The Detroit Tigers’ Path Back To The Postseason Is Clearing. 3 Recent AL Examples Tell Us Why.

Written By Nolan Bianchi on October 14, 2021 - Last Updated on October 15, 2021

Success is hardly ever linear.

Or, at least that’s what they say. Sometimes in sports, though, it is.

The Detroit Tigers can be proof of that if they’re able to parlay this season’s third-place finish in the American League Central into a wave of momentum that helps them crash next year’s postseason.

Or, at the very least, if they can simply be in the race during September of 2022. 

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Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, Nos. 4 and 7, respectively, on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list, should see the big leagues in 2022. The Tigers on Tuesday had outfielder Akil Baddoo, catcher Eric Haase and starting pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal named to the 2021 All-Rookie second team.

The Tigers have said they’ll open the pocketbook for a few free agents this offseason, and with manager A.J. Hinch now driving the bus of this rebuild, there’s more than enough reason to believe that this team will be framed as a 2022 breakout candidate.

But will that be enough to land them a spot in the MLB playoffs? It’s obviously too early to tell (or wager, although we have all your MLB betting options right here). But what we can do is plot out how their rebuilding window matches two American League organizations that went for more of a slow-burn approach on their rebuild to see what kind of precedent is there.

Detroit Tigers (present rebuild ongoing)

  • Height of previous rebuild: 2012 World Series loss to SF
  • Last winning season in previous rebuild cycle: 2016 (86-75)
  • Valley summary: Two seasons with 64 wins, one rock-bottom season at 47 wins, 23-35 in 2020, third-place finish in 2021 (77-85)
  • Years between playoff appearances: TBD

First, let’s take a look at how the Detroit Tigers got here. 

After four straight AL Central titles from 2011-2014, the boys of summer faceplanted in 2015 before making one last failed playoff push in 2016.

Then the wheels really fell off.

Two straight seasons with 64 wins led to a cratering 2019 team that finished just four wins above the 2003 Tigers (43-119), who were the worst American League team since the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics (36-117). Their reward: Torkelson, the No. 1-overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft.

The 2018 season landed them Green at No. 5 in 2019, and the year before that, a walk-off homer from Pablo Sandoval on the last day of the season vaulted them into the first pick, where the Tigers took Mize.

A 23-35 record in the season shortened by COVID-19 somewhat softens the fact that over a 162-game season, that team’s .397 win percentage would have made it 64-98. Hinch’s arrival changed everything, sparking what would have been a 13-win full-season improvement.

And that’s not even mentioning that after starting a dismal 9-24, Detroit went 68-61 the rest of the way.

And hey, while we’re on Hinch…

Houston Astros

  • Height of previous contending window: 2005 World Series loss to Chicago White Sox
  • Last winning season in previous contending window: 2008 (86-75)
  • Valley summary: Two seasons with 70 wins, three seasons bottoming out (51-56 wins), fourth-place finish in the AL West, playoff appearance, miss the playoffs, World Series.
  • Years between playoff appearances: 10

After 10 straight seasons without sniffing the playoffs, the Houston Astros in 2015 went out and plucked themselves an up-and-coming manager by the name of … A.J. Hinch.

They went to the postseason that same season — a 16-win improvement from the year before — and after failing to make the postseason in 2016, then won a World Series in 2017, lost the World Series in 2019, and have gone as far as the ALCS in every other season since (including in 2021).

MORE: World Series futures, season-long MLB bets

The first overall pick in 2012 landed them Carlos Correa, who led MLB position players in Wins Above Replacement (7.2) in 2021. The second-overall pick in 2015 (a compensation pick for not signing their 2014 draft pick) got them Alex Bregman, who led all of MLB in WAR (9.0) and finished second in MVP voting in 2019. The No. 5 pick in that same 2015 draft landed them Kyle Tucker, a 24-year-old outfielder who just finished his second full season in the majors with an OPS of .917 and WAR of 5.7.

Not bad.

Conclusion: The biggest similarity between the Tigers and Astros (besides Hinch, of course) is both teams’ ability to load the farm system with star power at the top of the draft. The hope is that Torkelson, Mize and Greene will all help a steadily rising team catapult into a contender.

Chicago White Sox

  • Height of previous contending window: 2005 World Series win over Houston
  • Last winning season in previous contending window: 2012
  • Valley summary: After winning the World Series in 2005, just one playoff appearance (2008 ALDS loss) until 2020. Slow slide to a valley in 2013 (63-99), finished fourth every year until 2018, then hit deepest valley … (67-95 in 2017, 62-100 in 2018) … 72 wins in 2019, 35-25 in 2020, 93-69 in 2021.
  • Years between playoff appearances: 12

The White Sox’s rebuild was a bit messy. They went a whopping 12 years without sniffing the postseason, with a few peaks and valleys in between. They never crashed as hard as Detroit or Houston (they picked third overall in 2014 and 2019), but along the way, provided some evidence of how “going for it” too early can set a team back.

Chicago started 23-10 in 2016. Needing to fill out a playoff-ready rotation for what would have been its first postseason appearance in eight years, the organization dealt 2020 MVP finalist Fernando Tatis to San Diego for James Shields. A fourth-place finish triggered another push of the reset button.

A wild offseason ensued. A fire sale ahead of the 2017 season landed them, among others prospects, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, and pitchers Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease. They signed No. 1 international prospect Luis Robert and drafted Nick Madrigal third overall, adding to a core that already consisted of Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu and Carlos Rodon. 

For current perspective, the Tigers also started ridding their roster of talent in return for prospects in 2017, similarly adding prospects that have started to build a core: Jeimer Candelario, Isaac Paredes, Jake Rogers, Alex Lange and Daz Cameron could all figure into Detroit’s next contending team.

The Tigers have done a relatively strong job of helping supplement their rebuilding efforts with talent acquired in past trades. So why are the Tigers two steps behind Chicago in their trajectory?

The primary reason: The Tigers’ farm system was depleted from years of contending. There are no Andersons, Abreus or Rodons left over from the dog days. Nicholas Castellanos is the only person who could have qualified for such a role. And again, the Tigers needed to get rid of everyone possible to build the farm.

Conclusion: Their trajectory trails the White Sox by about two years, but is on an extremely similar path. Both had two seasons of win totals in the 60s, took a step forward to finish with a win total in the 70s. If this pattern holds, that would mean the Tigers are challenging for the playoffs in 2022 — although the Sox will have something to say about that.

Detroit Tigers (2006)

  • Height of previous contending window: 1984 World Series victory over San Diego
  • Last winning season in previous contending window: 1993
  • Valley summary: 10 straight losing seasons before hitting rock bottom in 2003 (43-119), two seasons with win totals in the 70s, World Series runner-up
  • Years between playoff appearances: 19

The last team we’ll go over here is the 2006 Tigers.

After bottoming out in 2003, these Tigers had two buffer seasons with 72 and 71 wins, respectively, before making an improbable trip to the World Series in 2006 on Magglio Ordonez’s walk-off home run off Oakland’s Huston Street in the ALCS.

The 2022 Tigers will be the same number of years removed from their 47-win season in 2022 as the 2006 Tigers were from 43-119.

Do you believe in magic?

Indulge us, for a moment: The Tigers’ revival in 2006 gave baseball new life in Detroit. Before then, they hadn’t made a postseason since 1987.

A few years later, they’d go on to to four straight division titles, make a World Series appearance and another trip to the ALCS. With the hopes of making one last push, they assembled a pitching staff that would end up containing four Cy Young winners (a number that could soon go up, should Robbie Ray claim it this year) to help a lineup led by baseball’s first Triple Crown winner since 1967 in Miguel Cabrera.

That built into a crescendo: The 2014 postseason. The Tigers ran out Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price against the Baltimore Orioles and didn’t win a single game. It sure didn’t help that the division rival Kansas City Royals won the AL pennant that season (and took the 2015 World Series, to boot).

One by one, franchise stars and legends were shipped elsewhere. Verlander won his ring with Houston in 2017 alongside Hinch. Price, Rick Porcello, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler won with Boston in 2018. Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez? In 2019, as members of the Washington Nationals.

The Tigers, meanwhile, haven’t played in a playoff game since. The year that the last former Tigers Cy Young winner got his ring was the one that the Tigers hit a bottom that nobody thought they’d reach again.

It is a cruel and twisted tragedy.

And then, along came Hinch: The face of one of the most shocking scandals in the sport’s history returned from his fall of grace. He has a lot to prove — so does the team that he took over.

How can a man redeem himself for such a deed? How can the Tigers make that pain worth it? 

By doing it all over again on the same exact timeline. And this time, finishing the job.

Conclusion: This is a long-winded way of saying that the Tigers are probably a decent bet to win the AL Central in 2022 (check back with us for futures odds). World Series futures would also make for a fun market. You’ll probably get good odds for a team that likely only has to beat out a ballclub managed by Tony La Russa to punch its ticket to the postseason. It’s sports, ya know? Anything can happen.

Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP
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Nolan Bianchi

Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit-based freelance journalist covering the Lions, Red Wings and everything in between. He hosts the Locked On Red Wings hockey podcast, still collects sports cards, is a published playwright and is a harsh critic of sandwiches.

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