We’ve all heard this one before, right? Justin Verlander wins a big game against AL Central challenger in September. It’s like the Detroit Tigers have a script to follow: Come into the season the overwhelming favorite to win the AL Central, something everyone has expected of them every season for at least the past four years. Head into September worried about fighting off a frightening underdog challenger, whether that was the White Sox (2012), the Indians (2013) or now the Royals. And then set things right in the last month. If they do put the Royals away this month after pulling even with them in the win column on Monday night, maybe that means it’ll be the Twins’ turn again in 2015.*
But this year might be the most interesting of them all, because the free-spending Tigers haven’t seen money buy them happiness. Joe Nathan has been a bit of a big-budget bust as closer, after all, and Anibal Sanchez’s latest injury perhaps forced GM Dave Dombrowski’s hand to get David Price and make sure he still has the league’s best four-man postseason rotation. Instead, what’s making this year’s Tigers team interesting is how much it owes to how well it has lined up supporting talent beyond the famous people.
Take the lineup. The thing to relish about the Tigers’ win as they pulled even in the win column wasn’t Verlander delivering a serviceable start. What won this one game was their lineup’s ability to deliver on the old Bill James observation that a winning team will outscore its opponents in the entire game if it breaks out a big crooked number in one big inning. Sure enough, that six-spot that the Kitties busted out in the third provided the winning margin.
What’s important about that is how much any inning like that can owe to lineup depth. Nobody hit a grand slam; the well-remunerated stars such as Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter or Victor Martinez didn’t make this inning happen, certainly not by their lonesomes. Instead, the Tigers knocked the Royals’ Jeremy Guthrie out of the box thanks to three straight RBI doubles hit by farmhands old and new in Nick Castellanos, Don Kelly and Alex Avila. Avila and Castellanos were both drafted on Dombrowski’s watch in the front office, but even noting that Kelly was a 2001 pick who washed out and back in with the transactional tide of minor league free agency brings up another point: This team, as it comes together, is not merely an assemblage of big-money pickups.
That’s worth noting because the Tigers certainly resemble a fairly extreme interpretation of the stars-and-scrubs approach to team-building. After the acquisition of Price, they have eight guys on the roster making eight figures. On the other hand, counting Kelly you find that seven of their position players are making a million bucks or less.
Having a farm system that can crank out playable talent is what lets you afford the big boppers in the first place. The Tigers' talents may not have gotten the touts of the Royals’ oft-touted stack of blue-chip prospects who have come of age, but having Castellanos at third on Opening Day and then Eugenio Suarez ready to take over at shortstop two months into the season reflects organizational strength. If the worst player in the Tigers’ everyday lineup is Suarez, a 22-year-old shortstop with upside at the plate, or if it’s Avila’s lefty bat providing a strong Isolated Power number versus right-handers (.168 before Monday), that’s a lineup that goes much, much deeper than a caricature as Miggy and Miggettes. To that scorecard you can add in the scouting moxie that led the Tigers to trade for Rule 5 pick Kyle Lobstein from the Mets to keep him from being returned to the Rays back in spring 2013, and they had the depth this year to survive the combination of two August doubleheaders at the same time they’re waiting on Verlander to be Verlander after already losing Sanchez.
Another thing that needs to be credited? The Tigers’ patience, especially with their big investments. More than a few of my fellow statheads were calling for Victor Martinez to be benched last year after his stone-cold start (.693 OPS) as V-Mart worked his way back from a 2012 season lost to tearing up his left knee. Giving up was the easy, if expensive choice; letting it ride, not so much. But Dombrowski’s Tigers stuck with a 34-year-old DH who wasn’t hitting and reaped a big second half last year (.913 OPS) and an even bigger year in 2014 (a career-best .982) now that he’s 35. Good luck summoning that out of nowhere.
On the other hand, the Tigers had exactly that kind of good fortune too, because how else do you explain where they got J.D. Martinez from? In an age when the number of waiver-combing GMs smart enough to be hunting for free talent is legion, and when there isn’t an active executive who wouldn’t sell his soul for a corner outfielder with an OPS north of .850, Dombrowski didn’t have to sacrifice so much as a bed bug to snag Martinez and reap (or luck into) a hitter who had, as Ryan Parker pointed out at Baseball Prospectus a few weeks back, substantially remade his swing and his hitting approach, and was ready to become a massively improved hitter generating a significantly larger number of line drives.
So what is it that’s going to push the Tigers past the Royals, this week or next, at season’s end? Not just the guys making the big bucks, and not just the big-money decisions. This year’s Tigers team might be the most interesting because of how they’ve adapted in-season and created answers for their problems. At least one of those was self-inflicted -- imagine the irony if they have to face Doug Fister in the World Series -- but this particular team might be a testament to the in-season problem-solving skills of the organization. But right now? They’re scoring 4.6 runs per game in the second half, and even with the injuries they have a front four nobody should want to face come October. If they’re ready to romp in October, nobody’s going to remember that they once again had to fend off the AL Central’s latest underdog du jour.
*: Because let’s not forget, the Twins did pull off the come-from-behind stretch win in 2009, taking down the Tigers in a 163rd game that year.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.