So where did the Tigers go wrong? There isn't any one thing that if it were fixed or changed, the Tigers would be in the midst of the AL Central race. Instead, a combination of bad and risky assumptions, lack of contingency planning, and just plain bad luck all fed into their struggles.
Edgar Renteria would hit at the level he did with Atlanta. This was despite age being a factor, and him struggling mightily in his only other season in the American League with Boston. Even with a recent jump in performance, Renteria's OPS is just .675.
Miguel Cabrera could be the team's everyday third baseman. The organization ignored the fact that he had never been good at the hot corner, and hoped some weight loss would make all the difference. It obviously didn't, and Cabrera made it less than a month before being shifted to first, which required two players acclimating themselves to new positions on the fly.
The Tigers could rely on a trio of close-to 40-year olds. Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones and Gary Sheffield have all had very successful careers, but the odds that all three were going to be able to hold up for an entire season weren't high – that didn't change the fact that the Tigers number two starter, closer, and everyday DH were all in this group. Jones lost his closer's role (and was shortly after shelved on the DL), Rogers' ERA is near five, and Sheffield has battled injuries and consistency all year, just finally starting to hit after the All-Star break.
The mediocre acquisitions would shore up the bullpen. Rather than making a legit investment in the position, the Tigers thought acquiring arms like Francisco Cruceta and Denny Bautista could help solve the Tigers' relief problems. Cruceta and Francis Beltran both had ERA's in the five's and have spent most of '08 in Triple-A, while Bautista was maddeningly inconsistent and traded to Pittsburgh.
Two left-handers coming off down years, received multi-year contract extensions worth big money, would rebound and produce. Both Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis didn't pitch up to expectations in 2007, and instead of being expected to do better, both were rewarded with three-year extensions. More than likely, those extensions didn't encourage laser-focus or an intense work ethic from either. Robertson's ERA is near six, and Willis made just four starts for the Tigers and has spent most of the season in the minors trying to figure out where he's gone wrong and rebuild his delivery.
Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya would be the back-end bullpen anchors that they were in 2006. Rodney has been the model for health problems throughout his career, not necessarily with season-ending injuries, but numerous nagging ones that limited his effectiveness. Zumaya meanwhile was coming off a serious shoulder injury for which there was no precedent for a return timetable, and wasn't the same pitcher when he did return.
Assuming a lineup whose average age was 32 would stay healthy and produce. Crazier things have happened, so it wouldn't be uncommon for this group to stay healthy and produce. But the fact remains, all but two players in the lineup were past their prime production age of 29 and in turn, we've seen notable dips from a few players (especially Carlos Guillen, who despite being an All-Star, has just an .808 OPS, about 100 points lower than where he's been on average the past few years, and nowhere near the .300-20-100 lines we've seen from him).
Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander were the furthest thing from question marks – both had been remarkably consistent since becoming a Tiger – Bonderman a virtual lock for 200 innings and an ERA around four, and Verlander the ace with the potential to win 20 games. Bonderman was shelved for the remainder of the season in June with a rare blood clot, and Verlander hasn't been the pitcher he was a year ago, with being stranded for too long on a few occasions, and struggling far more often against good offenses than he had in the past.
Curtis Granderson breaking his hand. Granderson, because of a bad pitch in the last week of spring training, spent almost the entire first month of the season on the disabled list. The Tigers lost 13 of the 21 games they played with Granderson out, and for an offense that was so heavily dependent on Granderson getting things started, it was obvious the team was lacking their table-setter. In eight of those games, the team scored two runs or less.
All this put together, and it's pretty easy to see why the Tigers season went south.
Of course, the Tigers could have planned for some of these things and better prepared for what might come up. The bullpen, clearly filled with question marks, went without any significant boost. The rotation, likewise, had numerous question marks, and if not for an out-of-nowhere Armando Galarraga, the season could have been a complete disaster.
But some things, like the Tigers' age, was simply a gamble that the Tigers decided to take – and one that quite frankly didn't pay off. Instead of looking forward to playoff fever sweeping the Motor City, the Tigers are in the dog days of summer, and already planning for 2009.
We could dive further into the moves the club made and dissect each one, reaching a verdict and second-guessing (like the Renteria deal), but hindsight is 20-20, and what's done is done. It's now time for the next question:
What can the Tigers now do to fix this mess?