The Tigers certainly didn’t have a roster to envy entering the 2006 season. In fact, the Tigers probably didn’t have a roster to envy even after the 2006 regular season. A 95-67 record is nothing short of amazing considering the number of unproven rookies and previously unwanted journeymen that littered the roster over the course of the season. It would be easy to chalk this season up as a fluke with a return to previous form likely for next season. Although I can certainly respect that viewpoint, I just can’t agree with it.
While I respect Jim Leyland for taking over a gloomy situation in Detroit, he is by no means a miracle worker. Alan Trammell sure could’ve used Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Curtis Granderson, Marcus Thames, and the healthy versions of Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen. The only miracle worker in the organization is Dave Dombrowski. For the Tigers to use ’06 as merely a stepping stone on the journey to greatness, Dombrowski has to be the man to get it done. The Tigers need an overhaul on the offensive side for this team regardless of how the rest of the playoffs unfold. Fortunately, Dombrowski planted the seeds for said overhaul a few years back when he re-tooled the organization’s pitching through stellar drafts and trades. Dombrowski learned in Florida that the quickest way to rebuild a dreadful franchise is through a surplus of pitching. If there’s one thing that you can be certain about, it’s that every team in baseball needs pitching. The Tigers have the most pitching depth of any organization in baseball. Pitchers are the accepted currency for acquiring good hitters. Dombrowski is no fool. He knows the Tigers used smoke and mirrors on offense this year. His only agenda in the off-season will be to load up on hitters. With Mike Ilitch suddenly interested in the Tigers again, Dombrowski not only has the players to trade but the money to spend. The Tigers may have won by “accident” this year but the upward swing of the organization that we have seen slowly change year by year has been no accident. There is a method to what Dombrowski has done. As a GM, he has put himself in the perfect position to set up the Detroit Tigers as a winning franchise for a long time.
I could write 10 pages on why the Tigers won’t succeed beyond this year. It wouldn’t take much to cite the miserable history of the organization. I could go into how terrible player development has been and how bad the drafts have been. I could even rip the hitters from this year’s team for their woeful lack of plate discipline But, I could write a 20 page paper on why the Tigers will succeed beyond this year. Luckily for you, I won’t make it 20 pages but I will give you the cliff notes version.
I think most Tiger fans don’t realize how young Bonderman actually is after four seasons in Detroit. Bonderman is only 23 years old. Do you know what Randy Johnson was doing when he was 23? He was pitching at AA Jacksonville sporting a 1.63 WHIP.
Here is Bonderman’s progression in Detroit:
How can you not be ecstatic about Bonderman’s potential? Here is a guy who is only 23 years old and has improved every season he’s been in the majors. He shaved a half a run off his ERA this season which is a huge improvement. He finished second in MLB in strikeouts. If this isn’t a guy who’s about to bust out big-time next season, then I don’t know of any. Nobody has been more disappointed with Bonderman’s in-game meltdowns than I have. But, that has been mostly a result of irrational expectations than a fair assessment of his progress. Not only has he improved every season but he has done it with two pitches. Nobody survives in the big leagues with two pitches. Bonderman has managed to make somewhat of a living off of it. There isn’t a team in MLB that wouldn’t jump at the chance to acquire Bonderman. “Bondo” has gone on record saying that his primary objective in the off-season is to develop a change-up. There is no reason, whatsoever, to think that he will not succeed in that endeavor. By definition, Bonderman is already close to being a number one pitcher. As far as I can tell, a “number one pitcher” should be defined as the average number one pitcher across MLB. Since Bonderman was 14th in the AL in ERA this season at 23, it’s no stretch to say that he is on the brink of becoming a number one if he isn’t one already.
Verlander may in fact already be a number one. He was seventh in the AL in ERA which should put him solidly in as a number one pitcher by my definition. It remains to be seen whether Verlander will experience a sophomore slump but at the very least, this guy is a very good pitcher. The way things generally work in baseball is that good young pitchers get better from year to year. Bonderman has been proof. It’s only logical to think that Verlander will improve next season. His repertoire of pitchers is among baseball’s best.
I get the impression that Zumaya doesn’t want to be a starter. The Tigers would be crazy not to at least try Zumaya out as a starter. The effect that a great closer has on a baseball team is nowhere near the effect that a great starting pitcher has on a baseball team. If there’s any doubt to this assertion, one only needs to look at what Chris Carpenter and Johan Santana did for their teams this year or what Jonathan Paplebon didn’t bring to the Red Sox rotation. The decision becomes difficult if Zumaya proves to be merely an average starting pitcher but a great closer. At that point, it is probably best to let him close. Zumaya won’t be able to throw as hard over the course of an entire game as he can in 1-2 inning stints. Also, Zumaya has already had wrist problems due to the violent nature of his pitches. That would only be exacerbated with a bigger workload. Regardless of whether Zumaya ends up as a SP or a closer, he will be one of the most valuable weapons in baseball over the next decade.
The Tigers stole Miller in the 2006 draft. He showed some control problems in limited action with the Tigers in ’06 but he throws 96 and has nasty off-speed stuff a la Barry Zito. With Robertson and Maroth still under contract for 2007, Miller may not start next season but I would not be surprised if he were better than both by mid 2007. Miller will have an impact in some way next season. At the very least, he will be a lethal lefty coming out of the pen. At the most, he’ll assume a spot in the rotation giving the Tigers one of the youngest and most fearsome rotations in MLB.
I got a chance to see Sanchez pitch for one inning in the International League All-Star game this year. He carved up three of the best minor league hitters in baseball. While I would have liked to see him pitch more than once this year, I think Sanchez is the real deal. He will help the Tigers in 2007. The question remains whether he will help the Tigers as a Tiger, or act as trade bait to bring in a top notch hitter. If the Tigers can bring in hitters through free agency, there will be no need to trade Sanchez. With 2007 possibly being Kenny Rogers’ last season, the Tigers will have Verlander, Bonderman, Miller, Sanchez, and Robertson/Maroth in the rotation in 2008. If Dombrowski ships off Robertson or Maroth in the off-season, we could be looking at that rotation as early as next year.
Barring injury, Maybin will be a star in Detroit. There hasn’t been a player as good as Maybin that has fizzled out in the majors in quite some time. It used to happen all the time (see; Todd Zeile, Greg Anthony, and Jerome Walton). In this day and age, five tool guys are almost always good. The real question is whether Maybin can be good for the Tigers next year. While the Tigers may have a timeline that puts Maybin’s arrival in Detroit at 2008, he would have already been one of the best hitters in the 2006 lineup. He will arrive in Detroit with more plate discipline than half of the current team.
The 2006 season proved just how little needs to be added to a team to make a significant impact. The Tigers added Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers in the off-season. Neither player is a superstar. In fact, neither player had a particular brilliant regular season. Each brought a reasonable amount of skill and leadership to the Tigers. That was enough to make a significant impact in the “wins” column. Dombrowski made it a point to address pitching in the off-season following 2005. There is no doubt that Dombrowski will address hitting this off-season. With a group of players that includes; Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Gary Sheffield, the Tigers front office will put the “full court press” on those free agents. Detroit is no longer an undesirable place to play baseball. Just one of those players would likely have a tremendous affect on run production. Dombrowski will likely try to bring in at least two impact players which could come solely from free agency or through trades. I would love to see the Tigers talk to the Cubs about Derrick Lee. The Tigers have young, talented arms in the organization to pry away one of the best players in baseball. Lee would be the perfect addition to the Tigers.
Dombrowksi knows what he’s doing. He did all of this before with the Marlins. While Dombrowski is in the process of taking the Tigers from last place misery to first place success, he literally took the Marlins from nothing (Marlins didn’t exist before 1993) to World Series Champions in just four seasons. That is one of the most phenomenal feats that any front office executive has done in MLB history. There is no reason to think that he won’t do the same with the Tigers. How can we not be convinced? It’s happening right in front of our eyes. The only difference is that Mike Ilitch won’t force Dombrowski to dump payroll after the Tigers win. That brings me too….
I went down to the Tigers pep rally last Monday. Detroit Mayer Kwame Kilpatrick thanked Ilitch for buying the Tigers because he was the reason why the Tigers won in 2006. I wanted to scream up to the stage in protest as that is one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard. Ilitch is the reason why the Tigers were doormats for the 13 years that he had owned the team before this season. That fact should always come before anyone ever credits Ilitch for the 2006 Tigers. The only move that Ilitch ever made to help the Tigers was hiring Dombrowski. Unfortunately, he didn’t make that decision until the Tigers had amassed a 609-783 record under his watch. The team was in such bad shape that Dombrowski’s first two years produced a 98-225 record. Former Tigers GM Randy Smith gets a lot of heat in Detroit and deservedly so. But there is no reason that Smith should get more heat than Ilitch. As anyone who watches “The Apprentice” knows, leaders are responsible for their people. Ilitch allowed Smith to cripple the franchise while refusing to invest the big-time dollars necessary to produce a winning ball club. Ilitch has always said that when the Tigers showed signs of life, he would spend the money to make them good. The ridiculous nature of that comment can’t be quantified as it is illogical at its root. In sports, money comes first, wins come second. Everybody knows that.
However, there is one thing that Ilitch is good for and fortunately the Tigers are in a position to reap the benefits. Since Ilitch has never shied away from spending the money on “good” teams, the Tigers now qualify. I expect Ilitch to spoil the Tigers the way he has the Detroit Red Wings. He will give Dombrowski as close to an unlimited payroll as possible without being the New York Yankees. Money talks and free agents will follow the trail of that money to Detroit. The Tigers have been handcuffed in free agency the last few years because the direction of the organization was a tough sell. Still, Dombrowski was able to bring in Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez. The quality of player that looks at Detroit as a viable option and the interest level of that player will be better than ever before. To think that the Tigers won’t add special talent over the next couple years is to ignore reality. Ilitch is all or nothing. He has been “nothing” for so long that he’ll jump at the chance to produce a winner.
While the Tigers are busy being good right now, Dombrowski will keep bringing in a bumper crop of draft picks each year. History has shown that Dombrowski brings in three or four legitimate prospects per draft at a minimum. While the big league team is winning ball games, the minors are being stuffed to the brim with talented players. Those players will either be the main cogs in high-profile trades or eventually reach the big league club as significant contributors.
The Central Division:
There is no question that the Central Division was by far the toughest division in baseball in 2006. I still can’t figure out how the Chicago White Sox missed the playoffs. They had four players with 30+ HR’s and three players with 100+ RBI’s. However, a closer look at the division reveals a much brighter picture for the Tigers. The Cleveland Indians will probably be better next season but Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, C.C. Sabathia and Grady Sizemore are the only impact players on the whole team. The pitching staff is nowhere near good enough to win the division. The Indians are capable of putting runs on the board but we found out this season just how far they are from having a playoff-caliber pitching staff.
The Kansas City Royals aren’t even worth talking about. Despite the drubbing that the Royals gave the Tigers to end the 2006 season, they are terrible and will be terrible for a long time. FYI—After the Tigers had a 29 game improvement during the 2004 season, ESPN’s Rob Neyer said that in three years, Detroit would have the worst team in MLB by a large margin. Yes, even worse than Neyer’s favorite team, the Kansas City Royals.
That leaves the Twins and White Sox. Don’t look now but the White Sox have an aging team. Jim Thome (36), Jermaine Dye (32), and Paul Konerko (31) will all be at least 31 years old by the beginning of next season. The pitching staff is OK but it isn’t anywhere near the “best pitching staff of all time” as ESPN’s Steve Phillips proclaimed at the beginning of the season. The White Sox will be good next season but with an aging ball club and an overworked pitching staff, I’m not sure they will be better.
The Twins are a different story. They will be around for a long time. Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano (assuming Liriano returns healthy) will battle each other for the Cy Young Award next year. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are the best young 1-2 punch in the AL. The Twins always have good role players and an effective bullpen. They will be around for a while. The Tigers just nearly won the Central despite having a very young and undisciplined team. There is no reason to think that with the maturation of the young pitchers and the addition of more disciplined hitters that this team will be worse than it was this year. Minnesota may have the best players of the two teams (that is certainly debatable) but Detroit has Minnesota beat in a number of important factors including pitching depth in both the big leagues and minors as well as a significant advantage in payroll potential.
The Role Players:
I have grown found of many of the Tigers hitters simply because a lot of them played well beyond their previous career bests. However, the reality is that most of the guys aren’t worth keeping. I love the fact that Marcus Thames had a productive year after all he has been through but his lack of discipline and inability to hit the other way makes him a liability in the order. The same can be said of Inge and Monroe. There isn’t a position player on the Tigers that the organization absolutely needs to keep. However, the players that do end up staying are good enough to be effective role players. When Inge becomes more consistent at third, he will be a fantastic defensive third basemen. He drove in 83 RBI’s as the #9 hitter which has to be one of the most productive seasons from the #9 spot in MLB history. Monroe would be an excellent end of the lineup hitter. He was one assist away from leading all outfielders in that category. Polanco and Guillen are valuable commodities. Mags would be so much better with another bat to protect him in the lineup. The Tigers won’t have to start over from scratch to put together a fantastic lineup. They will merely have to bring in a couple of solid bats to mesh with some solid role players who can already mash. The problem the Tigers had this year was that all of the guys who would make good role players had to be big-time contributors for the Tigers to win.
Other than having a $200 million payroll like the New York Yankees, there is no way that the future can look any brighter than that of the Detroit Tigers. Barring injuries, the Tigers will be one of the best franchises in baseball over the next decade. It would take something disastrous for that not to happen.
Here is an early look at some of the names the Tigers will likely take a look at over the off-season:
Free Agent hitters:
Free Agent pitchers:
(On a side note--It’s a good thing I stepped away from my depressed state after the Tigers blew the Central Division Title just long enough to buy ALCS tickets!)