Detroit Tigers: Halcyon Days of Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera seem as far off as ever

Miguel Cabrera (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Miguel Cabrera (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

Two players stand out before the rebuild for the Detroit Tigers.

The process of rebuilding a baseball club has its tough times and bouts of ugliness. This is something we expect. The Detroit Tigers truly launched their current “process” when it became patently clear the halcyon days of contention for the club built around Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera had run its natural course. Maybe we just didn’t know good it was.

The song of birds amid the bowers;
The crystal of the azure seas;
The music of the southern breeze;
And, over all, the blessed sun,
Telling of halcyon days begun.
David MacBeth Moir

The Cabrera/Verlander Era, with fellow likely Hall of Famer Max Scherzer in tow for much of it, was a long extended window of blessed sun, calm seas, and songs of birds from a baseball point of view for Tigers fans. There was excellence on display nearly everyday for over a decade in Detroit built around their stars.

While they didn’t secure the World Series title in the end, they did everything else. Division titles, AL pennants, shrewd trade deadline deals, Cy Young Awards, Rookie of the Year Awards, MVP’s and even a Triple Crown. Most importantly, they kept us wanting more.

Eventually it wound down. Key players left In free agency. A manager retired. Core players aged. Youngsters didn’t come through. Free agents fizzled. Trades didn’t quite work out. The architect was fired. The man who fearlessly wrote the checks passed away.

2017 happened and the process of stripping it down began. Verlander became a trade chip. Only the brittle and desiccated shell of Miguel Cabrera remained. The end came hard and fast.

What we now wait on is the return to a semblance of those days. Those delicious ice cream treat days of contending and the thrill of expectations. There isn’t much better for a baseball fan than to have a club with grand expectations and the players to do it.

Detroit fans all want 2011 through 2014 to comeback in some fashion. They all want the ‘81 to ‘87 Tigers back.

Unfortunately the club and it’s fans are now revisiting the woe-begotten 2003 Tigers and have been for a while.

When do they get back? What is the first step? Whet can we learn from the prior time the club re-emerged from the depths of Baseball Hell?

Does The Road Back start in ‘21?

What Tigers fans have endured since the day JD Martinez was dealt for spare parts isn’t all that surprising. Detroit set themselves up to lose for a few years. They were looking to get by on the cheap as much as they could with Cabrera’s mega-deal on board and the Jordan Zimmermann free agent deal of sadness slowly winding down.

The Tigers are now waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to be over in order to sell the one thing baseball teams generate about as well as most anyone…”Hope”. They’ve built up their farm system to be near the top of the rankings of all the usual websites dedicated to helping sell hope via “prospect porn”. The profligate losing has put Detroit in position to draft premium talents. They get credit for this and will get more as these players bubble up onto their MLB roster.

However it’s not easy to build purely around prospects. It’s probably not even GM Al Avila’s plan to build solely through his farm system. The Tigers like to tout their pitching depth in the minors but it’s hard to count on young arms.  The ditch beside the road to success is littered with teams who mistakenly thought they had a star studded rotation building in their minors to lead them. More will have to be done and Avila knows it.

The last time it happened

The 2006 edition of the Tigers featured a club that unexpectedly stormed to a 76-36 start, weathered a rocky finish, and then rode a wildcard to an AL Pennant. The ‘06 Tigers brought about Dave Dombrowski’s official end to the rebuild centered around the dreadfulness of 2003 plus a team that wasn’t much better in 2002.

Two major veteran pieces of the ‘06 squad were secured in 2004 and 2005 respectively. It wasn’t all thrown together in ‘06. The Tigers took advantage of an oddly slow market for future Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. Owner Mike Ilitch gave Dombrowski the green light to get a deal and suddenly the tigers went from absolute jokes in 2003 to signing one of baseball major stars in ‘04. New found respect for the organization quickly followed.

The Tigers followed it up in ‘05 by seeing the potent bat of Magglio Ordonez be available to them. Ordonez had injury issues with his old White Sox club and that presented the opening for Ilitch to take a chance on Ordonez having a return to health. He did.

The Tigers now had two studs procured in free agency. Verlander and Curtis Grandson would arrive the following year. Solid trades for Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco were executed. Kenny Rogers would arrive in ‘06 free agency.

Can the Tigers start to put a similar plan in place in 2021? Right now it doesn’t look promising.

The worst word rears it’s ugly head

There is a lot of time left and good players on the market available. However Avila has doused hopes of pursuing big time talent. His reluctance seems based in a bad thing…fear.

Fear of signing the wrong guy who you’ll need to move later. Ordonez could have been the signing to fear because of injury. Why does Avila not trust his ability to sign the right guys? Instead he fears signing the wrong ones.

Fear of spending money “too early”. Many thought it was too early in the rebuild after the debacle of ‘03…passing on Pudge then would have made sense to all the “too early” guys on the scene now.

Fear of COVID. Any fears of COVID are being shared by every team in baseball. The Tigers have the wealthy ownership where they ought to be able to weather the worst of this era better than many teams.

Unless the Tigers step to the fore and let their freak flag aggressively fly a bit, they simply are going to be on a treadmill of mediocrity for some time. This rebuild hasn’t even had the opportunity to plateau yet. Fans would love to see enough improvement for them to plateau as a .500 club for a while. However they’re stuck with the dregs currently and face at least another season being the dregs because the Tigers aren’t indicating any bit of inertia to move this thing forward beyond stoking its minor league system.

Many observers have pointed to next year’s free agent class as the time to dive in. Why will that be? If Detroit has another season of .375 baseball, why won’t it still be “too early”. Why would these vaunted free agents now want to ink in Motown then anymore than they would or wouldn’t now?

If MLB claims to have lost catastrophic money again, why will the Tigers suddenly open the vaults then when they are reluctant today?

No…the Tigers appear barely any closer to returning to the past glory days right now. Not because they’ve failed in restocking the minor league pantry. It’s because every indicator we see right now is based in predictability, in caution, in small scale and scope…and, of course, in fear of the unknown.

When will they operate aggressively in free agency and trades with limited fear of failure? Only owner Chris Ilitch and his main guy Al Avila can tell us this through actions not words.

The next winning Detroit baseball team is no closer than the day we see action on that scale. There is still time for them to find that spine in this off-season if they choose.