The Tigers went from a tie atop the American League Central in 2009, to a .500 season last year, to the type of runaway finish this September that the club hasn't seen since 1984. It didn't simply happen by accident.
Some of the reasons for Detroit's rise were a matter of good fortune. Just as injuries to Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge sank the Tigers in late July 2010, the health of the team played a big role down the stretch. The disabled lists in Cleveland and Minnesota made Detroit's injured ranks look scant by comparison. And every team wishes it had an ace like Justin Verlander, the way he has pitched this year. Verlander has always pushed himself, rather than having the team push him.
But take out those factors, and the Tigers made a slew of decisions that put the pieces in place for their dominant finish. As wheeling and dealing goes, it might be the best 12 months of Dave Dombrowski's tenure in Detroit, if not the best of his professional career.
"We made some moves this year, and up to this point, they've worked terrific," manager Jim Leyland said. "You never know how that stuff's going to play out. Sometimes it works out good. Sometimes it doesn't. It's that way with all clubs. There's no slam dunks. That's just the way it works. You think you know what you're getting for sure, but you never really know for sure until you get them."
As for lineup considerations and batting orders, it wasn't always easy for Leyland, but a few key moves yielded big results and some vindication for him in the face of summer second-guessing. The success earned both Leyland and Dombrowski contract extensions.
Add the moves and choices to some other factors, and you can come up with at least 10 reasons why the Tigers are celebrating long-awaited success. Here's a short list:
Verlander's remarkable season: No decision here on the Tigers' part; they were just along for the ride. But when Verlander went into Spring Training focused on changing his early-season fortunes with a regimented, intense program, he put himself in position for one of the most dominant seasons by a pitcher in the past 10 to 15 years. Whether it warrants the AL MVP Award is irrelevant to this discussion; without Verlander, Detroit isn't here.
Teammate Brad Penny said near the end of camp that Verlander might have had the best Spring Training he has ever seen from a pitcher. The work Verlander put in on all his pitches, the focus to avoid simply getting his work in, resulted in three, sometimes four, nasty pitches at his disposal. Verlander's ability to deliver a strong, often dominant outing almost every start kept the Tigers out of major losing streaks.
Put it this way: Recall how formidable a Tigers series against the Twins felt with Johan Santana on the mound for Minnesota back in the middle of the last decade. That's what opponents feel now when Detroit comes around on the schedule.
Signing Victor Martinez in offseason: Last winter's star-studded free-agent class featured Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth and Adam Dunn. All of them were paid nicely. None of them had as much of an impact on a team as Martinez, whom the Tigers targeted from the outset of the Hot Stove season. His veteran bat and clutch hitting bolstered Detroit's lineup, especially the gaping void of protection behind Miguel Cabrera in the batting order. Martinez's leadership bolstered Detroit's clubhouse. He was the one proven winner among the top group on the market, and the Tigers are finding out why.
"I think he's probably one of the most contributing factors as to why we're at where we're at right now," Verlander said. "And that's not to discount what everybody else has done. But the way he fits into what we had has just been kind of like that missing puzzle piece."
Offensively, Martinez has made opponents pay for pitching around Cabrera. His influence goes virtually everywhere else.
Putting Alex Avila behind the plate: The instinctive reaction among Tigers fans once Martinez signed was that he would end up behind the plate for a lot of his Detroit tenure. If it didn't happen at season's outset, it was bound to happen eventually once Avila fell into a slump. Thus, while Avila went into Spring Training with the bulk of the catching duties, he seemingly went in with footsteps behind him.
Nobody's hearing footsteps anymore. Avila says he never did. Leyland and others assured him it was his job, and they were sticking with him. Avila's performance since has rewarded their belief, with interest. The first-year starter almost instantly blossomed into one of baseball's best backstops, both at the plate and behind it.
Re-signing Jhonny Peralta: Unlike the more heralded moves the Tigers made this summer, getting Peralta at the Trade Deadline last year was a more subtle move. But Detroit officials saw the chance for more than just a late-season fill-in bat when they acquired him. Their willingness to shift Peralta to shortstop once Inge returned last August was the first step; their aggressiveness to re-sign him to a two-year deal before he could hit the open market was the next.
Tigers officials believed they could make Peralta work at short if they had good defense around him. They couldn't have anticipated an All-Star season from him. While Peralta has regained some lost range as the season has unfolded with help from infield coach Rafael Belliard, his offense has helped Detroit regain the production it lost when the club moved Guillen away from shortstop four years ago. Peralta leads AL shortstops in OPS, and it isn't even close.
Teaming up Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit for the late innings: The Tigers remember well how the Twins commanded games in the late innings years ago with Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero and Joe Nathan in the bullpen. It took them a while, but they've built that same factor now around Valverde and Benoit. Valverde was their free-agent splash before last season, but this was the year Detroit truly felt his value, as he set a team record in saves and compiled the second-longest single-season save streak in history.
Dombrowski had never spent big on a setup man until this winter, when he stopped waiting for a healthy Joel Zumaya and took a shot on a three-year deal with Benoit. After a rough opening month, Benoit has quietly settled in to become an eighth-inning force for his new club. The numbers aren't the same as his ridiculously low stats from 2010, but the impact on a playoff team is the same.
Trading for Doug Fister: No trade this summer has yielded better results or made a bigger impact on the playoff picture than the July 30 deal that was supposed to provide rotation depth. The Tigers thought they were getting a contact pitcher who could be a middle-of-the-rotation or back-end starter. Instead, Fister has been Detroit's best starter not named Verlander, turning a sharp breaking ball into high-strikeout performances that have left jaws dropping across the AL.
The deal for Fister was announced hours before second-place Cleveland made a higher-profile swap for Ubaldo Jimenez. In some ways, it ended up a defining point in the division race. While Jimenez struggled against Detroit, Fister became a Tribe nemesis the first time he saw them while wearing a Tigers uniform.
The Tigers went 4-16 in starts from their fifth starter before Fister arrived. They won five of their next six starts after they got him.
Trading for Delmon Young: The Tigers felt pretty good about their offense going into the non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31, aside from the Wilson Betemit trade, and they decided against a larger swap. But Detroit has always held Young in high regard -- it would have drafted him in 2003 had a rainout not cost the club the AL's worst record. So when the Twins put him on trade waivers in mid-August, the Tigers put in a claim. When they had a chance to work out a deal, they pounced.
Young's arrival in Detroit changed the look of the Tigers' offense, and it changed the season for him. Batting third in front of Cabrera, a guaranteed spot to see strikes, proved the perfect fit for the aggressive hitter. Young's extra-base power, meanwhile, added more punch. Once Brennan Boesch fell to a season-ending thumb injury, Young's offense was vital.
Moving Phil Coke back to the bullpen: Coke's conversion to a starter entering the year came with the right intentions, giving Detroit a power lefty in its rotation while Jacob Turner and Andy Oliver learned a little more in the Minors. And Coke had his moments, including a mid-May duel in Boston that gave the Tigers a chance before they fell late in the game. But the longer it went, the less encouraging the results. In a situation without a playoff race at stake, Coke might've had the time to develop, but this wasn't it.
As it turned out, the Tigers needed Coke in the bullpen more, especially once they lost Al Alburquerque for a couple weeks with a forearm strain. It took a while for Coke to get back into his relief mindset, but he was back to his 2010 form by late August, just in time to bolster the bullpen for the stretch. He turned at least two late-season games in Detroit's favor, including a low-scoring duel at Tampa Bay.
Moving Ramon Santiago to second base: The Tigers have had five players spend a stint as the regular at second base in 2011. Santiago was the fifth through the revolving door, but he has been the best all around. His reliable fielding and strong arm gave Detroit's infield a much-needed infusion of consistency. Santiago's bat, especially during an unexpected power surge from the middle of August on, proved valuable.
Santiago is now sharing starts with Ryan Raburn, but he doesn't have to take it as a fallback position. When the AL Division Series comes around, Santiago figures to be in the middle of it.
Signing Alburquerque: It was such an obscure move that it was a footnote on the heels of the Martinez deal. All that stood out about Alburquerque was the name. Six months later, his slider was a headlining pitch nobody wanted to see.
The right-hander with the nasty breaking pitch and the high-90s fastball needed a while to find some polish on the mound, but once he did, he became the high-strikeout power reliever the Tigers lacked with Zumaya on the disabled list. Teaming Alburquerque with Coke, Detroit eventually found the tandem to handle the seventh inning before Benoit and Valverde go to work.