DETROIT – It always hurts to watch a player leave your favorite team and thrive elsewhere -- something Detroit sports fans have become accustomed to the last several years.
As Detroiters marinate in the glory of four concurrent rebuilds, several former Lions, Tigers and Pistons players have gone on to win championships or become stars for other teams. Heck, even the Red Wings have missed out here and there.
We’re not talking about someone like Anibal Sanchez, who had his best seasons in Detroit before winning a late World Series in Washington, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who got carried to a championship by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
No, this is reserved for players who left Detroit and truly found greener pastures, both in terms of personal and team achievement.
Let’s dive head first into the pain, starting with the most obvious and recent inductee.
- When he left: March 2021
- How he left: Traded to Los Angeles Rams
Everybody knows the story with Stafford in Detroit. A small fraction of the franchise’s struggles fell on his shoulders, but by and large, Stafford was one of the few reasons the team even stayed afloat during the 2010s. Most agree that the Lions were an embarrassment in spite of -- not due to -- their talented quarterback.
He finished his Lions career with nearly 50,000 passing yards and 300 touchdowns, but could never quite secure that elusive playoff win, going 0-3 in three wildcard rounds.
Well, in his first year since being traded away from the team that drafted him No. 1 overall, Stafford won a division title, hosted a playoff game and picked up his first victory. His Rams are headed to the divisional round, and Stafford has finally taken a huge weight off his shoulders.
Pretty much everyone in Detroit is happy for Stafford because he represented the franchise well on and off the field. But it’s still a gut punch for Lions fans to know their team wasted 12 years with a quarterback who was good enough to win a playoff game.
- When he left: August 2017
- How he left: Traded to Houston Astros
The only other player whose situation compares to Stafford’s in this regard is Verlander, though there are some key differences.
For one, Verlander helped lead the Tigers to two World Series appearances. In general, the 2006-2013 era Tigers are remembered as a success.
Verlander also won two Cy Young awards and an MVP. While a vocal minority of Lions fans still argue against Stafford’s abilities, nobody will deny Verlander is a future Hall of Famer.
But still, the similarities remain. Both Stafford and Verlander were the faces of Detroit franchises for more than a decade, and neither could win a championship despite many personal achievements.
When the Tigers traded Verlander to the Houston Astros, it took just two months for him to win a World Series. In two and a half seasons with the Astros, despite being in his mid-30s, Verlander has been better than he ever was in Detroit (yes, counting his MVP season).
Since the trade, Verlander has started 74 games, posting a 2.45 ERA, 3.04 FIP and 0.834 WHIP. He’s struck out 12.1 batters per nine innings while walking just 1.6. Those numbers are ludicrous.
During his MVP season in 2011, Verlander posted a 2.40 ERA, 2.99 FIP and 0.920 WHIP with nine strikeouts and two walks per nine innings. He gave up essentially the same number of runs, on average, but allowed more base runners and had fewer strikeouts (even accounting for how the offensive approach has changed league-wide since then).
There’s no debate: Verlander will go into the Hall of Fame as a Tiger because he spent the vast majority of his career in Detroit (380 of 454 games so far). But he’s found another gear since leaving.
- When he left: October 2014
- How he left: Free agency
It’s impossible to mention Verlander without immediately pivoting to Scherzer, his former rotation mate during the prime years of contention.
The Tigers helped Scherzer develop into the pitcher he is today. He was sent to the minors briefly in 2010 after allowing 27 earned runs in 18 innings across four stars. He’s basically been a star ever since. Scherzer won his first Cy Young award in Detroit and went to back-to-back All-Star games before hitting free agency in 2014.
But if anyone in the Tigers organization could have a re-do, they would put all the money they spent on Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and others on hold to make sure they did whatever it took to keep Scherzer.
When he left Detroit, Scherzer was entering his age 30 season, which is typically close to a downward trend for any player -- especially hard-throwing starting pitchers.
Well, Mad Max is an anomaly.
In the six seasons since (all with the Washington Nationals until a trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the 2021 deadline), Scherzer has made every single National League All-Star team and won two Cy Young awards.
In fact, he’s never finished outside the top five in Cy Young award voting since leaving Detroit, and he’s added three top-10 MVP finishes.
Scherzer owns an unfathomable 2.75 ERA, 2.87 FIP and 0.954 WHIP across 1,297.1 innings since the trade, with 1,699 strikeouts and only 288 walks. He led the Nationals to a World Series title in 2019 and has been excellent in the postseason.
Scherzer was a great pitcher for the Tigers. In the seven years since leaving, he’s probably been the best in the world.
- When he left: July 2017
- How he left: Traded to Arizona Diamondbacks
There was something especially painful about the way Martinez’s tenure ended in Detroit. Maybe it’s because the Tigers picked him up, resurrected his career and turned him into the star before our very eyes.
Or maybe it’s because when they finally said goodbye, the Tigers got nothing -- worse than nothing, actually -- in return.
Houston released Martinez in June 2014 and the Tigers picked him up two days later. That season, he hit 23 home runs and 30 doubles while posting a .912 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) in the heart of a lineup that included Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellanos and Torii Hunter.
It’s hard to imagine a greater underdog story. In four seasons with Detroit, J.D. Martinez hit 99 home runs, 111 doubles and batted exactly .300.
Then, the trade happened.
The market for Martinez was admittedly underwhelming because he’s a bad defender, but the players the Tigers got in return never made a positive impact in Detroit. Dawel Lugo was dumped after racking up negative 1.1 WAR across three seasons, and Sergio Alcantara was worth negative 0.3 WAR in 2020.
Translation: In exchange for one of the best Tigers hitters of this generation, Al Avila got a package that ultimately proved to be 1.4 wins worse than a replacement-level player.
Following the trade, Martinez was the best hitter in the league. He smashed 29 home runs in just 62 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks, carrying them to the postseason.
The following year, his first with the Boston Red Sox, Martinez hit a career-high 43 home runs, led the league with 130 RBI, finished fourth in MVP voting and won a World Series.
- When he left: December 2014
- How he left: Traded to Cincinnati Reds
This might sound secondary after talking about Verlander, Scherzer and Martinez, but believe me, Suarez was a terrible loss.
Anytime a team trades a slugger who goes on to flirt with a 50-homer season for a pitcher who pretty much everybody knew was bad, that’s painful.
I’m still not sure what Dave Dombrowski was thinking when he called up the Cincinnati Reds and asked for Alfredo Simon, who had one solid half-season as a starting pitcher only to watch it come crashing down after the All-Star break, as every underlying indicator suggested it would.
For more on how much I hated this trade, read this: “Think about just how disastrous the Eugenio Suarez trade was for the Detroit Tigers”
If you don’t remember, Suarez had emerged as an exciting prospect in the minors that season, hitting .288 with eight home runs and 18 doubles as a 22-year-old. He posted a .939 OPS in a short stint at Triple-A and became a 0.8 WAR player in a half-season with the Tigers.
After the trade -- the Simon experiment went as expected (OK, I’ll stop for real this time) -- Suarez grew into a prolific power hitter. He hit 81 home runs across three seasons from 2016-2018 before exploding with 49 bombs in 2019.
Guess who led the Tigers in home runs that season. Brandon Dixon. With 15.
Suarez has struggled with strikeouts the past few seasons, but that doesn’t change that the Tigers gave up on a 22-year-old who has gone on to hit 189 home runs with an .811 OPS for the Reds (so far).
Kyle Van Noy
- When he left: October 2016
- How he left: Traded to New England Patriots
Now that we’ve got the Tigers highlights out of the way, let’s get back to the Lions.
When Detroit drafted Van Noy in the second round in 2014, the pick was universally applauded. Everyone seemed to think the Lions had gotten a steal at No. 40 overall. In a way, they were right -- just not in a way that benefitted Detroit.
For two and a half seasons with the Lions, Van Noy was a complete non-factor. He couldn’t even lock down a starting job on defense.
Midway through the 2016 season, Bob Quinn traded Van Noy to the New England Patriots. In return, the Lions turned a seventh-round pick into a sixth-round pick.
A few months later, Van Noy made a critical sack to help the Patriots complete the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. He signed a new contract with New England, played in the next two Super Bowls and made a sack while earning his second ring in 2018.
In five years with the Patriots, the linebacker the Lions gave away because he couldn’t crack their starting lineup has made 287 tackles and 21.5 sacks. He also made 69 tackles and six sacks in one season with the Miami Dolphins.
- When he left: October 2019
- How he left: Traded to Seattle Seahawks
The entire Diggs saga is a crash course in Lions Fan Misery.
Diggs was a bit of a fan favorite during his five years in Detroit. He greatly outperformed his sixth-round draft slot and earned a three-year contract extension in 2018.
It’s no secret how the Diggs era ended. He was one of several talented players who apparently clashed with failed head coach Matt Patricia, and the Lions sent him to Seattle for a sixth-round pick -- a ridiculous move even for a franchise that’s known for them.
After joining the Seahawks, Diggs went from a solid defensive back to one of the best in the league. He made the Pro Bowl in both 2020 and 2021 while totaling 10 interceptions, 17 pass break-ups and 158 tackles.
To summarize, a player Lions fans genuinely liked got run out of town by a head coach they strongly disliked, and then that player sprouted into a borderline star. Yeah, that sounds about right.
- When he left: August 2017
- How he left: Traded to San Francisco 49ers
Remember when the Lions, fraught with needs at nearly every position, selected a guard in the first round of the 2015 draft? If that wasn’t bad enough, two years later, they traded Tomlinson for a fifth-round pick.
He’s started 80 of 81 games for the 49ers since that trade and hasn’t missed a start in four seasons.
Tomlinson got to play in the Super Bowl in 2019 and just picked up his third playoff win Saturday when the 49ers upset the Dallas Cowboys.
He only allowed two sacks this season.
- When he left: July 2013
- How he left: Traded to Milwaukee Bucks
No current NBA player sparks a more painful “what if” in the minds of Pistons fans than Middleton.
A second-round pick who played sparingly for the Pistons as a rookie, Middleton was thrown into the disastrous Brandon Jennings trade in July 2013.
Since then, Middleton has scored 10,311 points in nine seasons with the division rival Milwaukee Bucks, playing in two All-Star games and winning the 2021 NBA title. In an era when the Pistons have struggled to find anyone who can shoot the ball, few have done it more consistently than Middleton.
Since Middleton gets to play the Pistons several times per season, he’s a constant reminder of that terrible, terrible trade.
- When he left: June 2016
- How he left: Traded to Chicago Bulls
Like Middleton, Dinwiddie was a second-round talent the Pistons wisely identified but gave up on way too soon.
After selecting him at No. 38 overall in 2014, the Pistons traded Dinwiddie two years later for Cameron Bairstow, some guy who got waived a month later and never again stepped foot on an NBA court.
Dinwiddie averaged only 13.3 minutes per game across two seasons in Detroit, but in the six years since, he’s averaged 14.2 points, 5.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 309 games.
While the Pistons floundered with terrible point guard play from the likes of Reggie Jackson and Brandon Knight, Dinwiddie would have been an upgrade the whole time.
- When he left: January 2018
- How he left: Traded to Los Angeles Clippers
When the Pistons originally acquired Harris in a trade with the Orlando Magic, he was considered a talented player but more of a volume scorer. In Detroit, he started to make his transition to stardom.
The problem is, the Pistons didn’t let it play out here.
Harris averaged 16.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in parts of three seasons with the Pistons, shooting 47% overall and 37.6% from three-point range.
In 2018, Stan Van Gundy decided to ship him to Los Angeles in exchange for Blake Griffin’s debilitating contract. Since then, Harris has spent four years as a central player on championship contenders.
During that span, as a member of the Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, Harris has averaged 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 48.4% from the field and 37.7% from three.
Harris has started 28 playoff games over the last three seasons, averaging 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists. The Pistons have played in one postseason series and were swept by the Bucks in the first round.
- When he left: March 2014
- How he left: Traded to Nashville Predators
Full disclosure: This one doesn’t sting Detroit fans nearly as much as some of the others on this list. The Red Wings haven’t let many great (or even good) players slip away over the years, but how could we leave the Wings out completely?
Jarnkrok was a second-round pick in 2010 but never made it to the NHL in Detroit. He was traded to the Nashville Predators in 2014 for David Legwand, who spent all of 21 games with the Wings.
While he hasn’t turned into a star, Jarnkrok scored 94 goals and added 117 assists for the Predators across eight seasons. He was always a solid player, and certainly one the Red Wings could have used near the end of the Ken Holland era.
The Seattle Kraken snatched Jarnkrok from the Predators in last year’s expansion draft, and he’s got 12 points in 27 games this season. Again, Red Wings fans probably aren’t losing much sleep over Jarnkrok, but there simply aren’t many major mistakes to choose from.
- When he left: June 2017
- How he left: Selected by Vegas Golden Knights in expansion draft
One other name that comes to mind for the Wings is Nosek, though his situation is similar to Jarnkrok’s.
There was a time when Red Wings fans were excited about Nosek, but he played only 17 games with the team before the Vegas Golden Knights plucked him away in the 2017 expansion draft.
If Holland could do it all over again, he would have protected Nosek over others who didn’t turn out to be nearly as productive. Nosek is a solid player who racked up 31 goals and 34 assists across 240 games with Vegas and got to play in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2018.
Now he’s an important part of the Boston Bruins rotation, and even had a goal and an assist against the Red Wings on Jan. 2.
Considering some of the players the Lions and Tigers have let go over the last decade, losing Jarnkrok and Nosek is a small punishment. But both have gone on to become solid NHL players.