DETROIT – This year, for the first time in half a decade, the Detroit Tigers are expected to be competitive. New faces and young prospects have joined a solid core, and a dark, ugly era of baseball seems to be in the rearview mirror.
Detroit has a roster full of exciting players. From three former top pitching prospects to the flashy Javier Baez and electric leadoff man Akil Baddoo -- there’s plenty to look forward to this summer at Comerica Park.
That sure is a welcomed change.
Let’s be honest: The last five years have been, in a word, miserable, for baseball fans in Detroit. Between 2017 and 2021, the Tigers lost at least 98 games three years in a row, finished last in the AL Central three times and never came close to playoff contention.
Twice the Tigers were the worst team in MLB, and even 2021 -- a pleasant surprise overall -- started off with a 9-24 record that robbed fans of any hope for a playoff push.
Yet still, many of us watched -- why is that? In the newsroom on Monday, Hans Ihlenfeldt and I got to reminiscing: “Who were the players who helped get us through those dark times?”
Hans mentioned someone like Quintin Berry, who wasn’t necessarily the most productive player for the Tigers in 2012 but became a fan favorite because of his exciting style of play and knack for big moments.
Who played that role for the Tigers the last five years?
One name that came to mind immediately: Ian Kinsler. Though he technically joined the Tigers during their last playoff season in 2014, Kinsler’s time with Detroit was definitely after the window of contention had started to close.
Kinsler was a 17.4 WAR (wins above replacement) player for the Tigers from 2014-2017, winning two Gold Gloves and hitting 78 home runs. While the Tigers were spiraling into a rebuild, Kinsler distracted us with leadoff home runs, stolen bases and, of course, the legendary binoculars moment against Chris Sale.
It was hard to come up with answers for the three seasons that followed Kinsler’s departure.
Nick Castellanos was an excellent hitter for the Tigers during their decline from 2017-2019, but I’m not sure he stood out as “fun,” per se.
One player who certainly fit the bill last year was Eric Haase -- a hometown hero who came from nowhere to nearly lead the team in home runs. A product of Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Haase joined the Tigers after Cleveland gave up on him in 2020.
Haase finished one shy of Robbie Grossman’s 23 homers last season, but on a per-game basis, he was far and away the team’s top power threat. Haase hit 22 home runs in just 351 at-bats, while Grossman needed 557 at-bats to hit 23 and Jonathan Schoop finished with 22 in 623 at-bats.
While we’re talking about 2021, we have to mention Baddoo, the human definition of fun. He hit the first MLB pitch he saw for a homer, followed up with a grand slam the following game and then smacked a walk-off single in the same week. Even when the team was losing, Baddoo was creating memorable moments.
So we’ve got Kinsler in 2017, and Haase and Baddoo in 2021. Who made Detroit baseball bearable in between? Matt Boyd? Jeimer Candelario?
Maybe the answer is different for every fan. One thing’s for sure: There should be no shortage of options in 2022 and beyond.