2013 Detroit Tigers: the Flawed Model


The 2013 Detroit Tigers were the best Tigers incarnation I’ve ever seen in my 19 years as a serious fan.

This was a team you assemble on MLB2K and score 1,000 runs with. This was a rotation you throw 3 no-hitters with.

This was a team that you do everything in your power to acquire in fantasy baseball.

Oct 19, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder (28) is caught in a run down between Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (39) and third baseman Xander Bogaerts (right) during the sixth inning in game six of the American League Championship Series playoff baseball game at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, this team is an outdated, flawed model of how baseball teams succeed.

Back before the pitching boom, a team could have defensively-challenged sluggers. It could have players that could simply move station-to-station. It could spend oodles on high-priced veteran free agents and shiny hot-topic relievers. It could have a manager that had accolades from his office out the door.

But then, the Tampa Bay Rays started dominating the AL East, home runs and offense decreased notably, payrolls started creeping downwards  (except in LA), and managerial innovation became key.

I love this team, but I don’t want to watch it crumble and age poorly like the Philadelphia Phillies of the last five years.

That World Series-winning team of 2008 had it all. They had Ryan Howard, a homer -hitting on base machine. They had Chase Utley, a slick-fielding second baseman with power and average. With Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge, they looked poised for an annual trip to the fall classic, and then they went on to add Hunter Pence, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cliff Lee. It was unfair!

But age started sapping skills. The bloated contracts prohibited good, quality free agents from being added. The defense, once sharp, began to wear thin, and Charlie Manuel looked lost as the game evolved and passed him by.

This grim premonition of the future chills me to the bones because that’s where the Tigers are heading.

Of all the potential fixes to make for the Tigers, most glaringly is a manager who follows in the footsteps of veteran, experienced managers like Dusty Baker and the aforementioned Charlie Manuel: Jim Leyland.

Leyland’s weaknesses were laid bare for all the world to see this season: His inability to effectively manage a bullpen, his reluctance to run, his stubborn loyalty to underperforming players, and his complete and utter predictability when it comes to planning and executing a gameplan.

The Tigers were six runs worse than their Pythagorean win projection, and one can remember several regular season games that ended because of poor bullpen usage. One can remember how that, without injuries, the lineup rarely ever changed from the beginning of the season to the end. And one can look at team stolen base total, a league-low 35, and shake one’s head.

same Leyland was a great manager 20 years ago. He was a good manager seven years ago. This year? His team won in spite of his machinations.  I’ve already covered my beef with Leyland, so I won’t take up space regurgitating the same ideas.

The concerns over the roster are twofold: First, why don’t the Tigers have a roster that takes advantage of how spacious Comerica Park is? Secondly, what will they be able to do when everyone needs to get paid, and when the big contracts age about as well as the players do?

The first is something I’ve been curious about for several years now. Comerica Park is a pitcher’s park with a gigantic outfield. Why not acquire the players to cover the outfield defensively, and be able to hit doubles and triples instead of just homers and singles? Guys who can be counted on not to hit into double plays are completely inopportune times. I’ve often wondered how players like Desmond Jennings, Gerardo Parra, Will Venable, or Daniel Murphy would do in a stadium where their speed would be further accentuated.   How would that affect the RBI totals of Martinez or Cabrera, and how would that help the numbers of fly ball pitchers like Verlander or Scherzer?

That leads into my hope of a team that is defensively superb. Teams like the Rays, A’s, and Giants have paired good defense with their good pitching and found success. Teams like the Royals and Red Sox have improved their defenses and recaptured their competitive drives. Why have two guys on the corners who can, at best, play their positions adequately? Why have a rotating defensive fart in left field? It doesn’t make sense, especially in an age where teams copy successful formulas, and the Rays have been collecting players who excel at defense the last several years, to continue to neglect the impact a great defense can have.

And then there are the contracts. I’d covered the ramifications of potential contract problems before, but what about the way the Tigers keep adding veterans, guys who fit into the “Win Now!” mindset? They are neglecting rebuilding the farm system and acquiring young talent. Dealing a guy like Scherzer, or Jackson, or even Fielder would go a LONG way towards reloading for not just the future, but also continued success with players that work well with the defense/speed strategy that is being used by so many teams nowadays.

Essentially, what we have here is a team that is playing a type of baseball that successful teams aren’t playing anymore. The Cardinals and Red Sox are teams with speed who play great defense, rely on great pitching, and don’t always depend on homers alone (contrary to what this past ALCS may lead us Tigers fans to believe). The Giants followed the same paradigm, setting the trend in 2010. Slugging teams who make astoundingly bad base running and defensive mistakes do not succeed. Experienced, veteran managers who can’t get their teams over the proverbial hump don’t deserve extensions.

I don’t want this to come across as a “BLOW IT UP” type piece, because I love having my favorite team in the playoffs consistently, and really, after the past two months I’ve never been more sold on keeping Torii Hunter, Victory Martinez, and Omar Infante. I’m not content, however, with having a team that can’t get out of its own way en route to a championship, or a team that just can’t seem to make it that last bit. No Tiger fan should be – who wants to be the early 90’s Buffalo Bills? This team was a wonderful experiment, one that saw enormous amounts of success for a time, but one that may ultimately end with a crippled franchise when the talent leaves and the cost remains.