We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.
In 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost 119 baseball games. When they won the game that kept them from losing their 120th, they had an on-field Gatorade bath celebration led by the great Dmitri Young. Things were low for so long with the Tigers, it seemed that they lost any sense of what high really was.
A mere three seasons later, the Tigers won the AL Pennant. Over the next decade they would win four more AL Central titles and another pennant. They wouldn’t always make the playoffs during this stretch — they missed them quite often, in fact — but they were always considered contenders and were always, seemingly, one or two tweaks away from being among the better if not the best teams in the game.
Even if you dispute that, you cannot dispute the team’s star power. Win or lose, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson Victor Martinez, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez and many others who passed through from time to time made the Tigers roster interesting. Comerica Park was filled with no fewer than 2.4 million fans in any season between 2006 and 2016, all of whom could, quite defensibly, say that it was the Tigers year or could be if they made just one trade or went on one hot streak at the right time. Such hope is often irrational, of course, but it is also the hope upon which fandom is built.
Baseball teams themselves, though, have a responsibility to be a bit more hard-headed. To note that just because there is MVP talent at the top of the roster doesn’t mean that the club is as sound and as competitive as it could be. To be aware of the state of the minor league system. The aging curves and contract status of the key players and where the competition sits in that respect as well. A front office has to know when to fish and when to cut bait.
The Tigers front office wasn’t particularly good at that in recent years. A lot of that had to do with the team’s owner, Mike Ilitch, who was in his 90s, as rich as Croesus and wanted his team to, always, win now. A part of it, though, was general managers looking at the team on the field, imagining that it was just a tweak or two away from greatness and ignoring all of those underlying dynamics to which front offices are supposed to pay attention. In some ways it was the polar opposite of that Dmitri Young Gatorade celebration: things were high for so long with the Tigers it seemed that they lost any sense of what low really was.
Reality struck hard in 2017. Mike Ilitch passed away just before pitchers and catchers reported back in February. Miguel Cabrera, whose durability has only been surpassed by his greatness for most of his career, finally saw his performance suffer due to nagging injuries. Other, older player such as Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez showed their age and fragility. Younger players such as Jose Iglesias and Nicholas Castellanos did not progress the way it was hoped they would. The bullpen, as always, was terrible, but unlike in seasons past, there wasn’t any other part of the Tigers attack that could compensate for it, even a little bit. The end result: 98 losses, a last place finish and the Tigers decision let manager Brad Ausmus go.
The larger result: the beginning of the first wholesale rebuild of the Tigers in a decade and a half.
Star slugger J.D. Martinez, who mashed in 2017 but who missed much of the early season with an injury, was traded to the Diamondbacks on July 18. On July 31 General Manager Al Avila traded his son Alex and reliever Justin Wilson to the Chicago Cubs. On August 31 he traded Justin Upton to the Angels. And, on the same day, they made the biggest trade he’ll ever make, sending Justin Verlander — the last man standing from that 2006 pennant-winning team — to the Houston Astros. Verlander would pitch amazingly down the stretch and help the Astros to the World Series title that had eluded him and the Tigers for thirteen seasons. As the offseason wears the Tigers continue to tear things down. Just two weeks ago they traded Kinsler to Anaheim, where he’ll join Upton.
A total teardown is new territory for a generation of Tigers fans, but older Tigers fans still remember the one from the early 2000s and know that things can go from bleak to wonderful more quickly than one might imagine. Tigers fans older than that remember the aging Al Kaline Tigers teams, likewise seemingly only a tweak or two away — and hey, only a couple of years removed from the 1972 division title — cratering in the mid-70s. In 1975 they lost 102 games. The next year they drafted Alan Trammell, Jack Morris and Dan Petry. They would soon be competitive again, with it all culminating in a World Series championship eight years later.
There are few guarantees in baseball and fewer still with teardown rebuilds, but for the first time in a long time, the Tigers are giving it a go.