Detroit Tigers: Cycling Competitiveness–Comparing 2003 to 2019
Detroit Tigers fans hope 2019 is Avila’s version of 2003
Team rebuilds do sound like a logical solution in principle. The long-known Detroit Tigers formula has been this: lose in the short-term by trading away major league assets in exchange for future talent, acquire high draft picks as a byproduct of losing, then start to spend on complimentary major league free agents when those trades and draft picks begin to yield major league returns. In baseball, however, prospects can be difficult to project; making any return in trades or any draft pick at a considerable risk of contributing little-to-nothing at the major leagues.
This makes the front office, particularly the General Manager, the most important position within an organization during a rebuild–considering they will be the ones negotiating these high-risk, high-reward deals and selecting amateur players they hope can either provide value via trade or can contribute at the major league level.
On April 15, 2002, Al Avila was hired as Assistant General Manager just a week after the club had fired then-GM Randy Smith. Prior to 2003, Mike Ilitch, who was endeared by fans for his relentless pursuit to win in his later years, would hire Dave Dombrowski as General Manager. Dombrowski had a record of success with the Florida Marlins and ownership thought his connections would play a key role in helping the team become competitive again.
In his first season, Dombrowski would witness the worst season in American League history; watching the Tigers lose 119 of their 162 games and finishing dead last in the AL Central for the second straight season. Dombrowski was determined to make change; leveraging his connections (and Ilitch’s dollars) to bring in catcher Ivan Rodriguez for 2004. The team would still struggle, but Dombrowski would continue to add. Polanco and Magglio Ordonez came into the fold in 2005; and in 2006, a combination of additional vets like Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones along with upcoming stars Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya would propel Detroit into contention for a window which lasted much longer than anyone could have reasonably expected.
Not to mention, any good team needs a good manager. Alan Trammell had proven himself to be a bit overwhelmed by the challenges of managing players, so once again Dombrowski went back to his Florida Marlin success and brought in the veteran Jim Leyland; who would the skipper for the club for 10 seasons.
To have a team go from the worst in American League history to a World Series appearance in three seasons is unheard of, but whispers of competitive timelines suggest that the same organization is going to attempt the same type of historic turnaround just 17 years later. Will it be possible? Let’s dive into the similarities and differences between now and then:
The glaring constant between 2003 and 2019 is largely the regime. The Ilitch family still owns the team, although power has shifted from the late Mike to son Chris. Meanwhile, both Al Avila and Dave Littlefield still hold high positions within the organization, with Dave Dombrowski moving on after the 2015 trade deadline. There have been some changes to help catch up on analytics, but largely, their approach as it pertains to player development has remained the same.
Another fascinating exercise: comparing a 26 year-old Alex Sanchez on the 2003 squad with 25 year-old Harold Castro offensively from 2019. Over 97 games in 2019, Harold Castro slashed .291/.305/.384 with a juiced ball. In 2003, Alex Sanchez, over 101 games, would slash .289/.320/.355. Sanchez would supply .2 bWAR in 2003; likely thanks to his burning speed in the field and on the base paths. Castro, however, would produce a -.4 bWAR in his 2019 campaign. It is unfair to compare the players to each other, but these similarities have to be a blow to the Castro believers.
Castro and Sanchez weren’t the only players entering their prime who under-performed, though. Both line ups from both squads are littered with players who should be entering their peak physically but would not ultimately produce. On the 2003 squad, 26 year-olds Brandon Inge and Craig Monroe would only supply 1.0 bWAR each, although both would end up on the 2006 World Series club.
Unfortunately, the 2019 club wouldn’t have a single player on their roster supply higher than a 1.6 bWAR season. If we are looking for a parallel, though, look to 26 year-old Grayson Greiner, who caught as Inge did; and 25 year-old Christin Stewart, who played left field as Monroe did. Both players would produce below replacement level results for their 2019 campaign, suggesting their 40-man roster leash may be tightening.
Although both clubs were historically bad in their respective efforts, the way in which they went about their losing was a bit different. For the 2003 team, the method was poor pitching. The average starting pitcher for the club was just 24 years old and the top performer was Nate Cornejo, who would supply just a 92 ERA+ while the other four starters would post in the 70’s. The 2019 club, meanwhile, would have three of their four regular starters post ERA+’s over 100, suggesting at least 60% of their games were started by an above average major league pitcher, whereas the 2003 club had exactly 0%.
2003 had the better offensive club, but it isn’t by much. the 2003 Tigers slashed .240/.300/.375 as a team, while the 2019 club hit .240/.294/.388. The team in 2003 hit more home runs and walked more; but unfortunately that load was carried heavily by Dmitri Young; who hit .297 with 29 home runs while walking 58 times across 155 games. If not for ‘DY,’ it would have been understandable if both Alan Trammell and Dave Dombrowski were shown the door almost as quickly as they came in.
As it was from 2003 to 2006, the current Detroit Tigers squad is going to need to make free agents a big part of their plan to contend. Having prospects is a luxury and the last rise from the baseball grave certainly featured that. But it also took the seeds veteran signings in the years in between which would allow them to reach their zenith.
If the Detroit Tigers are truly serious about competing again along the same type of timeline, which would put them at 2022, they desperately need to start getting aggressive on the free agent market by filling positions in which they will certainly not have prospects to fill in the near-term; effectively allowing them to grab the best fits over 2-3 free agent cycles instead of pushing all the chips in the middle one year and settling for players which may not help them as much.
Detroit’s ability to build in three years was impressive and there are certainly ways to argue that both teams were in their respective valleys in 2003 and 2019; but what happens over the next couple off seasons is more likely to determine their rebuild success than the prospects they have rising through the ranks.