Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Window of Opportunity

I have been fascinated by the Detroit Tigers for some time now. It goes back to a period in my life when I lived halfway across the country from where I live now, and I was friends with a group of guys that were (for the most part) fans of American League teams. I decided that I needed an AL team to pull for, but I didn't want to be a bandwagon fan and root for the Yankees or any of the other (at that time) successful teams. So, after carefully researching some of the also-rans, I decided that I would take on the Tigers as my AL team. My reasoning was thus: they weren't very good, but they had a lot of potential to be good in the near future. They had some power bats, a bit of speed, and an emerging young starting rotation. All of the ingredients for success sooner rather than later.

Now, as I set that first paragraph up, the reader (that's you) would probably think that I'm talking about the Detroit Tigers of about 2004 or so. But I am actually talking about the Tigers of 1996. The 1996 Tigers went 53-109, but they had a 27 year old Travis Fryman, a 25 year old Bobby Higginson (145 OPS+), and up-and-comers Tony Clark (27 HR), Damion Easley, Phil Nevin, and Justin Thompson. The future looked bright. The following year they won 79 games behind Thompson (151 ERA+), Clark (128 OPS+), Easley (117 OPS+), Higginson (133 OPS+), Brian Hunter (ok, his OPS+ was a putrid 81, but he stole 74 bases with a success rate of 80%, which is worth mentioning), and ummm... Bob Hamelin (122 OPS+ with 18 HR - who knew?). They also had Frank Catalanato and Juan Encarnacion getting their first time in the majors, so things were looking pretty good.

But it never worked out for those Tigers. They never made a single playoff appearance, taking steps back (or sideways) over the next few years until they bottomed out with 119 losses in 2003.

Those Tigers teams had a nice window of opportunity to make a push for a championship, but failed to make good on the opportunity. The current Tigers are also looking at a window, what I find surprising is how narrow that window just might be.

The 2006 Tigers made it to the World Series mostly on young arms and veteran bats, with a couple of exceptions. The following off season they traded multiple minor leaguers for Gary Sheffield to provide some additional power to their lineup. This off season the Tigers made the boldest move in the league in trading multiple minor leaguers to Florida for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis and in a smaller trade they sent two minor league pitchers to Atlanta for Edgar Renteria. The main result of these three trades is that the Tigers are a very dangerous team. They should score plenty of runs and they still have a nice pitching staff, centered around Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, although injuries have chipped away at their dominant relief staff.

A second result of these trades is that the Tigers have very little talent left in the minor leagues. The only legitimate prospect left is Rick Porcello, who was drafted out of high school in 2007 and won't be ready for the big leagues for several years. Additionally, the average age of the starting lineup will be almost 32 years old this year, which is generally about the time that players abilities begin to decline. Possibly the biggest time issue facing the Tigers is that their biggest gun, newly acquired Miguel Cabrera (who is only 24) only has two years left on his contract. He will probably want to get paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $20M a year (or more) and someone (the Yankees might have a spot open at 1B for him) will certainly pay that amount.

So, the sad fact that Detroit faces is that they could be right back in the gutter in two years, left with an aging team of former all stars and a enormous hole in their lineup vacated by Cabrera. I love that they were bold and saw an opportunity to put together a championship quality team and went for it. If I were a die hard Tigers fan I would be excited for the next two years. As an impartial observer, I think the next two years are going to be absolutely fascinating to watch for the Tigers. They bet the house on winning the World Series and anything less will be a catastrophic disaster.

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