Thursday’s Detroit Tigers game felt like a quintessential performance from the team’s two pillars. Justin Verlander started in his 366th career game for Detroit, going up against the Rays and pitching seven solid innings as he put himself in position to get the win. But the team lost its 3-2 lead when an unreliable bullpen pitcher—this year, it’s Francisco Rodriguez—surrendered a solo homer to Steven Souza Jr. in the eighth inning.
With the game tied at three in the bottom of the ninth, Miguel Cabrera came to the plate with a man on first and one out. He took Tommy Hunter’s 2-1 fastball and muscled it to opposite field, earning his 314th career home run as a Tiger.
This Tigers win was the exception to the norm this year in Detroit. The aging group has slowly faded out of contention, leaving a sub-.500 team likely looking to sell most of its few players of value at the trade deadline.
In the Verlander era (starting in 2006), the Tigers have made the playoffs five times, which is five more times than they made the playoffs in the 19 years before. Due to a number of stellar trades by former GM Dave Dombrowski and some extravagant spending from late owner Mike Ilitch, the Tigers completely changed their image. A team with the most losses in American League history in 2003 became a pennant winner in 2006. In the decade since, Detroit has unendingly employed a win-now philosophy. As Ilitch chased the World Series title he craved, he continued to build up his payroll and gave the okay to swap minor-league prospects for established veterans.
As a whole, the pricey veterans led the team to several exciting seasons but always fell short of the ultimate goal. This generation of consistent division winners was led by manager Jim Leyland, a chain-smoking, no-nonsense baseball lifer who wasn’t afraid to call out his team when they lacked effort. Leyland retired in 2013 after a third straight Central Division title, but in a curious move for an aging team still seeking a trophy, his replacement was the former player and first-time pro manager Brad Ausmus. The young manager has also come under fire for his questionable in-game moves, particularly his bullpen strategy. His three years as manager have produced zero playoff wins.
Most representative of the Tigers’ current situation is Victor Martinez, a broken-down jalopy of a player who, despite giving All-Star caliber seasons just a few years ago, has now become painful to watch. The 38-year-old DH simply cannot run after years of leg and knee injuries. In the past, Martinez could hit well enough to negate that fact, but now he’s a liability in the batter’s box as well as the basepaths.
Detroit’s stars, Cabrera and Verlander, haven’t declined as sharply as Martinez, but they still aren’t what they used to be. Verlander, coming off last year’s controversial Cy Young loss, has had a few too many shaky starts. In particular, he’s given up more free passes than he usually does: The pitcher’s allowed 42 walks in 14 starts this season. Last year, he walked 57 batters total. Verlander’s lasted less than six innings five times in 2017, and has yet to pitch in the eighth inning or later this year.
Meanwhile, Miggy has gone from an outstanding hitter to a merely okay one, by his standards. As he’s battled injuries, his slugging percentage sits at .446, a far cry from his usual .500s. At least he’s hitting the ball hard:
For the first time in a long time, Verlander and Cabrera are not the Tigers’ best players or most valuable assets. Those honors belong to outfielder J.D. Martinez and starting pitcher Michael Fulmer, both acquired through savvy transactions. Martinez was released by the Astros at the start of the 2014 season, but since coming to Detroit he’s turned himself into a brilliant, reliable source of both contact and power hitting. A foot injury delayed the start of Martinez’s 2017 season, but he’s returned without any problems at all, boasting an OPS of 1.093. However, Martinez seems not long for Michigan. He enters free agency after this season, and any team currently in playoff contention would pay a high price even for half a season of his talents.
Fulmer, though, is the untouchable jewel of the Tigers’ future. The reigning AL Rookie of the Year, if he lives up to his potential, could be Baby Verlander. Acquired from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade, Fulmer is already the team’s best option on the mound. He’s posted an ERA of 3.40 this season, with a home runs per nine rate that leads the league and walks per nine rate in the top 10. A shoulder injury indicates that there could be some bumps on the road, but he’s extremely valuable.
Technically, there is some hope left for this season, too. Despite a 31-34 record, the Tigers only sit two games out of wild card contention, and 4 games back of the division-leading(!) Minnesota Twins. But somehow, in a mostly mediocre AL, only two clubs have a worse record than the Tigers, and the teams above them (particularly Cleveland) seem poised to improve in the second half. The beat-up old Tigers don’t have what it takes for a playoff run this year. Better to sell now than chase a fool’s dream this year and be left with nothing.
Enjoy the strikeouts of Justin Verlander and the hitting of Miguel Cabrera—they’re not going anywhere. Unfortunately, that probably means they’ll have to suffer through some dull, irrelevant seasons very soon. But if the Tigers are patient and make the right moves this year, especially if they get some good young guys for J.D. Martinez, the team could trampoline right back into the playoffs. They might be able to rebuild a championship contender just in time for Verlander and Cabrera to still play a small part.