So close, but not enough.
Such was the theme of the 2016 Detroit Tigers. They held on to the bitter end with not but a run separating them from one last glimmer of hope. It was a task they were, ultimately, not equipped to handle. Yet, amid the injuries, temperamental offensive strides, and one truly awful early season stretch, they nearly pulled off a miracle.
Alas, not all endings can be happy. The Tigers finished their second consecutive season with 161 games played, and however valiant their efforts, it was for naught. In remembering last year’s conclusion, though, 2016 carried a far better fate than the one they faced in 2015.
Rather than last, they finished second, 12 games better than 2015 when there was no hope for postseason baseball. They were the Last Team Standing. The direction of who would play whom in the Wild Card Game was decided by their loss or win. In the end, the offense just didn’t have anything left to give and the Tigers went out with a 1-0 whimper of a loss, despite a dominant start by Justin Verlander.
For much of the season, the team was carried by a rookie and two near-rookies that comprised two-thirds of the core. Michael Fulmer did more than impress, he dominated the game for all but the final month of the season and may have locked up the American League Rookie of the Year Award. After battling injuries and rebuilding himself, Daniel Norris finished strong, and Matt Boyd sorted out many of the rookie kinks of last year.
What may have ultimately done the Tigers in were the injuries — and the offense, but that, too, is affected by losses from injury. On Sept. 27, Detroit fielded their complete lineup for just the 11th game all year and the first since June 11. They would only do so once more because of interleague game rules prohibiting Victor Martinez from play as a designated hitter.
More than anything, that tells the story of just how damaged this team was.
Alex Wilson: Right shoulder soreness (Feb. 29 - April 15)
Blaine Hardy: Left shoulder impingement (March 25 - April 18)
Cameron Maybin: L wrist fracture, thumb injury (March 2 - May 16, missed several games for wrist, thumb, L quad tightness, R. rib popped out), back on DL (8/4-21), missed more time in Aug./throughout Sept.
Daniel Norris: Back fracture (March 19 - April 26 optioned to Triple-A Toledo), R oblique strain (July 5 - Aug. 2, optioned to Toledo until Aug. 8)
Drew VerHagen: Thoracic outlet syndrome, season-ending surgery (May 26-season)
James McCann: R. ankle sprain (April 11 - May 3)
J.D. Martinez: R elbow fracture (June 16 - Aug. 3)
Jordan Zimmermann: R groin strain (May 22 - June 3 skipped starts, no DL), R neck strain (July 4 - Aug. 4, DL), R lat strain/neck strain (Aug. 6 - Sept. 6), skipped Sept. 11-26)
Jose Iglesias: L hamstring strain (Aug. 12-27), R hand bruise missed a couple games
Mike Pelfrey: Lower back strain (Aug. 2 - Sept. 5)
Nick Castellanos: L fractured hand fifth metacarpal (Aug. 6 - Sept. 27)
Shane Greene: Blister (April 25 - June 5), out four days w/oblique issue in August
Those are just the big blocks of missed time. All told, there were 12 major injuries to key players, 13 if you count Victor Martinez’s knee issues that plagued him throughout the year. Five players started the season on the disabled list, and there were five whose issues/DL stint carried into September. Cameron Maybin coped with a glass-like body and the Tigers had Nick Castellanos for all of five games in September.
Between that and the replacements that the Tigers had to find to fill the gaps, the poor performance that resulted from players’ injuries — including those who tried to play through it, unadvisedly — it’s a wonder that the rotation alone didn’t collapse in on itself. The 2016 Tigers were marred from the get-go, and while they didn’t approach the level of the 2014 Rangers, it still wasn’t great.
Sunday’s loss was 2016 personified. Verlander allowed one run and the bullpen gave the Braves nothing to work with. In a year where the Tigers finally had their bullpen figured out — and despite lapses, this truly was their best in a couple of years — and they held their rotation together with super glue, it was the offense that did them in.
That the Tigers pulled themselves so far out of the proverbial hole is impressive. Left for dead in May, the Tigers rebounded with the return of Cameron Maybin and Brad Ausmus’ infamous hoodie ejection on May 16. They became one of the best — and the best, at times — teams in the AL, climbing from fourth to second and putting themselves into a legitimate postseason conversation.
They still finished second, with a Wild Card spot just out of reach. Now, their offseason begins, and a banged up team can use their early free time to lick their wounds, fix the offensive wonkiness that was mind-boggling at times, and shore up their weaknesses — you know, the ones not riddled with holes from injuries and such.
Lastly, manager Brad Ausmus has significantly improved after three years with the team, to include his bullpen management. He’ll still stick with struggling/ineffective players/contributors too long — Mike Aviles and Mark Lowe, for example — but overall he’s made sound decisions and kept a cool head through several tough stretches.
This season wasn’t perfect and it definitely had its issues. The offense was unpredictable, the bullpen went through a dark period, and the rotation lost the majority of its staff, which then had to piece itself back together with dark horse solid starters. In the process of doing so, they found two solid additions for the future core.
The Tigers came up short in the end, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been after May’s grim stretch. The team also saw the resurgence of Verlander, and Cabrera proved he’s not to be counted out. So, the question now is, where does the team go from here? You’ll have to wait and see.