These are dark days for the Detroit Tigers, my friends.
A year ago you could squint with optimistic eyes and see better days only a few years off in the future, but now I’m not so sure.
There’s a big difference between the kind of star players who lead an organization into the playoffs and the kind of players the Tigers have under contract — that includes their farm system.
That’s a lesson learned painfully throughout the season each time one of the team’s established major leaguers was subtracted from the everyday lineup.
The Tigers peaked at one game below .500 on June 17, just days after Miguel Cabrera was lost for the season. After that date, they were nearly the worst team in the majors, going 28-61 (.315), eight wins fewer than the Royals and 10 fewer than the White Sox.
During that time we saw the trades of Mike Fiers and Leonys Martin, two of the team’s better first-half performers. We saw Michael Fulmer make just eight starts after July 1. We saw Jose Iglesias lost for the season at the end of August.
And we saw several of the Tigers’ most discussed minor-league position players make their major-league debuts or get more regular playing time under their belts.
It didn’t look good.
A team with Ronny Rodriguez, Dawel Lugo, and Victor Reyes getting regular playing time isn’t reason for excitement. JaCoby Jones can field, but he can’t hit. Christin Stewart can hit, but he can’t field, a problem you can accept if not for Nick Castellanos being in the same category, and the oft-injured and all-but-untradeable Cabrera requiring the designated hitter position every bit as much.
That puts a lot of pressure on minor leaguers Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron, Willi Castro, or Jake Rogers to become difference makers. If the Tigers are lucky, they might get two above-average major-league position players.
On the pitching side, always the more exciting angle to look at, it’s hard not to come away disappointed as well.
A torn meniscus and surgery in September for Fulmer ended his season early. Almost anyone else who started a game in the majors this year beyond Matthew Boyd seems forgettable. We can finally write off Daniel Norris as a meaningful contributor in the future.
In the minors, top prospect Franklin Perez spent most of the season injured. The Tigers might have a couple of middle-of-the-rotation guys in Matt Manning, Beau Burrows and Alex Faedo. And it’s too early to say with 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize.
Right now, the best case appears to be that 2019 will be a continuation of the struggle, and in 2020 and beyond the Tigers might have an acceptable foundation, but require a fair amount of talent from outside the organization to compete in a more compelling way. They might not be awful, but they do not project to be a future playoff team with this level of talent in the system, either.
Unfortunately, with a few other rebuilding teams in the division, the Tigers are going to have to put their rebuild operation up against those of the better-positioned Twins and White Sox.
That should worry you.
With creative transactions and spending, like we saw following the 2009-2010 debacles, maybe the future looks a little brighter for the Tigers than it does today.
That’s asking for a lot. You always knew Dave Dombrowski — now in charge of the 108-win Red Sox — would be able to pull something fun out of his hat. Tigers GM Al Avila has shown no such vision in his time guiding Detroit’s front office, and we have no reason to believe the Ilitch family will spend like its late patriarch, Mike Ilitch, to bring in exciting but high-priced talent.
Assuming they’re telling the truth when shooting down the rumors of selling the team to Dan Gilbert, a sale that should excite no one who has paid attention to his running of the Cavaliers.
These might not be the darkest days of the Tigers history. Those with longer memories might think back to the ‘90s and early-2000s, when each season seemed more hopeless than the last.
Yet it’s hard to get excited about the future. Without some big changes or better luck, a mediocre future might be best the Tigers can do.
Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.