Could these Tigers be baseball's worst team ever?

Injuries in the depths of a rebuild sink the 2019 Detroit club to historic depths

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Detroit – Five years after he retires, Miguel Cabrera will almost certainly be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.

It seems almost hard to believe, then, that a two-time Most Valuable Player and the last player to hit for the Triple Crown, who at age 36 is chasing 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, might be part of the worst team in the modern history of the game.

“It’s hard,” Cabrera said. “You don’t want to lose that many games, so you’ve got to step it up, try to play better and win more games.”

Viewed through a narrow lens, this season is irredeemable. The Tigers went into play Friday with a 34-78 record, threatening to equal or better their own American League futility mark of 119 losses set in 2003.

They have been outscored this year by more than 200 runs so far, for a minus-218 differential. In this millennium, only nine teams finished the season with a worse margin, one of them being the '03 team, which was a gruesome minus-337, a differential worse even than the 1962 Mets. That team (minus-331) lost a Major League-record 120 games.

The Tigers need to win 10 of the final 50 games to avoid 119 losses.

They are 6-21 since the All-Star break, 12-46 since June 1 and rank last or next to last in the Major Leagues in every significant offensive category. And given that the last month and a half of the season will essentially be used as open tryouts for 2020 roster spots -- well, those 10 wins feel a long way off.

“Obviously, we don’t want to lose and obviously we don’t enjoy any of the losing,” said Tigers catcher-first baseman John Hicks. “You expect to be asked about it but it’s like beating a dead horse. You are going to get the same answers over and over.

“I bet you can ask anyone in here, we don’t know how many losses we have. We go out every night and try to win. We’re not trying to get toward any record, we’re just trying to win ballgames.”

Going off the rails

If you widen the lens a little bit, it’s obvious how this season got so far off the rails.

Last offseason, general manager Al Avila, going into the second full year of the rebuild, signed four veteran free agents – starting pitchers Matt Moore and Tyson Ross, shortstop Jordy Mercer and second baseman Josh Harrison.

All four of those players have spent most of the season on the injured list. Moore made two starts and Ross seven. Mercer and Harrison, the Pirates' long-time double-play duo, played just 19 games together for the Tigers.

On top of that, starting pitcher and former Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer didn't make it out of spring training before needing surgery on his throwing arm. Veteran starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann missed more than two months, as well, leaving the club without four-fifths of its expected starting rotation for a large chunk of the season.

The Tigers weren’t ever going to be a great team. It was a collection of bargain-bin free agents, aging veterans, minor-league free agents and waiver claims, and young players cutting their teeth at the big-league level.

That is what the early stages of a major rebuilding process typically look like. The organizational goal for 2019 was to sort out how many, if any, of these players fit into the plans going forward.

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“When you are rebuilding, and this is the second year, you’re not expecting to have a great record,” Avila said. “Obviously, you are trying to win every game you can. But this isn’t a setback. The amount of losses you have in a season isn’t a deterrent to our continuing efforts to build moving forward.”

Still, when they left spring training and won seven of their first 10 games in April, they didn’t look historically bad. But, having used 12 different starting pitchers, 21 different relief pitchers (not including utility man Brandon Dixon, who has pitched two innings) and 21 different position players, it’s trending that way.

“I see some progress, but it’s hard when you lose too many guys,” said Cabrera, who has been relegated to full-time designated hitter because of chronic pain in his right knee. “We lost so many starting pitchers and we’re trying to see young guys. We’ve been bringing guys up and down all year from the minor leagues trying to see who’s ready and who’s not ready.

“It makes it hard. But you’ve got to go out there like a man and take it.”

Since trading Nick Castellanos to the Cubs minutes before the July 31 trade deadline, Cabrera and Mercer have been the only veteran hitters in the Tigers’ regular lineup. In the first game of the doubleheader against the White Sox on Tuesday, they did not have a single established big-league player in the lineup, six of the nine began the season in Triple-A.

“The last couple of months aren’t what anybody was looking for,” said Hall-of-Famer Alan Trammell, who managed the 2003 Tigers and is now a special assistant to Avila. “But I’m looking at JaCoby Jones and Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, Jake Rogers. Going back to 2003, we had Craig Monroe, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Brandon Inge – guys who a couple years later contributed on a World Series team (2006).

“There’s silver linings in some of this. That’s how this thing works. As painful as it is, it’s just part of baseball. It’s part of the growing pains that we and everybody else goes through.”

Deconstruction complete

Open the lens even wider and what you see isn’t so much the reconstruction of a baseball team, but the final stages of deconstruction. It’s taken Avila two-plus years to clear out the remains of the failed 10-year run at a World Series championship.

Avila started with a bloated payroll ($212 million at the end of 2016), a roster full of aging players and a depleted farm system.

The payroll right now is about $118 million in total allocations and just $61 million in guaranteed money for 2020. 

“At the end, when you start seeing it all come together, you can see the light,” he said on July 5, after he was given a multi-year contract extension. “But right now, in the middle, it's like the darkest hour. That's what we're going through right now."

Every rebuilding team has a crater year in which it hits bottom. The Astros lost 100-plus games three years in a row – 106 in 2011, 107 in 2012 and 111 in 2013. 

"If you go back and read some of the tweets on some of the Houston Chronicle timelines, you will go, 'Whoa, those didn't age well,'" said Richard Justice, Houston-based columnist for MLB.com. "Basically it was all, 'They don't know what they're doing,' or 'They have no commitment to winning.' At the worst of times, I am sure it was no better than it is (in Detroit). The ballpark was empty and the newspapers were all over them."

Four years later they won 100 games and were world champions.

The Cubs went through the same process -- losing 101 games in 2012 then to the playoffs in 2015. They won the World Series in 2016.

The Tigers can hope that this is their crater year. In trading Castellanos, the Tigers moved the last available piece of the old furniture – other than Cabrera and Zimmermann. 

“It’s no excuse, but we’re in the second year of a rebuild, and like all teams, we were faced with a lot of injuries,” said Tigers assistant general manager David Chadd. “But it’s hard to recover when you are playing your prospects in Triple-A and Double-A and they’re not ready for the big leagues.”

Two-year talent gap

And there is the crux of the problem, why the Tigers’ crater might be historically deep.

They got stuck with a two-year talent lag in their farm system. Their best prospects in 2019 are either in Class A (West Michigan and Lakeland) or Double-A (Erie), including eight of their top 10 as ranked by MLB.com. The top minor league level before the big leagues is Triple-A, a level many top prospects have not yet reached.

Top pitching prospects like Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo are still at least a year away from the big leagues. Top hitting prospects like Isaac Paredes, Riley Greene, Kody Clemens, Brock Deatherage, Winceel Perez and Parker Meadows are thought to be at least two years away.

How did that happen? A quick history lesson.

In 2005 they lost a second-round pick as compensation for signing free-agent reliever Troy Percival, who pitched in just 26 games for the Tigers. From 2010-12 they gave up first-round picks in compensation for signing closer Jose Valverde, designated hitter Victor Martinez and first baseman Prince Fielder.

Those moves were made by then-general manager Dave Dombrowski, with Avila his top lieutenant, when the mandate of late owner Mike Ilitch was to win a championship.

But the toll for that is being exacted now. Had those picks netted an outfielder and a starting pitcher, the Tigers may not have had to pay out $254 million to sign Justin Upton and Zimmermann before the 2016 season.

“There absolutely is a domino factor there,” Chadd said. “It’s a proven fact the lower you pick the percentage of players who get to the big leagues goes way down. Our first pick in 2010 was Nick Castellanos at 44 and our first four picks (Chance Ruffin, Drew Smyly and Rob Brantly) all made it to the big leagues.

“Our first pick in 2011 was James McCann at 76 and he was an All-Star this year (with the Chicago White Sox). Those years we didn’t have a pick there, I’d like to think we’d get something out of that would have benefited our big-league club.”

Trades made during those title runs also contributed to the two-year lag. It’s conceivable the Tigers dealt away what might’ve been their starting left side of infield this season – Eugenio Suarez, an All-Star with the Reds who in the last four seasons has produced 111 home runs and 328 RBIs, and Willy Adames, starting shortstop for the Rays who has 15 home runs in his first full season.

The Tigers have traded 35 draft picks since 2005.

They’ve had some damaging misses in the draft and international signings, too, particularly with position players, which also contributed to the lag: Wade Gaynor, Daniel Fields, Aaron Westlake, Tyler Collins, Dean Green, Austin Schotts, Steven Moya, Dixon Machado – to name just a few.   

“We always think that it’s going to be a steady climb each and every year,” Trammell said. “That’s not how it works always. There’s going to be more bumps in the road along the way. We want to think every one of these young kids is going to make it, that everyone’s progression is going to be the same and it’s just going to take off.

“It just doesn’t work that way. ... We just have to weather this thing and stay the course and some of these guys will emerge and be really good Major League players that Tigers fans are going to love to watch.”

Help on the way? 

With the tearing down of the previous contender nearly complete, the actual rebuild starts now. The Tigers are starting with a stripped-down payroll and sixth-best farm system in baseball, according to MLB.com. Just three years ago, the Tigers system was ranked dead last.

“One thing I know for sure,” Avila said. “I know across this industry, everyone is looking at that club in Erie. That’s an impressive group and I think that’s going to be a big boost moving forward.”

Mize, Manning, Faedo, Skubal and Joey Wentz, acquired from the Braves for Shane Greene, comprise an elite group of pitching prospects. And there is depth behind them, as well. But when you study other successful rebuilds, namely the Cubs and Astros, they built on a foundation of hitters.

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo; George Springer and Carlos Correa. The Tigers are tacking their hopes on a stable of pitchers, which, with the attrition rate for pitchers, isn’t the sturdiest nail.

Do the Tigers have a Bryant-Rizzo combination in their system? It’s hard to tell.

Their first round pick last June, Riley Greene, has that kind of promise. He made his debut at West Michigan on Thursday with three hits including an inside-the-park home run. 

They signed a 17-year-old Cuban-born slugger named Roberto Campos for $3 million. Even though he won’t be able to come to the United States until next year, he's already ranked No. 25 in the Tigers’ system.

And, with the Tigers barreling toward another No. 1 draft pick, they could end up with top hitting prospects Spencer Torkelson (Arizona State) or Blaze Jordan (high school, Mississippi).

Clemens leads the Florida State League in extra base hits. Deatherage leads in stolen bases. Of the three players the Tigers acquired from Houston for Justin Verlander, Rogers is already the regular catcher and outfielder Daz Cameron is expected to debut with the Tigers in September.

On top of that, they are slowly but surely gathering the means to acquire one or two proven hitters when they get close to contention, possibly as soon as 2021 or 2022. They will have the payroll flexibility and, conceivably, plenty of prospects, especially pitchers, to throw into potential trades.  

“I don’t know how quickly the turnaround is going to be,” Trammell said. “We all want it as quick as possible, believe me. But we know we have a great fan base and I know the diehards are going to weather this.”

It’s pitch-black now and the forecast is for more of the same in 2020. But, in the words of Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, sometimes you need to keep kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.

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