Big payroll has robbed Tigers of roster depth and hampered postseason runs

There were much better options the last few years than Phil Coke.

There were much better options the last few years than Phil Coke.

The Detroit Tigers ended their 2014 campaign with Hernan Perez at bat.

Their 2013 playoff run essentially ended when Joaquin Benoit gave up a dinger to David Ortiz.

The much-aligned and frequently booed Phil Coke was on the mound when the Giants completed their sweep of Detroit in the 2012 World Series. And Coke also pitched for the 2011 team that lost the ALCS in six games to the Rangers.

Besides Coke, three superstars—Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer—were on all four of those teams. So were Alex Avila, Al Alburquerque, and Don Kelly.

In this decade so far, successful teams have usually not been those with the highest payrolls, like the Yankees or the Dodgers. They’ve been teams with few superstars and lots of role players, teams with strong bullpens and at least adequate players at every position. Pennants are being won by entire rosters more than by the big stars.

Baseball has changed in recent years from a sport dominated by big-market behemoths who dole out big contracts to free agents to a race among the little engines that could. But during this time Detroit has been swimming against the tide. With owner Mike Ilitch increasingly desperate to win a World Series before he dies, and hoping to make it happen by spending lots of money, the Tigers have taken on one of the game’s highest payrolls. And with that has come a change in the culture of the fans—from the perennial underdog mentality typical of Detroit sports to a mindset more like that of the traditional Yankees (or perhaps Ilitch’s Red Wings), where supporters expect the club to make the playoffs every year, and where not winning the World Series counts as a disappointment.

With three Cy Young winners and a two-time MVP on its squad, Detroit has become an extreme example of a team with superstars that neglects to adequately consider the makeup of the entire team down to the bottom of its roster. And this at a time when the baseball world can see what weapons the Kansas City Royals have all the way down to the end of their bench, with the likes of Terrance Gore.

The Tigers in recent years have been a team where one hole gets patched only to see another open up. They have not had strong bullpens and have had lousy reserves. They have corralled a good number of high-priced big stars and almost succeeded with this strategy: they’ve gotten close to the top year after year, without reaching the pinnacle.

In 2013, despite their three superstars who turned to four after David Price was acquired, the Tigers finished the year with (depending on how you assess it) average or below-average players at no less than five positions: shortstop, third base, center field, right field, and catcher. Only the good fortune of plucking a surprisingly overachieving J.D. Martinez off the scrapheap—and of Victor Martinez having his stellar year—saved the team from being, at best, a wild card.

Detroit was so desperate to spend money to win that the club unwisely locked up both Verlander and Cabrera with very big salaries for a very long time. Now, like the old Yankees clubs they have come to resemble in many ways, in coming years they’ll be paying huge amounts for players long past their peaks of productivity. Verlander has already started his decline, and Cabrera has had several months the last two seasons where he’s been alarmingly gimpy; he’ll soon be a DH.

Good defenses, sound bullpens, and productive bench players are the ingredients common to both World Series teams this year and to many of the best teams of this decade, such as the Oakland A’s. These three things don’t cost a fortune. But they require general managers who pay as much attention to the bottom half-dozen spots on the roster as they do to the top guns. The Tigers have the award winners and the big names, but what the Tigers desperately need now is to find the smaller pieces to the puzzle of a championship team. These bit players are not so easily identified and purchased. Like any successful business, this reality requires a focus on the smallest details, not just on the headline grabbers.

Baseball of this era is, more than it’s been in quite awhile, a team game, and you need productive players all the way down the line to succeed. Especially in the post-season, when managers need to use all their resources to try to win every game, you need better options than Phil Coke and Don Kelly.