Sure, if you take just a quick, cursory glance, you’ll see that two of baseball’s wild-card winners for 2017 are the Minnesota Twins and Arizona Diamondbacks, and wonder just how they came so far, so quickly.
In 2016, the Twins finished in last place in the American League Central, losing 103 games — their most since 1949, when they were the Washington Senators — while the Diamondbacks finished in fourth place in the National League West, losing 93 games.
And this year, they’re in the postseason, the Twins having gone 85-77 to earn a wild-card bid and a one-game playoff at the New York Yankees on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks were 93-69, the reverse from a year ago, and will host the Colorado Rockies in a one-game playoff Wednesday night.
So if they can do it — ghastly to glory, seemingly in one calendar year — then why can’t the 2018 Tigers?
Simple. The process for the Twins and Diamondbacks has been a lot longer and a lot more painful than meets the eye. It wasn’t just one magical offseason of pushing all the right buttons that got these teams back to the postseason, even if just for one night. The respective rebuilds started years ago, shortly after each made the playoffs for the last time, the Twins in 2010, the Diamondbacks in 2011.
For the Twins, they’re on their third general manager (not including an interim) and second manager since last making the playoffs, while the Diamondbacks are on their third general manager and third manager since last making the playoffs. Kirk Gibson was their manager the last time they got there.
The Tigers now are the ones in full-rebuild mode — a process that actually began in the summer of 2015, with the trades of David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria, and continued two summers later with the trades of Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila — after last getting to the postseason in 2014.
And while Tigers GM Al Avila received some positive reviews for the prospect hauls following the summer selloff, the franchise’s resurgence almost certainly is going to require a whole lot of patience, from fans and ownership. The Twins and Diamondbacks can tell you that.
The Twins and Diamondbacks have hired new GMs within the last year. The Twins hired Thad Levine, after Terry Ryan’s second tenure came crashing down. The Diamondbacks hired Mike Hazen — after pulling the plug on the oft-panned Dave Stewart-Tony La Russa experiment — and he hired a new manager, one-time Tigers prospect Torey Lovullo.
So, again, the optics would suggest, shake things up, snap your fingers, and bam, everything’s fixed.
The Twins won six AL Central titles from 2002-10, but even toward the latter stage of that run the seeds were being planted for today’s turnaround — a turnaround boosted by great drafting and international scouting. Among their impact offensive players, several were draft picks, and not all that recent: Brian Dozier, eighth round, 2009; Eddie Rosario, fourth round, 2010; Byron Buxton, first round, 2012; Kyle Gibson, first round 2009; and Jose Berrios, first round, 2012. And that doesn’t include longtime Twin Joe Mauer.
Then there’s the international free agents, all signed in 2009: Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler and Kennys Vargas.
Trades netted the Twins very little of their current, playoff-bound crop, and major-league free agents include Jason Castro (this year) and Ervin Santana (three years ago), among a couple others.
The Diamondbacks did most of their rebuilding through trades, like Brandon Drury (Braves, 2013), Ketel Marte (Marlins, 2016), Patrick Corbin (Angels, 2010), Robbie Ray (Tigers, 2014), Taijuan Walker (Mariners, 2016), Zack Godley (Cubs, 2014) — moves that, to some extent, put Kevin Towers and his successor, Stewart, in a much better light. They also drafted well: Paul Goldschmidt (eighth round, 2009), Jake Lamb (sixth round, 2012), A.J. Pollock (1st round, 2009), Archie Bradley (first round, 2011).
And, then, when it came time to spend, the Diamondbacks did just that, shelling out $206 million on ace Zack Greinke and a collection of prospects this summer for rental slugger J.D. Martinez, as well as the shrewd free-agent signings of Chris Iannetta and well-traveled closer Fernando Rodney.
Slightly different routes, the Diamondbacks and Twins have taken. The Diamondbacks have spent more over the years, the Twins simply can’t afford that. But they do have two things in common: Stellar scouting, patience. Just look at how long ago some of those players were drafted, or acquired via trade.
Setting sights on 2021
The Tigers of 2006 make for a much better comparison to the Diamondbacks and Twins of 2017. Those Tigers certainly caught everyone by surprise, but that success — from 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series in 2006 — hardly happened overnight. Detroit endured 12 straight losing seasons, and gobs of managers and executives, before finally busting through in what happened to be Jim Leyland’s first year on the job.
That road back to respectability included a lot of trading (including unpopular deals), a lot of gutting the farm system — and, finally, some significant free-agent acquisitions, once owner Mike Ilitch became convinced Dave Dombrowski and Co. were on track, and getting close to building that winner.
That’s not to say the Tigers are now where they were in 1989. Not even close. It won’t take a dozen years for the Tigers to have another winner; it probably won’t even take five. But it’s still going to take some time.
There are solid building blocks on the major-league roster, including Michael Fulmer, James McCann, Nick Castellanos, Shane Greene, etc. There are solid prospects acquired in the summer trades, including infielders Jeimer Candelario (Cubs, for Wilson and Avila) and Dawel Lugo (Diamondbacks, for Martinez), and right-hander Franklin Perez (Astros, for Verlander). But only Candelario is clearly ready to be a major-leaguer, as he proved, and with authority, during his September call-up. Lugo is probably a year away, and Perez, just 19, several years away.
The Tigers’ farm system has several other players of note, particularly on the pitching side. Most were acquired through the draft, but they’re not close either — including Beau Burrows (first round, 2015), Matt Manning (first round, 2016) and Alex Faedo (first round, 2017), as well as Kyle Funkhouser (fourth round, 2016). Outfielders Christin Stewart (first round, 2015) and Mike Gerber (15th round, 2014) are closer, but still need seasoning.
The next Tigers manager, replacing Brad Ausmus, will have his share of challenges, to be sure. And he’s quite a long shot to see through the rebuilding process from beginning — possibly 100 losses in 2018 — to end — the postesason.
The best bet on Detroit’s return to the playoffs is 2020, which would be a five-year drought (like the 2017 Diamondbacks) or, more likely 2021, which would be a six-year skid (like the 2017 Twins).
Record: 59-103, last in AL Central
Team BA / HR: .251 / 200
Team ERA / WHIP: 5.08 / 1.45
Record: 85-77, second in AL Central
Team BA / HR: .260 / 206
Team ERA / WHIP: 4.59 / 1.37
Record: 69-93, fourth in NL West
Team BA / HR: .261 / 190
Team ERA / WHIP: 5.09 / 1.49
Record: 93-69, second in NL West
Team BA / HR: .254 / 220
Team ERA / WHIP: 3.66 / 1.27