The 2017 Tigers will be remembered for being the end of an era. It wasn’t an easy team to watch, and many of the players fans have come to love found themselves wearing different jerseys by the end of the season.
But that doesn’t mean it was only a lost year. It was just a transition from one era to the next. The only question that remains is what that next era will bring.
Here are three lessons we learned during the past six months of Tigers’ baseball.
1. The end came menacingly hard
You see see lights coming down the track at you, but you can’t tell how hard it will hit when it arrives.
For years we’ve known the end was coming for a period of Tigers baseball that would have been as fondly remembered as any if only there was one rallying year to symbolize it all.
The Tigers had lineups that would put the fear into any pitcher who lived, that were led by one of the best right-handed hitters to play the game. At any point they arguably had two, three, four, maybe even five aces in their rotation.
We would have said it was the best baseball team in Detroit’s history, if only there was that championship flourish.
But we knew the end would come, the window would close, that you can’t live in tomorrow forever on a billionaire owner’s open checkbook alone while you mortgage the farm. But when?
It came on a July night when fan favorite J.D. Martinez left a game early. And lest you thought there was space to bargain, it came again at nearly midnight on the last day of August when one of the best pitchers to ever wear the Old English D was sent to Houston.
Logically it was the inevitable conclusion you knew was coming, but emotionally that didn’t make it any easier when it struck.
2. Baseball is still fun even when it isn’t
Nobody’s going to call a near-100 loss season fun. Nobody’s going to profess to enjoying a team that went 25-50 in the second half, 6-24 in its final 30 games.
It’s hard to watch “Miggy and the Mud Hens,” especially when Miguel Cabrera was injured and ineffective himself.
But there were still reasons to watch, and moments that rewarded those who did.
Matt Boyd threw a no-hitter until the last required out. Even if you’d given up on the team, you’re cheering louder and louder if you’re in the ballpark, rushing for a television to put the game on if you’re not.
Andrew Romine played all nine positions. Sure, it’s gimmicky. But it was hard to turn away and not get caught up in the fun he and his teammates were having.
There were moments when JaCoby Jones was chasing down balls in center field you didn’t think he’d reach, when trade acquisition Jeimer Candelario made you excited to see what he could do for an entire season.
The Tigers were not fun collectively in 2017, but baseball was still worth watching because you never knew what you’d enjoy on any given night.
3. Al Avila talks a good game, but it’s too early to know if he’s worthy of it
There are people who’ll tell you that Tigers GM Al Avila is bad at his job. You have to go back to 2003 to find a team that lost more than the 98 by this year’s edition of the team.
But he knew what he was getting into when he took over as GM in 2015, and so did anyone paying attention with clear eyes about the state of the organization.
Since then he’s made the cosmetically correct decisions: giving one last go before the window closes with a two-year plan for 2016-17, and pulling the plug and moving on when it’s clear that the era has gone as far as it can.
He’s said the right things, too — mostly, though sometimes he’s said more than is advisable.
He’s trying to take a team that would get more and more expensive each year to keep winning, and give it a future that allows for the next era of contention.
He’s expanding the organization’s analytics, scouting, and developmental capabilities to create a foundation that will have fewer lost seasons and more flexibility in the future.
He’s doing all the right things.
But is Avila finding all the right people to do them? Are the Tigers doing them the right way?
It’s one thing to say it, it’s another to execute it. And given their track records, it’s hard to say you have a firm belief in every member of Avila’s team.
Just as with the new round of prospects, we won’t know whether Avila’s plan lived up to the marketing for some years to come.
At least there’s finally reason for some optimism.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.