Minneapolis — And on the final day, it rained.
Doubt there could’ve been a more fitting backdrop for the end of a bleak season than dark gray skies and intermittent rain.
The Tigers ended their worst season since 2003 with a 5-1 loss to the playoff-bound Twins Sunday. The sliver of light, though, was they will have, for the first time since 1997, the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft.
Manager Brad Ausmus, who will leave after four seasons, was asked to write an epitaph for the 64-98 season.
“Not great,” he deadpanned. “You lose 90-some games, upper 90s, it wasn’t great. It was a combination of factors. Some guys had down years. There were injuries and then once we started trading guys, once it became a full-scale rebuild, then we were just very inexperienced, especially from a pitching standpoint.”
Ausmus said he knew this down cycle was inevitable as far back as 2015. But still, the suddenness of the crash was alarming.
“I walked in with (coach) Matt Martin today and I told him, this doesn’t shock me,” Ausmus said. “I think people in the game saw this coming. But I think it hit a little hard this year. I don’t know if it hit sooner than expected, but it hit hard.”
The Tigers were indeed hit with a confluence of negative factors.
Miguel Cabrera strained his back in February and it would plague him all year. J.D. Martinez was injured late in spring training and was out until May 12. Father Time decided this was the year he would catch up to closer Francisco Rodriguez — who lost his closer’s job on May 9 and was released June 23.
Designated hitter Victor Martinez, in the middle of an unproductive season, suffered an irregular heartbeat, which ultimately required an ablation procedure. His season was over at the beginning of September.
Reigning rookie of the year Michael Fulmer was shut down after ulnar nerve transposition surgery. Reliever Alex Wilson had his under-performing season ended last week when a line drive broke his leg.
James McCann, Jose Iglesias, Daniel Norris, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Kinsler, Mikie Mahtook and Anibal Sanchez all spent time on the disabled list, as well.
Sanchez, Norris and Matthew Boyd endured demotions to Triple-A.
Kinsler, by his standards, underperformed, hitting .236.
“It seemed like it was one thing or another,” said Alex Presley, who became a regular in the Tigers outfield after Martinez and Upton were traded. “It seemed like it was never all together. It felt like we were never really ever at full strength.”
Then the decision was made to start stripping parts and preparing for the inevitable — not a retooling, not a partial rebuild, but a full-scale rebuilding project. J.D. Martinez was traded on July 18, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila on July 31. Then, on Aug. 31, Justin Upton and Justin Verlander were traded.
The Tigers, who never experienced a winning month this season, went 6-24 in the final month (17-41 since Aug.1).
“It’s a really sad feeling,” general manager Al Avila said before the finale Sunday. “I’ve been here for a long time and I’ve enjoyed the fruits of playoffs and good season, and certain attachments to players. It’s a bad feeling.
“But you have to snap out of it and move forward. We are at that point right now.”
The record books will judge this Tigers season by the 98 losses. Organizationally, though, it will be viewed as a strong first step toward building the next wave of contending teams. Especially with the chance to draft a franchise-type talent next spring.
“It’s almost like a death,” Avila said. “You mourn, then you come out of it. Now you are ready to live again. That’s an exaggeration, but it’s kind of like that. For myself, my staff and our scouts, we’re very excited about a brand-new opportunity to revive this organization.”
To this point, the Tigers could shed close to $189 million in future payroll. The trades of Upton and Verlander lopped $147 million off the books. Another $14 million is coming off the books in salary paid to Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe. They are expected to buy out their option on Anibal Sanchez, who took the loss Sunday, which will save $11 million.
If Kinsler and Jose Iglesias are traded in the off-season, which is likely, that’s another $17 million gone.
And the trades put some meat on the bones of what had been a skeletal minor league system. Between the trades and the draft, the Tigers added eight prospects who currently rank among the organization’s top 16, including No. 1 prospect Franklin Perez, who they got in the Verlander trade.
“From the trade deadline on, it’s been very productive as far as restocking the farm system,” Avila said. “That, with the changes we’ve made moving forward, it’s been very productive. It’s been a pretty good jump start, to tell you the truth.
“I wish we were at the end already, but I think we are on a good path.”
By the end of the season, eight players made their big-league debuts this season (Victor Alcantara, Chad Bell, Myles Jaye, Joe Jimenez, Jairo Labourt, Arcenio Leon, Artie Lewicki and Zac Reininger).
“It’s been a nightmare, but we’ve got to learn from this,” said Cabrera, who played his last game on Sept. 23 and produced career-lows in average, home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. “After this season, we have to sit back and think about it and learn. See what I do bad and what I can do better to have a better season next year.”
It’s not likely to be much better next year. Cabrera and Martinez will come into camp next season as question marks because of their health and age. There is a chance the Tigers might buy out the final year of Martinez’s contract ($18 million).
“The guys that are in this clubhouse are obviously good enough to play in the big leagues and they learned that they can play at this level,” Kinsler said. “Hopefully they can gain from this experience this year and have something to draw from going into next year.
“And the veterans learned that this game isn’t easy. You have to be prepared every day and you have to be ready to win every day.”
If Kinsler is traded, McCann and Nick Castellanos would likely be added to the leadership circle that includes Cabrera, Fulmer and Wilson.
“For sure it’s been rough,” said Castellanos, whose 26-home run, 101-RBI season was a highlight. “But everybody here is going through the process of finding themselves and figuring out what works for them to be a big-league player. It’s difficult, especially when you have a lot of guys trying to do that at the same time.”
The new manager will inherit a young and thinned-out roster.
The rotation for next season, as it stands now, will likely be Fulmer, Zimmermann, Boyd and Norris. Avila has indicated the club could search for a marginally-priced veteran starter, as well.
If Iglesias is moved, Dixon Machado would likely move to shortstop. Jeimer Candelario will have the inside track on the third base job.
Second base would be an open competition.
Castellanos will likely remain in right field. Mahtook and JaCoby Jones should also factor into the outfield equation.
The Tigers will have to make a decision on Presley, who hit his third home run of the season Sunday and finished the season hitting .314. He has a minor-league option left. The Tigers could release him and try to sign him back on a minor-league deal.
But with his production this season, he may draw interest from other teams.
As for Ausmus, he said he is leaving with no regrets.
“I’m not relieved by it, I’m not happy about it and I’m not unhappy about it,” he said. “It just feels like the last game.”