|Well you all know what laughter sounds like|
To say that I saw this coming would be a lie. Ok, sure, I've seen this coming for the last month or so, when the Tigers went from a middling division contender to a unstoppable powerhouse, but when a team wins 12 in a row, it's kind of tough to be surprised when the clinch a playoff berth. But the fact that we even got to this point is surprising to me. This is a season in which the Tigers started a horribly performing Brandon Inge long enough for him to earn 10/5 rights, then Designated Him for Assignment, then brought him back as a reasonably valuable platoon player. This is a season in which the Tigers looked sloppy. Poor defense haunted the team, inconsistent pitching created setback after setback. A weak bullpen just couldn't hold it together.
Yet somehow, hold it together they did. In place of a 2nd half collapse there was a second half surge. In early August, Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland were both given contract extensions. The Tigers had a tenuous grasp on 1st place and weren't playing the best baseball. Dombrowski had been doing everything he could shuffle the roster to keep the team in contention. Leyland was being Leyland. Many fans were confused; others, upset. Why would you give them an extension with two months to go. Subtext: Why would you stick us with these two with another collapse imminent. I held a more moderate view at the time. Sure, the timing is a little strange, but here you have a team that is in first place in August. Why wouldn't you give an extension? This isn't a great team, yet they've performed well. There is still plenty of season to go, potential lame duck leadership could sink the ship. Sure, extend away.
Since August 8th the Tigers are 27-10.
Take a look back at the start of the season. Did anyone expect this? I'm not saying nobody thought it was possible, but was there anyone who seriously expected the Tiger to blow away the division? There were way too many unknowns about this team. About the rotation, about 2nd base, about sophomore slumps. Nobody knew. And the funny thing is, all of that uncertainty didn't really work its way out. Instead, the anxious trigger finger of Dave Dombrowski made things happen.
I've never been an argent DD supporter. He made a bunch of boneheaded contract extensions after the Tigers last playoff run that handcuffed the team for years. But man, did he ever earn his money this year.
Three pickups in a very thin trade market have made all the difference in the world. Sure, it helps that Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in the majors right now, or that Miguel Cabrera is playing as his consistently great self, yet is flying under the radar some how. In fact, as astutely pointed out by Jonah Keri, Alex Avila and Jhonny Perlata are having best-in-class seasons themselves.
When we look back at early season lineups and see INGE, RABURN, SIZEMORE, KELLY etc. slotted into the lineup every day it was depressing. It didn't work. Dombrowski saw it too. Now, the weak points of the lineup have become the Tigers' strengths, as platoon players or defensive replacements or pinch hitters. The Tigers are a much better, and much different, team than they were as recently as the start of July.
Four more names:
Let's play match game.
4 Years/$50 Million
4 Years/$56 Million
7 Years/$142 Million
7 Years/$126 Million
232/332/392, 19 HR, 56 RBI, 147 SO
161/291/282, 11 HR, 40 RBI, 161 SO
252/289/398, 11 HR, 53 RBI, 98 SO
325/375/461, 11 HR, 94 RBI, 50 SO
In case you weren't sure, Victor(y) Martinez has the cheapest, shortest contract and production that FAR exceeds that of all of the three. Lest we forget, these four people were the free agent market last year. That was it. The Tigers knew that they needed to add a bat and they just happened to choose the only one of the four that has had a good season. VMarts season has been excellent, everyone else's has been short of serviceable. Point, Dombrowski.
There are two weeks left in the season and we can finally relax. There will be no Game 163 this year. No last minute collapse to the Wild Card. Jim Leyland can twist and contort his facial muscles into something that resembles a painful smile, before channeling his inner Rex Banner and snapping back to its default position.
The Tigers are in the playoffs. They won their division for the first time since 1987. This is a real thing. The Tigers have become a good baseball team, one that can reasonably contend for home field advantage over these last few weeks. One that is going to see its share of post-season awards. One that has a shot, as good a shot as anyone, at taking home the ultimate prize.
Baseball is a sport of two seasons: the Regular Season and the playoffs. The first objective is to craft a team that can get you to the playoffs, then have a strong enough rotation to dominate the playoffs. Place a check by the first one. As for the second, I think that Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and company may have a case to make come October.