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Detroit — The day J.D. Martinez was traded was the symbolic beginning of end of the Tigers’ 2017 season. The subsequent trade of Justin Wilson and Alex Avila signaled the start of the club’s rebuilding phase.
“I think people in the game saw this coming,” said manager Brad Ausmus, whose tenure ended with a horrific 6-24 month of September. “But I think it hit a little hard this year. I don’t know if it hit sooner than expected, but it hit hard.”
General manager Al Avila did his level best, going back to the winter of 2016, to make it a more gradual process. But a new collective bargaining agreement with harsher competitive balance rules put a greater premium on prospects and development — so Avila found it nearly impossible to get a fair return on his expensive veteran players.
So, he gave this core of players — Martinez, Verlander, Upton, Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, Francisco Rodriguez, etc. — one more run, albeit a short one. The first story line of the season was that this team had maybe until the trade deadline to prove worthy of being kept together. If they weren’t in contention in July, a full sell-off was coming.
They were never in contention. Nothing ever came together. Injuries, under-performing veterans, young arms not quite ready to hold down a rotation spot, and a buzzard’s luck (they led the major leagues in barreled balls for outs, per StatCast) — all conspired to send the Tigers careening down a steep mountain for six months.
Not a single winning month.
But out of the wreckage may come the foundation for the next competitive run. The payroll has been significantly whittled — as much as $189 million could come off the books if the Tigers move Kinsler and Jose Iglesias this off-season.
Two players who will need to step into the leadership circle moving forward — catcher James McCann and right fielder Nick Castellanos — had productive seasons. Jeimer Candelario, one of the featured get-backs in the Wilson-Avila trade with the Cubs, played a full month at third base and looks to be a foundation piece.
Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris, two left-handed starters acquired in a 2015 trade deadline move (David Price), put another year of growing pains behind them and appear ready to be rotation mainstays.
And, outfielder Mikie Mahtook emerged as an energizing and productive component.
Perhaps more significant relative to the rebuild, though, is that Avila and his staff were able, at last, to rejuvenate the farm system. Between the trades and the draft, they added eight prospects who currently rank among the organization’s top 16.
There is a legitimate stable of highly regarded pitching prospects on the horizon, including No. 1 prospect Franklin Perez (acquired in the Verlander trade), Alex Faedo (No. 1 draft pick), Beau Burrows, Matt Manning, Gregory Soto and Kyle Funkhouser.
And, by finishing with 98 losses and the worst record in baseball, they will have the No. 1 overall pick in the next draft.
“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.”
So best to just wash off the stench and close the book on 2017. There were certainly moments that won’t soon be forgotten — the brawl with the Yankees, the horrific line drive that struck Jeff Ferrell in the side of the head, the liner that broke Alex Wilson’s leg — but even the majority of those moments are negative.
Watching J.D. Martinez and Verlander do magical things to help the Diamondbacks and Astros get into the playoffs was bittersweet.
Happy moments? There were a few.
■ Boyd’s 8.2-inning no-hit bid was both brilliant and out of the blue.
■ Andrew Romine making history and playing all nine positions in the penultimate game of the season was a joyous and well-deserved moment.
■ Castellanos’ run — 26 home runs, 101 RBIs and 10 triples — was a feat last achieved in Detroit by Al Kaline in 1956.
■ Victor Martinez’s bunt single. It happened, look it up.
■ Stopping the Rangers 10-game winning streak in May with Avila, Cabrera and J.D. Martinez homering in consecutive first-inning at-bats.
■ Also in May, Cabrera’s walk-off home run to beat the Rays, breaking a 103-at-bat drought. It was one of the few highlights of his brutal season.
■ Watching Upton’s five-month offensive rampage, culminating with a two-run walk-off home run to beat the Twins 12-11 on Aug. 12 and a two-homer game against the Dodgers on Aug. 18.
— Watching Verlander every five days. Period.
Avila on Sunday provided the most fitting epitaph for this season.
“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.”