In the wake of the Detroit Tigers deal this morning with catcher/DH Victor Martinez, a thought occurred to me: This never would have happened seven years ago.
Just after the Tigers, comprised mostly of players that had no business being in the major leagues, wrapped up their historically and comically bad 2003 season, a season that included 119 losses, it became crystal clear to team owner Mike Ilitch that he had to spend some money to get results.
The Tigers were a punch line in 2003. They started poorly and it only went downhill from there. The starting rotation featured three pitchers who each lost at least 17 games, including staff “ace” Mike Maroth, who became the first pitcher in better than 20 years to lose at least 20 when he finished at 9-21. In total, exactly three pitcher who appeared in more than 20 games ended the year with an ERA of less than 5.00. One of them was Nate Cornejo, who logged better than 194 innings and manage to strikeout only 46 batters while walking 58.
On offense, Dmitri Young truly had a tremendous season given the poor lineup around him. Young produced a .297 average with 29 home runs and 85 RBI. Only one other Tiger managed to drive in more than 52 runs and that was Craig Monroe with 70.
Suffice to say, the Tigers headed into the off-season with plenty of holes to fill. They had the worst major league team since the expansion Mets of 1962 and the worst American league club ever. Not only that, but their farm system was widely regarded as being among the worst in baseball. Anyone with any measurable talent had already been rushed to Detroit; there was nothing on the way in terms of re-enforcements.
So, spurred forth by the drive of new team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers set their sights on one of the biggest free agent prizes on the market in catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.
Pudge was coming off a tremendous season with the Marlins, whom had signed him just a year prior when no one else wanted to commit to a catcher with back problems. Rodriguez turned in a very good but overall unspectacular season in Miami, but was outstanding in leading the Fish to their second World Championship that fall.
When Pudge again tested the market after the World Series ended, he received better offers than the year before, and many thought he might take a two-year deal to stay with the Marlins. That’s when the Tigers came calling and offered Rodriguez a 4-year, $40 million deal that included an option for a fifth year. It was a contract that no one else would come close to matching, but Rodriguez didn’t immediately jump to sign.
As I said, and you may recall, the Tigers were a laughing-stock back then. It would be career suicide for Rodriguez to join such a lousy organization, so said the media. Still Dombrowski pressed forth. He enlisted the help of Mr. Ilitch and then-manager Alan Trammell in phone calls and face-to-face meetings with Rodriguez. In the meantime, they went about adding players like Rondell White and Fernando Vina to bolster the club. But those moves alone would have left the Tigers in no better shape than they had ended the season. They needed to land Pudge.
On February 6, just a week before the opening of Spring Training, Rodriguez finally committed to the Tigers. At the press conference announcing the deal, Trammell took pause when asked about the significance of signing a sure-fire Hall of Fame catcher. “This is how it starts,” he said, “this is how we get better.”
Seemingly instantly, the fate of the franchise was altered.
In years to come, Detroit would improve by adding bigger free agents each season. They made a shrewd trade or two along the way as well. While the Tigers were adding pieces via Mr. Ilitch’s money (and he still had to overpay to get a couple of guys), the Tigers were able to build a better farm system, without having to rush their best players to the big club.
In fairness, Magglio Ordonez signing a season later was perhaps just as big, and the Tigers had to once again over-spend to get him, but I wonder if Pudge hadn’t signed, would Maggs have come aboard?
When Dombrowski used that farm system to acquire an elite hitter in Miguel Cabrera, that, too, could be traced back to the Rodriguez signing. Without Pudge having taken the contract offered by Detroit, it’s unlikely that many of the players who occupied the roster for the Tigers prior to the Cabrera trade would have been there and perhaps the key pieces of that deal, Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, would have been over-exposed and given Florida pause.
In truth, as evidenced by the Martinez signing today, the Tigers are no longer a laughing-stock. They no longer must greatly outbid the market to land their free agents. Martinez, it has been reported, turned down larger contracts to take the Tigers offer today. That doesn’t happen without the run of relevant seasons that began almost seven years ago. If Pudge would have refused Mr. Ilitch’s money, if he would have taken a one or two-year deal elsewhere as many expected, this Tigers team would be in far, far worse shape than we will ever know.
For Tigers fans, Trammell was right when he spoke those words. If not for Pudge, we aren’t discussing whether or not the Tigers can land Jayson Werth to go along with Martinez this winter. In truth, without Pudge, there would be no AL pennant in 2006, no game 163 in 2009, no VMart protecting Cabrera. There may not even be a Cabrera. Pudge gave the team credibility. Yes, he was paid handsomely to do it, but he did it. For that I will always be grateful.