Welp. The 2015 season finished about as far from Detroit Tigers fans expectations as one could've hoped for. Oh well, it happens. The 2014 Texas Rangers went through the same soul-sucking experience and they came out alright -- other than getting pummeled in the end by the Blue Jays. But that doesn't mean the entire year was lost. When you dig down past the muck of despair, the filth of last place, and the mire of "what *didn't* go wrong," there are some things that *did* go right.
Now before you all get into an uproar about all the doom and despair -- we're getting to that eventually, geez, don't spoil all the fun -- just hear me out. Or don't. Either way I'm doing this because it was in the story list of things to write about and I needed something to do (don't mind the fact I came up with the idea. Shhhh). Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes ...
The Tigers were solid at shortstop throughout the year
All that fuss about whether Jose Iglesias would be alright after a year of recovering from bilaterial shin fractures was, in the end, unnecessary. He was hot, particularly in the first half. Both with the glove and the bat. He made the MLB All-Star Game for the American League team. Then, when he slowed around August and ended the year benched due to a freak right non-displaced middle finger fracture, the Tigers called upon Dixon Machado. He was equally impressive with the glove and, pleasantly, the bat. With Andrew Romine there to help out when Machado needed a day, shortstop was one of the lowest concerns for Detroit, despite the injury to Iglesias.
The decision to sell at the trade deadline
By the time the July 31 deadline came around, it was a clear decision for the organization to sell rather than their typical "buy" approach. And if you were paying attention, you knew that -- after the fact -- the club was actually in "buy" mode right up until nearly the last minute. It wasn't an easy choice. The Tigers had to part ways with ace David Price and star defender/hitter Yoenis Cespedes, as well as their closer Joakim Soria. But it was the right one to make. The team got back several prospects, notably Daniel Norris, and to a degree helped restock a severely depleted farm system. They also got Matt Boyd and three more pitching prospects, as well as a position player waiting in the wings.
The offense didn't lose its touch (just the consistency)
Sure, they ran themselves into far too many outs when they got on-base, but getting there or hitting for average wasn't an issue. This bodes well for next year if you take into account even the most basic baserunning skills are going to be retaught during the 2016 spring training. The Tigers had a .270 average (best in baseball) and a .328 on-base percentage (second-best in the majors only to the Blue Jays). The .420 slugging (sixth in MLB) is pretty good until you look at ISO, which sat at .150 (smack dab in the middle).
In the end, OBP was boosting those power numbers a bit, and one need only look at players like Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler (particularly his first half), and Victor Martinez to know that. But their 103 wRC+ was fifth-best in the majors, showing that while some things weren't great, they made up for it in other ways. Good things are in store for the team next year -- especially if everyone's healthy. Every offense has the bad mixed with the good, but the core of what makes a solid offensive team remained, despite the struggles elsewhere.
The team didn't panic
At least, by all indications they didn't. There was frustration, sure. The team had its down moments and doubts crept in from time to time. But that happens on every team. What about the careless baserunning, though? The times where it seemed the players' heads were elsewhere? Those were issues right off the bat. The team kept losing players to injury -- some for long periods of time. The thing of it was, when the Tigers go into the deadline and changed to sellers, by then the progressive downward path had already sunk in. There wasn't a sudden tanking. They made the right, difficult choice to sell on July 31.
Ausmus held a couple of team meetings to address game-related issues, but the only player-player concerns were those related to the short-lived Iglesias-James McCann kerfuffle and Bruce Rondon getting sent home for his "effort level." Those issues were properly dealt with and the team quickly moved on. The clubhouse, while it had its more solemn moments -- like when Miggy and V-Mart were gone to injury -- didn't collapse into despair and battled through times when they wanted to. There was always someone to carry and uplift the team. The trade deadline, if anything, helped put a fire in players. It taught the team some lessons that some players said they needed to learn the hard way.
Justin Verlander quieted the naysayers and the Tigers found some bullpen options for 2016
OK hear me out. The bullpen was not good in 2015. This is not breaking news. But buried under the crap, there are some potential gems and some workable pieces. Here are the relievers who are very likely to help the Tigers next year. (Rondon isn't on this list because he was up and down and all over the place. He's still got plenty to work on before he can be counted on as a "strength" for the bullpen. As for Verlander, it took him six starts to get back into the groove of things but when he did, he performed to the tune of a 2.27 ERA. He brought his 6.62 ERA after those first six starts all the way down to 3.38 on the year.
Blaine Hardy: Had a spectacular season in relief after a slow start. He gave up just two home runs and didn't give up the first until Aug. 23. After his third appearance of the year -- way back on April 18 -- he gave up no more than two runs in any one relief and he did that on only three occasions more than a month apart. He had an 11-outing streak (April 26-May 20) without giving up a run and only five hits and two walks in that time.
Alex Wilson: An afterthought of the original trade that brought Cespedes to Detroit. He became one of the most stable arms in the bullpen, even throwing in a spot start for good measure. He pitched in every situation Detroit threw at him and more than survived. His FIP (3.53) was significantly higher than his miniscule 2.19 ERA but that is the result of his low strikeout rate (4.9 SO/9). He gave up more than two runs on only one occasion (Aug. 29) and much like Hardy, only gave up two runs on four occasions. He went 12 straight outings (July 11-Aug. 6) without allowing a run.
Drew VerHagen: He got moved to the 'pen due to back issues and couldn't take the workload of a starter. In the bullpen he prospered, though. Like Hardy and Wilson, VerHagen isn't a strikeout artist. But he got the job done. His 2.05 ERA more than doubles to a 4.35 FIP but again, he's got that 4.4 SO/9. He's a groundball pitcher and can pitch in long relief. He went 11 straight outings (Aug. 15-Sept. 22) without giving up a run and while he had a shorter season due to setbacks, his 20 appearances were promising -- particularly down the stretch. It's a smaller sample size, but if he can repeat and lower his walks, he'll be a strength.
Al Alburquerque: This one's a case of "which pitcher shows up today" but when he's on, he's dominant. And he can strike guys out. When he's off, he's so far off everything that could go wrong will go wrong. But when he's off it's pretty clear fairly quickly. The Tigers just need to keep a close eye on him and Ausmus needs to be ready with a quick hook before he completely combusts. But even with that risk, he's a strength when right.