The Tigers are out of the woods

In 2003 the Detroit Tigers posted one of the worst records ever, finishing at 43-119. They were unredeemable in all senses of the word. They lost their first 9 games, won one, then lost another 8, to sit at 1-17. They had another period where they went 2-21, a 3-23, and a 1-16 streak. The only month they won more than 9 games was May, where they went 11-18. They were at the nadir of their tenth straight season below .500. People were comparing them to the 1962 Mets, a team ridiculed as the worst team ever, but at least those Mets had something to hide behind, the fact that they were an expansion team. The Tigers are a franchise proud of their history, with four World Series titles (the most recent in 1984) and numerous Hall of Famers have played for them.

But those 2003 Tigers did have one thing that they can now look back on. They threw a bunch of young players into the fire, and kept the ones who didn’t flame out. Just three years later they would go 95-67, win the American League, but unfortunately run into a Cardinals team that wiped them out 4-1 in the World Series. A year later they arrive in Texas for a three game series with a record of 32-25, 2.5 games out of first and comfortably in the Wild Card spot. Suggestions they could sweep the Rangers would be realistic. Just the other day I read that even the weak teams in the league now consider the Rangers an easy beat, and they’re right.

Of course, the Rangers upset the apple cart a little tonight, beating the Tigers 7-4, although after a 6 run first inning (the first time all year they’d scored more than two in the first inning), emergency starter John Rheinecker followed the rest of the rotations plan in trying to throw the game back to the Tigers. Once he was out though, the bullpen did an outstanding job in 2-hitting the Tigers for the last 6 innings. How soon until Willie Eyre is given a chance at starting, or is he too valuable cleaning up after the starters have blown up? And Joaquin Benoit? Are his starting days over, since he’s proven himself in the middle to late innings? Or did it just take a few years for him to learn how to pitch?

And that brings us back to the point of this article. By my count, 8 of the 30 players who’ve appeared for the 2007 Tigers were also on the 2003 Tigers. How can that be? How can a quarter of the players on a historically bad team still be there four years later. Or to put it another way, how did 12 out of the 40 players who went to the World Series in 2006 survive from 2003?

The answer is simple. They realized they were bad, horrendously bad, for several years. They realized they weren’t going to do anything in 2003. They realized as they were losing so badly that they weren’t going to somehow pull things out of the fire. On June 5, when they were 16-41, they knew they weren’t just a player or two away. So they left those guys in the big leagues, they didn’t shuffle them around, somehow trying to eke out an extra few wins to make themselves look a little better. They knew they were heading to 100 losses, and passed it easily. They didn’t stop and say “well, maybe we’d look better if we only managed to lose 99”. They bit the bullet, gave some guys all the rope they needed, and watched as some hung themselves, but also watched others use that rope to climb as high as they could.

Craig Monroe hit .212 for the Rangers in 2001 and was waived at the end of the year. Picked up by Detroit, he suffered through a couple of bad years but managed to come through, and for the last four years has been at or above league average in OPS, hitting at least 18 home runs each year since 2003. Do you remember what the Rangers saw in him to think he wouldn’t make it? Was it those lousy 58 plate appearances in 2001, at the age of 24, with his peak still years away? Did they prefer to run a parade of players through the outfield all those years, paying some of them many millions while Monroe didn’t even earn one million until 2006? Or was it just another in a string of bad calls by John Hart, who makes me think he was a saboteur on every additional thing I hear about him? Okay, so Monroe is not a superstar, but he would have been a stabilizing influence on one outfield position, in an outfield that has been terrible since the days of Rusty Greer in left and Juan Gonzalez in right holding things together.

The guys who really survived were Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth. Bonderman was 6-19 with a 5.56 ERA and Maroth was 9-21, 5.73, in 2003. Robertson only got 8 starts but was 1-2, 5.44. Do these numbers ring any bells? Add a run of ERA to each and they’re starting to sound like the 2007 Rangers rotation. Of course, they’re now three fifths of the Tigers rotation. Bonderman has really become the star, 5-0 3.27 this year, having gotten better every year he’s been in the big leagues. Maroth has stumbled a little, but is a serviceable guy in the four or five slot. Robertson gave up a bunch of runs to the Rangers today, but prior to that was doing decently.

They also got Justin Verlander at #2 overall in the 2004 draft. He didn’t sign until after the season, but got a couple of games in the bigs in 2005, and then was there to stay in 2006. The Rangers should take note, with the draft coming this Thursday. Of course, they don’t get a #2 pick, but that’s kind of a crap-shoot anyway, you don’t always luck into guys like Verlander but when you do you don’t make them spend three or four years in the minors.

So what’s my point? I think it is that even when you’re down, you can still look at guys as long-term potential. If you give up on them quickly, shuffle them back to Oklahoma after one or two bad games, you’ll end up watching them play for someone else in their prime (Doug Davis comes to mind, as especially does Justin Duchscherer, dumped at the same time as Craig Monroe). If you let them take their lumps, get them experience, and give them time to learn and prove themselves, you might end up with a core that you can build around, adding parts from free agency and the minors to build with. So sit back, watch, wince, cry and complain as Tejeda, McCarthy, Loe, and Kinsler frustrate you night after night, and think of how they’re learning on the job. Then, one day, you might just find yourself standing in line for World Series tickets.


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