Every year, we tend to welcome new people into our lives and say goodbye to old friends. This past year, three of the city’s four major professional sports teams did just that – the Lions, Red Wings and Tigers.
Some of the change was warranted, such as the firing of long-time Lions front office executives Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew, while other changes were less expected and welcomed, such as the dismissal of long-tenured Tigers president Dave Dombrowski and the decision by Stanley Cup champion head coach Mike Babcock to leave the Red Wings for the Eastern Conference rival Toronto Maple Leafs.
To many Lions fans, the feeling they received when the dismissal of Lewand and Mayhew was formally announced on November 5 was the same one that a child receives when he or she obtains an early Christmas gift.
In contrast, many Tigers and Red Wings fans felt that a lump of coal had been assigned to them when Dombrowski’s and Babcock’s respective departures were made public.
But whether good or bad, these three exits indubitably make up three of the five biggest stories in Detroit sports during the past year.
It’s not my goal to put anyone in a somber mood during the holiday season. So, to brighten up your spirits, let’s talk about two other major events that happened in Detroit sports in 2015 that happened to be bright spots.
I’m talking about the emergence of Tigers right fielder J.D. Martinez and Red Wings rookie phenom Dylan Larkin.
Martinez was a 20th round selection of the Houston Astros in 2009 while Larkin was a first-round selection of the Red Wings in 2014. Yet, the two can find common ground in the fact that they are arguably the two most exciting athletes under the age of 30 in Detroit sports today.
The 28-year-old home run-hitting Martinez produced 38 long balls and drove in 102 runs for the Tigers in ’15, which was just his second full major league season. Most players with his level of experience are just starting to figure out which restaurants are the best to eat at in each road city. But J.D. is producing like a veteran.
In 2015 as the Tigers suffered an off-season from Victor Martinez and endured the loss of Miguel Cabrera for more than a month due to injury, Martinez recorded his first season of being worth five wins above replacement. His eye-popping power surge helped him earn All-Star and Silver Slugger honors for the first time.
Anything close to that performance in 2016 will be appreciated by the Tigers faithful, as the club looks to rebound from its disappointing last-place finish in the AL Central – ironically, Dombrowski’s last year as head honcho of the Detroit organization.
The Red Wings aren’t looking to rebound from a last-place finish like the Tigers, as the Wings qualified for the playoffs for the 24th straight time during the 2014-15 campaign.
However, with the squad’s captain Henrik Zetterberg having turned 35 on October 9 and alternate captain Pavel Datsyuk having turned 37 on July 20, Hockeytown was in need of its next star.
And it looks to have found itself just that in the form of Larkin, the 19-year-old University of Michigan product who was drafted 15th overall by the Wings in the ’14 NHL Draft.
Even as a highly touted prospect, he’s exceeded even the most optimistic prognosticator’s expectations thus far.
In fact, as of Christmas Day, he leads all of the NHL in plus-minus with a positive 21 in the highly utilized statistic.
Among Wings players, the Waterford, Michigan, native also ranks at least third in the three following major offensive stats: in assists (tied for third with 11), in points (second with 24) plus in goals (first with 13).
His rise to stardom in year one has helped ease new Detroit bench boss Jeff Blashill’s transition from the Grand Rapids Griffins to the pros and has helped put the Wings into the playoff conversation in the Eastern Conference going into the new year with 41 points — good for seventh place in the East and three points behind the second-place New York Rangers.
The Rookie of the Year candidate has also enabled even the most devout members of the Detroit faithful to forgive Babcock and forget that he, who led the Wings to back-to-back Western Conference championships in 2008 and 2009 and a Stanley Cup victory in ’08 over the Pittsburgh Penguins, left town this past May to coach in his native country of Canada for the Leafs.
Larkin’s and Martinez’s rises to prominence have been “blessings” in 2015 for the Red Wings and Tigers, respectively. And it’s why they both deserve spots on my list of the five biggest stories in Detroit sports during the past year.
Now, for my ranking of the top five stories (from #5 to #1):
#5 Mike Babcock leaves the Wings for the rival Toronto Maple Leafs
Once the 2014-15 NHL campaign came to a close, it seemed destined that “Babs” would choose free agency over returning to Motown. It’s why it came as no surprise when he inked an eight-year, $50 million deal to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have the second-most Stanley Cups in NHL history yet have failed to hoist Lord Stanley since 1967.
#4 J.D. Martinez’s All-Star and Silver Slugger campaign
Martinez built on his 2014 campaign in which he recorded 4.2 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. Martinez also once again recorded an on-base plus slugging percentage above .875 (.879 OPS in ’15). A humble star, Martinez, who clubbed 38 homers in 2015, has quickly become a fan favorite in Motown. It’s hard to recall an athlete who came from more humble beginnings who become an unlikely superstar. The Astros didn’t trade J.D. to Detroit before the 2014 season, they gave him away, releasing him outright. Kudos to Avila (then the scouting director and assistant GM) for recommending him to the Tigers.
#3 Martha Ford’s firing of Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew
The 90-year-old owner cleaned house in the front office by dismissing former long-tenured Lions employees Lewand and Mayhew after the Lions started off 1-7. It was a long time coming, and yet it still wasn’t totally expected due to the organization’s former loyalty to the man who constructed the first 0-16 campaign in NFL history, Matt Millen. It was a step in the right direction, and after “screwing the pooch” with the hiring of Rod Wood as team president, the next big decision looming for Ford & Co. is hiring Mayhew’s successor. Ford and her search committee for the organization’s next general manager better choose wisely, as the hiring ultimately will dictate the success of the dormant franchise going forward.
#2 Dylan Larkin’s rookie season
The highly touted Red Wings prospect has been better than expected in his first campaign, and is one of the current favorites to claim the Calder Memorial Trophy for the league’s best rookie as a result of ’15 #1 overall pick and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid’s clavicle injury which will keep him sidelined until after the new year. Larkin’s dominant play for the currently playoff-bound Wings is the reason why he’s got this spot in my top five.
#1 Dave Dombrowski gets ousted by Mike Ilitch
Count me as one of the many Tigers fans who was flabbergasted by the news of Dave D’s dismissal on August 4. The architect of two American League pennant-winning ballclubs in the 2006 Tigers and the 2012 version of the team did not deserve such fate. But after an unsuccessful first four months for the then-four-time reigning AL Central champs and the trading of ace David Price, closer Joakim Soria and left fielder Yoenis Cespedes before the trade deadline, Ilitch decided to give “Trader Dave” his walking papers. Because I’m still trying to wrap my head around this bold move that resulted in the promotion of former “Double D” right-hand man Al Avila, it has claimed the top spot in my ranking of the five biggest Detroit sports stories in 2015.