DETROIT – This isn’t how the end of the 2022 Detroit Tigers season was supposed to feel.
On Wednesday, when Gregory Soto, the team’s All-Star representative, served up a walk-off single to cap the season with his 11th loss, I’m guessing there was more disinterest among the fan base than sorrow. Heck, many probably felt like they could finally wake up from a 180-day nightmare.
That’s not how the end of a baseball season should ever be described. This is the greatest game in the world. From the moment the final out is recorded, we yearn for those mid-February clips of spring training drills, the pop of the catcher’s mitt, the crack of the bat. It’s what gets many of us through the winter.
Watching baseball is one of life’s great joys. It’s a blessing. But unfortunately, in Detroit, it hasn’t felt that way for awhile.
It seems like so much longer than 181 days ago that Javier Baez, moments after a walk-off win on Opening Day, smiled at Trevor Thompson and told an ecstatic Comerica Park crowd, “It’s not gonna be easy this year, but it’s gonna be fun!”
Yeah, not so much.
After the owner and (former) general manager finally declared the rebuild “over,” the Tigers delivered their most disappointing season in recent memory. Sure, they’ve had worse records than 66-96 (four times since 2016, to be exact), but those seasons never started with expectations. Tigers fans knew exactly what to expect.
Not this year. This year was different.
Well, it was supposed to be.
Once again, the Tigers never even gave fans a chance to start dreaming. They stumbled through the first month to the tune of an 8-19 record, then lost four of five to the worst team in the American League to fall to 9-23.
A 1-8 stretch erased any optimism going into the All-Star break, and then the team responded by losing 19 of 25. In the end, Detroit finished with the sixth-worst record in baseball -- five spots worse than last year.
Tigers fans have been patient since the team started rebuilding in 2015 or 2017 (depending on the timeline you subscribe to). They acknowledged that minor-league at-bats were actually going to mean more than major-league ones. They put up with the likes of Mikie Mahtook and JaCoby Jones and Dawel Lugo on a nightly basis in hopes that they would one day hand the reins over to budding stars like Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson. They even accepted that the front office never spent any money in free agency, because it wouldn’t have made sense to do so.
But there’s an unspoken agreement between the two parties. Fans will support the team, love the team, and even stay loyal to the team through tough times. But that loyalty, love, and support comes with the understanding that at some point, they’ll be repaid with fun, competitive seasons.
Sometimes a team takes too long to keep up its end of the bargain. And then, how long are fans willing to wait before their support and loyalty morph into frustration and impatience? It’s like letting a family member live at your house. If they aren’t paying rent, how many months do you put up with them taking all the space on the couch?
The Tigers’ rent is more overdue than any franchise in MLB. With the Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies making the playoffs this year, no team has a longer postseason drought than Detroit.
Teams like the Miami Marlins (105 losses in 2019), San Diego Padres (96 losses in 2018), and Chicago White Sox (95 losses in 2017) have gone through the full cycle of bottoming out and returning to the playoffs in the past five years. Meanwhile, the Tigers just finished two games better -- two! -- than in 2017.
So... what happened this year?
The main culprit was an historically inept offense. Detroit scored the fewest runs in baseball by 11 and hit the fewest homers by 17. It ranked last in walks, 29th in OPS, and 28th in stolen bases.
Baez, the franchise’s new $140,000,000 shortstop, finished with a .278 on-base percentage. (He also led all players in errors, with 26.)
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, who dominated at every level of the minors, had 99 strikeouts and just 73 hits.
Jonathan Schoop, after hitting at least 20 homers in every full season since 2016, dropped off the face of the planet in his age-30 campaign, posting an OPS 187 points lower than his previous career average.
Jeimer Candelario was the best player on this team in 2021. He led all of Major League Baseball in doubles and finished with 3.8 WAR. In 2022, Candelario batted .214 with a .633 OPS and a lower WAR than Jose Cisnero -- a reliever who debuted in late July and walked 19 batters in 24 innings.
The offense was maddeningly consistent in its inability to score runs. Players who have hit for power their entire careers couldn’t put the ball over the fence. On-base specialists struggled to make contact. Baez flailed at sliders in the left-handed batter’s box.
But what made it even worse was the injuries.
Casey Mize, one of the faces of this rebuild, pitched 10 innings before going down with injury. To make matters worse, he’ll miss the 2023 season following Tommy John surgery.
Speaking of injuries for 2023, the only player who made April and May somewhat bearable isn’t expected back until next All-Star break. Tarik Skubal pitched like an ace for most of his 117.2 innings. But because this is how things went for the Tigers, he also hit the injured list, and who knows what he’ll look like when he eventually returns to the mound.
Eduardo Rodriguez, a $77 million offseason signing, got hurt in May and missed three months because of a personal matter. There were times when the team admitted they hadn’t even heard from him in weeks.
Cisnero and Andrew Chafin started the year on the injured list for the bullpen. Tyler Alexander, Wily Peralta, Elvin Rodriguez, and Will Vest missed time. Joe Jimenez wasn’t traded at the deadline and ended up on the IL.
Even watching the organization’s young pitching prospects proved too much to ask. Alex Faedo suffered a season-ending injury. Beau Brieske went on the 60-day IL. Matt Manning battled setback after setback during rehab assignments. Joey Wentz went down in the middle of his second career start.
Don’t forget: Spencer Turnbull never even played this season because of his own Tommy John recovery.
On offense, the most notable injury proved to be Riley Greene’s. He broke his foot in a spring training game, and his absence seemed to throw off the entire lineup.
Austin Meadows, who the Tigers acquired to replace Greene, suffered his own series of injuries and ailments after a hot start. He revealed in September that he would not return to the team this season due to mental health struggles.
So many Tigers players underperformed. And the ones who didn’t suffered long-term injuries. The team’s hypothetical IL rotation of Skubal, Mize, Manning, Turnbull, and Brieske is much better than the one it actually fielded.
Where do the Tigers go from here? Who knows. They have a new general manager with a new vision and plenty of holes to fill. Can the team make a playoff run before Skubal, Torkelson, and Greene hit free agency?
There are great baseball fans in Michigan, and they deserve better -- a lot better -- than what they’ve gotten the past half-decade.
Many of those fans probably moved onto football season months ago, and it’s hard to blame them.
But the diehards who stuck around through the final out yesterday are left with mixed feelings. Another baseball season has come and gone -- and that’s always sad. But considering what’s become of this franchise, will we even miss it?
That’s the saddest part of all.