The Tigers have won three straight American League Central titles, building their playoff teams differently than most. Of this year's 10 postseason clubs, Detroit has fewer homegrown players (seven) on its roster than any of them except for the Indians and Athletics (four each). Only the Red Sox have more than the Tigers' total of nine free-agent acquisitions.
Couple those numbers with the fact that Detroit's farm system hasn't risen above No. 23 in Baseball America's annual rankings since 2007, and the quick impression is that the Tigers' scouting and development efforts haven't played much of a role in their recent success. Yet that's not true at all.
Six of the nine regulars in Detroit's lineup are products, directly or indirectly, of the team's Draft or international signings. So, too, are all five members of its starting rotation. It's just not obvious because seven of those 11 players arrived in trades that included many of the Tigers' best prospects.
"A lot of times I hear people say the Tigers don't have very much in their system," club president and general manager David Dombrowski said. "But we've had a number of young players.
"Clubs are built in different ways. Some are very strong at promoting from within, and we do that and we believe in that with guys like Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Alex Avila and Andy Dirks. We've also used young players in trades, based on an analysis of what we've needed at a particular time. Ultimately, you have to make a decision on what will help you the most: breaking a young guy in or trading him."
Homegrown players No player on the Tigers' playoff roster has been with the franchise longer than Verlander, who signed for a $4.5 million big league contract as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 Draft. It has been forgotten now, but before Verlander would win AL Rookie of the Year, AL MVP and AL Cy Young Awards and make six All-Star teams, Detroit actually broke off negotiations with him.
Four months after drafting Verlander, the Tigers announced they had withdrawn their latest offer and were no longer interested in signing him. Verlander's father, Richard, a former labor negotiator, subsequently reached out to scouting director Greg Smith (now with the Pirates), and the two sides reached a deal eight days later.
As lucrative as Verlander's contract was, it's not the richest in history for a Detroit draftee. That distinction belongs to Porcello, who in 2007 signed a $7,000,519 big league deal -- an all-time record for a high school prospect. Regarded as the best prep pitcher since Josh Beckett, Porcello fell to the Tigers with the 27th overall choice because of signability concerns.
Detroit has also found some valuable contributors with lower selections and price tags in the Draft. Avila (fifth round) and Dirks (eighth) have exceeded expectations and become everyday players since signing in 2008, and '10 second-rounder Drew Smyly has quickly become an integral part of the bullpen.
Aside from their home-grown players, the Tigers have generated plenty of trade fodder via the Draft (which we'll detail in a moment). They've had a greater degree of difficulty than most clubs, considering they've picked higher than 20th only once in the last seven Drafts and they forfeited their first-round choices as free-agent compensation in 2010, '11 and '12.
"To be in position to still have talent to come up to Detroit or to make moves with, without having many early picks, is outstanding," Dombrowski said. "The job that [vice president of amateur scouting] David Chadd and his scouts have done is phenomenal.
"It speaks for David that when we signed Jose Valverde, Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder as free agents and gave up Draft picks, he always said, 'Great! Those players will help us, and we'll make it work. We'll find another way.'"
Trades/waivers Dombrowski's wheeling and dealing has played a major part in making the Tigers an annual contender. He has orchestrated two of the biggest Winter Meetings blockbusters in recent years, shipping six young players to the Marlins to get Miguel Cabrera (as well as Dontrelle Willis) in 2007 and acquiring Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson (along with Phil Coke ) in a three-team deal with the D-backs and Yankees in 2009.
Acquired via trade
Cabrera won the AL Triple Crown and MVP Award in 2012, and he could repeat as AL MVP again this year. Scherzer is the presumptive favorite to be the AL's Cy Young Award recipient for 2013. Jackson could be in line for some hardware, too, as he was an AL Gold Glove Award finalist in both 2011 and '12.
At the time, the Scherzer-Jackson trade wasn't popular among Detroit fans, who viewed it as a cost-cutting move when the club sacrificed Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson after losing the AL Central title to the Twins in a one-game tiebreaker. While the deal ultimately helped all three teams make the playoffs, there's no question that the Tigers have benefited the most in the long run.
"Everybody got what they needed at that particular time," Dombrowski said. "It was a difficult trade at the time. We were scrutinized locally because we traded Curtis Granderson, who had grown up in the organization as a [third-round] Draft choice.
"When you trade the known for the unknown, it's not usually well received. But it worked out for us and all the clubs."
Dombrowski has swung key in-season trades in each of the last four seasons. He acquired Jhonny Peralta from the Indians in 2010, Doug Fister from the Mariners in '11, Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez from the Marlins in '12 and Jose Iglesias from the Red Sox in a three-team deal earlier this season.
Acquiring all of this talent required a lot of prospects and the willingness to give them up. The Cabrera deal included a pair of early first-rounders in Cameron Maybin (2005) and Andrew Miller ('06), who signed for a combined $8.1 million. Supplemental first-rounder Chance Ruffin ('10) was a key piece in the Fister trade. First-rounder Jacob Turner ('09), who signed for a Tigers-record $4.7 million bonus as part of a $5.5 million big league deal, headlined the package given up for Infante and Sanchez.
Detroit's Latin American program contributed as well. Francisco Martinez had the highest ceiling of the four players who went to Seattle in the Fister deal (and has since been reacquired by the Tigers). When Detroit needed a replacement for Peralta this summer after he was suspended for violating the Joint Drug Agreement, it sent Avisail Garcia to the White Sox to get Iglesias from Boston.
Though all of these deals have worked out in the Tigers' favor, Dombrowski is quick to deflect praise for them.
"In reality, a lot of credit goes to the scouts who make the recommendations and are out there watching the players," Dombrowski said. "We have to have players in our system to trade, so that's player development and scouting -- everyone contributes. Sometimes it's timing and being fortunate, but it's not easy trading for any premium player."
Free agents Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers in August 1992, and while his clubs have delivered him four playoff berths and two AL pennants, he's still looking for his first World Series title.
Acquired via free agency
He has shown a willingness to spend what it takes, as Detroit set a franchise record with a $145.2 million payroll in 2012 and carried a $148.7 million payroll on Opening Day this year.
"I give Mike Ilitch a lot of credit," Dombrowski said. "He lets us be creative with all of this."
That was more apparent than in January 2012, when the Tigers were trying to find a replacement for Martinez, who tore up his left knee during offseason workouts. They wound up with an upgrade when Ilitch authorized a nine-year, $214 million contract for Fielder.
Two other Detroit regulars were free-agent pickups -- Martinez (four years, $50 million) and Torii Hunter (two years, $26 million) -- as was closer Joaquin Benoit (three years, $16.5 million). The Tigers also re-signed Peralta (two years, $11.25 million) and Sanchez (five years, $80 million) when they hit the free-agent market after first arriving via trades.