer to their prime years. Andrew Miller could be as good as both of those guys right now. As I mentioned above, the future is not now for the Tigers. However disappointing this season ends up being, the Tigers are the MLB team of the future. This year is just a result of the team arriving one year ahead of schedule. Having seen what Dombrowski can do with a limited payroll, I have no doubt that Illitch will allow the team payroll to surpass $100 million. The Yankees have proven that spending the big bucks can get the best lineup in MLB history but it certainly cannot guarantee you a pitching staff to boot. The Tigers are in the enviable position of having the arms that the Yankees have been searching for over the last four years. Once the free agent bats start arriving over the next year or two, the Tigers will blow the rest of the AL out of the water. I am proud to be a Detroit Tigers fan once again and nothing that happens this season will change that in the slightest. Those jumping off of the bandwagon still have plenty of time to get back on considering it wasn’t supposed to leave until next year anyway.

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