It’s not supposed to be this easy. Superstars are precious commodities, for which teams are willing to sacrifice blood, treasure, and their future. You consider yourself fortunate if you have one on your roster; you kiss the ground and thank the Almighty if you have two.
The Detroit Tigers, somehow, have three. If you want to understand why the Tigers were prohibitive favorites in the AL Central before the season even began, start with that simple fact: The third-best player on the Tigers’ roster is better than the third-best player on any other team in the majors.1
Credit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski for his resourcefulness — he used every avenue at his disposal to acquire them. Justin Verlander arrived via the draft, when the Tigers selected him with the no. 2 overall pick in 2004. Miguel Cabrera was acquired from Florida in a monster eight-player trade after the 2007 season. Prince Fielder was lured to Detroit via free agency, on a road paved with gold bricks and mortared with $100 bills.
In hindsight, the acquisitions of all three look like no-brainers. Verlander threw 99 mph in college, and Cabrera and Fielder were already among the game’s best hitters before they joined the Tigers. But there was a significant amount of risk involved with all three personnel moves.
The Tigers caught a break when the San Diego Padres decided to save money on the no. 1 overall pick in 2004.The Padres drafted local high school product Matt Bush, whose recent arrest on hit-and-run and DUI charges after running over an elderly motorcyclist cements his position as the worst no. 1 pick of all time.2 But even so, Verlander was not considered the best player in that draft. Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew were the consensus top talents, but they both fell in the draft because that’s what happens when Scott Boras is your agent.
Despite pitching for Old Dominion against the Colonial Athletic Conference’s second-rate competition, Verlander hardly dominated in college; his junior year, he had a mediocre 3.49 ERA and walked 43 batters in 106 innings. The Tigers gambled that they could unleash the beast, and two years later Verlander was AL Rookie of the Year and a starter on a World Series team. It would take another five years before he found another gear, last year becoming the first starting pitcher to win an MVP award since Roger Clemens in 1986.
The risk with Cabrera wasn’t in what the Tigers were acquiring, but what they were giving up. Detroit sent six players to Florida in the deal, including former top-10 picks Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin. Miller, a left-hander out of the University of North Carolina, was the consensus top player in the entire draft, but fell to the sixth pick because of his bonus demands. Baseball America ranked him the no. 10 prospect in all of baseball before the 2007 season; he made 13 starts for the Tigers that year and was erratic, with a 5.63 ERA, but he also struck out 56 batters in 64 innings. Maybin, a high school outfielder with five-tool potential, was the no. 6 prospect prior to the 2007 season, and again before 2008. The Tigers got Cabrera (and Dontrelle Willis, but they’d prefer we not dwell on that point), but they unloaded two potential All-Stars in the trade.
Even more important than scouting other teams’ players is the ability to scout your own. The Tigers already suspected what the rest of us would later discover: Miller would never develop the command to succeed in the majors. After three awful seasons for the Marlins, Miller was dumped on the Red Sox last year, and he responded with a 5.59 ERA, including losses in his two starts last September, during Boston’s historic collapse. He’s out of the majors now, with a 5.79 ERA and 215 walks in 359 career innings. Maybin eventually emerged last season as a viable center fielder, but only after the Marlins shipped him to San Diego after the 2010 season for a pair of middle relievers.
Cabrera, meanwhile, signed an eight-year extension with the Tigers before he played a game for his new team. In his first season in Detroit, Cabrera led the AL with 37 homers, and he’s been better every year since. Cabrera finished in the top five of the AL MVP vote in each of the last three years.
Finally, there’s Fielder, who was a known commodity when he was acquired and didn’t cost the Tigers any of their prospects,3 but he was a significant risk simply because of his contract. The Tigers guaranteed Fielder $214 million to play for the next nine seasons, until he’s 36 years old. The risk in this deal may take years to manifest itself, but there’s likely to be a lot of dead money on the back end of this deal.
The Tigers will worry about that later. Team owner Mike Illitch is 82 years old and probably stopped buying green bananas years ago. Dombrowski has been general manager for nearly a decade, and he may want to look for a new challenge soon. If the Tigers are paying $24 million for a washed-up DH in 2019, someone else will probably be responsible for cleaning up the mess. In the meantime, the Tigers are going for it.
The value of having three transcendent players on the roster was on full display two weeks ago, when the Tigers went to Kansas City and swept their hapless divisional rivals. In the first game of the series, Verlander allowed a single run in the first, then shut the Royals down until the ninth inning. Protecting a 3-1 lead, he allowed a leadoff single, and then with two outs gave up another single, a walk, and then hit the no. 9 hitter to load the bases and put the winning run on second base.
You can argue whether Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball. But there’s no argument that no other starter — not Roy Halladay, not Clayton Kershaw, no one — would have been left in the game to pitch in that situation, having already thrown 126 pitches. Verlander responded by striking out Alex Gordon looking. His 131st and final pitch registered at 100 mph. Verlander was so unaffected by the heavy workload that in his next start, he held the Texas Rangers to a single unearned run in six innings, ending the Rangers’ eight-game winning streak.
In the second game of the series, Cabrera and Fielder hit back-to-back RBI singles in the eighth inning to break a 1-1 tie. The following night Cabrera batted in the seventh inning with the Tigers down 3-2; two batters later Fielder drove Cabrera home with the go-ahead run. Three victories by a grand total of four runs, almost entirely thanks to three players.
Concentrating this much talent into three roster spots gives the Tigers an edge even most championship teams lack. Last year, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Verlander was worth 8.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), while Cabrera was worth 7.1 WAR. Together they were worth nearly 16 wins; had both players gotten injured prior to the season and forced the Tigers to scrounge up replacements from the minor leagues or the waiver wire, Detroit would have finished under .500 at 79-83, instead of 95-67 and two games away from the World Series.4
Only one World Series winner in the last 25 years had a better duo of players than the Tigers did with Verlander and Cabrera:
While it’s too small a sample to be conclusive, three of the other four teams on that list were heavy underdogs to win a championship even after making the playoffs. The 1988 Dodgers are still considered one of the weakest championship teams ever, and they defeated a pair of 100-win teams in the Mets and Athletics. But they won because Hershiser decided he wasn’t going to give up any runs after August, and because Gibson hit a home run of some importance. The 91-win Royals defeated the 101-win Cardinals in a seven-game series, thanks in large part to Brett hitting .370 and Saberhagen allowing a single run in two complete-game victories.
And the Diamondbacks, who won just 92 games in the regular season, nonetheless became the first team in four years to beat the Yankees in a playoff series. Along with Johnson and Gonzalez, they also had Curt Schilling, who contributed 7.3 WAR of his own, making the Diamondbacks one of only two major league teams since 1970 with three seven-win players.5 Johnson and Schilling combined to win all four games for the Diamondbacks, throwing 39 of the team’s 65 innings in the series with a 1.68 ERA. Gonzalez dunked a Mariano Rivera cutter over Derek Jeter’s head in Game 7 to set off bedlam.
The Tigers did not win a championship last year, falling to the Rangers in the ALCS because Nelson Cruz hit six home runs in six games. But Detroit’s guiding principle is sound: Superstars not only can drag a mediocre team to the postseason, but they can also tilt a playoff series single-handedly. In October, with so many off days on the schedule, depth doesn’t matter; frontline talent does.
With Fielder in tow, the Tigers are hoping three superstars can accomplish what two couldn’t. Fielder isn’t quite the caliber of player that Cabrera and Verlander are; his bat is a tick behind Cabrera, and he plays first base with all the defensive acumen you’d expect from a 5-foot-11, 275-pounder who was last weighed when he was 17. Fielder was worth just 5.2 WAR last year, and he topped out at 6.1 in 2009. But like the other two, he is insanely durable, having missed just 13 games in the last six years. Fielder led the NL in games played last season; Cabrera led the AL. Verlander, meanwhile, has led the AL in starts and innings pitched in two of the last three seasons.
The Tigers can complement their trio with one of the biggest surprises from last season. When they drafted catcher Alex Avila in the fifth round in 2008, it was hard to miss the whispers of “nepotism.” Alex’s father, Al, is the team’s assistant GM. But — shades of Mike Piazza here — Avila made it to the majors in his first full pro season, and last year at age 24 hit .295/.389/.506 and made the All-Star team. According to WAR, he was actually a smidge more valuable than Fielder in 2011. Throw in Austin Jackson, who in his third season is showing signs of adding above-average offense to his elite defense in center field, and the Tigers have a pair of 25-year-olds who are developing into second-tier stars behind their big three.
These five players cover up a lot of flaws. For one, there’s the defense. A year after the Brewers bucked baseball’s recent trend toward valuing glovework, the Tigers decided to take it a step further when they announced that Cabrera would move to third base. They’re now playing a first baseman at third base, a third baseman (Jhonny Peralta) at shortstop, a DH (Fielder) at first base, and a left fielder (Ryan Raburn) at second base. Left fielder Delmon Young has the range of a fire hydrant, and apparently he has the personality of one too — he’s on the restricted list after he was arrested last Thursday for aggravated harassment, after he allegedly got into a fight at his hotel and made anti-Semitic remarks. The Tigers aren’t fielding a defense as much as some kind of weird social experiment, the sort of thing on which Randolph and Mortimer Duke would have wagered a dollar.
Raburn (8-for-54 this season) is struggling to hit Peter Dinklage’s weight (Detroit’s second basemen are batting a combined .156/.198/.247 this season), and Young was waived by the mighty Twins just last year. Brennan Boesch and Andy Dirks are good fourth outfielders forced into roles as the team’s primary right fielder and DH. The Tigers have reached so deep into the barrel that their starting DH over the weekend was Brad Eldred, who is 31 years old and had played all of 85 games in the majors before he was called up last week.
Behind Verlander, the rotation is hit-or-miss: Rick Porcello and Doug Fister are pitch-to-contact guys who will be rolling their eyes at fielders all year, while Max Scherzer has top-of-the-rotation stuff but middle-of-the-rotation results. The bullpen is neither deep nor particularly effective. The Tigers are struggling to get over .500, and they’d be in even more dire straits if not for Drew Smyly, a lightly regarded left-hander who made his major league debut when Fister went on the DL three weeks ago, and who in four starts has allowed just four runs. As of this morning, in fact, Smyly is your American League leader in ERA.
But as long as the stars star, it may not matter.
The Tigers’ last championship team was built on a very different model. The 1984 Tigers set almost every conceivable record for the hottest start in major league history, beginning the season 35-5 before engaging the cruise control, then won seven of eight playoff games. That team wasn’t built around superstars, though — 28 years later, not one member of the 1984 Tigers is in the Hall of Fame.6
It was a team built around a deep collection of stars and near-stars. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Chet Lemon all rank among the most underrated players of all time at their positions. At DH was Darrell Evans, whom Bill James called “the most underrated player in baseball history, absolutely number one on the list.” Lance Parrish was behind the plate. Kirk Gibson was in right field. The rotation was filled with reliable workhorses like Jack Morris and Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox.
But here’s the thing: Until 1984, this impressive collection of talent was considered a bunch of underachievers. The Tigers had a winning record every year from 1978 on, but they never reached the playoffs or won more than 92 games before 1984. The Tigers had holes on their roster like every other team — they couldn’t find a third baseman or a first baseman — and the team didn’t quite have the talent at other positions to overcome them.
What happened in 1984 wasn’t that a superstar or two emerged; it was that for one glorious season, every role player played out of his mind. Ruppert Jones got 215 at-bats and hit .284/.346/.516. Johnny Grubb hit .267/.395/.432 in 176 at-bats. Rusty Kuntz hit .286/.393/.414. And in the bullpen, the Tigers stumbled upon arguably the greatest relief duo of all time. Aurelio Lopez threw a ridiculous 138 innings in relief, winning 10 games and saving 14, along with a 2.94 ERA. He was just the opening act for Willie Hernandez, a nondescript middle reliever who arrived in a trade a week before the season began. All Hernandez did was pitch in 80 games, throw 140 innings, post a 1.92 ERA and a WHIP of 0.941, and win nine games and save 32. The Cy Young was a formality; Hernandez also won the AL MVP award, one of just four relievers ever to earn that honor.
You can’t rely on bench guys to have great years with the bat; if you could, they wouldn’t be bench guys. You can’t rely on relievers, period.
The success of the 1984 Tigers was an exhibit in what can happen when you have a team with no weaknesses. That its success was so fleeting is a reminder that building a team with no weaknesses is damn near impossible. Better to build a team around players transcendent enough to overcome their teammates’ inevitable flaws.
Last year, Verlander and Cabrera carried a Tigers team that had Ryan Raburn, Brandon Inge, and Ramon Santiago in its postseason lineup to within two games of the World Series. With another star added to the mix, and with the rest of the AL Central as weak as it was last year, who knows how far the Tigers can go?