They say that results minus expectations equal happiness. So, what does that mean for expectations minus results?
In sports, there may be no more difficult time for a fanbase than when going through a rebuilding phase. Oftentimes, in baseball, this means ridding the MLB roster with any sort of impact talent, instead focusing on building a strong farm system and collecting via the draft and international free agency. For a while, the allure of the future can satisfy fans during this tough time.
Nevertheless, we, as a society, tend to focus on immediate gratification. While hopes for a better future can keep a fanbase sane for a period of time, eventually, that wanes. After all, if the point of sports is to compete for a championship, there isn’t much fun in watching a team with a minimal chance of accomplishing that objective. Eventually, this displeasure reaches the ownership level, and, from there, pressure is at an all time high for the rebuild to end quickly.
As was the case for the Cubs and the Astros, there are some instances where the transition from being in a rebuild to competing for championships works out beautifully. However, so much has to go right in terms of prospect development for that to happen, and, by now, it is starting to become clear that those teams may be the exception. At the end of the day, if building a championship team were easy, anyone could do it.
Unfortunately for the Detroit Tigers, they don’t seem to be an exception to that rule. After not being able to capitalize on a championship window created in the early 2010s, the team has been stuck in a rebuilding phase, something they have tried desperately to get out of. Although there have been signs of optimism, for every step forward, there seems to be two steps back, leading to frustration in the Motor City.
Ultimately, there is a lot that can be learned by the growing pains and missteps the Tigers have gone through when trying to engineer the perfect world. In life, it’s important we use history to learn from our mistakes to improve in the future. How can the Tigers do that to salvage their rebuild, and what lessons can be learned from this process? Let’s take a closer look into one of the most fascinating rebuilding efforts of recent memory.
Stats entering Monday June 20th
When you think of the historic franchises in baseball, the Tigers have to come to mind. After all, they’ve been in existence since 1901, and essentially have the same features they did there. It’s hard to beat that ol’ scripted “D” that Al Kaline, Ty Cobb, and Miguel Cabrera have worn over the years; even if it’s not quite Yankee pinstripes, it’s still very special.
That being said, Detroit has certainly experienced its fair share of bumps in the road. They have only come away with four World Series championships, haven’t won more than one World Series in a specific decade, and have dealt with a lot of turbulent flows throughout their existence. Starting in 1994, this really reared its ugly head.
Between 1994 and 2005, the Tigers failed to have one winning season and never finished higher than third place in the division. Meanwhile, in 2003, they managed to win just 43 of 162 games, leading to the sixth-worst winning percentage (.265) in MLB history. So, how does a team go from that to winning the American League pennant just three years later? It all speaks to the mindset by then-general manager Dave Dombrowski.
Usually, teams who win 43 games in the previous season don’t make big splashes via free agency, but that didn’t stop Dombrowski; he signed star catcher Iván Rodríguez to a four-year, $40 million contract. At the time, that was a considerable amount of cheddar, particularly for a team not expected to be competitive. In hindsight, a lucrative contract for a catcher going to his age-32 season seems like a great risk, and it ultimately didn’t pan out – he only had one more season with an above-average weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+). At the very least, though, it did signal that the franchise was through with their struggles and trying to improve.
To add onto the Rodríguez signing, Dombrowski also brought in the likes of Carlos Guillén and Magglio Ordóñez via free agency, while Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, and others worked their way up to the MLB level. Although signing 30-year-old free agents to long-term contracts is a short-term-oriented move, the development of younger players such as Verlander and Granderson certainly helped matters. Of course, acquiring future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera as a 25-year-old also doesn’t hurt matters.
Outside of 2008, Detroit didn’t have one losing season between 2006 and 2014. Furthermore, they won the AL Central in four consecutive seasons in the early 2010s (2011-2014), and had built an absolute juggernaut of a roster. I mean, just look at the players on the 2014 Tigers team:
- 1B Miguel Cabrera
- OF JD Martinez
- 2B Ian Kinsler
- DH Victor Martínez
- SP Max Scherzer
- SP Justin Verlander
- SP David Price
- SP Rick Porcello
- SP Aníbal Sánchez
- SP Drew Smyly
- CF Austin Jackson
This doesn’t include youngsters like Nick Castellanos, Eugenio Suárez, and Robbie Ray, who all developed into All-Star caliber players. To sum it up, Detroit had FIVE pitchers who have won a Cy Young award, and a lineup that scored the second-most runs in all of baseball. Their ultimate reward for building this roster? Being swept in the 2014 ALDS. If that doesn’t speak to the randomness of baseball, particularly in the postseason, I don’t know what does!
Not to worry, though! The Tigers were ready to go all-in for the 2015 season, sending Eugenio Suárez to the Reds for starter Alfredo Simon, trading Porcello for outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, while bringing back the same star power they had from the previous season. Nevertheless, all good runs come to an end, and that’s what 2015 represented for the Tigers, finishing last in the AL Central.
Consequently, players such as David Price, Céspedes, and Joakim Soria were sent to other organizations at the trade deadline, signaling a clear rebuild, or at least a retooling period, was in order. Making matters more complicated, Dombrowski stepped down right after the trade deadline, further indicating that transition was needed.
However, this is not what new general manager Al Avila had in mind. Instead, the team’s payroll increased to just under $200 million, with outfielder Justin Upton and starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman signed to massive contracts. While the team did win 86 games, they still failed to make the postseason, and from there, the ship sunk:
- 2017: 64-98 (.395)
- 2018: 64-98 (.395)
- 2019: 47-114 (.304)
- 2020: 23-35 (.397)
Ultimately, this resulted in two first overall picks, as well as four straight top-five picks. If there’s a way to reboot your farm system in a hurry, that’s certainly a way to do so. At some point, though, it’s time for the progress of a rebuild to show itself, and that’s what the Tigers thought they were doing in 2021.
It all started in the offseason with the hiring of well-regarded manager AJ Hinch. Regardless of what you think about his role with the Astros sign-stealing scandal or the value of managers, he certainly would appear to be a very sound manager to orchestrate the end of the rebuild. To top it off, after not getting off the a great start, the Tigers had a winning record from May on. In the end, their 77-85 record and .475 wining percentage was a massive step forward from years past, and it appeared to be time for them to make a postseason push.
Unfortunately, though, things don’t always go as smoothly as you’d hope.
A Season Filled With Disappointment
In 2021, the Tigers’ opening day payroll, just under $81 million, was the franchise’s lowest spending amount since 2005. Given the seemingly upward trajectory they appeared to be going with, the organization clearly felt that it was time to spend.
In came starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez on a five-year, $77 million contract, along with shortstop Javier Báez on a six-year, $140 million contract. Those are not investments made unless a team feels incentivized to compete right away, and this was only further established with the acquisitions of catcher Tucker Barnhart and outfielder Austin Meadows. In fact, Detroit’s $54 million jump in payroll was its highest ever; ownership indicated the team was ready to spend, and spend they did.
To be fair, with a 78.5 preseason projected win total by the betting markets, per FOX SPORTS, it wasn’t consensus opinion that the Tigers were destined to be a playoff team this season. However, all that matters in terms of setting expectations is the perspective of the organization, which was quite clear in general manager Al Avila’s eyes, according to The Detroit Free Press:
“I’m hopeful that by the trading deadline, we’re in a position that we want to trade somebody to take us over the top. That’s what we hope for and that’s what we expect.”
Both based on what he was saying and his actions, how could you not think that Avila was eyeing a postseason berth? After all, without one postseason appearances in his six years at the helm, pressure was naturally starting to rise, and he, understandably, tried to capitalize on a window that appeared to be opening. At the end of the day, though, in the game of baseball, there are few things you can count on to go as planned.
Entering Monday, June 20, the Tigers sport a 26-40 record and .394 winning percentage, essentially putting them in line to be the caliber of the team they had been prior to 2021. Normally, this would simply be seen as growing pains, but when you look at the money spent in the offseason and the team’s improvement last season, it clearly is frustrating. In fact, we have reached the part of the season where fans are starting to express their displeasure, while team meetings are being held. When that starts to happen, it’s a not a promising sign.
The culprit? Arguably the worst offense in league history. As of June 16th, the Tigers were scoring the fewest amount of runs per game in MLB history, according to Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs. Now, after scoring 21 runs in their two weekend games against the Rangers, that is no longer in the case. That being said, compared to the rest of the league, their offensive struggles aren’t just evident, they’re glaring:
When you’re expanding the zone, not making contact, and not doing much when you do make contact, that is not an ideal combination. Alas, it’s where the Tigers find themselves right now. Among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, only three – Harold Castro (107 wRC+), Miguel Cabrera (103 wRC+), and Austin Meadows (102 wRC+) – have been above-average hitters this season. On top of that, per Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), eight of the ten players in that sample have been below-replacement level players this season.
Add it all together, and the Tigers are the only team in baseball with a negative fWAR amongst their position players this season. Those offseason acquisitions, meanwhile? Well, it’s same to say things aren’t going as planned:
- Javier Báez has a 54 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR
- Eduardo Rodriguez had his lowest K-BB (10.3%) of his career, and is now on unpaid leave.
- Austin Meadows has a -0.3 fWAR
- Tucker Barnhart has a 52 wRC+ and -0.4 fWAR
All together, that’s a negative combined fWAR between the four players that seemingly were supposed to put them over the top this season. There are always risks with acquiring players from other teams, but given their payroll situation and aspirations, it’s clear why they felt obliged to do so. Now, these players will likely eventually see their performance improve, but it just speaks to the disappointment that this season has been thus far.
Things haven’t been ideal on the pitching side either – they rank 19th in rotation skill interactive ERA (SIERA) and 16th in bullpen SIERA – while four-fifths of their initial starting rotation is no longer intact. At the end of the day, though, considering the circumstances, it certainly isn’t the pitching staff that has done them in. Then again, when you are trying to compensate for arguably the worst offense in MLB history, the bar is forcibly placed higher than that.
As for the team’s future core, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
How’s The Future Looking?
The concept of a rebuild is one thing. However, ultimately, it all comes down to not only acquiring young talent, but developing them into the players they have the potential to become. So far, that has been problematic for the Tigers.
After not having a first-round pick in either 2011 and 2012, Detroit has struggled to add talent via the amateur draft: