It’s always bad news, in my opinion, when expectations run high. This season was going to end one of two ways for the Tigers – either with a World Series win or as a failure. It ended in the latter. In contrast, the Boston Red Sox who beat them in the American League Championship Series came into the season with no expectations; they lost 93 games last year and went from a stricter manager to a more laid-back one. I told a Boston fan in the spring that the Red Sox could surprise this year, that there was potential there. Boy, even having thought that, did I end up surprised.
So what happened? On paper, the Tigers are the better team, and the Tigers are most definitely the sexier team (unless you really like scraggly beards). The Tigers are a superstar-laden team, which drives regular season success and attention. They have the stud starting rotation (which lived up to expectations) and the bruising middle-of-the-lineup (which did not). Say what you want about injuries to Miguel Cabrera, this season ended because of more than that.
Let’s play Team Building 101. Loading a team with superstars comes at a cost, and that cost is depth. Outside of the Tigers starting lineup, the options aren’t great; they’re a team with a thin bench. Boston, on the other hand, got use from its bench, playing match-ups when convenient and running for speed when necessary. Boston started different left fielders, catchers, and third basemen by choice during the series. That may or may not have made a difference in winning ultimately; it simply illustrates that Boston had player depth the Tigers do not. This is in part due to how their money is spent, and this is going to be the problem that the Tigers face going forward – the Tigers are currently paying 3 men over $20M/year (Verlander, Fielder, Cabrera); the Red Sox are paying zero men that sum. The most expensive contract the Red Sox have is Jake Peavy’s $16M. In fact, the Red Sox are paying 7 men double-digits below $20M; the Tigers are paying 2 players in that $10M-20M range. For fun, I threw in the Cardinals to see how they pan out – they’re paying zero players $20M+ and only 4 players in the $10M-20M range. St. Louis is a smaller market than Boston or Detroit, and I’m not pretending Boston is some small-market Cinderella team. Boston, I’m aware, has a higher overall payroll than Detroit does, by about $10M – my point here is simply that one of those two teams is spending more wisely and it contributes to their success.
Thing is, having a team of highly paid superstars doesn’t always guarantee championships. I think the most important thing – besides intangibles like hunger to win, leadership, etc – is depth. Paying several guys a ton of money erodes depth. While this year’s agonizing failure weighs on my mind for the Detroit Tigers, what it means for the future weighs even more heavily. Torii Hunter said it himself after last night’s loss, although I think he was referring more to himself than the team – the window’s getting smaller.
The Tigers have three high-caliber free agents – closer Joaquin Benoit, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and second baseman Omar Infante. Also on their radar has to be Max Scherzer’s impending free agency; he will command a large-scale contract. I believe Peralta is gone; the Tigers have a bargain in rookie Jose Iglesias, who is projected to be our everyday defensive whiz for several years. I think they need to bring Infante back; there’s no second base option within the organization and no other attractive free agents at that position, so I expect him to be a priorty re-signing. I think Benoit could go either way; he looked fine during the regular season but displayed shades of Valverde in the postseason – depending on his price tag, that’s money that could be better spent elsewhere.
The bigger question is what the Tigers should do with their two major impending free agents after next year – Scherzer and Cabrera. Cabrera is an epic hitter, there’s no doubt, but he’s coming into his 30s, when power hitters typically start to lose their swing. With Prince Fielder signed through the decade, there’s no room at DH in the future to stash Miggy. Likewise, Scherzer looks to command a big contract which would work to keep the Tigers away from aggressive pursuit of other players potentially in the future. Can the Tigers exist competitively with four $20M+ players, especially when two of them are “power” pitchers and two of them are power hitters with a lack of defensive range and speed? I don’t think so.
Boston and St. Louis are facing off in the World Series, and both teams got there by unconventional team-building methods. St. Louis famously let Albert Pujols go in free agency two years ago. Pujols is a historically great hitter whose only contemporary competition right now is Miguel Cabrera. In fact, their career arc to now is markedly similar – both were third basemen who hit for power and converted to first basemen over time. Both lack speed and both can be seriously hampered by injury. Just two years removed from a great final year in St. Louis, Pujols has been a shell of his former self, but the Los Angeles Angels are on the hook for 10 years and $240M. $24M/year could almost buy Adam Wainwright and Carlos Beltran off of the Cardinals’ roster. Letting Pujols – again, a historic hitter and the face of the Cardinals for nearly a decade – walk turned out to be the best offseason move the Cardinals made. Boston traded away their superstar assets last season to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost in the NLCS this year. Boston traded away two $20M/year players in that deal, which was laughably one-sided in terms of player talent – but Boston’s gain was the money dump; they shed literally hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term contracts, and that freed money let them pursue some of their $10-20M/year free agents – guys like Mike Napoli, who hit the solo, game-winning home run of ALCS Game 3, and Shane Victorino, who hit the go-ahead, game-winning grand slam of ALCS Game 5. It also allowed them the financial slack to pursue bullpen depth like Koji Uehara, depth that paid off when Boston’s first- and second-choice closers were lost to injury. Uehara ended up the ALCS MVP.
Of course, not every free agent spread is a success, and actually, in the spring, Boston’s signings were met with a certain amount of derision. Likewise, letting a great hitter walk can return to bite a team. That’s what makes this year’s failure so bitter for Tigers fans – this looked like the year. It was that perfect year where hard decisions could be put off and a dominant-looking roster could be compiled without worry. Torii’s right – the window is closing. But Boston has proved that windows close and open; no one was talking about Boston’s championship window this year, after all. Supposedly, it had slammed shut in 2011.
But the Tigers should look hard at the teams in the World Series this year and how they got there. It wasn’t by keeping high-value superstars around, that’s for sure. The Tigers will come into 2014 with a unique opportunity, the chance both to wipe part of the slate blank and the chance to contend. They’ll need to bolster the bullpen this offseason, solidify the left field position if prospect Nick Castellanos isn’t ready to make the team in spring, and re-sign Omar Infante. Maybe Benoit is the closer, maybe he’s not. But one thing is certain – if they don’t plan to re-sign Max Scherzer (and those talks should begin this off-season), they need to trade him at the deadline and recoup what they can for him; the same goes for Miguel Cabrera. While both players are great talents, the longevity of the team may look better without them. If Miguel Cabrera is to remain a Tiger, then perhaps it’s reasonable to look at trading the gaudy contract of Prince Fielder, whose invisible man impression in the playoffs has to be concerning. But there’s no way the Tigers can keep both men long-term and make it look work on a championship level. Winning a World Series this year would have let the Tigers approach those decisions with the warm glow of a championship in the bank; now that they’ve failed, those difficult decisions suddenly look a lot less attractive.
Windows close and windows open. The Tigers need to take a long, hard look at the team that bested them and learn from failure. Both teams seemed to “give up” with their personnel choices in recent years; and yet, here they are, battling for the World Series. Insanity is described as expecting a different result from the same repeated action; if the Tigers’ roster looks virtually the same in 2014, what does that say about the organization? The last team to make three straight ALCS and fail to win the World Series was the Texas Rangers, who ended their run in 2011 after besting the Tigers in the ALCS. Since their three straight trips, the other teams in their division got better, and Texas has struggled to make the playoffs since, losing a Wild Card game in 2012 and losing a Game 163 in 2013. Windows don’t stay open forever, and just as Texas seemed to run out of gas after 2011, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers will hold their window open without making some changes, especially as Cleveland and Kansas City improve.
The Tigers will be contenders in 2014, make no mistake – but unlike this year, where all that was at stake was a chance at a championship, they’ll also be setting the course of the rest of the decade in 2014 based on the personnel choices they make. One window will close next year, with or without a ring; it’s just going to be a matter of whether or not they open another like St. Louis and Boston have.