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Henning: Five reasons the Tigers are failing

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera walks to the dugout after striking out against the Orioles on Friday night.

They have bought tickets to Comerica Park at an average rate of nearly 3 million per season the past decade. They make Detroit’s television and radio ratings among the best in all of baseball. And Tigers fans prove, continually, that their team is a 365-day-a-year staple whose every roster move is devoured like a shrimp cocktail.

Today, together, Detroit’s baseball faithful asks: How did things turn so bad for a team supposedly so good?

Explanations are many and can be chewed on at length. But a concise list would include:

1. Tigers pitching has gone from dominating to being on too many days flat-out bad.

2. A superstar hitter who once single-handedly destroyed opposing teams, Miguel Cabrera, had two muscular games in Baltimore but has lost much of his past sacred power(s) and is at the heart of some occasional offensive blackouts.

3. The team lacks speed and has too little defensive wizardry.

4. A generous owner who was applauded — and perhaps still should be — for writing long-term paychecks to roster celebrities, has seen some of that strategy backfire, as might have been predicted.

5. A Tigers team annually blistered for its lack of minor league prospects has lost important draft picks when blue-chip free agents were signed and early draft picks were forked over as compensation. It lost other, potentially fruitful, early draft picks when elder players were handed expensive extensions and were not allowed to chase free agency, which could have pumped younger, less expensive talent into Detroit’s system.

Like a gleaming classic car, adorned with too many restored and added parts to make it a safe bid for long-haul travel, the Tigers perhaps look better than they reasonably can be expected to perform in 2016.

They are blowing tires galore in mid-May as a team deals with a horrific stretch of baseball that has seen them lose 11 of 13 after Sunday's 6-5 victory against the Orioles and all but assure that manager Brad Ausmus remains an endangered species as the Tigers ponder emergency moves.

Although a new skipper would please fans who want something — anything — to change as an exorbitantly well-paid roster self-destructs, a simple set of facts, long in creation, probably best explains the Tigers’ plight.

The team needs an overhaul. Stronger bats, faster feet, harder throwers are the secret to winning baseball games. The Tigers are lacking too many of each, particularly on the pitching side, which is what fueled their two World Series shots and four consecutive division flags during the past, rather heady, decade.

In short: A sport known for cycles of reconstruction followed by contention followed by new reconstruction has caught the Tigers flush with a probable need to rebuild.

A point-by-point analysis all but confirms why the Tigers might consider a tear-down not one-quarter of the way into 2016:

1. Their pitching has gone soft.

In the Tigers’ last two World Series seasons, 2006 and 2012, their pitching was first and third in the league. During three of four consecutive division-winning years, from 2011-2014, Tigers pitching was no worse than seventh. Their pitching today is 25th among 30 big league clubs.

Justin Verlander, in his prime, teamed with a dual heavyweight, Max Scherzer, who with a healthy and younger Anibal Sanchez, and with an innings-eating Rick Porcello, made the Tigers favorites in most series, all because starting pitching provides the single greatest edge in big league games.

Verlander is still effective at age 33, but he is not the Cy Young Award contestant he was during his 20s and even into his 30s. Jordan Zimmermann has been a godsend since he arrived, but beyond him and Verlander, Sanchez has been in and out, Shane Greene has been hurt, Mike Pelfrey has had one truly good start, while kid pitchers who might in time help — Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd — are probably still too green to make a dramatic difference in 2016.

Add to that a Tigers bullpen that can, at times, resemble some of the old cave-in relief corps of yesteryear, and it puts an enormous load on a batting order that was supposed to be dynamite in 2016 and too many times isn’t.

Anatomy of Tigers' early-season nose dive

2. Miguel Cabrera is looking older than 33.

Cabrera last year batted .338 and won a batting championship, which is about right for a man who entered 2016 with a .321 career batting average. He had a .440 on-base average, and even in a year when he was hurt and played in only 119 games, he owned a .534 slugging percentage.

Cabrera’s numbers this year: .286, .363, .464. That .827 OPS might work for some hitters, but not for a man regarded for a decade as perhaps the game’s best slugger and potentially one of the five best in baseball history.

No one can seem to pinpoint what’s up with Cabrera. Apart from, perhaps, age.

He was hurt last year, but 18 home runs in those 119 games was a sign, maybe, that Cabrera’s big (6-foot-5, 250-pound) body was beginning its decline. He has six home runs in 37 games and not until the past weekend’s series against the Orioles, when he hit a Saturday night bomb and then had the winning homer Sunday, did Cabrera show signs of pulling the ball for power, or hitting any of those majestic, high-arc home runs that once were his trademark.

No one believes there’s anything physical eating at Cabrera. If it were, trainers, doctors, a front office, a coaching staff — his own teammates — would know or at least hint at an injury Cabrera says is nonexistent.

Saturday and Sunday’s rockets were a sign, perhaps, that Cabrera might be on his way back. But losing his game-busting ways from a lineup’s mid-order has, in too many April-May games, robbed the Tigers of what had been baseball’s one-of-a-kind weapon.

3. Lack of speed and big-play defense takes its toll.

It’s not so much the Tigers are plodders or ham-handed in the field. They’re not. Overall, anyway.

But note the speed in Kansas City’s outfield, the plays that are made. Note the American League team that played in the last two World Series.

The Tigers are pedestrian in the outfield. They are average elsewhere. On the basepaths, they often have been a mess, either because Cabrera and Victor Martinez can’t run, or for other reasons a front office and manager are still trying to analyze. Blame there often will fall at a manager’s door. But for all the drills and reminders and lectures and emphasis from spring camp into the early season, the Tigers’ scattered ways running bases can probably best be tied to the fact too many individuals simply don’t run well or with cunning.

Speed is not something taught. It is acquired. And nothing helps on the basepaths, or on defense, quite like fast feet the Tigers carry in minimal amounts.

Justin Upton tosses his bat after striking out against the Orioles on Friday night.

4. Happy long-term contracts have given way to regrettable deals that can hamstring a front office.

For most fans, the news was always gleeful. The Tigers in 2013 signed Verlander to a potential $200 million extension into the next decade. A year later, they gave Cabrera $300 million, of which $240 million remains due through 2023.

The paychecks were, in most quarters, seen as worthwhile and heartening to fans who wanted their billboard talent intact for future World Series runs.

But now perspectives have changed. Verlander and Cabrera are aging and carrying numbers not as lustrous.

J.D. Martinez (signed through 2017), Justin Upton (potentially through 2021), Victor Martinez (2018), Zimmermann (2020), Sanchez (2017) — the price tags have been heavy and the years lengthy as owner Mike Ilitch has attempted to secure the best possible talent for the longest possible playoff runs.

That’s all fine when a team is winning. But when life begins to go bad, extended contracts and high-altitude salaries have ball-and-chain effects on a roster and on fans’ dispositions.

A question the fading Tigers seem destined to face in July is chilling: How many of these contracts, which are so fat the Tigers are paying luxury tax on their $200 million-plus payroll in 2016, could be off-loaded ahead of the July 31 trade deadline?

The answer: Not that many. Certainly not in the cases of Verlander or Cabrera. Nor, unless Upton pulls out of his mystifying ways, would he be marketable. Victor Martinez? Probably. Sanchez? Perhaps. But it depends on July’s market and in any event there is no surety the Tigers would be able to spin off talent and contracts for a great deal in return.

Ilitch has bet everything in recent years on winning a World Series. Fans have appreciated the commitment and remember how important an owner’s pocketbook was to Detroit’s baseball renaissance.

But the consequence of losing such a bet can be more than disappointment. Lopsided payroll can imperil a team and its ability to contend for years to come.

5. Too many forfeited draft picks have robbed the Tigers of important replenishing talent.

Turn back to the 2009 offseason. The Tigers needed a closer to replace a retiring Todd Jones. Not having an answer on their roster or in their farm system, they signed Jose Valverde, a premium reliever, to a three-year contract. But the investment cost more than a three-year deal for nearly $23 million.

The Tigers lost their first-round draft pick in 2010. A year later, they likewise sat out the draft’s first round after signing Victor Martinez. And in 2012, it was the same story as a first-rounder was spent, in addition to $214 million, on a nine-year package for Prince Fielder.

Next month, the Tigers will lose second- and third-round choices, which might not seem expensive until you consider that James McCann was a second-round choice and ex-Tigers pitcher Drew Smyly was a third-rounder, to cite two examples.

Nick Castellanos, who typifies the brand of talent you can grab in the first round or later, was taken 44th overall.

Draft picks don’t always make it. But premier early-rounders often do, and often they find their way onto All-Star teams.

Worse, when a blue-chip draft pick is lost, it raises the possibility a team, minus that talented young fill-in player, will later be forced to spend dramatically more dollars — and, perhaps, lose another jewel of a draft pick — in filling a void via the free-agent market.

In those terms, think of this past season’s acquisitions: Zimmermann and Upton. And consider chances the Tigers would have had replacements for each had those earlier first-rounders not been abandoned.

Upton no stranger to slump-busting, but this one's vexing

An important aside must here be mentioned. It has to do with how one night of baseball history played into so much of this current Tigers tumult and angst.

Reflect back, if a Tigers follower’s stomach permits, to Oct. 13, 2013, Fenway Park in Boston, and to an eighth inning in which the Tigers were sitting on a 5-1 lead that, with six mainstream outs, would give them a two-games-to-none series lead against the Red Sox and overwhelming emotional fury returning to Detroit.

The Tigers knew all about voltage and crowd power when they dealt with a similar circumstance, in their 2006 divisional series against the Yankees, as they returned to Detroit with a chance to send the Yankees home.

They were carried in unmistakable ways on those memorable Friday and Saturday nights in October, 2006, by a crazed crowd that would have been at least as inflamed for games seven years later against Boston.

But an awful thing happened, at least as far as Detroit’s recollections matter. On a cold autumn evening when Anibal Sanchez had struck out 13 in 5 2/3 innings, when former front-office chief Dave Dombrowski remembers looking into the Red Sox dugout and seeing a Boston team that was utterly dazed by what it had run into, a Tigers bullpen, known for too much calamity in recent years, blew apart.

The Red Sox romped in the eighth, scored a winning run in the ninth, and had gotten a bitterly offered, and consummately important, gift from Detroit. Not many days later, Boston had won a world championship the Tigers had every right and reasonable expectation to have instead owned.

Had the Tigers won that game — fair-minded fans and doubters can argue otherwise — they could have handed Ilitch his Holy Grail. Tigers history as it has since been known might have been altered heavily and for the better.

But a baseball world championship is the single possession an owner has most wanted in his life as a for-the-ages Detroit pro sports owner.

When his championship was lost that year, as it had been in two previous World Series bids, Ilitch doubled down on his Tigers investment.

Contracts were extended. Spending continued. Draft picks and leanings toward younger, fresher talent were postponed.

It left the Tigers, practically speaking, with a last-gasp shot in 2016 at winning for Ilitch his grand prize.

It hasn’t gone well, this 2016 attempt. Time is still on the Tigers’ side. Mathematically, anyway.

But time and age and math are just as much revealing a different, less cheerful story for Ilitch and for the Tigers.

They perhaps have gone as far as the past decade’s thrills, near-misses, and spending have permitted.

It might now be time to assess what has created a stressed baseball team. And what might begin a new era of competitiveness and entertainment for a town so devoted to the Detroit Tigers.