For Part I on the rebuilding of the Tigers, go here.
A month after nabbing their franchise shortstop, the Tigers signed a franchise catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, in the winter of 2003. On the surface, this made sense; it's not often you get the opportunity to sign a surefire Hall of Famer who just turned 32. On the other hand, catchers age quickly, and Rodriguez caught more games (1,564) before his 32nd birthday than anyone other than Johnny Bench, who was finished as a catcher by the time he turned 33 and was finished as a ballplayer when he was 35.
While Rodriguez's four-year, $40 million deal was eminently reasonable, it still represented a gamble in that it was likely the Tigers would never be competitive enough during the life of the contract to make the addition of Rodriguez meaningful.
Rodriguez had a terrific first season with the Tigers, but last year looked like the beginning of a very expensive decline phase for him, as he hit just .276 (his lowest average in 12 years) and walked only 11 times all year. This season he's back in .300 territory, with enough power to make up for his typically low walk rate. Behind the plate he has quietly undergone a remarkable renaissance.
In the two years before joining Detroit, Rodriguez threw out an uncharacteristically low 35 percent of baserunners after throwing out 48 percent or more for seven straight years. He then threw out a career-low 32 percent in his first year in Detroit. But in 2005 he threw out 35 of 68 potential thieves, and this year he has thrown out 14 of 23 (61 percent). Rodriguez has permitted a total of nine successful steals all year, or one for every 75 defensive innings. That is easily be his career best; his previous best showing was 2001, when he allowed one every 37 innings.
Signing Rodriguez had another, unforeseen benefit. As Christina Kahrl ended her analysis of the Rodriguez signing, "if it kills off that 'Brandon Inge is a prospect' nonsense once and for all, well, so much the better." Inge, to that point, had spent three seasons and more than 900 plate appearances in the majors, and not to say that he had done poorly, but he had hit .203/.265/.339 in 2003 -- and those numbers all represented career highs (except for on-base average, which he missed by one point). He had shown impressive aptitude behind the plate, particularly for a guy who was drafted out of college as a shortstop, but he wasn't a major league hitter, and he was almost 27. The nicest thing said about him in Detroit was that he had tremendous raw power -- apparently his golf drives were legendary.
It's not usually a good sign when a ballplayer's best asset is his golf game. But freed from the responsibilities of catching every day, Inge learned to harness his power. In 2004 he served as Rodriguez's backup while playing all over the field -- it's not often a player appears in 19 games at catcher, third base and center field in the same season. (Actually, it's almost unprecedented -- the only other modern major league player to accomplish the feat was Wally Schang, in 1915.) He also hit an impressive .287/.340/.453.
Made the every-day third baseman last season, Inge again set career highs in doubles, triples and homers, and he has upped his power once again this year, smacking 20 homers and slugging .472. Meanwhile, his defense at third base has surpassed all expectations; his defensive rate this season is a ridiculous 115, and he's saved 16 runs above average with his glove, both marks the best of any major league third baseman this year.
As much as signing Rodriguez has meant to this franchise, the conversion of the man he replaced into Graig Nettles Lite has been an awfully nice fringe benefit.
Stephen Drew was the consensus No. 1 talent available in the 2004 draft, but like his brother J.D., he fell from the top spot because of his bonus demands. And like J.D., most of the teams that passed on Stephen will live to regret it. The Padres, with the first overall pick, made the 11th-hour decision to draft Matt Bush instead. This was unwise.
The Tigers, drafting second, also passed on Drew. But there are no regrets in Detroit. Two years later, Justin Verlander is 14-4 with a 2.79 ERA, making him a candidate for not only Rookie of the Year but also Cy Young honors.
Verlander was far from the consensus best college pitcher in the land. While Baseball America wrote that he "might have the best pure stuff in the draft," there were concerns that his lack of command would hold him back. He pitched at Old Dominion University, where he didn't exactly face top-flight NCAA competition every time out, and still walked 43 batters in 106 innings his junior year, along with 20 wild pitches and a so-so 3.49 ERA. With Rice's three-headed hydra of Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber and Wade Townsend all available -- not to mention Jered Weaver having a season for the ages at Long Beach State -- Verlander's selection was far from a slam dunk. Various pre-draft rankings slotted Verlander as the fourth- or fifth-best college pitcher available.
But as they did with Joel Zumaya, the Tigers made some mechanical tweaks to Verlander's delivery after he signed, and suddenly they had a starting pitcher who not only threw 99 but threw 99 with precision. Verlander walked only 26 men in 119 innings in the minors last year, he's walked just 38 men in 135 innings this season, and suddenly the knock on him is that he throws too many strikes, as he has "only" 92 strikeouts so far. (As Nate Silver has written, this complaint is a tempest in a teapot.)
Of all the moves that shaped the 2006 Tigers, the one that was panned the most at the time was undoubtedly the decision to sign Magglio Ordoņez. Not that Ordoņez wasn't a capable hitter, or that at 31 he was a likely candidate to see his numbers collapse. It was more that no one was sure his knee wouldn't collapse if he ever took the field again. Ordoņez injured his knee while with the White Sox the summer before, and then following surgery developed a complication involving bone-marrow edema, a condition essentially unprecedented among baseball players. He missed more than two thirds of the season, and with his injury shrouded in mystery, over the offseason Ordoņez flew to Austria for sound-wave treatments that were not approved in the United States.