12/26/08 10:00 AM EST
Tigers unable to meet high expectations
Detroit finishes season in last place despite star-studded team
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
As Leyland talked with reporters at TigerFest back in January, peppered with questions already looking ahead to a World Series berth and a status symbol as the American League's team to beat, Leyland tried his best to inject a little dose of reality.
"We've got a good team," Leyland said, "but I've been in the business a long time, and you have to play the game on the field. This all sounds good. It should sound good. People should be excited. But when you're the manager, it's a little bit different.
"Everybody's counting us as champions already. We're not champions of anything. That's 2006. We haven't won anything. We haven't done anything."
Come March and April, reality hit the Tigers with a full serving of humility. Those first-place expectations were replaced with a last-place finish. And all that talk of World Series expectations turned to a general malaise of doom and gloom.
Consider the difference in Leyland's comments during the recently-completed Winter Meetings. He was still trying to temper expectations, just on the opposite end.
"We have some issues," Leyland said, "but we've got a very good baseball team, potentially a very good team. Do we have some holes to fill yet? Yes, absolutely. But there's not many perfect teams."
More than anything, the 2008 season showed the Tigers were much further from perfect than many believed.
The Tigers' megatrade for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis still had Detroit abuzz, and it showed in the sellout crowds for TigerFest as well as many stops on the annual Winter Caravan. For the Tiger displaced from the starting lineup, it remained an anxious period. Brandon Inge continued to hear his name in the rumor mill until club officials said he would report to Spring Training with the catchers and get some work behind the plate.
Inge, for his part, said a couple weeks later that he always wanted to remain a Tiger, but that he was also hoping for a regular role. On the pitching side, Nate Robertson's three-year contract completed Detroit's task of locking up its rotation for the foreseeable future.
Spring Training began with a flourish on Valentine's Day, as the Tigers touted the talent that had been gathered in the same clubhouse. Willis said he was simply trying to fit in with the group rather than try to stand out as any sort of star. Ivan Rodriguez began his camp with hopes of catching until age 40, though he also knew this would probably be his final year in Detroit. But the major mission and major presence arrived with Cabrera, who settled in and immediately began working with infield coach Rafael Belliard to try to improve his fielding at third -- at that point, the planned position. He looked far more impressive with his estimated 470-foot drive to straightaway center in the Tigers' traditional exhibition opener.
On the pitching side, an early bout of shoulder soreness kept pushing back Fernando Rodney's side work, and eventually helped set up the collapse of the Tigers' early-season bullpen plans.
Finally, the Tigers had a chance to put their dream lineup on the field against Major League competition. When the chance arrived, though, something always seemed to be slightly out of sync, whether it be injuries, inconsistencies or the nagging issue of pitching.
While Gary Sheffield's work to strengthen his shoulder left him with an 0-for-14 start to the spring, Todd Jones struggled to find his command and paid for it in hits and walks, and even Opening Day starter Justin Verlander was giving up his share of damage while he tried to shore up his footwork. Tim Byrdak's control woes down the stretch of camp led to his sudden release a day before the Tigers left Lakeland, Fla., while Willis' labor through his spring outings became a telling sign.
A hit-by-pitch to Curtis Granderson turned out to be a fractured finger that essentially cost him the first month of the season. Making matters worse, the Tigers left camp without Rodney while he continued to struggle with his shoulder, though Denny Bautista's emergence served as one of the few bright spots of Detroit's Spring Training, along with a new eight-year contract for Cabrera.
The Tigers have had their share of rough starts to the season over the course of this decade -- 2002 and '03 in particular -- but none of the previous season-opening struggles came with as high expectations as the 0-7 Tigers of 2008. Cabrera's homer on Opening Day made many Detroiters happy for the investment, but the Tigers' 4-3 loss to the Royals started off a three-game series sweep. Then came the White Sox, who rolled into the Motor City and punctuated their hot start with one clutch hit after another off Tigers pitching. Willis took the loss in one of those games after sending a no-hit bid into the sixth inning, but walking seven batters in the process. His hyperextended right knee in his next start at Chicago sent his season into a tailspin, but led to the callup of a little-known Triple-A pitcher named Armando Galarraga.
The Tigers recovered from that slow start to go 13-8 for the rest of April, but an inconsistent offense and injuries all around clearly left them reeling even in their rebound. Between shoulder woes for Sheffield, a pinched nerve in Placido Polanco's back, Granderson's finger and all the pitching injuries, the Tigers were short-handed and struggling, though Leyland insisted on not using injuries as an excuse. Even those Tigers who were in the lineup weren't exactly thriving on stability; a rash of errors by Cabrera and a hobbled Carlos Guillen led to a position swap across the infield three weeks into the season.
A three-game sweep of the Yankees in the Bronx fueled an 8-2 stretch that put the Tigers on the brink of .500, but the Twins dashed that surge by taking three straight at the Metrodome and shoving Detroit back into the division cellar. The Tigers lost 11 of 13 games, including three shutouts of its mighty offense -- one of them an extra-inning heartbreaker against the Angels -- to fall 10 games under .500 before regrouping around the end of the month.
The early-season struggles started resulting in May moves, from Jason Grilli's trade to Jacque Jones' release to the arrival of Francisco Cruceta and Freddy Dolsi. The offense produced just 23 home runs for the entire month, and suffered a further drought when Sheffield strained his oblique and went on the disabled list. One bright spot was Matt Joyce, who stepped into Jones' left-field role and produced five homers.
The combination of scattered run support and ill-timed hits began to take its toll on Verlander, whose 2-0 loss at Kansas City on May 14 dropped his record to 1-7. His pitching picked up substantially in mid-May, but theories came from nearly everywhere about why the young ace was struggling. As if that wasn't enough, a quote from the just-traded Grilli on team chemistry caught Leyland's ire.
Once again, Interleague Play proved a springboard for the Tigers' season. The difference this year is that it vaulted them out of their early-season struggles to the verge of the AL Central race. After splitting a four-game set against Cleveland, Detroit swept the division-leading White Sox in a three-game set at Comerica Park, then took 12 of 15 against the Giants, Padres, Cardinals and Rockies. The Tigers' deficit in the division standings whittled from 10 1/2 games on June 9 to 4 1/2 on June 22. Once they closed out the month with a comeback victory at Minnesota, they were two games over .500, and the charge up the division was seemingly on.
With injuries still taking their toll, from Sheffield to Inge, the resuscitation came from unexpected sources. Marcus Thames took advantage of an everyday role with 10 home runs for the month, including a five-game homer streak that tied a franchise record. When his estimated 465-foot blast to straightaway center field went out July 17 at San Francisco, his last eight hits had been home runs, the longest such streak in the Majors since Mark McGwire in 2001. The bullpen received a boost soon after with the returns of Rodney and Joel Zumaya, though Rodney's struggles with the strike zone included back-to-back four-pitch walks in a June 20 loss at San Diego.
Willis' return from his knee injury was merely a brief consolation. After walking five out of 12 batters he faced en route to eight runs allowed over 1 1/3 innings against the Indians on June 9, Willis and the Tigers agreed to option him to Class A Lakeland to work on his mechanics.
The June surge that pushed the Tigers into contention slowed, leaving Detroit debating whether to go for it all or sell off at the Trade Deadline. In the end, the Rodriguez trade ended up reflecting neither direction. Detroit had hoped to get some relief help from Kyle Farnsworth while taking a long look at Inge behind the plate, but it marked the departure of the future Hall of Fame catcher whose signing five years earlier helped begin the franchise's turnaround.
The Tigers were five games out of the division lead at the end of a 13-13 month, but had missed out on chances to gain ground. Detroit lost three consecutive one-run games in a four-game home set against Minnesota, then dropped back-to-back one-run decisions to Chicago in the final weekend of the month. Two of those losses featured blown saves, as Jones, and later Rodney, struggled in the closer's role. Jones eventually ended up on the disabled list. Yet on the day the Tigers traded Rodriguez, they erased a 7-1 deficit to earn a hard-fought 14-12 win at Cleveland to move to a season-high three games over .500.
Whatever question about the direction of the season, however, was tempered by the unquestionable emergence of Detroit's franchise player. Cabrera had long since recovered from his slow start, and his .330 average and 31 RBIs in July helped power him to AL Player of the Month honors.
The glimmer of hope for a playoff run that the Tigers had built in June and July dissipated in about a week with a six-game losing streak early in the month, including a three-game sweep at Tampa Bay and back-to-back losses in Chicago. Detroit fell eight games back in the division race and dropped to double-digit games down a week and a half later. A three-game sweep by the resurgent Indians late in the month put the Tigers five games under .500, putting the chances of a winning season into serious question. Robertson's struggles not only cost him his confidence, but also his rotation spot by the end of the month.
Cabrera, meanwhile, continued his second-half power display with an AL-high 10 home runs for the month. His two-homer game on Aug. 22 at Kansas City sent baseballs to the depths of Kauffman Stadium, not including a mammoth batting-practice blast.
The toughest part of a Major League season can be the final month for a team that was expected to contend but fell out of it early. In the Tigers' case, the reality of their situation hit hard, and not even the chance at a winning record could help them out of their funk. Detroit lost 12 of 13, including a three-game sweep at home to the Royals in the season's final week that pushed Kansas City out of last place and Detroit back into it. Three straight wins over the now-mighty Rays weren't enough to get the Tigers out of the division cellar, the first time they've finished a season there since the famed 119-loss season of 2003.
The fallout began before the season ended, and the changes kept coming as the month wore on. Jones announced his intention to retire at season's end, while Kenny Rogers faced many of the same questions as he searched for answers. The Tigers dismissed pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and bullpen coach Jeff Jones at season's end, left Leyland's contract without an extension past 2009, and announced that Edgar Renteria's contract option would not be picked up.
There were, however, some bright spots. The troublesome shoulder that had plagued Sheffield for the better part of two seasons healed in time for a September charge that put him one homer shy of the 500 mark for his career. Freddy Garcia, signed in August to a Minor League contract, made his Detroit debut in mid-September and looked surprisingly good in two of his three starts, including five impressive innings in the season finale at Chicago.
Dusty Ryan showed enough skill in his September callup to earn the starting nod behind the plate for much of the month, moving Inge to third base in a move that would become longterm by season's end. Willis returned from his Minor League stint to mixed results in three September starts, including a strong stretch in his final outing against the Rays on Sept. 27.
While the national attention turned to Tampa Bay's surprising run to the World Series and the Phillies' final ascension to the pinnacle of the game, the Tigers returned home to plot their strategy for a recovery in 2009.
Detroit's search for a pitching coach turned up a little-known but highly-regarded selection in former Twins Minor League pitching coordinator Rick Knapp, who built his resume on the strength of Minnesota's young pitchers and their ability to pound the strike zone. A week later, Jeff Jones was back as bullpen coach under Knapp's recommendation. Slugging prospect Jeff Larish and reliever Casey Fien hit strong starts in the Arizona Fall League among the many Tigers youngsters playing offseason ball. Off the field, Granderson continued his offseason travels with a visit to China as part of Major League Baseball's Ambassador program.
While the Tigers didn't have any quick moves as baseball's Hot Stove season opened, their wide range of talks with free agents and potential trading partners set the stage for an offseason of smaller, more targeted moves, rather than the major trades of last winter. They passed on big-name free agents, denied speculation they were shopping Magglio Ordonez, and looked as much into lefty specialists like Joe Beimel and Darren Oliver as they did on the next tier of closers. Trade rumors on shortstops Julio Lugo, Khalil Greene and Jack Wilson never resulted in a deal.
Once the Tigers arrived in Las Vegas for baseball's Winter Meetings, the moves came early and often. They acquired catcher Gerald Laird from Texas before the Meetings formally began, then backed off shortstop trade talks in favor of a one-year agreement with free agent Adam Everett. A one-for-one swap with the Rays brought over rotation help in young Edwin Jackson in exchange for Joyce.
The one major area where the Tigers couldn't move quickly was at closer, where heavy interest in Mariners closer and Michigan native J.J. Putz couldn't overcome Seattle's desire for a richer prospect package that included both of Detroit's young left-handed sluggers in Joyce and Larish.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.