Do you know what's the best thing about tripping over a pile of bricks and falling down a flight of stairs, landing directly on a collection of unsprung mouse traps just before a three-tiered cake topples over onto your face? The fact that it's over, and won't ever happen again (probably). I mean, it seems pretty unlikely. It was kind of a freak accident to begin with, right? Where the hell did those mouse traps come from, anyway? And that's basically the Tigers' 2015 season, in hilariously slapstick form. Thank the gods it's over, and it's a good thing we don't have to worry about that happening again (probably).
If you're looking for a reason to hope that 2016 will be a better year, that reason has to be rooted in the sheer improbability of the whole thing, doesn't it? I know a lot of people looked at the 2014 offseason moves, shrugged, and went back to sleep for a few more months because it all seemed so underwhelming, but did anyone expect to wake up to a walking nightmare that ended with a .457 win percentage? Of course not, because we looked at how the team stacked up on paper, and we believed that what we saw on paper was a decent approximation of reality and not a weird Sudoku that could only be solved by using irrational numbers.
Do you remember the initial outlook? Realizing it wasn't an all-star roster, but also thinking they'd compete and make the playoffs one way or another, because how can you miss the playoffs when your starting rotation begins with the incantation, "Price, Verlander, Sanchez"? Repeat the spell three times while facing a mirror, and the corpse of Kenesaw Mountain Landis materializes to hand you the World Series trophy -- isn't that how it works?
There were a few other rays of hope before the season began as well. Jose Iglesias would be back, and we'd finally get to gorge ourselves at the all-you-can-eat buffet of Double Play Delight served up by that crazy-good middle defense. Run prevention? Hell yeah, we got some! In fact, throw in Anthony Gose and Yoenis Cespedes, and not only did we have more leather than an S&M gift shop, we had a couple of bona fide guns on the wall. Of course, all of the defensive wizardry in the world can't help you when opposing batters are launching baseballs into the stands faster than Rawlings can make replacements, but we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
On paper, baby, it was sweet poetry. Pitching? Check, if we cross our fingers on that whole Alfredo Simon thing. Defense? Most definitely, as long as they don't hit the ball to Nick Castellanos. Offense? Come on, Miggy, VMart, J.D., and our new friend Yo are gonna put on a damned hitting clinic. Bullpen? Come on, Miggy, VMart, J.D., and our new friend Yo are gonna put on a damned hitting clinic.
It was going to be a decent year. Not a great year, not a dominate-the-division-and-clinch-early kind of year, but a decent year. A competitive year with a tight race for the Central title, going neck-and-neck with somebody the entire way. (The Royals again? The Twins, maybe?)
That was the script, anyway, until one of the baseball gods spilled Gatorade on it, and suddenly the Tigers were tripping over a pile of bricks, falling down the stairs, etc., etc., cue the three-tiered cake and the laugh track because wheeeeew, ding-dong-dang that's funny stuff right there! Ok, maybe it's funnier when you're working on your fifth beer of the evening.
Victor Martinez had pre-season knee surgery. Justin Verlander missed almost half the season with a triceps injury. Anibal Sanchez and his perpetually injured shoulder had a worse year than most pitching machines. Shane Greene had as much trouble as you'd expect from a guy who literally couldn't feel his fingers for most of the season. Joba Chamberlain not only got re-signed for 2015 but -- sweet face-palming Moses -- returned to reprise his role as Mop-up Guy Who For Some Reason Is Pitching The Eighth Inning Again.
Basically my point is that the season featured an abnormally high number of banana pies to the face, including a half-time show called "Surprise, We Fired the GM!", and it seems next to impossible that 2016 will feature anything remotely close to what we saw this past season.
The 2016 season has to be better. It just has to, right? Justin Verlander will be the ace again. Shane Greene will recover feeling in his fingers and get back to striking out over a batter-per-nine. Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and J.D. Martinez will combine for 100 majestic bombs, and they will be breathtakingly beautiful. Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias will make us shake our heads in disbelief as they make difficult plays look routine. The bullpen will be downgraded from "grease fire" to "whoops, I burned the lasagna just a bit."
The offseason provides a much-needed opportunity to pull out the cartridge and blow on it, hit the "reset" button, and try again with something of a fresh start. You want a breath of fresh air? Listen to what Sam Menzin, newly-promoted Director of Baseball Operations, said about a week ago: "A thing that we really wanted to improve was technology. Technology and what data we were getting from outside was very important to improve — kind of catch up with other teams. In terms of improving that, we also had to improve people that were analyzing."
We're about to witness probably the first Tigers' offseason in franchise history that will feature decisions influenced by Bill James-ian thought processes. Maybe the running game will improve. Maybe the starting pitching will end up being surprisingly good without being shockingly expensive. Maybe the bullpen will actually perform at above-average levels, even if it ends up including some names we weren't expecting or hadn't really heard of before.
These are all things that are probable, or at least, more probable than seeing the team step out the front door and immediately get hit by a speeding bus again. We can hope, right? Sure, of course we can. Still, best to play it safe: keep an eye out for the pile of bricks at the top of the stairs.