Bad company: Five worst Tigers teams in free-agent era

By Nolan Bianchi
Special to The Detroit News
Pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (0-7, 7.51) is the poster boy for the Tigers' travails this season.

The Detroit Tigers have lost more than 100 games on five occasions since free agency was introduced to Major League Baseball in 1976.

The 2019 Tigers (29-65) stand to join them at their current pace, entering Sunday’s series finale with the Toronto Blue Jays at Comerica Park.

Fivethirtyeight’s MLB prediction model has Detroit finishing 55-107. Of course, these models aren’t always right on the money, and there’s reason to believe — such as a 7-33 record in June and July — that the Tigers will challenge the 2003 squad, which finished 43-119.

Not to mention, the trade deadline is less than two weeks away. The Tigers are rumored to be shopping their most reliable starting pitcher in Matthew Boyd, All-Star closer Shane Greene and Nick Castellanos, who leads the team in OPS by a 59-point margin. As bad as things have been, they could get a lot worse.

In saying that, though, it’s worth pointing out that even though Detroit could be losing high-caliber talent over the next few weeks, they also could be getting back a handful of injured players — some of them younger guys still with a whole lot to play for — that might help right the ship and avoid being on the wrong side of history. Though, a crushing 12-1 series-opening home loss to Toronto on Friday night could indicate that the team has checked out entirely by now. 

The last few years of Tigers baseball have been rough, but in losing just 98 games in each of the last two seasons, they’ve yet to wade into the waters of a triple-digit-loss season. In preparation for what’s shaping up to be another historically disastrous campaign, let’s review all five of those seasons that the Tigers finished with more than 100 losses in the free-agency era. 

5. 1989 (59-103, 30 GB AL East)

Lou Whitaker

The good


►2B Lou Whitaker (.251/.361/.462, 28 HRs, 85 RBIs, 5.1 oWAR)


►LHP Frank Tanana (10-14, 3.58 ERA, 223.2 IP, 3.1 WAR)

The bad


►OF Ken Williams (.205/.269/.302, -0.8 oWAR)


►RHP Charles Hudson (1-5, 6.35 ERA, 66.2 IP, -1.0 WAR)

In 1989, the Tigers were a half-decade removed from the best season Detroit’s had since 1934. That squad, a beloved bunch if there ever was one, finished 104-58 and toppled the San Diego Padres in five games to capture the franchise’s most recent World Series title. 

But in the aftermath of that success, the Tigers failed to stay young. The average batter age in Detroit’s lineup in 1989 was 31, easily staving off Kansas City by a half-point to capture the claim of "league’s oldest team."

Some star power was left over from the World Series team — namely Whitaker and Hall-of-Famers Alan Trammell and Jack Morris — but outside of that, a messy assortment of journeymen ballplayers and unproven talent spelled disaster for a team looking to continue a streak of 12 consecutive winning seasons. 

Detroit finished fourth from last in runs scored, one spot above that in team batting average, and didn’t have a single hitter swing above .300 — though Keith Moreland came close at .299.

Still, what really did them in was wretched starting pitching. They finished dead last in runs against; not a single starting pitcher finished with a winning record and out of the group, only the 35-year-old Tanana kept his ERA below 4.00. Even Morris had his worst season in a Tigers uniform, going 6-14 with a 4.86 ERA.

Fun fact: Though this was just the first losing season for the Tigers in 12 years, it would be the first of four 100-loss seasons in a 14-year span that would ultimately sink the franchise to its lowest point.

4. 1975 (57-102, 37.5 GB AL East) 

Despite the Tigers' poor finish, Willie Horton hit 25 home runs with 92 RBIs in 1975.

The good


►C Bill Freehan (.246/.306/398, 14 HRs, 47 RBIs, 1.9 oWAR)

►DH Willie Horton (.275/.319/.421, 25 HRs, 92 RBIs, 0.0 oWAR)


►LHP Mickey Lolich (12-18, 3.78 ERA, 240.2 IP, 4.0 WAR)

►LHP John Hiller (14 SVs, 2.17 ERA, 70.2 IP, 3.0 WAR)

The bad


►1B Nate Colbert (.147/.231/.276, -1.2 oWAR)


►RHP Joe Coleman (10-18, 5.55 ERA, 201.0 IP, -0.3 WAR)

The 1975 Tigers, despite finishing with seven more losses than the second-worst team in the league that year, didn’t really have any hilariously terrible qualities about them.

They just weren’t a good baseball team. 

Hitting wasn’t even the team’s biggest offensive problem; drawing walks was. The team’s batting average hovered six spots ahead of MLB’s worst, but they only compiled 383 base on balls as a unit — 61 less than next-ranked St. Louis. Detroit’s ability to get runners across the plate suffered because of it, and despite finishing seventh in home runs, it ended that season with the league’s lowest on-base percentage and ranked second to last in runs per game. 

On the mound, it was more of the same: Lolich was a neck above the rest of Detroit’s rotation and Hiller led the bullpen. Otherwise, the Tigers’ pitching put together an impressively consistent, mediocre season. For reference: Of the seven pitchers to make starts for Detroit in 2019, five of them have an ERA higher than 5. In 1975, Coleman and the two tone-setters were the only Tigers hurlers with more than 50 innings pitched whose season ERA strayed from the range of 4.03-4.56. 

Fun fact: Horton in 1975 led the Tigers in nearly every batting category and was named the American League’s most outstanding designated hitter. As you may have noticed above, he somehow boasted an oWAR of 0.0. Baseball stats are weird sometimes.

3. 2002: 55-106 (39.0 GB AL Central

Tigers pitcher Jose Lima

The good


►OF Robert Fick (.270/.331/.433, 17 HRs, 63 RBIs, 46 BBs, 2.0 oWAR)


►RHP Jeff Weaver (6-8, 3.18 ERA, 121.2 IP, 2.7 WAR)

►CL Juan Acevedo (2.65 ERA, 28 SVs, 74.2 IP)

The bad


►3B Chris Truby (.199/.215/.282, -1.3 oWAR)


►RHP Jose Lima (4-6, 7.77 ERA, 68.1 IP, -1.3 WAR)

►RHP Adam Bernero (4-7, 6.20 ERA, 101.2 IP, -0.7 WAR)

Detroit fired sixth-year general manager Randy Smith after being outscored 40-12 in six consecutive losses to start the 2002 season. That move was followed up with five more defeats, pushing the Tigers to 0-11 at year’s start. Not ideal.

It did give life to the Dave Dombrowski era in Detroit, however, and the new boss made some notable moves early on in his tenure that would pay dividends down the road.

First, he selected three-time All-Star center fielder Curtis Granderson in the third round of the June draft. A month later, he shipped the 25-year-old Weaver, who’d gotten off to a hot start, to the Yankees in a three-time trade that landed them Jeremy Bonderman from Oakland. Bonderman would later go 1-0 with a 3.10 ERA in 20⅓ postseason innings pitched during the Tigers' run to the 2006 World Series.

Fun fact: Adding to his stellar start on the mound, in seven plate appearances, Weaver hit .286 with an RBI, giving him an oWAR rating of 0.1 as a Tiger that year. That’s higher than Craig Monroe and 1999 No. 3-overall pick, Eric Munson, who would each finish at -0.3.

2. 1996 (53-109, 39.0 GB AL East)

Tigers outfielder Bobby Higginson

The good


►LF Bobby Higginson (.320/.404/.577, 35 2Bs, 26 HRs, 81 RBIs, 3.9 oWAR)


►RHP Omar Olivares (7-11, 4.89 ERA, 160.0 IP, 3.6 WAR)

The bad


►DH Eddie Williams (.200/.267/.307 -1.5 oWAR)


►RHP Brian Williams (3-10, 6.77 ERA, 121.0 IP, -1.1 WAR)

The Tigers’ 4.83 runs per game in 1996 was good enough for 12th in all of baseball. And now you must be wondering: How bad, then, must their pitching have been for the team to lose 109 games? 

The Tigers had a team ERA of 6.38 and allowed 1,103 runs in a single season, both records in the American League, a 118-year-old entity. No other AL team has even surpassed 1,000 runs against or had a team ERA above 6.00 since 1939. 

So, pretty bad. 

Fun fact: You see how at the top of this section, Eddie Williams’ name and offensive stats are listed under the “At the bottom” category? You may have also noticed that the letters “DH” appear next to his name. That’s right: Despite having the lowest OPS (.574) and oWAR of any Tiger with more than 200 plate appearances that year, Williams played 52 games in the role of "man whose only job is offense." 

1. 2003 (43-119, 47.0 GB AL Central)

Tigers starting pitcher Jeremy Bonderman

The good


►DH Dmitri Young (.297/.372/.537, 34 2Bs, 7 3Bs, 29 HRs, 85 RBIs, 4.7 oWAR)


►RHP Nate Cornejo (6-17, 4.67 ERA, 194.2 IP, 1.5 WAR)

The bad


► C Matt Walbeck (.174/.197/.239, -0.8 oWAR)


►RHP Jeremy Bonderman (6-19, 5.56 ERA, 162.0 IP, -1.1 WAR)

►LHP Mike Maroth (9-21, 5.73 ERA, 193.1 IP, 0.2 WAR)

The 2003 Tigers’ pitching staff might not have given up as many runs (928) as the 1997 unit, but they still made plenty of embarrassing history.

Detroit’s winningest pitchers, Maroth, Bonderman and Cornejo, also led the league in losses — in that order. Left-handed reliever Jamie Walker was the only Tigers pitcher with more than 20 innings thrown to have an ERA (3.32) lower than Cornejo’s mark of 4.67. 

The offense’s production — or lack thereof — matched that of the year before, but there was a bit of a tradeoff in power and contact hitting. Their team batting average (.240) dropped eight points, but they hit 153 home runs, a decent spike after finishing dead last with 124 in 2002. Most of that can be attributed to Young setting a career-high in the category en route to the first All-Star Game of his career. 

One of the more interesting things to note about the run in which Detroit collected those four 100-loss seasons, the finale being a 119-loss fiasco, is that there was a spot in the middle where it looked like they were loading up on pieces to build around. And then, they just didn’t fit. The rebuild collapsed. Rock bottom wasn’t hit until the team’s 10th consecutive year below .500. 

That would also be 1997 No. 1-overall pick Matt Anderson’s last season with the franchise. He ran up a 5.24 ERA with Detroit in five seasons after keeping it at 3.27 over 44 innings pitched during his rookie year. 

For comparison purposes, imagine that after collecting myriad top-10 picks like the Tigers have been over the last few seasons, they continued their losing ways until 2025, where they finish with 106 losses. And then in 2026, set the AL record for losses in a season, the year Casey Mize’s underwhelming Tigers’ career comes to an end. 

So yes, things really could get worse. 

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.