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2017 was an unintentional success for the Tigers

98 losses may not seem like cause for celebration, but it is

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

It doesn’t seem like a good thing when your description of a Tigers season features the line “the worst since 2003.” That was the year the Tigers hit their high (or low?) mark for futility. The year when they lost 119 games, just one shy of the record set by the 1962 Mets.

The 2017 Tigers were the worst since 2003. They had the ninth worst winning percentage and seventh most losses in a year in franchise history. They played .200 ball (!) during their last 30 games — .200!

And that’s just fine.

Though it might not appear so, 2017 can be seen as a success for the Tigers. This season was the end of something, yes, but also the start of something new; a year when the window that opened fully beginning in 2011 or 2012 finally came to a close so a new window could be carved out. And it needed to happen, arguably even sooner than it did.

There were only two ways this could have gone: a slow, painful slide through mediocrity into irrelevance, like we’ve seen during the past few years since the Tigers last played in the postseason in 2014 — a year in which they didn’t even win a single ALDS game. Or a sudden collapse.

Since 2015 it’s been clear the Tigers couldn’t keep doing what they’d been doing. Gambling on lengthy, expensive free agent contracts, re-signing aging stars, and mortgaging the farm year after year can keep the window propped open a little longer than it would naturally stay.

But it comes with a gravity, and those contracts weigh heavier year after year. With few internal solutions to fill holes as they developed on the roster — whether due to poor drafting, poor development, or just trading them away — the pressure could only build and build until it broke.

In 2017 it broke, and the window slammed shut with great force. Position players like J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton gone. A closer in Justin Wilson gone. Then finally franchise star Justin Verlander — gone. “In reality, there was no choice,” GM Al Avila said. “The other choice was to keep on adding (payroll), and it would have been suicide.”

Ninety-eight losses and a reason for excitement.

The Tigers’ total collapse in September netted them the No. 1 draft pick in 2018. While baseball does not deal in immediate draft gratification like the NFL or NBA, analysis has shown the value of top picks to far exceed the cost to the team. It also gives the Tigers’ the highest draft budget of any of the 30 teams next year.

Couple that to the prospects they’ve already acquired and you’ve got a great foundation to build from. Third baseman Jeimer Canedelario, the 23-year-old acquired from the Cubs hit .330/.406/.448 during his time with the Tigers. Daz Cameron, at age 20 and the son of former major league Mike Cameron, has a chance to be above average both at the plate and in the field. Jake Rogers, who came to the Tigers’ organization along with Cameron in the Verlander trade, is ranked by MLB Pipeline among the top 10 catching prospects. And then there’s 18-year-old Isaac Paredes, a well-regarded shortstop expected to develop additional power and penciled in for a 2020 MLB debut.

And then you get to what’s really exciting, all of the pitchers. Let’s dispense with the famous line “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect” which some mean to imply they’re all failures until they’re successes because the success rate seems so low. Some pitchers will turn out. Some won’t. Just like any other prospects. Michael Fulmer was once one of the Mets’ top prospects, and he became the Tigers’ first Rookie of the Year winner since Justin Verlander.

Matt Manning, Beau Burrows, and Alex Faedo were drafted by the Tigers already — all pitchers currently among the top 100 prospects in the game, all estimated to make their MLB debuts in 2019 or 2020. More exciting than any of them, however, is Franklin Perez, another pitcher who came over thanks to the trade of Verlander. Age 19 (!) and eating up Double-A, MLB Pipeline has him ranked as high as 40th overall and estimates a major league debut as soon as 2018. While it’s unlikely all of those prospects go on to become frontline starters, mix a few of them in behind Fulmer and you’ve got the start of something pretty great — at a nice low cost.

Owner Chris Ilitch need not spend like his father to try to buy superstars. He may only need to open the checkbook to add a few experienced role-players around a young core to see his team back in the playoffs by 2020. And there was no way you would have even been able to dream about Detroit being in the playoffs in 2020 before with the downward direction the organization was going.

If losing in 2017 was going to happen, and it was, losing so dang hard in 2017 just made the future a little bit brighter. For that we should all be thankful.