How did things get this bad so quickly? For the past four seasons, the Detroit Tigers have been division champions, contending every October for a World championship. This season, they’ve become one of the worst teams in the American league, 20 games out of first place. Who is to blame for this mess?
Much anger is directed at second year manager, Brad Ausmus. But realistically, there is not a manager in the game who could have made the roster that he was given into a playoff team this season. The Tigers have the worst pitching staff in the American league, with the worst starting rotation and the worst bullpen. Ausmus did not put together the roster, he just mismanages it on a daily basis.
One could blame injuries for the Tigers’ woes this season, and it certainly does not help that Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, and Anibal Sanchez have missed significant time on the disabled list. But injuries are part of the game, in any sport, and the Tigers were particularly vulnerable due to a complete lack of depth in the organization.
The lions’ share of the blame for where the Tigers are today must be assigned to the front office that assembled the roster before the season began. Just as owner Mike Ilitch and President Dave Dombrowski deserve credit for assembling four division champions, they must shoulder the blame for the construction of this last place team. Dombrowski also hired Ausmus, so any blame directed toward the manager also has to fall on him.
At the center of the team’s collapse is the dismantling of their once great pitching rotation. The Tigers’ rotation was best in show in 2013, by a wide margin over any other team in the game. They led the American league with a 3.44 ERA, a 3.12 FIP, and set the all time MLB record for strikeouts. That rotation posted 23.6 WAR, more than double that of any other team in the league.
It started with the trade of Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals after the 2013 season. Fister was replaced in the rotation by Drew Smyly, who was never really replaced in the bullpen, where he was one of the team's most effective relief pitchers, unable to crack such a great rotation. The 2014 Tigers were third in the league in pitching WAR and near the top in most categories, despite a shaky bullpen. They were still division champions.
The acquisition of David Price during the 2014 season offset the pending loss of Max Scherzer to free agency, but the trade cost them Smyly. Shane Greene, who was acquired for Robbie Ray, who was acquired for Fister, has been unable to fill that rotation spot. Few would argue that trading Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes was a bad deal, but his replacement, Alfredo Simon, has been inconsistent at best. Injuries to Verlander and Sanchez, and the trade of David Price to Toronto completed the dismantling of a once great rotation.
In the bullpen, things started downhill a season earlier, when Joe Nathan was signed to replace Joaquin Benoit, who took over for Jose Valverde. Benoit was never replaced in the bullpen when he moved into the closer’s role. The team tried Joba Chamberlain in the set up role but ultimately, you get what you pay for. Dombrowski counted on Bruce Rondon to be the closer or set up man the past three seasons, and he was injured or ineffective, leaving another void. Nathan, Chamberlain, and Rondon have not replaced Valverde, Benoit, and Smyly.
Even as things began to unravel during the 2015 season, no help would be coming from the front office. A cast of minor league pitchers kept the revolving door between Detroit and Toledo spinning, but there were no internal solutions to be found. When Miguel Cabrera went on the disabled list, the team signed Mark Krauss. When the bullpen continued to blow leads, they signed Neftali Feliz, and recalled Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Krol. When the rotation fell apart, their answer was Randy Wolf. Management did not spend a dime to improve the team as the ship was sinking.
Owner Mike Ilitch has provided a generous payroll, but once the Tigers signed Victor Martinez and picked up the option on closer Joakim Soria, they were essentially done spending for the season. Nathan would be back, with Chamberlain, Gorzelanny, and Rondon. Maybe it was the luxury tax threshold, but whatever the reason, resources were not spent to provide the needed talent for the pitching staff.
As the trade deadline approached at the end of July, any realistic hope of winning another division title was gone. All that remained was a shot at a wild card playoff game. The team would have to trade yet more prospects and get nothing for their departing free agent players, with nothing in the organization to rebuild upon. The decision was made to sell at the deadline, and that's when all the wheels came off the wagon, sending the team into a death spiral, landing them in last place.
The Tigers have too many premier players and committed too much money to start a complete tear down and rebuild. They have a solid nucleus and a pretty good lineup to build around. To contend in 2016, they will need to make smarter moves in the off season than they made the previous year.