Detroit Tigers: The free-agent starting pitcher curse?

Feb 24, 2017; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey (37) throws a pitch during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2017; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey (37) throws a pitch during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Here’s a spooky tale for Halloween to share. The tale of the Detroit Tigers free-agent starting pitcher bad luck.

Disclaimer: I know Detroit Tigers fans will cite examples of Kenny Rogers, David Wells, Walt Terrell who was the expectation of the rule of this “curse” or bad luck.  But Detroit opted not to pay up for Wells, instead, traded him to Cincinnatti for one year of Mark Lewis. So, actually, that was bad luck.

But let’s continue the story, shall we? For this article, there will be various bad luck values attached ranging from one to five. So watch out for black cats walking your path.

At the end of the 1980s, the Detroit Tigers needed to shore up their starting rotation. Nothing was arriving via Toledo and after a successful run with Jack Morris and Dan Petry as your homegrown talents, Milt Wilcox signing to join Sparky Anderson in 1983, trades to acquire Frank Tanana from Texas in 1985,  Walt Terrell from the Mets, and Doyle Alexander from Atlanta, Detroit had to turn to the free-agent market to shore up the rotation.  In December of 1990, Bill Lajoie would sign an unexpected ace.

Bill Gullickson

Gullickson would sign for two years and give the Tigers their first 20-game winner since Jack Morris in 1986. So, how is that a “cursed” signing, Rogelio? The guy was in the top 10 in the Cy Young vote! Well, with a K per 9 of 3.6 and an offense that when they scored 6 runs or fewer, you go 12-0, it helps the win total. (He was 1-4 when Detroit scored 0 to 2 runs and just 7-5 when they would score 3 to 5 runs) Overall, he averaged 5.66 run support per start.

He went out and did what Detroit needed him to do, which was eat innings. That part is not cursed. It was the following contract that Detroit paid him. They needed starters once again with the expansion draft taking away Kevin Ritz and Scott Aldred, (two Kevin Ritz references in one week) and he wanted a raise after two seasons is where the “curse” part comes in.

Another 200 inning season and an ERA just over 4 and a half, Gullickson wanted a raise despite winning just one game in his last 10 starts in 1992 and giving up 35 home runs. Detroit offered him the same deal. One year, $1.9 million dollars. He was not biting at what then-GM Jerry Walker was offering. Eventually, Gullickson caved in and did not get the $ 3 million he was seeking.

Why was this such a bad deal for Detroit in retrospect? He didn’t get them over the hill in the AL East. When it mattered the most when the Tigers had some of the best offenses they ever had from 1991 to 1993, Gullickson was just an innings eater. I don’t devalue anyone who has won 300 games and it was a different game back then. One start does stand out as the Tigers were ahead in the AL East and it would be the final time for a while. On June 11th, 1993, he outdueled former Tigers ace Jack Morris, tossing one of the last complete games in a Tigers uniform. He would have one more against Boston in August of 1993 and his last one against the A’s on May 10th, 1994.

The initial signing was not a bad thing but the second contract failed to deliver. Bad luck level: 2

Tim Belcher

The Detroit Tigers signed Tim Belcher in February of 1994 to a one-year deal worth $3.4 million dollars to shore up the rotation. Then GM Joe Klein envisioned a rotation that would give Detroit five 200-inning pitchers with Belcher, Moore, Gullickson, David Wells, and John Doherty. His career numbers were great heading into 1994. 77-63 with a 3.40 ERA. Rob Parker, writing for the Detroit Free Press at the time, said the Tigers’ prayers were answered with this move.

That did not happen. Belcher would be the team leader in starts with 25 but would pitch just 162 innings and would have the first losing record of his career, going 7-15 (leading the staff in losses) with an ERA of 5.89. He would fair better in a three-year run in Kansas City. At least Detroit did not commit multiple years to Belcher. Bad luck level: 4

Mike Moore

Three years, $10 million dollars is what the Tigers signed Mike Moore for and he started whenever Detroit needed him to. But even looking at his 13-9 season, he gave up 35 home runs. This may have been the reason Mike Ilitch avoided spending money on pitching for a while and go with Randy Smith’s plan of developing pitching within.  Bad luck level: 5

Hideo Nomo

Nomo did well here in the one-year deal he signed with the Tigers at $1.25 million dollars. Thanks to Phil Gardner, who had him in Milwaukee in 1999, he would join him in Detroit. He was second on the team in innings pitched and lead the team in strikeouts with 181. So why Detroit decided not to resign him to help out a rotation that finished just 4 games under .500?

Detroit did want to give him a raise despite having the team option. His 8-13 record was a reflection of bad run support. Nomo would go on in 2001 to have his first 200 strikeout season in Boston since 1997 and win 13 games for the Red Sox. This was bad luck in the sense Detroit could have avoided dropping back to 4th place in 2001.  Bad luck level: 2

Jason Johnson

Two years, $7 million dollars is what Detroit gave Johnson back in December of 2003 after five seasons in Baltimore with numbers that were reflective of the “juice era” of the late ’90s. I will give Johnson props for signing here after the horrible 2003 season the Tigers had. To be fair, he did pitch 200 innings in his last season in Detroit in 2005 but the numbers speak for themselves. Bad luck level: 3

Brad Penny

Penny like a few others here on this list started showing a decline in value when Detroit signed him in 2011 but he was a veteran starter and the deal was for one-year as a stopgap measure to shore up the rotation. This one was different than the recent signings of Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, and Ivan Nova. He actually pitched to the tune of 181 innings. This signing was just not the added value I think Detroit Tigers fans were expecting. Bad luck value: 1

Mike Pelfrey

The difference between this contract and Jordan Zimmermann was that Zimmermann was one of the better arms on the market. The pattern, however, is the same among the names I mentioned here. Pelfrey was not one of them. 2 years at $16 million dollars after a disaster run in Minnesota, going 11-27 with an ERA of 4.94 was ridiculous. This contract was not bad luck, it was just a mistake. Bad luck value: 5