With a decisive month to go, let me be the first to bring you the six biggest reasons the Detroit Tigers may have failed to make the post-season in 2014:
1) The injury to Jose Iglesias. Late last season, Dave Dombrowski made a steal to give the Tigers a top-notch defensive shortstop, but when he was lost to injury for this season, Detroit tried to patch the gaping hole with the likes of Alex Gonzalez, Danny Worth, and Andrew Romine before finally settling on Eugenio Suarez. Why Trader Dave didn’t find a better replacement for Iglesias is still a mystery. (Injuries to Bruce Rondon and Andy Dirks were also costly but not nearly so much.)
2) The Doug Fister trade. One of the major league’s most effective, if underrated, starters was essentially given away. Observers are still scratching their heads about this Dombrowski fiasco. The idea behind the swap of Fister for Ian Krol, Robbie Ray, and Steve Lombardozzi was to free Drew Smyly to join the rotation — and now that’s paying off handsomely for Tampa Bay. Smyly sure would have been a huge asset in the pen, pitching multiple innings, and Fister could have been another rotation mainstay. He’s had a better season (2.55 ERA, 16 walks in more than 130 innings) than any Tiger starter.
3) The signing of Joe Nathan. Nobody saw this coming, but maybe they should have. Two years and $20 million for a 39-year-old closer who blows games and thinks he doesn’t deserve boos?
4) Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera insisting they were healthy. Old school is to keep saying you’re fine and sucking it up. Those days went out with the twentieth century. JV pitched most of the year with an undisclosed tired arm, and it was costly. Cabrera didn’t really completely recover from the same type of off-season surgery and suffered through his worst big-league season ever. That they’re the two highest-paid players on the team and two of the richest in the game doesn’t help fans swallow it any better.
5) Shoddy defense. Especially in the second half of the season, balls were dropped and throws went wild all over the field. On Sunday the Tigers committed four errors in a game that should have been won. The outfield had no range and the infield had stone hands.
6) Bullpen roulette. Not counting relief appearances by Rick Porcello, Smyly, Ray, Danny Worth, and Romine, the club employed 18 different relievers even before the September 1 roster expansion, and 14 of them had ERAs below league average and worse than Worth’s ERA-plus of 107.
And now let’s go with the movie’s alternate ending. Here are the six biggest reasons the Tigers may have pulled it out and won their division this year anyway:
1) The J.D. Martinez surprise. He took the Walter Mitty pill and turned from being Rob Deer into a quasi-Jose Bautista by raising his career OPS 200 points.
2) Porcello’s breakout season. Through the end of August, he had the top ERA-plus on the staff: 133. He matured from perennial prospect to a solid star, giving the miserable bullpen a rest several times by going deep into games.
3) VMart’s great hitting. Second only to Jose Abreu in the AL in OPS at the end of August, Victor Martinez anchored the offense in the cleanup spot and provided not only remarkable plate discipline (more walks than strikeouts) but the home run punch absent from Miggy’s bat.
4) Max Scherzer refusing to sign and staying hungry. No complacency, plenty of motivation meant another banner year from Mad Max. He even pitched his first complete game.
5) Ian Kinsler steadies the offense and defense. A new team leader quietly emerged to anchor a suspect infield and provide consistency at the top of the lineup.
6) Joba Chamberlain saved the pen. Or the Tigers got Jonathan Papelbon. Or Joakim Soria got healthy. Or Mo’ne Davis became the closer. Or Brad Ausmus finally realized Al Alburquerque was really the team’s best reliever (by default). Whichever scenario is most plausible, somehow the bullpen found a way to close games or you wouldn’t have been reading about this kind of ending to the season.