Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Lot Can Change in Ten Years



Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago? I was living in the stumbling, drunken fog that was my early twenties. And one of the reasons that I lived in such a fog was the woeful Detroit Tigers baseball team of that time period. At least that’s what I tell myself now in order to deny my past alcoholism…

But yeah, it’s been ten years since the historically bad 2003 team. For those of you that weren’t on the Tigers bandwagon back then, it was hell. They finished 43-119 and those 119 losses are the most in American League history. Detroit finished 47 games behind the Twins in the AL Central. Only a 5-1 finish (and probably the threats of a painful death by coach Kirk Gibson) kept them from eclipsing the 1962 Mets for the most losses in MLB team history.

As a fan that barely missed watching the magical 1984 season by one year, I've spent many a miserable season watching this franchise struggle during the late eighties, all of the nineties, and the early 2000’s while waiting for a winner. Today, 2006 and 2012 have made it fun to be a Tigers fan again. And 2013, barring any severe injuries, could be the best one yet.

I look back in amazement on how far the team has come. From hopeless to preseason favorites. From disgrace to the class of the league. From Omar Infante to…Omar Infante. Well, you know what I mean.

Today’s bit is a look at how far we’ve come. Look back and appreciate what Mr. I, Double D, and the Marlboro Man have helped build in Detroit. Yeah, I make jokes, but I never forget where we’ve come from. Here’s a look at those ’03 hard luck kids and their ’13 juggernaut counterparts (with ’12 stats).

Catcher

Then: Brandon Inge, .203/.265/.339, 8 HR, 30 RBI, 64 OPS+

Now: Alex Avila, .243/.352/.384, 9 HR, 48 RBI, 100 OPS+

Inge, the then-26 year old, was in just his third season of his polarizing Tigers tenure and close to the end of his catching days. He would have better luck in coming years at third base and would use the pressures of catching as one of his many excuses for poor hitting over the years. Today, he’s looking like he’ll be a utility guy for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lucky them.

Avila is still a bit of a mystery. He had a splendid 2011 season, but injuries and inconsistency limited his output in 2012. He has a talent for getting on base, no matter how his hitting stroke is looking, and it will be interesting to see what the boss’ kid has to offer in 2013…especially with Jim Leyland urging him to be more aggressive at the plate.

First Base

Then: Carlos Pena, .248/.332/.440, 18 HR, 50 RBI, 108 OPS+

Now: Prince Fielder, .313/.412/.528, 30 HR, 108 RBI, 152 OPS+

At only age 25, Pena was already playing for his third franchise and the team was hoping he’d become the superstar they thought Tony Clark would one day be. Not so much. Carlos showed promise, but didn’t blossom until four years later in Tampa Bay where he hit 46 home runs in 2007. Today, he will probably be remembering his 2003 days as he has signed with the Houston Astros, potentially the worst MLB ballclub since these ’03 Tigers.

Prince Fielder is a household name and is primed for a monster season. He has a full American League season under his belt, and more importantly, has a hitting machine both in front and behind him this year. Victor Martinez should allow Prince to see better pitches than Delmon Young ever did. Don’t be surprised to see Fielder top his 30 homers of 2012 by a dozen or more this season. He did hit 50 in a year as recently as 2007.

Second Base

Then: Warren Morris, .272/.316/.373, 6 HR, 37 RBI, 87 OPS+

Now: Omar Infante, .274/.300/.419, 12 HR, 53 RBI, 93 OPS+

Morris was in his final MLB season and didn’t play too badly after struggling to recapture his decent rookie season of 1999. He spent all of 2004 in Toledo and bounced around the minor league organizations of Cleveland and Milwaukee before retiring in 2006. He was best suited as a utility guy, but started 85 games for Detroit in 2003.

Omar Infante, a backup infielder on the 2003 team, returned to Detroit in late 2012 and enters this year as the starting second baseman. Back then, Omar was a free swinging guy that struck out a lot. Ten years later, with stops in Atlanta and Miami behind him, Infante is still a free swinging guy, but strikes out much less. He’s got a great glove and made an All Star team in 2010. Second base has been a nightmare for the Tigers since Placido Polanco left, but Infante is looking to finally stabilize the position in 2013.

Third Base

Then: Eric Munson, .240/.312/.441, 18 HR, 50 RBI, 102 OPS+

Now: Miguel Cabrera, .330/.393/.606, 44 HR, 130 RBI, 165 OPS+

Eric Munson is the worst fielding infielder that I’ve ever seen. It was miserable watching the guy out there. He had some pop at the plate, but he never really put it all together. He would be a backup catcher in the years that followed seeing MLB time with Tampa, Houston, and Oakland. As recently as 2011, he was playing independent ball with the Bridgeport Bluefish. Last I heard, though, he had accepted a coaching gig with USC’s baseball program.

Cabrera is the best hitter Detroit has seen since Ty Cobb was beating up both baseballs and fans. He is the reigning Triple Crown winner in the American League and the centerpiece of the 2013 Tigers powerful lineup. Many are already calling him a Hall of Famer and he still hasn’t turned 30 yet. Some knock his defense at third, but compared to Munson, Big Mig is a Gold Glover.

Shortstop

Then: Ramon Santiago, .225/.292/.284, 2 HR, 29 RBI, 59 OPS+

Now: Jhonny Peralta, .239/.305/.384, 13 HR, 63 RBI, 85 OPS+

You may know Santiago as the lovable little guy that backs up Jhonny Peralta today. Ramon has never been talented enough to play every day, despite the opinions of some of the crazier members of our fanbase. And despite having no business on the field, the then-23 year old Ramon started 127 games between short and second in 2003. He is a quality backup infield guy, though, and looks to once again have a lock on that position this season after a two year stint in Seattle in 2004 and 2005. Oddly enough, in 2013 he doesn’t look a day older than he did back in 2003.

Peralta is coming off of a terrible 2012 after an awesome 2011 campaign. No one quite knows what to expect from Jhonny this season. He’s dropped a decent amount of weight in the offseason and will hopefully play like we know he’s capable of. That is, unless Lynn Henning has him killed before the season starts.

Left Field

Then: Craig Monroe, .240/.287/.449, 23 HR, 70 RBI, 97 OPS+

Now: Andy Dirks, .322/.370/.487, 8 HR, 35 RBI, 130 OPS+

Craig wasn’t a great Tiger, but he had his moments, especially in 2006. Monroe was second on the team in homers and RBI in 2003 and many were hoping he’d blossom into a star. Instead, he has blossomed into Ryan Field’s easily confused sidekick in Fox Sports Detroit’s television studio.

Dirks has won the job as starting left fielder for Detroit this season, though the team doesn’t seem confident in his ability to hit left-handed pitching and still may acquire a platoon partner for him. He also has injury concerns after battling many last year. But when he was on the field, Dirks impressed both with the bat and glove. I’m looking forward to seeing if he can put it all together this year or become the latest Raburn/Boesch-type failure we’ve seen in the past with the team.

Center Field

Then: Alex Sanchez, .289/.320/.355, 1 HR, 22 RBI, 84 OPS+

Now: Austin Jackson, .300/.377/.479, 16 HR, 66 RBI, 130 OPS+

Sanchez could hit. His .296 career average shows that. And he could run. He stole 44 bases for Detroit in 2003. But he was awful on defense. And he reportedly had a poor attitude, too. Later, in 2005, he became the first MLB player to be suspended for PED’s. After Detroit, he’d play in Tampa and San Francisco before playing in the minors for Cincinnati and Miami. After a year of independent ball, he’d end up in the Mexican League, where he still plays today for Diablos Rojos del Mexico.

After a sophomore slump, Austin Jackson emerged last year as the guy the Tigers thought they were getting in the Curtis Granderson trade a couple years ago. He showed more patience at the plate, more power, and is emerging as a Gold Glove candidate in center. The team is hoping he’ll become a better baserunner this season and the acquisition of Torii Hunter can only help in Jackson’s continued development.

Right Field

Then: Bobby Higginson, .235/.320/.369, 14 HR, 52 RBI, 88 OPS+

Now: Torii Hunter, .313/.365/.451, 16 HR, 92 RBI, 132 OPS+

Bobby Higginson, the greatest baseball player of all time and hero to me millions, was nearing the end of his career in Detroit. Injuries and steroids carrying the failing franchise on his back for a decade were taking their toll. No one can dispute the raw determination Bobby showed on a daily basis on the baseball diamond, even in the nightmare that was 2003. Sure, it looked like he was cursing after every at bat. What he was really doing was asking for help. It would not arrive until it was too late. It remains a disgrace that Higginson does not yet have a statue in his honor at Comerica Park. A disgrace.

After years of watching Torii Hunter destroy Tiger pitching and praying for his career to end, it seems odd to welcome him as the newest Tiger. But it feels kind of cool, too. The man is a wizard with the glove. And he showed last year that he can still swing the stick, as well. Having the reigning MVP hitting behind him in 2013 should ensure that he continues to rake this year, barring any injury.

Designated Hitter

Then: Dmitri Young, .297/.372/.537, 29 HR, 85 RBI, 144 OPS+

Now: Victor Martinez, (2011) .330/.380/.470, 12 HR, 103 RBI, 131 OPS+

“Da Meat Hook” was the lone shining star of the 2003 ballclub. While surrounded by mediocrity, Young somehow shined and put together his finest season as a pro. Personal demons and health issues would derail Young’s career a few years later, but today, he works with kids in baseball camps and seems to have his life together again. He even humors me with responses on Twitter from time to time. One of my favorite Tigers ever.

V-Mart missed all of 2012 with a knee injury and though the team made the World Series, many feel they missed both his bat and leadership on the baseball diamond. Martinez is one of the best pure hitters I’ve ever seen and it’ll be a relief to see him penciled in at the number five spot after a year away. Also, I’m sick of feeling sad every time Pitbull comes on the radio.

Bench

Then: Shane Halter, Kevin Witt, Omar Infante, Andres Torres, Matt Walbeck

Now: Ramon Santiago, Brayan Pena, Quintin Berry, Don Kelly, Jeff Kobernus

Don Kelly isn’t looking too bad after this trip down memory lane…

Ace

Then: Mike Maroth, 9-21, 5.73 ERA, 193.1 IP, 87 K, 1.45 WHIP

Now: Justin Verlander, 17-8, 2.64 ERA, 238.1 IP, 239 K, 1.06 WHIP

Poor Mike Maroth. One of the nicest guys ever to play the game and while he wasn’t very good in 2003, his luck was just terrible. I’ll always have a soft spot in my black little heart for the guy. He bounced around the Cardinals, Royals, Blue Jays, and Twins organizations after Detroit before injuries ended his career. Nowadays, he is the pitching coach of the Lakeland Flying Tigers.

Justin Verlander may be God. I have yet to have anyone prove this incorrect to me.

Rest of Rotation

Then: Nate Cornejo, Jeremy Bonderman, Adam Bernero, Gary Knotts, Matt Roney

Now: Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly

To go along with Maroth’s 21 losses, Cornejo lost 17 and Bondo had 19 defeats. Roney went 1-9. What a dreadful group. But to be fair, all were under 26 years old and really shouldn’t have been out there. Those were sad days.

Today, we have arguably the best rotation in the league. Injuries happen, though, and I think they’d be crazy to trade Porcello like the rumor monkeys keep saying may happen.

Bullpen

Then: Jamie Walker, Chris Spurling, Franklyn German, Steve Sparks, Wil Ledezma, Chris Mears

Now: Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Bruce Rondon, Brayan Villarreal, Al Alburquerque

As I said, those were some sad days. Jamie Walker was the only decent arm out there. Mears and German tied for the team lead in saves. With five. Yeah. Five saves lead the team.

Today’s group seems to be the team’s weakness, but there’s still some talent in the group. It’s still up in the air which guy will close, but I’m confident that whoever it ends up being, they’ll be able to eclipse five saves with this ballclub.

Okay, that’s it for this trip down memory lane. So next time the team is on a three game losing streak and some of you newer fans decide to PANICPANICPANIC, please remember this post. You are watching an amazing baseball team in 2013.

Some of us haven’t always been this lucky.

1 comment:

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