2016 Detroit Tigers: Can they be put back together again?


Bill Bruton

Outfielder Bill Bruton played the final four seasons of his career with the Tigers after he spent the first eight with the Milwaukee Braves. Bruton led the the NL in steals in his first three seasons, triples twice, runs scored once and caught stealings twice. He debuted in 1953 at age 28, though according to his bio at sabr.org, it wasn’t widely known. According to sabr.org, Bruton grew up in the South, served in the military and returned to live in Delaware, where he met and married the daughter of Negro Leagues star and Hall of Famer “Judy” Johnson. Johnson’s connections helped Bruton get notice, and because he was 23, all involved, according to sabr.org, agreed to change his birth year as if they were back-dating a check. Bruton stole 26 bases, hit 14 triples, batted .250, and was fourth in the 1953 Rookie of the Year voting with two votes behind winner Junior Gilliam. Bruton stole 34 bases in ’54 and ’25 in ’55 and raised his average — .284 in ’54, .275 in ’55, .272 in ’56. In 1957, he was hitting .278 with nine triples in 79 games when he tore a knee ligament and was lost for the season. The Braves went on to win their only World Series in Milwaukee. (The Braves moved their right fielder, a guy named Hank Aaron, to center to replace Bruton.) Bruton returned in ’58 and hit .280 with but three triples and four steals, and the Braves returned to the World Series. Bruton’s RBI single in the 10th won Game 1, and his leadoff home run in the first inning of Game 2 started a seven-run inning as the Braves won, 13-5. The Braves lost four of the next five and the last three after leading, 3-1, though no fault of Bruton’s — he batted .412 and had five walks in the series. Bruton led the NL in triples with 13 in 1960, and then was one of four players traded to the Tigers after the season for second baseman Frank Bolling. With the Tigers he had his greatest power years, hitting a career-high 17 homers in 1961 (with a career-high 61 walks) and 16 more in ’62 (with a .278 average). He batted .277 with five homers and five triples in a reduced role at age 38 in 1964 and retired after the season. He died in 1995 at the age of 70. Career numbers: .273 average, .328 on-base percentage, .393 slugging percentage, .720 OPS, 1,651 hits, 94 homers, 102 triples, 207 steals in 296 attempts, 937 runs scored, 96 OPS+, 26.1 WAR (high of 3.7 in 1960), 1 Hall of Fame vote in his only time on the ballot in 1971.

On deck: How bad was the Tigers’ farm system? So bad that Michael Fulmer became their top prospect the day he became a Tiger. Fulmer is one of two pitchers the Tigers acquired for Yoenis Cespedes (the other, Luis Cessa, isn’t much of a prospect; suffice to say he wasn’t much of a threat to Matt Harvey’s spot in the rotation), and GM Dave Dombrowski’s last deal for the Tigers may be one of  his best. He dealt Cespedes, whom he acquired months earlier for Rick Porcello, for Fulmer, who had a 2.24 ERA over two levels last year with 125 strikeouts in 124.2 innings. Effectively, Dombrowski dealt Porcello for a better, younger, cheaper pitcher. Given Porcello’s 9-15, 4.92 ERA in 2015 and the four years and $82.5 million left on his contract,  who would the Red Sox would rather have right now? Hopefully Dombrowski, now the Red Sox GM, can appreciate the irony.

2015 Stat: Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias batted .300 in 416 at-bats. He’s the ninth Tigers shortstop to hit .300 in at least 400 at-bats. The others were Jhonny Peralta (.303 in 2013), Carlos Guillen (.320 in 2006 and .318 in 2004; he hit .320 in 334 at bats in ’05), Deivi Cruz (.302 in ’00), Travis Fryman (.300 in 1993), off-the-Hall-of-Fame-ballot Alan Trammell seven times (.300 in 1980, .319 in ’83, .314 in ’84, .343 in ’87, .311 in’88, .304 in ’90 and .329 in ’93),  Harvey Kuenn in his first four seasons (.308 in 1953, .306 in ’54 and ’55 and .332 in ’56), Topper Rigney (.300 in 1922 and .315 in ’23), and Kid Elberfield (.308 in 1901).

All were a mite better than the .135 average and .399 OPS Ray Oyler produced for the Tigers’ 1968 world champions. Which is why manager Mayo Smith moved center fielder Mickey Stanley to short for the World  Series.

What he said: Manager Brad Ausmus on new Tiger pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who has a 61-81 career record with a 4.52 ERA, and allowed 198 hits in 164.2 innings last season for the Twins: “We think, with the stuff that he has, that there’s a little more in there.” What he meant: “With what he throws up there, I could hit him, and I’ve been retired for six years.”

Outlook: Dave Dombrowski ran the Tigers for more than a decade, long enough to lose 119 games in  2003 and World Series in 2006 and 2010, long enough to go from last to first back to last, and long enough to build a roster of haves and have-nots, both in pay and ability.

For a decade the Tigers contended, until they could no longer stand against the ravages of age, injury, payroll and a depleted farm system. Watching the 2015 Tigers fall was like staring at a severed branch on a tree and wondering which breeze would escort it to the bottom.

The 2015 Tigers lost 87 games and owner Mike Illitch fired Dombrowski, but only after he permitted him to trade David Price, Joakim Soria and Cespedes and begin the rebuild. You have to wonder about Illitch’s mindset, that he would allow the guy he was about to fire to trade the team’s most valuable assets.

Think about the way Illitch does business the next time you’re deciding whether to order pizza from Little Caesaers.

Dombrowski did better at the trade deadline than he did in the offseason, adding young pitchers Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd for Price, Fullmer for Cespedes and shortstop prospect JaCoby Jones for Soria.

Or maybe he dealt better from a position of weakness, because his winter deals were like bad toppings on Illitch’s pizza. They made the Tigers gag.

The Tigers needed Jones, a shortstop prospect, only because Dombrowski moved Eugenio Suarez, who is likely to be a better shortstop than the one Dombrowski kept, for Alfredo Simon. Simon won 13 games, more than any other Tiger, but he had a 5.05 ERA and .808 OPS against. It’s a measure of how bad he was that the Tigers preferred to sign Pelfrey in the offseason.

Unfortunately, Simon was a Cy Young candidate compared to Dombrowski’s other pitching acquisition. Shane Greene came in a three-way deal with the Diamondbacks and Yankees in which the Tigers finished last. Greene couldn’t even stay in a rotation that ranked 27th in MLB in ERA (4.78), going 3-8 with a 6.88 ERA and making just 16 starts.

The Tigers would have been better served if they simply kept the pitcher, Robbie Ray (5-12 with a 3.52 ERA), they traded.

Dombrowski was replaced by Al Avila, among whose offseason moves was allowing son Alex to go to the White Sox. Clearly sentiment won’t be an operating force.

Avila did what he could to make the Tigers presentable for 2016, spending $242 million on free agents Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, and dealing for closer Francisco Rodriguez and Justin Wilson and signing Mark Lowe to buttress the bullpen.

The Tigers start the season with $144 million committed to seven players — Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Zimmermann, Upton, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler.

It makes you wonder who’s eating all those Little Casears pizzas.

The Tigers could contend in 2016, but they need good health for the brittle Cabrera and Verlander, rebounds from Martinez (11 homers, .245 average and .667 OPS for $14 million in ’15) and Sanchez (4.99 ERA, .768 OPS against for $16.8 million), two starting pitchers to emerge and Bruce Rondon, who was sent home last year for “lack of effort”, to try.

And if the inflammation in Sanchez’s arm announced Thursday by the Tigers lingers, make that three starting pitchers.

It’s all possible, but the Tigers are like a $20 bill ripped into two pieces taped back into one. They can only be held together for so long.

Correction: An earlier version said Luis Cessa wasn’t much of a prospect in the Tigers system. He’s neither much of a prospect nor in the Tigers’ system. He was moved to the Yankees in the Justin Wilson deal.

Team Song: Django Reinhardt: Tiger Rag

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