J.D. Martinez dominates, management retools in 2015
DETROIT -- The Tigers ushered out their run of dominance atop the American League Central in much the same way that they came into it four years ago: Suddenly, decisively and absolutely.
Time will tell whether 2015 marked a transition year amidst Detroit's run as AL contenders, or a more significant shift in the balance of power in the league away from the corner of Brush and Montcalm. The change of leadership in the front office was a significant shift in itself. But for a team and a city that had grown accustomed to winning, the feeling of being effectively spectators in the playoff race by early August was something no Tigers had experienced in a decade.
Detroit defied fears of vulnerability by winning its first six games, including a three-game annihilation of the Minnesota Twins to open the season. But by the time the Tigers wrapped up their home schedule with the Twins, Minnesota was fighting for a Wild Card spot, and the Tigers were playing the role of spoilers.
"It's been an uphill climb for a while," said second baseman Ian Kinsler, who pushed hard in the second half and ended up with one of the better individual seasons for it.
It was a climb that grew steeper as the year went on -- and the end result resonated.
"This is definitely a season that will teach a lesson to a lot of people," Victor Martinez said, "starting with this clubhouse, a lot of players and a lot of people in the front office. And, believe it or not, it will teach a lesson to the fans, too.
"I say this season will be a lesson to a lot of people. You know, sometimes it's a good thing. You need to take a step back to go forward."
Record: 74-87, fifth place, AL Central.
Defining moment: The Tigers had already cooled off from their hot start and were hovering around .500 by July, but they arrived in Minnesota for the final series before the All-Star break with a chance at momentum. Detroit won the opener and took a 6-1 lead into the ninth inning of the second game before the Twins pulled off a incredible comeback off Bruce Rondon and Joakim Soria, capped by Brian Dozier's walk-off three-run homer off the Tigers closer. Detroit never regained momentum after that, falling to .500 at the break, dropping under .500 soon after and selling off Soria, David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
What went right: No Tiger had a bigger success story in 2015 than J.D. Martinez, who followed up his breakout 2014 season by shattering those numbers, earning an All-Star selection from players and proving he can adjust to the scouting reports. He was the steadying force in a lineup that never had a long stretch of continuity, due to injuries. Close behind Martinez was the pitching revival of Justin Verlander, who returned from two months on the disabled list and worked his way back to a semblance of the 2012 form many doubted he'd ever recapture.
Miguel Cabrera missed six costly weeks, but he hit up a storm while he was healthy, becoming the 10th player in Major League history to win four batting titles in a five-year span. Alex Wilson was a bullpen revelation, eventually becoming a closer after serving as an extra piece in the Rick Porcello-Cespedes trade. As painful as the Trade Deadline deals were for fans, Daniel Norris' late-season performance gave hope that he could be a big part of the rotation rebuild. Jose Iglesias, despite a dugout run-in with teammates, returned a lost 2014 season to anchor Detroit's infield defense and put up a highlight reel of plays.
What went wrong: So, so much. It began before Spring Training started, when Victor Martinez took a bad step while playing catch and tore his meniscus. Though he came back in time for Opening Day, he was never truly in healthy form, missing a month in midseason to strengthen the knee and then struggling through August. And just when Verlander seemed to find his form at the end of Spring Training, he missed the first two months of the season with a triceps strain.
Rondon's season-opening DL stint with elbow tendinitis set off a season-long saga that saw him optioned to Triple-A Toledo after his rehab assignment went badly, called up shortly afterwards, named closer in August soon after the Soria trade, then sent home in mid-September for effort level. A strained left calf cost Cabrera six weeks, including the crucial two-week stretch out of the All-Star break when the Tigers went from potential buyers to sellers. Anibal Sanchez led the American League in home runs allowed, obliterating his previous career-high total, before a rotator cuff strain ended his season in mid-August.
The bullpen was a season-long saga for the second straight year, not only for injuries but for offseason additions that backfired -- Joba Chamberlain was released July 10, and Tom Gorzelanny was outrighted to Toledo amidst a midseason change to a sidearm throwing angle. Al Alburquerque battled inconsistency, Ian Krol was shutted back and forth to Toledo, and the two most consistent relievers -- Wilson and Blaine Hardy -- began the season at Triple-A Toledo before joining the club as long relievers.
But perhaps the biggest mishap was the Tigers' power structure that served the team so well for over a decade of success. After team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski reached the conclusion that he couldn't acquire what the Tigers needed to contend, he received clearance from ownership to trade away soon-to-be free agents Price, Cespedes and Soria for prospects at the Deadline, only to have ownership move to fire him a few days later. The following month, reports of ownership dissatisfaction with Brad Ausmus put the team in what new GM Al Avila admitted was an awkward position, until Avila announced with a week to go that Ausmus would remain in charge going into 2016.
Biggest surprise: The fact that Wilson was the saving grace of the Tigers bullpen said a lot about the bullpen, but also a lot about Wilson, who was by far the team's most consistent right-handed pitcher. He began the season at Triple-A Toledo, arrived in Detroit in late April as a long reliever, then was closing games in August. By then, he had become so valuable that Ausmus had to pick and choose his situations -- not for risk of failure, but for overworking him.
Hitter of the year: Not only did J.D. Martinez challenge the AL leaders in home runs, he also doubled the next-highest total on the club and posted the highest total by a non-Miggy Tiger since Comerica Park opened in 2000. He was a monster on first pitches, batting nearly .500, but he was also productive with a runner on third and less than two outs. It was a continuation of the breakout story that began after the Astros released him in Spring Training 2014.
Pitcher of the year: Verlander's return to form gave the Tigers a bona fide ace after Price was traded, not only stabilizing the rotation down the stretch but also making the offseason challenge of retooling the rotation a lot easier for Avila. What began as a return to consistency by pitching more to scouting reports and trusting in his secondary pitches eventually led Verlander back to the power fastball that built early in games and peaked in the upper-90s in late innings. He tossed back-to-back eight-inning, one-run performances on the road in late July, nearly no-hit the Angels on Aug. 26 at home, and generally pitched way better than his record and ERA would suggest.
Rookie of the year: James McCann began the season getting platoon time at best and backup time at worst behind the plate, but Alex Avila's midseason knee injury thrust McCann into regular duty. He grew into the role under Ausmus' tutelage, taking charge of the pitching staff while providing some timely hits, including two walkoff home runs and a game-tying inside-the-park homer on Apr. 29.