Bob Wojnowski, Lynn Henning and Chris McCosky wrap up the season for the 2018 Detroit Tigers. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
Detroit — It certainly had its moments, and it was a heck of a lot of fun during that run of four straight Central Division titles. But, truth be told, it never really made a lot of sense. It was incongruous, somehow.
The Detroit Tigers, a team built to slug, playing 81 games a year in one of the most slugger-proof stadiums in the league. It was illogical. And even though the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, and Prince Fielder could at times make the park seem small, it proved unsustainable.
The Tigers never hit 200 home runs in a season through that run (2011-2014), they never led the American League, let alone the major leagues, in home runs. The best they finished in the majors was tied for seventh, in 2013 and 2014.
And, oh by the way, for all the money they spent on sluggers, they never won a World Series championship. When the home runs weren’t flying, the Tigers often struggled to score. They weren’t built for manufacturing runs.
“This is a big ballpark,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It’s not conducive to home runs, unless you are a really big shooter. But there is a lot of room out there for doubles and triples. A single up the middle can turn into a double if you are running out of the box.”
Gardenhire loved bringing in his Minnesota Twins teams into spacious Comerica Park. His lineup featured a bunch of aggressive hitters more than willing to take an extra base on a single up the middle — Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett, even Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer.
“The teams I had there had to play like that,” Gardenhire said. “When I came here with the Twins, we liked hitting here because it played more to our team. Speed is a factor in this ballpark. I am not saying you don’t like power, but speed can play here.
“It’s a thought process I am going to keep in mind here when we are talking about players we are looking at.”
Gardenhire inherited a Tigers team this year with very little speed, no prototypical lead-off hitter and, once Cabrera was lost to injury, no real power. He was shocked to see teams shifting on non-power threats like Dixon Machado, James McCann and Jose Iglesias.
He saw Leonys Martin, Machado and McCann all have their offensive production severely hampered by trying to increase the launch angle on their swings in a misbegotten attempt to hit more home runs.
He’s not asking the Tigers to change their DNA, just maybe incorporate some small ball into their curriculum.
“When you are looking at a baseball player, you ask yourself, how can he help your team at the major-league level when you are drafting a guy,” Gardenhire said. “I like that speed game. I think it’s a fun game to watch.”
JaCoby Jones, Niko Goodrum, Victor Reyes and Mikie Mahtook fit the style of play Gardenhire wants to be able to play at Comerica Park — though all four had inconsistent offensive seasons. Jones, truth be told, has the ideal skill-set Gardenhire is looking for — speed, great athletic instincts both in the field and on the bases.
But, as general manager Al Avila forthrightly pointed out, the club can’t abide their everyday center fielder hitting .207 and striking out 30 percent of his plate appearances.
“We really like JaCoby Jones and his defense and his base running,” Avila said. “He’s an exciting player. But you can’t have a lineup full of .200 hitters, which is what we have right now. And believe me, everybody in that clubhouse knows you can’t win with a lineup full of .200 hitters.”
Both Avila and Gardenhire recognize that if Jones can figure it out at the plate, it would greatly hasten the club’s rebuilding process.
“We have to be careful and not fall in love with every player, because we have to make some tough decisions,” Avila said. “Now, in saying that, we do like him. He’s still young, he’s still under control, and there’s still an opportunity for him to get better.
“There are certain things that he struggles with, either plate discipline or pitch recognition, and we’re determined to get him better. We’re determined to get it out of him and we still have a little time to find out if he can do it. I’m hoping that he does, because if he does then really, it saves us a lot of headaches.”
Gradually, too, the Tigers recently have started to stock their farm system with more speedy, athletic, Comerica Park-friendly players. Outfielders Jacob Robson (Triple A last season), Cam Gibson (Double A), Troy Montgomery (Double A) and Danny Woodrow (Double A) certainly fit that mold.
Also in that mold are infielders Willi Castro and Sergio Alcantara and, still in the lower levels, Jose King.
Slowly but surely, the thought process is changing.
“I know everybody talks power and everybody is looking for power,” Gardenhire said. “And I am not saying we’re going to draft these speed guys when there is a home-run hitter there who has a chance to be a 40-home run hitter.
“But speed does play, too. That should be part of our process, too.”