September 13, 2017
Let It Eat
The Last Night of the Tigers Dynasty That Wasn't
The Detroit Tigers won 366 games between 2011 and 2014, which is 91.5 wins per season and a .565 winning percentage. They won four consecutive AL Central crowns.
They never won it all, of course. The 2014 Tigers lost in the ALDS, the 2011 and 2013 Tigers lost in the ALCS, and the 2012 Tigers lost the World Series. But they were formidable. They were talented. They were scary. And while it may seem like a distant memory now, they came about as close to a dynasty as any team without a single ring to show for their troubles can get.
The 2017 Tigers serve as further proof that nothing lasts forever, that all good things must come to an end. Their only legacy will be shaking off the last vestiges of those near-championship years. Once among the game’s most notorious deadline buyers, this year the Tigers decided to sell. From mid-July through late August, they traded J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks, Alex Avila and Justin Wilson to the Cubs, and Justin Upton to the Angels.
But the real move that signified the end of the Tigers as we knew them came late on August 31, right at the waiver trade deadline buzzer. Detroit sent longtime face of the franchise Justin Verlander to Houston for some prospects and a whole lot of financial relief. They ripped the Band-Aid off, they did what needed to be done, and now the rebuild is on.
Over the next several seasons, we’ll see the Tigers get worse before they get better. The veterans who remain will be traded or allowed to walk. Mildly youngish players like Daniel Norris and Nick Castellanos will be given more time to showcase why they should or shouldn't be part of the future. And general manager Al Avila will likely hoard prospects as he looks to restock a bottom-10 farm system.
This doesn’t look like a Yankees rebuild-on-the-fly situation. It looks like the Tigers might be the new Reds, Phillies, or Braves. It looks like Tigers might be in the basement for a while. Memories of yesteryear rarely dull the pain of today. But still, the baseball world owes it to the Tigers to remember those early 2010s teams one more time before a new Dark Ages of Tigers baseball begins. Because dear lord, they were a lot of fun.
Odds are, you remember those teams because of their stars. Verlander and Miguel Cabrera were the headliners, sure, but they weren’t alone. An impressive cavalcade of star-level talent made its way through Detroit between 2011 and 2014. Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, and Ian Kinsler were among the big-name sluggers who occupied those lineups, with better-than-average secondary players like Jhonny Peralta, J.D. Martinez, and Austin Jackson seeing regular time, too.
Their always-formidable rotation included stalwarts like Max Scherzer, David Price, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez, with cameos from promising youngsters like Rick Porcello, Robbie Ray, and Drew Smyly. The bullpen, well, the bullpen was often a problem. But it featured some flash with Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, and even late-career Joe Nathan and Octavio Dotel.
Between 2011 and 2014, the Tigers boasted star power like few, if any, other teams could. In that limited time frame alone, they had 12 players produce at least 5.0 WARP. Seriously. Look at this list:
*Half-season with Detroit.
Stats not your thing? Stare in awe at all of the top-five MVP and/or Cy Young award finishes Tigers earned from 2011-2014:
Like All-Star appearances? These four squads sent 18 players to All-Star games, headlined by six Tigers from the 2013 team. Silver Sluggers? Try six of ‘em. Gold Gloves? Well, OK, this era of Tigers baseball wasn’t for you. The overall point remains: the early 2010s Tigers consistently dazzled with stars the way few teams outside of Boston or New York had for the better part of a decade.
They weren’t just entertaining on the field; they were responsible for about 20 percent of the traffic to MLBTradeRumors.com during those four years, too. Then-GM Dave Dombrowski acquired Fister, Delmon Young, Sanchez, Jose Iglesias, Fister again, Soria, and Price in midseason deals alone. His offseason moves netted him players like Kinsler, Scherzer, and Peralta.
The part that, aside from seeing how far they’ve fallen today, makes remembering these teams hurt the most? The close calls. God, there were so many close calls. Yes, the 2012 Tigers were swept by the Giants, but they lost Games 2-4 by a combined five runs. What if Game 4 of the 2011 ALCS-—an extra-inning loss to the Rangers at home-—had gone Detroit’s way? What if David Ortiz’s 2013 grand slam had fallen two feet shorter? The Tigers lost Game 3 of the 2014 ALDS at home by one run. They were always so close, the baseball equivalent of Tantalus, of Kevin Dyson falling on the one-yard line.
None of this is meant to dig up old wounds for Tigers fans. In fact, the goal is here is quite to the contrary; to remind people that the early 2010s Tigers weren’t also-rans or lucky bastards or frauds. They were really good. Good enough to win it all, if another bounce or two went their way. Good enough to win it all more than once if a half-dozen bounces went their way.
Over the next few seasons, as we watch Mikie Mahtook struggle in center field and Matt Boyd struggle on the mound and countless other journeymen, misfits, and youngens flock to Detroit, try to remember the good ole days. Remember how scary it was seeing “Cabrera, Fielder, Martinez” in the heart of a lineup. How exciting the prospect of “Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez” was in 2013. How easily the Tigers could bash you into a pulp or marginalize your best hitters. And how Dombrowski made “mystery team” mean something.
They say the journey is more important than the destination. That feels less true than ever in an era where every pitch, error, swing, and call is dissected on Twitter, debated on TV, and picked apart in online columns. But for the 2011-2014 Tigers, it has to be true. History will not remember them as winners, but we should not forget them as entertainers and craftsmen, as teams built to thrill and wow and dazzle.
That all ended officially on August 31, 2017, though we’d seen it coming for years. Justin Verlander is in Houston, Detroit is rebuilding, and time marches on. The Tigers’ watch has ended, but they are not forgotten.