Victor Martinez reflects on Saturday's loss. He played a crucial role in the Tigers getting this far. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
In the end, they flopped, reaching for something that wasn’t there, sort of the way Prince Fielder did Saturday night in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series, caught between third and home in that embarrassing rundown.
They failed, as Torii Hunter, the loudest voice in the Tigers’ clubhouse for most of this season, said quietly in the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park early Sunday morning.
And fundamentally, they’re flawed, though we’ve all known that from the start.
But they’re also heavily invested, which is why the offseason changes that are coming for this Tigers team — its season ended in dramatic fashion Saturday in Boston — likely won’t be drastic.
The moves won’t be enough for many frustrated fans. And whether they’ll be enough to put this franchise over the top won’t be known until a year from now, if all goes well, which it rarely does in baseball.
Because the Tigers are close, obviously, becoming the first team since the New York Yankees in 2001 to reach the AL Championship Series for a third consecutive year.
And yet they must realize this, too, after coming up short in October each time.
“The door is closing,” Hunter said.
It is, for a variety of reasons. So the choice here seems simple enough: Take another step forward, or try another door.
All signs point to Option A, given the win-now mentality that has driven this team’s payroll to $150 million, and vice versa, with 84-year-old owner Mike Ilitch seemingly sparing no expense as he desperately chased an elusive World Series title.
It’s why Jim Leyland is expected to return for his ninth season as manager on another one-year contract, barring a sudden change of heart. Team president Dave Dombrowski has said repeatedly he’d be welcomed back, and Leyland, who’ll turn 69 in December, has given no indication he’s ready to call it quits.
The manager has to shoulder the blame for the way this season ended. That’s his job. And beyond the slumping hitters and the debilitating injury to star Miguel Cabrera there was a mess of bad base running, shaky defense and bullpen uncertainty that led to the Tigers’ playoff exit.
“Collectively, start with me,” Leyland said at his postgame press conference following Game 6. “The coaches, the players. … We just didn’t do quite enough.”
Yet they were still good enough to overcome that. Still good enough to win a division title, and maybe (probably?) a pennant, too, if Cabrera had been something more than what he was in final few months of the season: a singles hitter who couldn’t run the bases and could barely play the field.
“I think 90 percent of baseball players would have been sitting on the couch,” teammate Justin Verlander said, “dealing with what he’s been dealing with this year.”
We still don’t know what it is, exactly, that was ailing the league MVP. And we don’t know, for sure, how much a stint on the disabled list during the regular season could have mitigated the problem. Dombrowski will have to address that, finally, this week. Cabrera didn’t want to discuss any of that after Game 6, knowing talk of his injury would sound like making excuses.
To their credit, his teammates weren’t interested in making excuses, either, though some of Prince Fielder’s tone-deaf postgame comments — again — had Detroit fans understandably upset. Particularly after the way he played in October, failing to drive in a single run in the playoffs.
But that gets back to the fundamental problem here. Some of this team’s issues can’t — or won’t — be fixed this offseason.
The Tigers probably can’t get out from under Fielder’s contract — he’s owed nearly $170 million over the next seven seasons. They can’t move him to DH — and Cabrera back to first to protect his health — unless they move Victor Martinez, whose return to the lineup this year played a critical role in getting this team as far as it went.
So that leaves them with defensive problems at the corners and limited lineup flexibility — issues that tend to cause migraines in the postseason. And that’s OK, I guess, provided those 3-4-5 hitters are mashing the ball at the plate.
When they’re not — and they weren’t this October, with the exception of Martinez, who tied a team playoff record with 17 hits — then the Tigers’ other issues are difficult to overcome. Even with a dominant starting rotation that virtually assures they’ll be in contention again in 2014.
The bullpen was this team’s Achilles heel, from start to finish, magnified in the end by a pair of series-defining grand slams — off Joaquin Benoit in Game 2 and Jose Veras in Game 6 — as well as Boston’s own bullpen strength. (Red Sox relievers allowed just one run in 21 innnings in the series.)
Knowing that, Dombrowski can’t make the same mistake again. He was counting on rookie Bruce Rondon to play at least a key role, if not the closer’s role, replacing Jose Valverde. But Rondon wasn’t ready, and after his season ended with elbow problems, there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready next season, either.
Benoit, meanwhile, did a fine job as the fill-in closer the second half of the season. But that left a void in the setup role he’d filled so well the previous two years. And with Benoit, 36, scheduled to be a free agent, there are big decisions to be made now. Protecting that huge investment in the starting pitching has to be a top priority this offseason.
The team’s other key free agents are Jhonny Peralta, who already has been replaced at shortstop with the trade for Jose Iglesias, and second baseman Omar Infante, who still fits here in Detroit but will draw interest on the open market.
It remains to be seen if top prospect Nick Castellanos is ready for an everyday role in left field, or perhaps a platoon situation with, say, Andy Dirks. If not, then he shouldn’t be untouchable in trade talks. And Dombrowski needs to find a left fielder — preferably one with speed that can fill the leadoff role — either in free agency or via trade, perhaps dangling one of his starting pitchers.
But probably not Max Scherzer, the presumptive AL Cy Young winner who’ll be eligible for free agency after next season. The Tigers can explore a long-term extension for Scherzer, but his agent, Scott Boras, likely wants him to hit free agency to maximize his leverage. Already there’s speculation the Tigers, who have Cabrera coming due for an extension as well, might look to trade Scherzer rather than risk losing him with little compensation.
Yet that seems both unlikely — he won’t fetch nearly what he’s worth — and counterintuitive if the objective is to win now, as it surely must be with this group, from Ilitch to Dombrowski to Leyland. And even to the players, including veterans like Hunter, who at 38 and still in search of his first World Series ring, knows time is running out for this group.
“Same song,” Hunter said after Saturday’s loss, when asked about the disappointment. “Same old song.”
I don’t expect the Tigers will change their tune this winter. But if they intend to finish on a high note, they’ve got work to do. And little time to waste.