Here we are, folks: the End of Season Post-Mortem series. If you're new here (which about 50% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from playoff contention, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated.
The expectations are World Series or bust in Detroit, and the Tigers fell short of those goals by losing to the Red Sox in the ALCS. Despite winning the AL Central by one game in the final standings, this team was in first place for most of the season before asserting itself in August and September. But a powerful lineup struggled to score runs late in the year, most notably in the postseason. While it's easy to blame Miguel Cabrera's injury for that, it was a team-wide problem, one that cost the Tigers an opportunity to return to the World Series.
Preseason Prediction: This is the best team in the division, and I'd feel pretty confident in saying they're going to finish first. But the games are played because crazy things can happen. I'll be shocked if the Tigers *aren't* a playoff team this season, and they've got the talent to go all the way.
What Went Right: Max Scherzer emerged from a starting rotation with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez as arguably the best pitcher in the American League. He's viewed as a heavy favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award with a 21-3 record, 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 240 strikeouts in 214.1 innings, all career-bests in his sixth major league season.
Miguel Cabrera chased a second consecutive AL Triple Crown until injuries caught up with him in September, and will likely win the AL MVP award for the second year in a row. His 44 home runs and 137 RBI eventually finished second. We'll never know if Cabrera could have caught the Orioles' Chris Davis in those categories had he stayed healthy, but it would've been a fun race. However, the Tigers third baseman did win a different sort of triple crown, leading the league with a .348 average (giving him a third straight batting title), .442 on-base percentage and .636 slugging mark.
The Tigers could actually become the first team to ever have the MVP, Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year winners in the same season. Shortstop Jose Iglesias — acquired from the Red Sox at the waiver trade deadline — was a leading contender for the award before the Rays called up Wil Myers. Though his batting average dropped from .330 with Boston to .259 for Detroit, Iglesias' stellar defense drew attention throughout the season and he did play 109 games to Myers' 88.
What Went Wrong: The bullpen was a season-long issue for the Tigers that carried over into the playoffs. Rookie Bruce Rondon was tabbed as the closer going into spring training, but couldn't win the job. That sent manager Jim Leyland and team president Dave Dombrowski into a tailspin, trying to find an answer.
A bullpen-by-committee approach was never given a real chance, especially when Phil Coke couldn't get left-handed batters out. Jose Valverde was re-signed and given a shot, but soon showed why the Tigers let him walk after the 2012 season. Joaquin Benoit eventually seized the closer's role and excelled in it during the regular season. But he was hardly a lights-out stopper in the postseason, allowing four runs in 5.2 innings (6.35 ERA). Of course, Benoit will be most remembered for hanging a changeup to David Ortiz in Game 2 of the ALCS, which was crushed for a game-tying, series-changing grand slam.
But maybe — just maybe — Detroit could have overcome its bullpen problems with a healthy Cabrera in the lineup to mash opposing pitching. He battled lower-body injuries during most of the second half of the season. But while Cabrera's abdominal strain appeared to heal, his groin injury stayed with him through the postseason. The Tigers announced that he suffered a tear that wasn't going to heal with rest and will require surgery. He apparently suffered the injury sliding into second base on Sept. 21. A clearly inhibited Cabrera hit .268 with a .716 OPS, two homers and seven RBI, unable to provide the offense the Tigers so desperately needed.
Most Surprising Player: For the first three months of the season, Victor Martinez looked like a player who had missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL. But once the Tigers' designated hitter got his timing back and incorporated his lower body into his swing, he became the team's best hitter when Cabrera got hurt. After the All-Star break, Martinez hit .361 with a .913 OPS. During the postseason, he compiled a slash average of .405/.432/.571 in 42 plate appearances. If the Tigers had a suitable replacement for him at DH in the playoffs, maybe Leyland would have considered benching Prince Fielder more strongly and used Martinez at first base for the last two or three games of the ALCS.
Most Disappointing Player: While it's certainly tempting to point at Fielder — especially after he hit .225 in the postseason with no home runs or RBI — he did still manage 25 homers and 102 RBI batting between Cabrera and Martinez in one of the AL's most powerful lineups. The Tigers' biggest disappointment — one that developed early on, carried through the regular season and lingered into the playoffs — has to be Phil Coke.
The left-hander had a chance to settle Detroit's closer problems in the opening weeks of the season, yet could not get right-handers out. He allowed eight runs in eight innings during April. That limited Coke to being a situational left-handed reliever, but he couldn't get lefty batters out either. This season, southpaws hit .299 against him in 88 plate appearances. Coke ultimately finished with a 5.40 ERA in 38.1 innings and was left off the ALDS roster. He was activated for the ALCS, but made only four appearances totaling one inning.
Coke could very well be a non-tender candidate in December.
The Future: The Tigers have the look of an aging team whose championship window is closing. The Indians and Royals gained significant ground in the AL Central this year and should challenge Detroit for first place and/or a wild-card spot in 2014.
However, much of the same club that won 93 games and a division title will return. Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez and Doug Fister anchor the starting rotation, with Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly taking that fifth spot. And a lineup with Cabrera, Fielder and Martinez in the middle should be just as productive, provided everyone stays healthy. But there are some significant holes to fill, including the manager in light of Leyland's retirement.
Is Nick Castellanos ready to be the full-time left fielder next year or does Detroit have to find a stopgap player (or players, much like the Red Sox did)? Will Omar Infante be re-signed at second base? If Dombrowski pursues a leadoff hitter-type in the offseason, it will probably be at one of those positions. Above all, the bullpen needs to be overhauled. If Benoit is brought back, will he be the closer or return to his setup role? Could the Tigers go after someone like Joe Nathan, Brian Wilson or Grant Balfour? Will the team add anyone else to shore up the middle relief?
The solid core of a playoff contender is certainly still in place. But the Tigers have several questions to answer during the offseason. How they address those concerns could be the difference between contending for a World Series again and beginning a slow slide toward the middle of the pack.