The 2014 Detroit Tigers: Proof, Yet Again, You Can't Win a World Series with a Dumpster Fire for a Bullpen

By Mike Cardillo

Once you see the proverbial red dot on the discount cashmere sweater you can’t unsee it.

Actually, no wait, that’s getting ahead of things. The following post is going to be (fair warning) a rambling good bye to the 90-win 2014 Detroit Tigers. Right up front I’ll admit I’m a fan and the Tigers are the one sports team I still follow with childlike wonder, which allows me to be an irrational, crazy fan like everyone else. The Tigers’ season came to an end Sunday with a 2-1 loss to the Orioles in Game 3 of the ALDS at Comerica Park. I can’t say that I’m totally shocked — I picked Baltimore to win the series — plus the odds of Detroit advancing to four straight American League Championship Series seemed improbable last November, August and even at the beginning of last week. In the current, parity-driven baseball landscape doing that is a feat I’m not sure any club could pull off and certainly not one with the flaws this Detroit team possessed all season.

Before complaining, or more accurately whining and lamenting, two quick pieces of business are in order.

  • A full congratulations to the Baltimore Orioles. Every string Buck Showalter pulled worked. For all the statistics and measurables in baseball there still isn’t a way to scientifically quantify “it,” but for three games the Orioles had “it” and the Tigers didn’t. And how’s this? The Orioles team ERA during the season was 3.43 — the exact same number for the ALDS. A tip of the digital cap to Bud Norris, et al.
  • More congrats are in order for the craziest week in Kansas City Royals history. What a ride. As someone who lived through the 2003 Tigers 119-loss season and saw them in the World Series three years later, enjoy it. I wish I rooted for a team that could run the bases and actually had a thing called a “bullpen.” (Of course by the same token Royals fans all year bemoaned this team’s lack of power that produced 95 home runs, whereas the the Tigers were second in baseball in runs scored, so perception is, as always, jaded by the previous night’s results.)

So what was I getting on about the red dot? The red dot was the Tigers bullpen, which was poor all season to the tune of a 4.29 ERA and 270 Batting Average Against. It only got worse in the ALDS, particularly two disastrous eighth innings in Baltimore. The series was over in Game 2 when the Tigers bullpen turned a 6-3 lead into a 7-6 loss in the eighth.

Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke and Joakim Soria combined to allow 10 earned runs in 1 2/3 innings, translating into an ERA over 54.00, saying nothing of closer Joe Nathan who alone prompted me to buy stock in Pepto Bismol over the summer. Naturally Nathan pitched a 1-2-3 inning in Game 3, his only appearance of the Series.

To win the World series you need to win 11 games and, quite simply, the Tigers weren’t going to be able to do this with a awful bullpen. How a team can assemble a $160+ million opening day payroll without viable arms in the pen is a good question, but it encapsulates the Tigers’ stars-scrubs roster philosophy, which never quite achieved any consistency all season and could go on a four-game winning or losing streak at any given moment.

Detroit basically received zero production all season from shortstop, with minimal contributions from catcher and centerfield. Sure you can have MVP-level players from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, along with a stunning season from J.D. Martinez picked up off waivers from the Astros, but these three can’t bat twice in the order, can they? If you want a rotation with the last three Cy Young award winners — Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price — the trade-off is 250+ at bats for Andrew Romine, and Phil Coke as your lefty “specialist,” apparently.

There isn’t a hard-fast scientific formula to winning in October. This century we’ve seen teams win with starters going deep into games (2003 Marlins, 2005 White Sox, 2008 Phillies) and we’ve seen bullpens rise to the occasion (2002 Angels). Somehow you have to get the job done offensively by hook or by Yost AND record 27 (or more) outs 11 times. One formula the 2014 Tigers proved, or more accurately confirmed: you’re not going to win a World Series if you can’t get an out after the sixth or seventh inning.

On Friday I was pissed off about Brad Ausmus opting to take Anibal Sanchez — coming off a late-season injury — out after two innings of relief, but I have to trust the manager knows the ability and health of his players more than I do hundreds of miles away sitting in front of my laptop. Showalter had someone like former Tigers first round pick Andrew Miller to turn to late in the games, Ausmus did not. As easy as it is to blame the manager, it’s not the manager’s fault Holaday — who bunted for hits all season — couldn’t get a bunt down to move J.D. Martinez over in the ninth inning of Game 3, nor is it the manager’s fault the best pinch-hitting option the team had was Hernan Perez — that’s on GM Dave Dombrowski and it’s hard to get too mad at him, either. If you continually trade away players to acquire guys like Sanchez or David Price, the consequence is your organizational depth will be shallow. (The Doug Fister trade remains puzzling all these months later.)

If there’s one thing to grouse about, if the Tigers ever see Nelson Cruz in the playoffs — don’t give him anything to hit, even if it’s a foot off the plate because apparently that’s how you hit balls to the only spot in Comerica Park where the fences are 330 feet away.

Since reaching the World Series in 2006 the Tigers have been pretty good in the postseason, going 4-0 in the Division Series prior to this year. Yet the team’s first championship since 1984 — a drought one year longer than the Royals’ and one year shorter than the Orioles’ — remains out of reach. Admittedly it sounds like sour grapes and whining to complain about the Tigers, who’ve won four straight AL Central crowns, but without a World Series to cap it off, this period feels frustratingly hollow, aided greatly by utter stinkbombs in the 2006 and 2012 Fall Classics vs. the Cardinals and Giants respectively.

The worst part about all this? It feels like the window is all but closed. The Tigers’ best chance was either against the Giants in 2012 or last year’s gut-wrenching ALCS with the Red Sox. It’s still hard not to wonder ‘what if’ Torii Hunter caught David Ortiz’s grand slam rather than falling into the bullpen.

Hunter will be gone. Max Scherzer will be too. As great as he was this season, the Tigers need to resist the urge to bring back Victor Martinez and spread the money around, unless he’s willing to take a two-year deal. Again, there isn’t a magic formula but the stars-scrubs formula used by Dombrowski is eventually going to catch up with them; hopefully they avoid a Phillies-like decline.

As for next year, a rotation of Price, Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Verlander complemented by an offense built around Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler isn’t terrible. Clearing away the Prince Fielder money last winter looks even more important now. However, it’s hard not to think the Tigers reign atop the division is almost done. Detroit still has proven commodities on its roster, but Kansas City’s young lineup could win a World Series this year and the Tigers were only a game better than the Royals in the standings in 2014. Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota all have viable younger players in their organizations, too, while the Tigers core — many on massive, untradeable contracts — ages.

And maybe karma is total bullshit and doesn’t exist, but sometimes what goes around does indeed come back around to haunt. The Tigers won the 2012 ALCS thanks in large part to the bat of Delmon Young vs. the Yankees. On cue, Young delivered the hit that essentially ended the Tigers’ season with his three-run double in Game 2 for the Orioles. Live by the Delmon. Die by the Delmon, I guess.

Baseball remains a maddening, frustrating sport that above all else is a grind. Following day-in, day-out for five months and to have it end like this makes you question why you’re doing it in the first place. At least I’ll probably never have to see Chamberlain try to get high-leverage outs in October for my favorite team ever again, so there’s always some small silver lining.

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[photos via Getty]