The Tigers went into 2005 with hopes of finishing .500 or above for the first time since 1993. After winning 72 games in 2004, they added Troy Percival, Magglio Ordonez and Kyle Farnsworth and many fans had high expectations. However, most agreed that a lot of things needed to go right in order to reach .500. As it turned out, more things went wrong than right in 2006. Percival, Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Dmitri Young and Jeremy Bonderman all missed substantial time to injuries. Ivan Rodriguez and Omar Infante had disappointing seasons and Carlos Pena went into a tailspin which landed him in Toledo for more than two months. Then there were rumblings all year about team disharmony stemming partly from dissatisfaction with manager Alan Trammell.
Through it all, the Tigers still managed to flirt with .500 for much of the season thanks, in part, to surprisingly good first half pitching, the mid-season acquisition of Placido Polanco and the emergence of Chris Shelton. In fact, they were 61-62 on August 23 before the wheels fell off down the stretch and dropped them to a final record of 71-91. There were many factors in there 10-29 record from August 24 to the end of the season. There was the second half pitching collapse that got worse and worse down the stretch, a hitting slump of historic proportions at the beginning of September (they scored only 12 runs in 9 consecutive losses), more injuries and suggestions of lack of interest on the part of several players.
Many blamed the disappointing finish on Alan Trammell losing control of the team. Some say that general manager Dave Dombrowski never gave him control. Others blamed the players for lack of effort. There is probably some truth to all those theories but there are also some simpler explanations. Their pitching was not good enough and it ran out of gas in the second half. Their hitting was good but they couldn’t stay healthy and they did not have the depth to overcome the injuries.
The first order of business in the off-season was to fire Trammell and replace him with Jim Leyland. As much as I liked Trammell as a player and as much as I thought he received too much blame for the season’s failures, I think this was the right move. Trammell was an inexperienced manager with an equally untested staff and he seemed indecisive and somewhat overwhelmed at times. Leyland, on the other hand, has lots of experience with many different kinds of teams and players and I think this will help the Tigers. Now, baseball is not like basketball or football where a coach makes a world of difference. They won’t become instant contenders just because they have a new manager but I think he can help them take the next steps towards contention.
It’s the players that win and lose ball games though. To that end, they added reliever Todd Jones and replaced Jason Johnson with Kenny Rogers. A less publicized but not unimportant move was allowing Rondell White, one of their best hitters last season to become a free agent. It is hoped that an outfield of Ordonez, Curtis Granderson and Craig Monroe will make White unnecessary but I suspect they’ll still miss his bat. Rogers and Jones are coming off excellent seasons and probably won’t repeat thir performances in 2006. However, Rogers should be an upgrade over Johnson and Jones should be better than anyone who pitched out of the bullpen at the end of 2005.
They also reportedly tried to obtain a left-handed hitter which is something they lacked last season but ended up making no upgrades to their offense through trades or free agency. They are now banking on the idea that full seasons from Ordonez, Guillen, Young, Polanco, Shelton and Granderson will provide enough improvement. There is also hope that Rodriguez will rebound from last season’s diasappointment. There is definitely a lot of potential for improvement but health is still a concern and, with little hitting from the left side, they could still be vulnerable against tough right-handed pitchers.
On the pitching front, they are hopeful of the development of young pitchers, most notably Jeremy Bonderman and their two prized prospects Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. Again there is a good deal of promise here but young pitchers are very unpredictable.
What can we expect from all of the key players in 2006? Do they have enough to get them to .500 or even further? Nobody knows, of course, but I’m going to give it my best shot over the next week or so. I will be giving a player by player run down of what I expect to happen in 2006 and then try to translate this into a final predicted win total.