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How the worst team in American League history became pennant winners in 3 seasons

Could the current Tigers repeat the success of 2006 within three years?

Detroit Tigers Workout Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers lost an American League record 119 games during the 2003 season. Within three years, they won the AL pennant and played in the 2006 World Series.

Unfortunately, the team has hit rock bottom again. After 114 losses in 2019, and 310 losses in a three year span, Tigers fans want to know how long before the club will be contenders again. Could the current Tigers repeat the success of 2006 and return to the playoffs within three seasons?

Following is a comparison between the 2003 to 2006 model and where the club is presently. For purposes of this discussion, we will use the hiring of Dave Dombrowski in 2002 and the passing of Mike Ilitch in 2017 as the starting points for the two “rebuilds,” although current general manager Al Avila has been on the job since July 2015. If 2002 equates to 2017, then 2006 equates to the 2021 season.

How the 2006 Tigers were built:

There are six clearly identifiable methods of acquiring players to fill out a major league roster. The 2006 Tigers used all of them.

Amateur draft (4): The 2004 draft netted Detroit Justin Verlander with the second overall pick. The 2002 draft brought in Curtis Granderson in the third round, and reliever Joel Zumaya in the 11th round. Brandon Inge was drafted out of high school in the second round in 1998. That was it for Tigers draft picks on the 2006 roster.

International free agents (2): Fernando Rodney and Omar Infante were signed at age 16, debuted in 2002 and were part of the pennant winners in 2006.

Rule 5 draft (2): Wil Ledezma was selected in the rule 5 draft in 2003, and Chris Shelton in 2004.

Trades (8): There wasn’t a whole lot of value on the roster in 2002 that could be swapped for young talent, but Dombrowski managed to make some key trades to acquire eight players over a four year span who contributed in 2016.

  • Jeff Weaver was traded for Jeremy Bonderman, Carlos Peña, and Franklyn German at the deadline in 2002
  • Mark Redman for Nate Robertson and Gary Knotts in 2003
  • Ramon Santiago for Carlos Guillen in 2004
  • Ugueth Urbina and Ramon Martinez for Placido Polanco in 2005. Urbina and Martinez were earlier free agent signings.
  • Knotts was flipped for Vance Wilson in 2005
  • Scott Moore and two prospects for Kyle Farnsworth in 2005
  • Farnsworth was traded for Zach Miner and Roman Colon during the 2005 season
  • Sean Casey and Neifi Perez were acquired during the 2006 season for prospects Brian Rogers and Chris Robinson

Major league free agents: (4) Ivan Rodriguez was signed before the 2004 season, then Magglio Ordonez inked a deal starting in 2005. Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones were signed for 2006. That’s four key free agents signed to reasonable contracts in a three year span.

Minor league free agents (6): The 2006 Tigers were unique in that they had six players who were picked up as minor league free agents.

  • Craig Monroe was claimed off waivers in 2002
  • Marcus Thames signed in 2004
  • Jamie Walker, Alexis Gomez and Jason Grilli signed in 2005
  • Ramon Santiago was brought back in 2006

Two things stand out about how the 2006 Tigers were built. First, a team can go from being worst in the game to the World Series in a three-year span. Also, all but three of the players on the 2006 team were acquired in 2002 or later, after Dombrowski arrived. The three exceptions were two International free agents who were signed at age 16, and Inge, who was drafted out of high school. Three of the four players drafted were selected in 2002 or later, and all three were rookies in 2006. Verlander was the only homegrown first round selection on the roster.

The club did not know until the 2006 season how soon their drafted players would arrive, or how well they would perform once called up to the majors, but they deployed all methods to build a contender, so they were ready to compete when the young talent was ready to contribute.

Player acquisition timeline: 2006 Tigers

Year # Players
Year # Players
1997 1 Rodney
1998 1 Inge
1999 1 Infante
2002 5 Zumaya, Granderson, Monroe, Walker, Bonderman
2003 3 Ledezma, Robertson
2004 5 Verlander, Shelton, Guillen, Rodriguez, Thames
2005 6 Gomez, Grilli, Ordoñez, Polanco, Wilson, Miner
2006 5 Jones, Rogers, Santiago, Casey, Perez

How are the teams similar?

As with the current Tigers, the first step when Dombrowski arrived was to tear the roster all the way down to the studs; he jettisoned several of Detroit’s biggest contracts and called up prospects to replace them for the 2003 season, then started building back up. Some of those prospects would be on the roster in 2006.

The current club has reduced payroll by over $120 million over a three-year span. Before Dombrowski left, he acquired Matthew Boyd, Michael Fulmer, and Daniel Norris. Boyd and Fulmer will not be free agents until after the 2022 season.

Avila has dealt Verlander, Justin Wilson, Shane Greene, J.D. Martinez, and Nicholas Castellanos for prospects, but other trades have proved fruitless so far.

JaCoby Jones, Jeimer Candelario, Dawel Lugo, Willi Castro, and Travis Demeritte have been acquired by Avila in trades, and played in Detroit in 2019. Six of the club’s top 12 prospects were acquired in trades. Depending on the timeline, another round of trades may be required, this time with Boyd, Fulmer, and/or Norris being flipped for other players.

The Tigers currently have more talent in their farm system than they had in 2003. They figure to have some high first round picks contributing soon, starting with Casey Mize and Matt Manning, But will they have complimentary pieces in place when they arrive?

The 2006 Tigers may not be the best model

The 2006 Tigers did not stand the test of time as a perennial contender. They turned out to be a one-and-done playoff team. They finished over .500 in 2007, and came close to winning the division in 2009, but had a whole new roster by 2011 when they returned to postseason play. That could have been due to the moves they made — or didn’t make — in the seasons that followed. No free agents were signed to multi-year contracts prior to the 2007, 2008, or 2009 seasons, while many ill-fated contract textensions were handed out. Or maybe they just weren’t as good as their 95-77 record in 2006.

In addition, the 2006 Tigers had very good fortune in how soon their 2002 and 2004 drafted players were called up, and how well they performed when they arrived in Detroit. If Casey Mize were to follow Verlander’s timeline, he would be the AL Rookie of the Year in 2020. The Tigers also had a large number of minor league free agents contribute, unusual for a championship club. A lot went right for the Tigers in 2006.

How much longer will it take to rebuild?

The Tigers might presently have all the draft picks they need. They have more talent in the organization now than they had in 2003, with another first overall draft pick coming in June. Some savvy trades and free agent signings over a three-year period could be all it takes.

The greatest obstacle facing the Tigers currently is that their lineup is devoid of any impact talent, and there is little in the pipeline to improve that situation. Two of the club’s brightest position prospects, Riley Greene and Parker Meadows, were drafted out of high school, and are farther away from the majors than others.

The 2006 club began acquiring position players four seasons before they were contenders. Four major league free agents were added over a three-year span, including supposed “overpays” in Rodriguez and Ordoñez. The Tigers don’t have to begin signing free agents immediately, but they shouldn’t expect to sign all the players they need in one winter to become instant contenders.

The 2006 Tigers aren’t the only example of a team that has gone from worst to first in a short span. The Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, and Minnesota Twins have all done so in recent years, to name a few. Close examination of almost any contending roster shows about the same mix as the 2006 Tigers, with four or five homegrown players and about the same number of major league free agents.

Contenders can develop quickly if an organization puts the work in for a few years leading up to their re-emergence. If they have drafted well, it will take at least three years of solid trades and signing free agents to produce the next winner.


When will the Tigers become legitimate playoff contenders?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    (38 votes)
  • 57%
    (421 votes)
  • 18%
    (134 votes)
  • 19%
    Never, with their current leadership
    (142 votes)
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