Just when the Tigers had seemingly been given up for dead, they had one more surprise for the rest of the league. After dropping the first game of what was expected to be a Yankees sweep in the Division Series, Detroit rolled out three straight victories to upset New York, then swept Oakland in four games for the ALCS. The offensive impatience that marked the team down the stretch virtually disappeared, and the young pitching that tired in September found its second wind in October.
Those weaknesses finally resurfaced in the World Series against a Cardinals team that had been swept at Comerica Park in June, but a disappointing finish in the Fall Classic couldn't diminish what had been accomplished over the past six months. The Tigers' magical season had made Detroit a baseball town again and the Tigers a team to fear.
Record: 95-67, second in AL Central
Defining moment: The Tigers were an out away from being swept in a day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium when Craig Monroe hit a go-ahead, three-run homer. It helped temper a late-season slide, and it symbolized an opportunistic offense that could often be feast-or-famine. Most importantly, the win provided a much-needed confidence boost for a team that had struggled against the Yankees for most of the season before knocking them out in the playoffs.
What went right: A starting rotation that was projected to be the strength of the club in 2006 actually became the strongest pitching staff in baseball, as Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman matured into veteran hurlers. Rookies Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya made immediate impacts against big-league hitters and gave Detroit a talent infusion it couldn't have won without. Veterans Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones turned out to be shrewd signings whose best years haven't passed them by. The starting lineup generally remained healthy, especially oft-injured Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez, who became a 4-5 punch in the middle of the order. Monroe, Marcus Thames and Brandon Inge gave the Tigers balance at the bottom of the order.
What went wrong: Though the Tigers had enough threats in the lineup to outslug opponents, they were streaky and often impatient at the plate, struggling against young pitchers they hadn't seen and deceptive veterans who could paint the strike zone. Curtis Granderson was the best on the team at taking pitches, yet ended up leading the American League in strikeouts. Many young pitchers started to tire down the stretch and struggled heading into the postseason.
Biggest surprise: Though everyone in baseball knew Verlander and Zumaya were talented, nobody expected they'd jump the learning curve and dominate baseball for so long in their rookie campaigns. Verlander, two years removed from college ball, showed the poise and pitching acumen of someone who had been in the league a few years. Zumaya made the transition from Minor League starter to big-league reliever without much of a hitch, thanks to a fastball that jumped from the upper-90s into triple-digits without the worry of going six innings.
Average: Guillen, .320
Doubles: Guillen, 41
Triples: Granderson, 9
Home runs: Monroe, 28
Runs: Guillen, 100
RBIs: Ordonez, 104
Stolen bases: Guillen, 20
Wins: Rogers/Verlander, 17
Losses: Robertson, 13
ERA (starter): Verlander, 3.63
ERA (reliever): Zumaya, 1.94
Saves: Jones, 37
FORECAST FOR 2007
Lineup: At least six spots, probably seven, figure to remain the same for 2007, starting with the maturing Granderson and Placido Polanco at the top and continuing with Ordonez in the middle. Both Guillen and Rodriguez could be entering the final years of their respective contracts unless they're extended this offseason, giving each extra motivation to put up numbers. The Tigers plan to pursue one more hitter for the middle of the order, either filling Sean Casey's spot at first base -- if he's not re-signed -- or the DH slot shared by Marcus Thames and Matt Stairs.
Rotation: No changes are expected here unless the Tigers have to give up an arm to land a big-time bat. In fact, the Tigers should have more stability, assuming Mike Maroth returns to the rotation with his elbow fully healthy. Manager Jim Leyland believes Bonderman could become a dominant pitcher if he nails down a consistent changeup, one of pitching coach Chuck Hernandez's top priorities in Spring Training.
Bullpen: Though speculation will revolve around Zumaya taking over as closer, his World Series struggles showed why he'll continue to learn in a setup role under Jones at least until later in the year. Fernando Rodney will return as well, giving Detroit stability with its late-inning trio, but a decision looms on free agent Jamie Walker. Middle men Jason Grilli, Zach Miner and Wilfredo Ledezma are all under contract.
Biggest need: The Tigers want another run producer to put in the middle of their lineup, but they'd rather have patience to go with the power instead of a free-swinger. They'll likely join the sweepstakes on free agents Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano, both of whom they pursued at the trade deadline in July but wouldn't give up the necessary talent to acquire. If they can't land either, they could sign a more patient overall hitter and adjust from there.
Prospect to watch: Could Humberto Sanchez become the next Zumaya? Probably not, in terms of impact, since he doesn't throw as hard. But he could possibly be a bullpen presence if the Tigers decide his injury history as a Minor League starter warrants a conversion to the bullpen. He was enjoying a breakout season at Triple-A Toledo when elbow discomfort in late July shelved him down the stretch.