2017 Tigers: Why they probably won’t be as good

Larry Sherry

Larry Sherry, the rookie MVP of the 1959 World Series, didn’t even join the Dodgers until July of that season, and didn’t move to the bullpen until a month later. Wherever the Dodgers used Sherry, he was effective — 7-2 with a 2.19 ERA and three saves in 94.1 innings. In the Series, he was a factor in every Dodger win, saving Games 2 and 3 and winning Games 4 and 6. In the final game, Sherry came on in relief of ’55 Series hero Johnny Podres in the fourth inning with an 8-3 lead and one out and one on. He shut out the White Sox over the last 5.2 innings, completing a Series where he worked 12.2 innings and allowed a single run. And Aroldis Chapman thought he was overworked. Sherry won 14 games in 1960 despite making only three starts, and while he became a consistently useful reliever, he was never as good as ’59 again. He saved 15 games in ’61 and 11 in ’62, but fell to 2-6 with a 3.73 ERA and three saves in ’63, when the Dodgers won the World Series again. There was barely a chance for Sherry to pitch in it — the Dodgers got three complete games and needed Ron Perranoski to get two outs in Game 2. In the four-game sweep, the Dodgers used just four pitchers. The Dodgers traded Sherry to the Tigers just before the start of 1964 for outfielder Lou Johnson — he was one of the heroes on the Dodgers’ 65 World Series champions, reaching the majors only after Tommy Davis’ injury and then homering in Game 7 of the Series. Sherry saved 37 games — 20 in 1966 — in parts of four seasons with the Tigers on teams that had winning records but finished 10 games or more back three times. The ’67 Tigers were the exception, losing by a single game, but Sherry, his effectiveness having waned, was traded to the Astros in midseason. He pitched his final three games for the Angels in 1968. With brother and catcher Norm, the Sherrys were the first all-Jewish battery in the majors. Career totals: 53-44, 3.67 ERA, 82 saves, 416 games, 16 starts, 799.1 innings, 747 hits, 374 walks, 606 strikeouts, 102 ERA+, 3.82 FIP, .716 OPS against, 2 MVP votes (good for 20th in 1960), 5.6 WAR (3.7 in 1959).

Up next: Tigers manager Brad Ausmus called reliever Joe Jimenez “an extreme long shot” to make the Opening Day roster, which should make everyone wonder if Ausmus has seen his other bullpen options. Mark Lowe, who had a 7.11 ERA for Ausmus last year, is in but Jimenez is out? Jimenez’s odds might be better if the Tigers didn’t owe Lowe $5.5 million more. Jimenez is a 22-year-old from Puerto Rico who struck out 78 in 53.2 innings last year and had a 1.51 ERA across three levels, finishing at AAA. Ausmus is not alone in his opinion, apparently. Baseball America, normally meticulous about its rankings, omitted Jimenez from its list of top 10 Tigers prospects. That might make sense in a more competitive farm system, but the Tigers’ No. 10 was Derek Hill, an outfielder and former No. 1 pick who hasn’t advanced beyond Low A in three seasons and has three homers and a career .634 OPS. His chance to ever play in the majors is more of a long shot than Jimenez’s to do so this April should be.

What he said: “It doesn’t bother me a bit that we didn’t do anything. Sometimes, no change is the best change of all.” Brad Ausmus on the Tigers’ offseason. What he meant: “They could have changed managers.”

Outlook: Mike Ilitch owned the Tigers for a quarter of century but never won the World Series. It wasn’t for lack of trying, for he spent millions on a new ballpark and new players. The Tigers reached the Series twice under Jim Leyland, but won just one game in those two trips, and lost the ALCS two more times.

Ilitch died at 87 just before spring training, and the Tigers will honor him by wearing a Mr. I patch for 2017. There is an I in Tigers, and there should be.

It’s a fitting honor, even if Ilitch would have preferred a world championship. Not many owners once played for the organizations they supervise, and Ilitch owned the team as if he hadn’t forgotten that he did.

Before he started making pizzas, Ilitch made plays as an infielder in the faraway outposts that made up the minor leagues of the 1950s. As a middle infielder, Ilitch didn’t have many of the toppings, but he did hit .310 in 1953 and .324 in 1954 and lasted four seasons with three organizations.

The pizza thing worked out pretty well for him and he bought Detroit’s hockey team in 1982 and the Tigers a decade later. Ilitch paid his players generously, as if he hadn’t forgotten what he made in the Florida State League and New York-Penn Leagues a half century earlier (his greatest act of philanthropy, though, wasn’t the $214 million he extended to Prince Fielder, but the lifetime benefits he paid to ensure the safe housing of a Detroit crime victim named Rosa Parks).

“Many owners are caricatures, rich men needing headlines to validate their success,” wrote Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free Press. “They find the mike. They pound their fists. Ilitch ruled two franchises with less than half the ego of men who run one.”

It’s only due to the vagaries of sport that Ilitch’s Red Wings were so successful at winning hockey’s ultimate prize, lifting the Stanley Cup four times in little more than a decade, but the Tigers were not, no matter how much money and energy they expended. Dollars spent rarely correlate directly into titles won, because it’s not how much you spend but how wisely.

The Tigers will go into 2017 with a payroll again above $200 million, the result of management’s preference for the quick fix over the long haul. The Tigers still have nearly $300 million tied to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, but that didn’t deter them last offseason from investing some $240 million more in free agents Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, neither of whom proved worth it.

Upton hit 31 homers, but 13 of those came after Sept. 1, and his OPS was less than .700 for most of the season’s first five months. He’s a better player than that — his 2.0 WAR was his lowest since 2010 — and he won’t turn 30 until August, but he played last season as if the $132 million contract weighed heavily on him. Literally.

Upton was the better of the two signings. Zimmermann had been a Nationals mainstay for half a decade, but he was more liability for the Tigers, making only 18 starts because of injuries.That could explain his career-worst 4.87 ERA and 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings, but the Tigers are already a team full of guys whose tread is worn. They don’t need another ready to shed the best days of his career.

Last year’s Tigers won 86 games and improved by 12 games over 2015, but they’ll be hard-pressed to maintain those gains. Their run differential (+29) and record in one-run games (26-17) bespoke a team closer to the mean.

The Tigers had five players hit 20 or more home runs last year, and would have had six had Nick Castellanos, who hit 18, not missed significant time to injury. But the home run trot is near top speed for about $46 million worth of Tigers in Miguel Cabrera, who led the AL by grounding into 26 double plays, and Victor Martinez, who hit into 19 more (which isn’t terrible, considering Cabrera’s .393 on-base percentage).

The Tigers’ bigger impediment, though, is the pitching staff, which might be lucky to be as good as last year when it was 11th in the AL in ERA in a pitcher-friendly park. The rotation is thin, and that’s assuming ace Justin Verlander can approach his near Cy Young season.

Verlander was as good in 2016 as he’s been since 2012, but no matter how reliable the mode of transport, it’s a little slower to rev up to full speed and a little harder to maintain its ability to cruise the more use it gets.

Verlander led MLB in pitches again last year, and the 3,668 he threw were 73 more than runner-up David Price — and look what that for for the latter. It’s the fifth time Verlander led MLB in the category (he missed a sixth when Dan Haren threw five more pitches in 2010) and he’ll be 34 on Opening Day. It’s a marvel no more serious injury has befallen him.

After Verlander, there’s only 2016 Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer before rain becomes wishful thinking. Neither Daniel Norris nor Matt Boyd, the return on Price, has claimed a rotation spot, because of injuries and home runs, respectively; Annibal Sanchez has thrown a home run every 5.1 innings over the last two years, and has the ERAs (4.99 and 5.87) to prove it; and even someone optimistic enough to believe in the city of Detroit’s revitalization isn’t optimistic enough to believe in the same for Mike Pelfrey.

And the bullpen, which isn’t deep, is depending on Bruce Rondon, whom the Tigers once sent home because they were unhappy with his effort or lack thereof, to be the primary setup man to Francisco Rodriguez (.642 OPS against), whose job is secure only because there is no one better.

Longshot doesn’t just describe Jimenez’s chance to make the team, but the Tigers’ to win the AL Central as well.

Team song: Joni Mitchell: Taming the Tiger

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