The Detroit Tigers will not play in the World Series this year, but they did win 95 games and the American League Central:  the same total as they did in 2006.   The 2011 Tigers topped the .500 mark for the fifth time in the past six seasons, but the 2006 squad was the first Detroit team to best 81 wins since 1993.    Between the two strike shortened seasons and 2006, the Tigers failed to win SIXTY games three times.

Given that dismal stretch, the 2006 Tigers truly did make a dramatic leap from bad to contenders (and more), just as the Twins and Rays did as detailed in previous columns.   So, how did they do it?

The 2005 Detroit Tigers went 71-91 in Alan Trammell’s third year as manager.   They did so with this lineup:

  • Ivan Rodriguez C
  • Chris Shelton 1B
  • Placido Palanco 2B
  • Carlos Guillen SS
  • Brandon Inge 3B
  • Rondell White LF
  • Nook Logan CF
  • Magglio Ordonez RF
  • Dmitri Young DH

This lineup is a tad misleading in that Craig Monroe played in 157 games that year for the Tigers and basically played left and right as much as White and Ordonez, who was signed as a free agent during the off-season.   Also, Omar Infante played in 121 games split between shortstop and second base.    Palanco was acquired in a June trade for Ramon Martinez and Ugeth Urbina and hit .338/.386/.461 for the Tigers.     Carlos Pena split time with Shelton at first and each slugged 18 home runs.   As an offensive unit, the Tigers were not bad at all:  9 of the 12 players mentioned above posted OPS+ of 100 or better and one of the remaining three was Ivan Rodriguez who was an All-Star in his second season with the Tigers.

The Detroit starting rotation boasted four pitchers who tossed 189 innings or more, but none that managed an ERA under 4.48.   Jason Johnson (31 years old), Mike Maroth (27), Nate Robertson (27) and Jeremy Bonderman (22) posted remarkably similar numbers, with earned run averages betwee 4.48 and 4.74 while throwing between 189 innings and 210 innings.   Sean Douglass and Wil Ledezma split the number five rotation spot and neither pitched particularly well.

In the pen, Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, Jamie Walker, Franklyn German and Chris Spurling were the leaders in innings among Tiger relievers and were, by and large, quite effective.   Urbina, Troy Percival and Craig Dingman also spent time in the pen and as closers.   Actually, five relievers notched four or more saves for the Tigers.

Overall, Detroit’s offense was 11th in runs scored that season and in the middle of the pack age-wise.  The pitchers were in the middle of the pack, both in age and runs allowed.   At the end of 2005, Detroit struck this writer (and, I think others) as a team kind of meandering their way to 70-80 wins:  spending money to spend it and not really making real strides.

In the winter of 2005/2006, Detroit fired Trammell and hired Jim Leyland as manager.   They also went into the free agent market to sign 41 year old Kenny Rogers and 38 year old Todd Jones.   While the Tigers were spending money on aging veterans, they also handed the centerfield job to unproven 25 year old Curtis Granderson, inserted 23 year old Justin Verlander into the starting rotation and placed 21 year old Joel Zumaya into a key bullpen role.  All three of those players, like Inge and Rodney, were homegrown talent.

The 2006 lineup consisted of:

  • Ivan Rodriguez C
  • Chris Shelton 1B
  • Placido Palanco 2B
  • Carlos Guillen SS
  • Brandon Inge 3B
  • Craig Monroe LF
  • Curtis Granderson CF
  • Magglio Ordonez RF
  • Marcus Thames DH

Sean Casey was acquired via a trade late in the season to spell Shelton at first, while Omar Infante played a good deal of second, but the remainder of the lineup was basically there day in day out.  

Palanco was the only member of the regular lineup to not hit at least 13 home runs.    The Tigers got a monster year out of Carlos Guillen and 155 games worth of Magglio Ordonez.   With the exception of Palanco, everyone in the lineup was at least average offensively or better and as a group ranked fifth in the AL in runs scored and was league average in age.

On the mound, the $8 million given to Kenny Rogers yielded 204 innings worth of 3.84 ERA.   Both Bonderman and Robertson improved by half a run (ERA wise) while each surpassed 200 innings.   Verlander, as you surely recall, parlayed his 118 innings of minor league experience and threw 186 at the major league level with a solid ERA of 3.63.   Even Zach Miner, who was not great, was an improvement in the number five spot.

In the pen, Jones was an unconventional closer who managed to save 37 games, while Zumaya was simply unhittable.  The reminder of the group, headed by Rodney and Walker, were solid.

The pitching staff  was among the oldest in the league, thanks to Rogers and Jones, but sported the best ERA in the league.   Like our discussion of the Rays last week, the Tigers dramatically improved their pitching as part of their big leap (shocker, I know).

Unlike the Rays and Twins, Detroit did not have a ton of homegrown talent on their team and a fair number of high priced free agents.   Still, this was not simply a matter of throwing money around.   They picked up spare parts from other teams in the form of Guillen, Thames, Monroe and others that blossomed in Detroit.   They traded Jeff Weaver in exchange for Bonderman, Franklyn German and Carlos Pena  and, in the long run, gave up very little to get the serviceable Palanco and the veteran Sean Casey.

While the way the Tigers were built is probably not as good a model as that of the Rays or certainly the 2002 Twins, it is interesting in that Detroit went out and signed two veteran – very veteran – pitchers after winning just 71 games and both played big roles in vaulting the team to a World Series berth.   That is not an argument for Dayton Moore and the Royals to go out and do the same this winter, but simply something worthy of note.

In the end, I find the Twins model (yes, collective groan at that revelation) to seem to run closest to what the Royals are attempting to do.   Remember, they won their first division title without Joe Nathan and with Johan Santana as just a part time starter.   They also had an interim step on their way to a division title:  going from 69 wins in 2000 to 85 and a second place finish in 2001 to a division title and 94 wins in 2002.

Can the Royals make a similar progression?  If so, what should they do this off-season to make the leap?